Sina Queyras & Vanessa Place
An Introduction to the Conceptual Fiction folio

We are by now, familiar with conceptual art, and perhaps even conceptual poetry, but conceptual fiction? It was in this spirit of inquiry that Vanessa Place and I put out a call. What would we get in response? What do writers think is “conceptual”? Although I have been thinking about conceptual fiction for some time now, I have yet to come up with a coherent or instructive definition. On the other hand, my co-editor, Place, has recently published Notes on Conceptualisms, a concise little book on conceptual writing co-authored with Rob Fitterman. Furthermore she has created a conceptual novel in Dies: A Sentence, a 50,000-word novel written as a single sentence. Set in the trenches of WW1, the novel shifts from consciousness to consciousness, bending the constraint in the most mischievous and sublime ways.

Some have (also properly) called Dies a prose poem, which further complicates the question. Though the issue of genre in conceptual writing may be more properly be considered as a question of complexion: pimpled and freckled, pitted with the scars of fresh acne and old wounds. For everything can be poetry—we learned that from Pound and Marinetti and Warhol and Weiner. But everything cannot be fiction, because some things are true, and some things have no character.

So, one might ask, is conceptual fiction simply using a constraint? Is it narrative with external structure or pressure on some aspect of the text? If that is the case then is Helen Humphreys recently published Frozen Thames a piece of conceptual fiction as much as Kenny Goldsmith’s offering (Paxil®)? Humphreys uses the 40 times the Thames has frozen over in recorded history as a way to organize and tell the story of the river, and the literary relationship to it. Her text is not “found,” but the structure is. The text itself is otherwise conventional, beautiful: certainly readable. And conceptual?

One of the hallmarks of conceptualism is its funnel-like shape: it is, in the old manner of new business, a Lucretian attempt to order the unorderable. Like testimony, it carves out a chunk of chaos and serves it up as proof of something: the way we were (Humphreys), the way we were to have been (Goldsmith). The issue becomes not so much whether the work is internally or externally generated but the motive behind the madness. Like fiction, there is the construction of transparency—in conceptual fiction, the transparency is overtly false, the telos godless, brought to you by Telemundo.

Not to say that conceptual fiction can’t be beautiful or readable, but there are some, Goldsmith for example, who want to create a beautiful concept rather than a readable text. Conceptual fiction reveals to us something about the structures of language and writing as much about human consciousness and contemporary culture. It often does this by creating texts that illustrate concepts rather than “tell stories.” These texts are sometimes labeled uncreative (a la Goldsmith’s Fidget), or unreadable (a la Stein’s Making of Americans).

Carl Schmitt wrote of the state occurring along the twin axis of localization (Ortung) and order (Ordnung); conceptualism looks to over-ordering, over-localizing texts as a corrective to the rut and glut of what our larger culture casts as readable. What is too boring, what is too obtuse, disturbing or dense—there is a thickness in these works that capitulates to and colludes in the consciousness of culture-as-state-as-culture. See,

But what makes a text “unreadable”? This is also an intriguing question. One assumes that unreadability might have some consistent traits, but I would argue that it readability itself is more subjective than we might think. Stylistic, genre, or overtly plot-based novels quickly become unreadable for me, for example.

for example,

Once I can see plot, the text becomes unreadable. For others, not being able to see or sense plot renders a text unreadable.

my extraction (and setting in blocks) of those passages in Gone With The Wind that feature the word “nigger.” Does my bas-relief render this icononical American text unreadable? How many ways are there of engaging or teasing unreadablity?

This last semester I assigned my students the task of coming up with an idea for a conceptual writing project. What surprised me was not only the caliber of the projects—a surprising number of them were smart and compelling, but the number of students who actually did the projects. One of those projects is included here. Simon Wake’s pronomonolization of the first 32 sections of the Book of Genesis. The project is funny and moving as it refracts biblical language in a very intense and disturbing way.

Because the constraint decreates Adam, who named all things, and without names, we’re nothing. Compare: following the constraint of the Aristotelean plot arc without blinking. See: Conflict! Crisis! Cheese Pizza!

But to me the constraint isn’t enough, not by a long shot. Aren’t we talking about disruption as a way of ordering disruption? Procedure as a mock-up of process? I guess I’m interested in what happens when avant garde practices are applied to more conventional strands of storytelling… Unreadablity as a feature of reading in extremis? I’m not sure what I’m looking for exists quite yet but I am sensing a kind of formally innovative, intelligent and emotive kind of fiction that is under some pressures, that uses found and sculpted language, that transforms in some new way, how we might look at our (excess) world…that helps us in fact, imagine it.