For the majority of my columns to date I have focused on the minimal, the smallest gestures—novels built of nothing but punctuation, novels built by erasing the majority of other people’s texts; novelists who create using nothing but blocks of colour, novelists who entirely refuse to write. But what about texts which weigh in on the other size of the scale?
While my own practice in fiction tends to lean towards the sparse and the “unreadable”, I am also inspired by texts which exhaustively catalogue. These texts look not to the minimalist gesture but to the maximalist undertaking—the exhaustive, the complete. Instead of looking to the crystalline haiku and its incumbent brevity as poetic tropes, these books embrace (as Kenny Goldsmith has suggested) the database as most indicative of writing in light of the internet’s economy of plenty.
(or, in another way of putting it, as I mentioned yesterday to an employee of a local bookstore – most of my columns are about really thin books, this column is about really thick books)
Simon Morris, based in York, UK, is co-publisher with Nick Thurston of information as material, a press dedicated publishing “work by artists who use extant material—selecting and reframing it to generate new meanings—and who, in doing so, disrupt the existing order of things.”
Morris is also responsible for a series of wonderfully “maximal” pieces of conceptual literature: The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003), Re-Writing Freud (2005) and Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (2010 and recently reviewed by Vanessa Place) all published by information as material.
Morris’ work, much like Goldsmith’s Day (all the words in a single New York Times) and No. 111 (2.7.93-10.20.96) (all the words that end in “schwa” overheard for 3 years) and Craig Dworkin’s Parse (the entirety of Edwin Abbott’s How to Parse parsed by its own rules), works at the level of the database (or a complete set of information) and how we can handle, sort and move that set of information. For Morris, Dworkin and Goldsmith (and others) poetry is not a matter of “original” writing, it’s a matter of moving, sifting, packaging—it’s a matter of choice.
Morris’ 2005 volume Re-Writing Freud is a wonderfully playful example. The 752-page volume is a responses to Freud’s theories and especially to his The Interpretation of Dreams. With his Re-Writing Freud, Morris—in conjunction with Christine Morris—created an computerized algorithm which would completely randomize all the text in Freud’s original. The computerized algorithm randomly assembles over a 3-day period (the same length at the 3-day novel writing contest, by co-incidence) the text into a new form. The resultant manuscript is completely random, and would change every time the algorithm is run.
This printed edition is packaged in a form which mimic’s Volume 4 of the Penguin collected Freud so closely as to be almost indistinguishable and is only 1 of an effectively infinite number of potential randomized texts generated from The Interpretation of Dreams.
Morris’ random volume becomes a Freudian I-Ching which can be consulted on any number of subjects on any page—the struggling writer can access an unending chain of potentialities. Re-Writing Freud includes every one of the 266, 704 words from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams but re-presents them to the reader in completely random order. The best way of interpreting this mass of language is to apply Freud’s own interpretative theories from The Interpretation of Dreams itself.
Re-Writing Freud exemplies that the bibliophilic fever dream of the librarian’s search for meaning in Borges’ “The Library in Babel” repeats itself each time we open any book.
Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled "Seen of the Crime" is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here. You can read "Nothing Odd Can Last," from How To Write, here.