Negotiating Academic Constraints: Clara S. Lewis with Louis Bury

Louis Bury and Clara Lewis
Louis Bury and Clara S. Lewis

This interview is on the occasion of Louis Bury’s Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint, which uses rules and procedures to write poetic and autobiographical criticism about works of literary constraint (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015)

Louis Bury: In an academic job interview, I was once asked, “I read your writing sample and I have to ask: ‘Why would anyone want to read this? What’s the point?’” The writing sample came from an earlier version of this book, but was ultimately cut. And in it, I catalogued what I could remember about all the books on my bookshelves whose contents I’d entirely forgotten: so the associations I had with each book, where I bought it or who gave it to me and why, things like that.

Clara S. Lewis: All the stuff that doesn’t make it into standard criticism.

LB: Exactly. My personal relationship to the books. And in that same job interview, which was obviously quite disastrous, they expressed concern, based on my writing, that I exhibited a “pattern of being an outsider.” Which is interesting because in my actual life I fit in quite well in most social and professional circumstances. I’m not a troublemaker. But in writing, I feel like I have the liberty to act out on the page and not be myself. The stakes feel lower. I can do things that I wouldn’t give myself permission to do in actual life.

CL: In the book you perform the role of bad academic citizen: you’re not going to follow the rules of scholarship. It’s almost like a character you’re playing. I’m interested in hearing you talk about your critique of scholarly prose and of scholarship more generally. There were such sharp, pointed moments where, in a short amount of space, you nail down much of what I’ve been trained to do in my own sociological work. One such moment, which literally caught my breath, was when you talk about how so much scholarship works to unmask hidden power structures. How can someone who, like myself, has taken your critiques to heart use them to re-conceive of what her own scholarship might hope to accomplish?

LB: I’m not sure that the book can help in any direct and practical way. It’s not just that most of the constraints I use—a chapter written entirely in interrogatives, say—wouldn’t be applicable but that part of my critique is about the tiresomeness of much academic argumentation and the style in which it’s written. If you had similar sympathies, the thing to do would be to abandon scholarship altogether. Which is why I’d insist that what I’ve ultimately produced is not a work of scholarship. It’s a species of criticism but it’s closer to a work of literature in its own right.

CL: One of the things that struck me about the book is the way it ambushes the reader. In a good way. I would be in a state of pleasure while reading and then something startling and affecting would happen. It’s as though the element of surprise helped me take your ideas more to heart. Is part of your critique of argument that it fails to startle? Because it tells the reader everything in advance?

LB: That’s a fascinating question. I’m enamored with the Nietzschean tradition of belletristic theory that provides lightning flashes of unpredictable insight. But I think standard argument, philosophical or critical, can and does surprise. When I read Sianne Ngai’s amazing Our Aesthetic Categories, I was continually surprised because her ideas are so darn good. I think argument can surprise but it’s just really hard to do it well enough so that it does. And this is why my own Pandora’s box of methodologies, my use of constraint to manufacture surprise, was actually a covert way of avoiding sustained, rigorous argument: because I don’t think I’m capable of writing straightforward argument well enough that it startles. And I’d ultimately rather write something good than something useful.

CL: I disagree that the book has no practical applications to traditional scholarship. It sounds like you’re saying that scholarship can’t do the things that you critique it for not doing. And so my own desire to bring your methods into other contexts is futile. And I’m not willing to concede that. Your writing may be idiosyncratic but it raises important questions about methodology and ethics in an academic project. And this for me splits off into a longer question about interpretive violence.

LB: Right, the idea that criticism often enacts a dominance ritual. Criticism is by definition secondary, even parasitic, and yet in explaining the primary thing asserts power over it: you need me to explain your meaning and significance. It’s very Hegelian.

CL: Yes, and I think your constraints generate a method around consent. For example, you gave your father a written questionnaire and then he could consent to what he felt like answering and leave blank what he didn’t. The whole concluding section of the book, which takes a personal turn, creates a fascinating dialectical tension between privacy and openness. For the human subjects in the book, yourself included, there’s an exposure of quite personal details but you’ve still reserved a space for privacy. And that dialectic enabled me to revisit the earlier sections of the book, the ones where you’re mostly writing about texts rather than people, and realize that a similar dynamic exists there, too. In your piece on Joe Brainard’s I Remember, you talk about the act of excerpting a text as a form of castration, as a form of violence.

LB: This feels related to the chapter where I go to Fort Tryon Park as part of a procedure to read and respond to CAConrad’s poems. He has a line in his Emily Dickinson poem where he says to her, “one day they will disambiguate you but not while I’m around.” Disambiguation isn’t the same exact thing as interpretation but both have the potential to make the poem itself less resonant and weird. In writing about Conrad’s own poems, I didn’t want to explain or disambiguate them. I wanted to let them spawn an almost collaborative creative response, wanted to enact what Sontag called an erotics rather than a hermeneutics of art. It’s a critical stance that implies both an ethic and an epistemology that I consider poetic.

CL: You’re engaging the texts on their own terms, especially through your mimicry of their own procedures and constraints. It extends or draws out the element in criticism that’s truly representational or thickly descriptive. And then it makes the reader beg for the meaning-making act, the insight.

LB: The chapter on Harry Mathews’s Singular Pleasures seems important in this regard: how postponement doesn’t frustrate desire but enhances and sharpens it. And how, in that piece, I try to avoid argumentation but still lapse into making points because it is criticism, after all, that I’m writing. So it’s not that the book is against insight and meaning, only that it comes at them in an oblique or indirect way. And constraint, by its nature, creates obstacles, forces you to take detours and byways.

