In late April 2012, students in my undergraduate Introduction to Feminist Theory class at Naropa University read Danielle Dutton’s SPRAWL. With literature written by women as our guide, we explored feminist thought in its historical and philosophical contexts as well as in its application. The course was organized around several books, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Dutton’s SPRAWL. We read these novels over an atypically long period so that we could do both close readings of the texts and apply multiple theories to produce multiple readings. Simultaneous with our reading of SPRAWL, students read Simone de Beauvoir, Lyn Hejinian and Sherry B. Ortner, but one will also recognize in their questions the influence of other courses they were taking at the time, such as Experimental Women Writers.
Jack Kerouac School BA students Emily Ashley, Anna Avery, Ali Baker, Kiwi Barnstein, Eric Cooley, Lauren DeGaine, Taylor Estape, Jackie Gardea, Yasamine Ghiasi, Caroline Jacobs, Erin Likins, Carolyn Ripple, Ella Schoefer-Wulf and Sofia Stephenson participated in the interview. It has been lightly edited for publication.
The Class: In Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity, Juliana Spahr writes that Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas indicate that “her writing (her self) is not unreadable but rather hyper-readable.” Would you consider SPRAWL to be what Spahr calls “hyper-readable”?
Danielle Dutton: I haven’t read Spahr’s book, so I’m not entirely sure if I’m understanding the question, but here’s what it makes me think of: Werner Herzog. There’s an interview with him from GQ that I’m kind of obsessed with. In it he talks about how he makes films for the “secret mainstream.” I love this idea. Partly because it makes me laugh and partly because I believe him. And this idea of his seems to jive with my (mis?)understanding of Spahr’s notion there of “hyper-readability.” That something seemingly difficult could actually be enormously “readable,” if this latter term can be defined starting from a different set of assumptions about what reading is.
TC: Did you write this book with the idea of a “feminine text” in mind? And if so, what is the intersection of commodification and femininity as you experienced it as you wrote?
DD: Yes, I guess I did, at least to some extent. There’s an excellent anthology called Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction (by Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs) that contains one great essay after another (such as “Male Signature, Female Aesthetic: The Gender Politics of Experimental Writing,” my own favorite “Woolfenstein,” or “Voices in the Head: Style and Consciousness in the Fiction of Ann Quin”) all about “feminine texts” that subvert patriarchal notions of language and narrative (of linearity, hierarchy, externality, etc.). I’m ashamed to admit I actually stole this book from one of my profs many years ago. That’s how great I thought it was, and it’s inevitably become part of the way I think about fiction. As to the intersection of commodification and femininity. . .I wonder, do you mean in the book itself, the way it falls into talking about objects or shopping and/or how the narrator sort of takes up the language of cookbooks, fashion magazines or other Ladies Home Journal discourses? I guess at some point I was thinking about “the American woman” or “the suburban housewife” as ideas that are sold to us. Just as I think the term “women’s fiction” is sold to us, to bracket off something perceived as inherently “feminine” in order to turn it into a) a commodity and b) lesser.
TC: Similarly, do you consider SPRAWL a feminist text, either because it has a feminine form or because it depicts the suburban woman? Is there such thing as a feminist text?
DD: Yes. But to the extent that I agree with Alain Robbe-Grillet that, “the novel is not a tool at all. It is not conceived with a view to a task defined in advance,” I feel like I should qualify my “yes.” I think a book can be many different things and must inevitably be different things to different people. For example, I am honored that this book has been taught in courses on art and writing, on America (in a class taught in Canada), on the suburbs, on “the poet’s novel,” and in gender studies courses. So I think it’s certainly possible to talk about SPRAWL as a feminist text, just as it’s possible to talk about it in some totally other way. And while I agree that the feminist reading is there. . .did I plan it that way, as a kind of manifesto? No, not really. I didn’t even know who my narrator would be when I started. The only clear idea I had was this exploration of a particular contemporary(ish) space. I’m gathering you all already talked about the difference between a “feminine” text and a “feminist” text? I wish I could have been part of that conversation. Seems like a fruitful point of friction.
TC: In our readings of SPRAWL, we read the debris (objects, food, food scraps, etc.) and its spatial relationship to identity as a strategy for controlling the temporal disturbance in the text. Can you talk about your intentions/perspective on the ways in which debris functions in the text? We’re curious about the continuous present that you set up in the work.
