The “Reality” of Literature and the Death of the Avant-Garde

Daulton Dickey.

(Note: This is a revision of a previously published edition.)

If literature were a person, it’d be in a vegetative state. Nothing new is said, nothing new is to be learned, nothing new is offered—the appearances might change but the forms remain the same.

A cliche persists in our culture that if you want to change the system you must first become part of the system. This is an illusion meant to persuade people to embrace the system; it’s designed to inculcate conformity.

Like our culture, literature itself is homogenized while taking on the appearance ofinarticulate_by_dustyantiques heterogeny.

In an image-obsessed culture, appearances are everything.

Another cliche with which we’re familiar warns us to refrain from judging a book by its cover. In reality, we should judge a book by its form. Form should supersede appearances. But in accordance with our species, a peculiar mammal with the cognitive ability to process and model information linearly, the form remains the same while the appearances change.

In an age of movies and television, video games and the internet, things must change. Literature cannot excel at telling linear stories the way visual media can; instead, literature should transcend the simulacrum and represent new and alternate ways to experience simulated or emulated realities.

And that is what literature does: it emulates or simulates realities. Contrary to early Wittgenstein, language does not picture reality; instead, it provides instructions for your brain to construct models.

Literature, even so-called realism, has nothing to do with what we colloquially call 20160601-230511.jpg“reality.” The “written word,” as it’s sometimes called, consists of nothing more than symbols we learn to decode and, based on how we decode it, based on the convergence of our personal experiences, cognitive biases, and our abilities to process information, we construct these models based on our interpretations of the instructions writers provide us.

Experience of what we call “reality” is a product of our brains. Each of us “experiences” “reality” through cognitive processes that render models, and therefore “experiences,” based on information received through our sense organs.

Similarly, our experience of time is linear: we experience the linearity of time via memories—themselves constructions based on stored information—which links our present to the past and projections we make about the future.

It is our present that links the past and the future, and our present is never-changing. By that, I mean that we cannot escape our present. We obtain only in the present, which, for us, is the eternal now, the period in which we inhabit from birth until death. We might re-experience the past via memories, we might experience possible futures via what we can loosely call “imagination,” but those “experiences” are themselves models, and they are not as clear or as immediate of our experiences of the eternal now.

It’s possible that we’ve co-opted our abilities to experience linear time and used those experiences as templates on which we base our means of telling stories—personal anecdotes, works of fiction, and so on.

In short, we as humans “experience” “reality” as models constructed by our brains, and we also “experience” stories as models constructed by our brains. The way we tell these stories, and the details we use to color them, simulate or emulate what we call “reality.” And since the processes are similar, if not identical, we can find ourselves absorbed by stories and we can find ourselves empathizing with, or loathing, characters in these stories we’re constructing—stories we construct based on information provided to us by the storyteller, and despite the media: either orally or via the “written word.”

Like models constructed by our brains based on information it receives, and then selects, via our sense organs, we construct models received via literature. To the reader, when we “experience” the panoply of the hallucinations provided by these models, we confuse them for and even accept them as “objective” “reality.”

As readers, we “experience” the “reality” of the “written word” similarly. Even if we accept from the outset that what we’re reading is fiction, the “experience” provided by our cognitive processes can seduce us in fashions similar to how our cognitive processes seduce us into believing that our “experience” of “reality” is an experience of objective reality.

This is the appeal of storytellers: they seduce us into constructing models in ways similar, if not identical, to how we construct models of “reality.”

Such seduction appeals to us: it’s possible that it reinforces our conviction that our “experience” of “reality” is an unbiased and unfiltered interaction with “objective reality,” as if such a thing even obtains.


To put it bluntly, stories, as constructed by our cognitive processes, reinforce our “experiences,” our models, of “reality.”

But what if it’s possible for forms to alter our “experiences?” What if it’s possible for forms to alter how we construct models? What if it’s possible for forms to affect how we “experience” what we colloquially refer to as “reality,” even if those “experiences” occur only within the context of the act of reading—and doesn’t extend beyond that.

But since we only ever “experience” the eternal now, our “experience” while we’re reading can alter our “realities” in the eternal now in which we dedicate to constructing models based on instructions provided by writers and storytellers.

The stagnation of literature in the twenty-first century is the result of the vanquishing of the avant-garde.

Historically, the avant-garde bloomed on the margins and, through the force of its power or innovation, slowly permeated the center. Once it permeated the center, it ceased being avant-garde and transformed into the new paradigm. When this transformation occurred, other avant-garde movements grew in the margins and permeated the center, either altering the paradigms or refining them—sometimes in radical ways and sometimes in subtle ways.

Modern literature—and this has long been the case, but the proliferation of a corporatepexels-photo-69004 consumer culture has heightened this state—is a commodity meant to appeal to the broadest audiences possible. Literature appeals to broad audiences by inundating them with similar or identical forms, forms predicated on our “experiences” of “linear time,” forms with which we are intimately familiar.

In short, we’re more likely to embrace what we are intimately and immediately familiar with. This familiarity doesn’t necessarily occur on a conscious level—for which I argue elsewhere.

Although the appearances may change—”realism,” “magical realism,” “thriller,” “suspense,” “horror,” “science fiction,” and so on—the forms remain more or less unchanged. Simply put, the form attempts to simulate or emulate “linear time”: beginning, middle, end.

We shouldn’t mistake “form” for “story.” A story is the appearance grafted onto a form. Even when the story might assume a non-linear appearance, the forms remain linear. Pulp Fiction is a great example: although the story itself is non-linear, the form retains the same three-act structure found in countless screenplays.

Or take a novel like Cloud Atlas: the appearance assumes an avant-garde appearance but the form is similar, if not identical to, traditional forms.

Infinite Jest is an exception: its form is a radical departure from traditional forms, and it influenced an entire generation of writers, evidence that the margins can influence the center.

But in the digital age—in an age even more obsessed with image and formulae than the age in which Wallace saw the publication of Infinite Jest, a little under two decades ago—focus has been so tightened onto the center that the margins are imperceptible.

Writers, agents, publishers almost unanimously dismiss, ignore, or aren’t even made aware of the avant-garde, of the pieces of literature subverting or radically altering the forms with which we are most familiar.

Not only does this vanquish the avant-garde, it also limits and restricts our abilities to model our “experiences” of our “realities” in new and different ways.

These limitations are detrimental to the subjective nature of human beings inculcated by restrictive forms and homogenized cultural norms. In effect, restricting our models to the familiar restricts the possibilities of “experiencing” “reality” differently.

The death of the avant-garde is a harbinger of the death of individuality: in a culture inundating us with similar or identical forms, we’re forced to “experience” “reality” as homogeneity, as conformity masquerading as individualism.


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daultondickeyDaulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: StoriesStill Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other storiesElegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novelRooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.

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