Robert Coover on narrative art (at AKAG tonight)
Long before anyone coined the phrase "flash fiction," a generation of American fiction writers had essentially revolutionized the short story form, foreshortening its narrative arc and introducing elements previously associated with lyric poetry, film, and the visual and conceptual arts.
Beginning in the late 1950's and 1960's, writers like John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Guy Davenport and Grace Paley made the story form "self-reflexive"--i.e., conspicuously aware of its own art of telling and capable of shifting from (in linguistic terms) from the "object language" to a "meta-language" for the purposes of self-commentary. These writers did not invent self-reflexiveness--you can find traces of it in myth, folk narratives, parable and even the origins of the short story in Boccaccio and Chaucer--but they displaced it from a narrative "frame" to the essence of what storytelling (or "fabulation") was all about.
Of the writers named above, Grace Paley offered perhaps the most cogent encapsulation of the story's role in transforming a social context. Barth explored the often disparate and contending stories within a story. Barthelme became our virtuoso of the narrative collage. And Robert Coover--who concludes his three day residency at the University at Buffalo tonight with a reading at 8 p.m. in the Auditorium of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as part of GUSTO at the Gallery--especially in his classic 1969 story collection Pricksongs and Descants, boldly pulled back the veil (so to speak) on fiction writing to reveal and focus on its inner workings: not just the nuts and bolts, but also the pulleys, levers, scaffolds, and false facades.
In the prologue to his brilliant "Seven Exemplary Fictions," a story cycle dedicated and specifically addressed to "Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra"--known to posterity as the author of Don Quixote--Coover writes:
"...Your stories also exemplified the dual nature of all good narrative art: they struggled against the unconscious mythic residue in human life and sought to synthesize the unsynthesizable, sallied forth against adolescent thought-modes and exhausted art forms and returned home with new complexities. In fact, your creation of a synthesis between poetic analogy and literal history (not to mention, reality and illusion, sanity and madness, the erotic and the ludicrous, the visionary and the scatological) gave birth to the Novel...
"You teach us Maestro, by example that great narratives remain meaningful through time as a language medium between generations, as a weapon against the fringe areas of our consciousness, and as a mythic reinforcement of our tenuous grip on reality. The novelist uses familiar mythic or historical forms to combat the content of those forms and to conduct the reader to the real, away from mystification to clarification, away from magic to maturity, away from mystery to revelation..."