DD: I absolutely did use things (especially in the form of lists) to control the movement of time in the book, or rather the movement of moving through the book, the shape and pace of it, if not the chronological time of the fictional world itself. I had this whole elaborate way of thinking about how time was moving for my narrator, which was of course so different from how I imagined time would be moving for the reader. For the reader, I thought of time passing in terms of things like letters, lists of objects, anaphora, etc. (a lot of rhetorical gestures, I guess), whereas I saw the narrator herself as very connected to the passage of a year and its seasons. But in a way I thought of everything as debris: the objects in the lists were as much debris as the lists themselves. The use of the debris, though, just sort of sprang into being (as I remember it, anyway) by my response to the images of Laura Letinsky. I think the stuff-ness really came from her (for which I’m grateful). And then when I started to read more about still-life painting in particular, I became interested in how the display nature of bourgeois art linked into what I seemed by then to be doing with the book. But it felt pretty coincidental at the time.
TC: Do you feel that catharsis—the purging of audience’s emotions à la Aristotle—is a male form?
DD: I have certainly thought about this, and there’s some very interesting discussion of it in the Friedman and Fuchs anthology I mentioned above. I don’t know. . .sometimes it feels true to me and sometimes it feels over-determined. That said, I’m not someone who is either drawn to (or able to?) write driving linear plots with obvious climaxes (though I can really like reading them). I think that a text that subverts the traditionally climactic moment can still be weirdly cathartic.
TC: In SPRAWL, how do you relate female repression of voice to the paratactic form?
DD: I have (often, not always) a difficult time saying that any one thing is more important than another, or a difficult time (at least in my experience of myself) expressing why I think one thing is more right than another, and this does feel tied to me in certain ways to a kind of timidity of voice, which feels tied to the way I was raised, which feels tied to notions of girl-ness and pleasantness. So I think there’s something to this question, but I’m not sure how to answer it. It feels so personal.
TC: Is Haywood having an affair?
TC: It seems that the book resists conclusion—to what end?
DD: I don’t know to what end. Hopefully to a pleasing, provocative end. I remember feeling pretty satisfied writing that exact ending, but I don’t know that readers share my feeling. Maybe some do. Someone once very kindly told me the ending was like a small miracle of closure in a book that seems throughout to be promising the reader that no closure of any sort will be forthcoming. I suppose it’s more a linguistic closure—an existential turn of phrase—than a situational one.
TC: Have any theories, specifically psychoanalysis, influenced your idea of femininity or identity?
DD: Not overtly. I mean, I’m not conscious of any influence (ha ha), though I’m sure the basics filter in there and do their work, even if I’ve never been a Student of Theory.
TC: What motivates you to write?
DD: This is a really hard question. It feels like it shouldn’t be, but it is. What initially motivated me to write was a kind of desperate need to do something or say anything, or, I suppose, a fear that I never would.
TC: We were interested in the first sentence of the book (“This place is as large as any other town”), and felt that one possible interpretation of it, especially when considered against the Thoreau epigraph (“At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house”), established a set of values. Even if it is just to say, some people, not SPRAWL necessarily, hold these values. What was your intention with this beginning?
DD: This wasn’t originally the first line. There were three sentences before it that the editor at Siglio, Lisa Pearson, smartly cut. But, yes, the Thoreau quote was always meant to establish a kind of value system, although somewhat tongue in cheek.
TC: I would like to know if music theory influenced your work in SPRAWL and, if so, how?
DD: No, I don’t know any music theory. I would like to know if you do and if you read the book in that context. Maybe one thing I can add. . .I just heard an interview with Wayne Shorter where he was talking about how the thing about jazz is that it doesn’t need to sound like “jazz.” He said: “To me the word ‘jazz’ means ‘I dare you.’” That’s pretty much the way I think about the form of/history of the novel.
TC: What is your (somatic) experience when reading your own text? How do you identify with it today? At the date of writing? At publication?
DD: SPRAWL was the most exhilarating writing experience I’ve had. It was consuming but happily so and came out quickly. But then it had a somewhat jerky road to publication. It was accepted by an excellent (now defunct) press called Clear Cut. They held on to it for a while and nothing happened. It was sad. Sad, too, that Clear Cut came to an untimely end. Eventually I started looking for a new home for the book. I was incredibly lucky to stumble upon Siglio at that moment. Lisa Pearson is amazing. Siglio is amazing. But my point is that by the time it came out I’d felt a little anguish and uncertainty creep into my feelings about it. I was nervous. Today I don’t look at it very much, and I’ve put a moratorium on reading from it (needing to move forward), but I have mostly found that I have somewhat unsatisfied feelings about it. Harry Mathews once described the work a writer is done with as his [or her] ex, and I think there’s something to that. You have some fondness, you have some regret, you have some relief that it’s over.
Danielle Dutton is the author of Attempts at a Life and SPRAWL. An assistant professor in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, she is the founder and editor of Dorothy, a publishing project.