‘Ways Towards and Around Blake Butler’, by Justin Wolfers

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Image courtesy of Harper Perennial for Three Hundred Million by Blake Butler.

There’s a whirlpool of diversity and happy cross-contamination to writer and editor Blake Butler, through which trying to construct a straightforward, literary-writerly conception of him falls short on so many levels. It seems less an affirmation of the death of the author than of the co-mingling of the author with online life, the two nestling in, complementing each other.

He is not interested in ‘The Situation in American Writing’

Full Stop’s 2012 interview with Blake Butler, forebodingly titled ‘The Situation in American Writing’, started with the question, “2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Does literature have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?”

Butler’s response: “No. If anything, I think literature has a responsibility to not respond.”

The interviewer’s agenda is clear: what is The Writer’s position in relation to political action, to patriotism, to literature as a form of social change? Butler doesn’t merely say, “Nah, I don’t think about that.” He suggests the opposite, which is that writing should be a space in which megaphoning is left to the side, where the writing comes first; a place for openings that function within the writing, as opposed to writing as a foremostly political act. The interview doesn’t ask anything about his work, or engage him in anything other than basically saying no to every question.

It’s interesting, because it’s totally at odds with what Butler is known for: being verbose, eager, prolific.

His work is surreal and experimental, with a backlist of fiction and non-fiction that includes Scorched Atlas, Ever, and Nothing, as well as wide-ranging engagements with the contemporary writing scene in America, editing the journal Lamination Colony (now-defunct, replaced by a website for hair tonic), and co-editing No Colony with Ken Baumann. His website www.gillesdeleuzecommittedsuicideandsowilldrphil.com hosts a lot of his shorter-form writing, including this article that catalogues the year it took him submitting to small presses to find a publisher for Scorched Atlas – including being told his writing was ‘bleak’ over and over, and g-chatting to his writer-friends that writing was for fucks and why the fuck are we doing this.

Interview Magazine, Bookslut and The Rumpus have all posted long, engaging interviews that see Butler talk in depth about insomnia, flesh, suburbia, masturbation, rap music, and so on, showing that he can be not only forthcoming, but alarmingly candid in the right context.

The extent to which he demystifies himself over the internet is refreshing; but if he gives away the details of his mental processes and bodily functions in such a casual, candid way, how much value should we ascribe to it? It’s not as though we have found Kafka’s long-lost nudie mags. He offers everything, and it realigns our perception of him, stripping his work of the expectations that come with having literary mystique.

Personally, I’ve found that it makes me want to read less about him and his writing, and more, just read his writing. You can do both at the same time by reading his interview with himself on The Nervous Breakdown:

“What is it about what you do daily that makes you cranky during the day all day? Is it in some way related to that sick pang that happens seemingly 40-80% of the time immediately after posting anything online? Is that guilt, or fear, or something else? Like why put so much thought into whether something should be shared or not shared, and where does that desire to immediately snuff it come from? Does everyone have that? It seems like everyone does not have that. Why not delete everything, or delete nothing, or not involve yourself at all?”

“…”

He has written 151 extremely varied columns on books for Vice

Including insightful interviews with authors such as Alissa Nutting on her female paedophile narrator, a semi-annotated list of all the books he read in 2013, and an interview with himself about caring for his father’s Alzheimer’s.

There’s a piece entitled ‘What I Remember From Getting an MFA in Writing’ — which is less a sharing of postgraduate wisdom and more a series of short stories, about how shit literary readings can be, about how game show-y workshops can be, about how so many people go to university to not really do any work. It’s consciously undidactic, offering stray quotes from tutors, and thankful toward the professor that completely tore apart his writing during that period.

Commenting upon the tendency for creative writing students to end up mimicking Raymond Carver, Butler says: “If you are the kind of person who can be made to mimic something else by mere suggestion, you are probably fucked in the long run anyway, as far as doing anything interesting is concerned.”

There’s a respect there about being young and having a lot to learn, but also that there is a lot of bullshit to literariness. He’s caught between knowing that being completely self-involved and insular, and not listening to criticism, will make you a bad writer, and also understanding that ascribing to the tertiary-literary culture may well make you a boring writer. He’s also caught between wanting to write something meaningful about his MFA experience and how bullshitty it is to write meaningfully about your MFA experience. This dichotomy is naturalised for him, between loving writing, being obsessed by it, and reflecting upon it, while also being aware of the pitfalls of being ideological or categorical about something which shouldn’t really be taught.

“I don’t know if I’d do my MFA again. It’s easy to say that now, hating any second I’m not in the midst of doing what I want when it comes to work. I could have gotten a business degree and been making a lot of money now, though I don’t know that that would have made me happy. I do know that, having stuck with writing, if I hadn’t gotten an MFA I might have continued doing the same things I already knew I liked and did well, and not been forced to really see what I did that was most uniquely mine. In the scope of the world, any opportunity to spend hours and hours working on something as existentially arbitrary as writing sentences seems valuable, a total luxury, even if in the end everything but just sitting at your desk and working is a punchline.”

He co-founded the “internet literature magazine micro-blog of the future”

His philosophy of having diverse, happily counteracting views on writing, is showcased through the website he co-founded with Gene Morgan, HTML Giant, which was a super-engaging online community on contemporary literature (it’s not posting new content anymore). It still makes for an unendingly interesting scroll full of original fiction and poetry, and a host of reviews that collate content from a lot of other lit blogs. Some articles are very short, with the diverse comment threads becoming the crux of the content.

Examples: there’s a whole bunch of reviews of books you’ve never heard of, some quick and zappy, others long, thoughtful and considered, as well as a strange prose poem collaboration between Feliz Molina and Ben Segal.

“Things are said to fall apart – thank God. I split my day into parts just to manage. Whole hours at once overwhelm. Days come as waves or weights to rend. But dissolution’s only normal. Cells want to split. And dismal couples. Hot legs and hot dog buns. The double doors of the city bank lobby. The seams of tight pants desire this, the lips of hungry mouths. We break bread and promises. We cut film. We split seconds and sides and the rent. The trees branch out just to live.”

This article, which features a screenshot of a very long, apologetic Facebook comment Butler made about misogyny and free speech in the HTML Giant community, goes a way to explaining the purpose of the site and his relationship to it. Websites are hard to summarise – it’s best to just jump in for yourself.

He has a bizarre, surreal Twitter presence

There’s something incredibly readable about mundane observations (which can be said for all of Twitter), but in Butler’s case the tension between writerliness and disdaining writerliness continues happily, and none of the tweets feel particularly self-involved or uninteresting, but also not particularly laboured or careful. It makes for a strangely captivating, alienating, weird reading experience if his feed is thought of as ‘a text’. It’s also full of ephemera, really, that is hard to categorise.

His novel There Is No Year is strange and beautiful

We go around his writing and now into it. He has a story in The Best of the Lifted Brow called 'From Now On All I’ll Talk About Is Light’, which is bizarre, hyper-real, dark, and in some ways impenetrable — any notions of character and plot waft in smoke through and around the imagery, never stabilising.

There is No Year, released in 2011 by Harper Perennial, is certainly more structured, and has a central physically locatable focus — a family, and their life inside a house — but Butler’s writing is deep inside the tiny movements that go on within, and goes by in rhythmic prose that you read closely, intently, following along sentence by sentence, notions of plot seeming irrelevant or crude. It’s also a gorgeous object, huge for a novel, square, on paper that fades from dark grey, through medium grey, to light grey and white, white page by page, section by section.

“The son burned through the channels. The son saw ads for ground beef and cow milk and respirators. He saw men throw balls at one another. He could not find the woman in the hall. He’d forgotten even what she looked like — her shape — though she was always in his mind. In his bedroom in the mirror or in the air above his bed sometimes he felt he could feel her just beside him. He would move around his bedroom with his eyes closed, feeling for her with hands. She was there.”

His writing is specific, physical; yet surreal, and dreamlike. Coupled with his earnest, verbose online persona, it makes for a body of work—and an author—that is both very straight-forward to read, unshrouded, open for all, and unpretentious; yet simultaneously complex, stylised, unsure of itself, and contradictory.

One of the pieces of advice Butler received during his MFA was Amy Hempel saying, “The more literal you are, the more metaphorical people will think you are being.” The fact that he is aware of this relationship is telling, and it bleeds into his work: into his hyper-real prose that feels metaphorical even though it’s intensely intimate and physical; and equally into his internet persona that seems to combine eagerness and cynicism almost equally.

His disdain for coherence is a gift to the reader, given the kind of experimental work he does: you get the sense that you liking him isn’t in his interest, which makes him all the more vacillating and interesting to read. But then again:


This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Vol. 8, Issue 2. Since then, Blake Butler has released a new novel called Three Hundred Million, in which a serial killer kills everybody in America.

Justin Wolfers is a writer and editor from Sydney. He edits Seizure’s AltTxt project, has written for places like Kill Your Darlings, The Australian, Stilts, Penguin Plays Rough, The UTS Writer’s Anthology and The Brag. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney studying contemporary fiction.