CL: One of the things your methodology does is allow for you to have moments of personal revelation that are relevant to how you think about your life. That seems important because, with so much scholarship, it becomes hard to get into a space where that is an intellectual possibility.

LB: I agree but I don’t know what you could do.

CL: You’d have to build it into the design in some way.

LB: I would like you to be correct. I think you are probably correct that the book has utility.

CL: I feel like I’m trying to force it to be utilitarian, which is the opposite of everything it embodies.

LB: I would like if it had utility. My intellectual life has always felt haunted by the question of its utility, perhaps because it began, as I describe in the book, when I transferred out of a prestigious business school to study the humanities. My guess would be that whatever utility the book possesses derives from its non-utilitarian bent. That it derives its utility from risking uselessness and self-indulgence. Or, more positively: that the book’s utility lies in the way it traces the contours or limits of scholarship proper. It’s not a work of scholarship but it’s close enough to being one that it helps define scholarship’s borders from the outside.

CL: Do you think that your book isn’t scholarly because it began as something impersonal but eventually became personal?

LB: That’s a great question but I don’t think that’s exactly it. I can think of works of strict scholarship that include the personal, such as Kristen Case’s delightful American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice. I don’t even think it’s my book’s wonky poetic style that makes it not a work of scholarship, because I can imagine scholarship written with poetic verve. But I can’t imagine scholarship written with my cavalier attitude toward secondary sources—I cite very little, if any, other scholarship—or with my willingness to include material based not on thematic exigency but personal predilection. There are a number of important, wonderful books on the subject of constraint that my book neglects to discuss, such as Christian Bök’s Eunoia, Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes and his Oulipo Compendium, Daniel Levin-Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, Lynn Crawford’s Simply Separate People, Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! I feel bad that those books didn’t get their due. In many cases, I wrote about them in earlier drafts of my book. But that writing wasn’t very good. And once it became apparent that my book was as much about me as about my nominal subjects, I decided that trying to be comprehensive would not produce the best or most exciting book of which I was capable. That I would rather be exciting than thorough (not that it’s always an either-or proposition) is probably both a great strength and a great weakness of mine as a critic.

CL: I think this gets at the fact that the book is a revision of your dissertation, which is this milestone in your education and professional development. This is a transition to a slightly different question, but I am curious about how you make a point in the Author’s Note of saying, “I am no longer the person who wrote this book,” “I am not this I anymore.” How so? How are you no longer the person who wrote the book in terms of new work you’re interested in doing or perhaps more personally?

LB: Beyond just the changes that occur with the passage of time—I started writing the book in 2007 and it’s now 2015—I think I’m also different by virtue of having written the book. That is, writing the book, posturing at being a scholar,  provided an indirect way of working out, for myself, things about my life and my way of doing things in the world that have thematic resonance with the topic of constraint. It’s sort of like what I say in the book regarding therapy: that I try to articulate things I didn’t know I knew about myself and, in so doing, to surpass them, to make those problems no longer my own by externalizing them. I’m not in therapy at the moment but…

C and LB: heh heh

LB: That’s one way I’ve changed. I’m totally cured!

C and LB: heh heh

CL: I am glad The Conversant’s readers now know that.

LB: I guess that means the book, or writing itself, serves a therapeutic function for me. Which I find a bit embarrassing.

CL: How does that map out on your current interests as a writer? Are you still interested in producing literary criticism?

LB: I’ve felt very rudderless since completing the book. I am adept at starting and then abandoning projects. I may well have killed off criticism for myself. The book was in part a proof to myself that I could write criticism in this creative way. Trying to prove it again would feel redundant. Trying to go back and be a straight scholar would be even sillier. I think the way forward—and the aesthetic arc of Robert Irwin’s artistic career, as laid out by Lawrence Weschler in seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, stands as an aspirational ideal for me—so I think the way forward will be to figure out what new aesthetic, intellectual, and personal problems this completed work creates for me. Perec said something similar: that he never wanted to write the same book twice. I think my new writing problems have to do with the personal turn my book took: I’m a bit aloof towards my family in my actual life but the fact that I found it so urgent to write about them suggests that the concept and experience of family is much more meaningful to me than I’ve allowed myself to believe.

CL: I am curious then if this shift has affected your taste in reading? Are you a different reader now than when you were working on the book?

LB: No, I’m the same reader I always was—pursuing pleasures and taking notes on them—I am just more confident and secure that that way of reading works for me and is acceptable. I used to read with a self-created fiction looming over me of what I should be reading and how I should be reading it. Now I read in the idiosyncratic ways I always have but I’ve gotten rid of the fiction of a supposed to. That’s also why I’ve felt unsure of what comes next: for a lot of years I was writing in opposition to that supposed to. Now I have to figure out what I myself stand for.

CL: You say in the book that you contrive the constraints to grant yourself freedom from that supposed to.

LB: Exactly: I can’t be a well-behaved scholar because the constraint won’t let me use footnotes! And then I can go do what I actually want to do. But for some reason, probably because I had so internalized a sense of the academic rules, I needed to go through an elaborate charade before I let myself break those rules. And this is another one of the aesthetic and intellectual questions the book opens up for me: Why do I like to operate through obliquity and indirection? In the book’s final chapter, a recorded and edited transcription of my dissertation defense, Wayne Koestenbaum says that “the embrace of constraint is the embrace of screens.” Somehow, I like the idea of pretending to do one thing and then actually doing another. Maybe it’s my poker background. The Oulipo calls this type of literary misdirection “pumectation.” Academia often operates in a similar fashion, not just in terms of research expectations but also in terms of teaching and service work, in that the reality of the work doesn’t align with its elaborate pretense. The same critique could be made of any job, really, but in academia there’s typically a greater pretense of high-minded value to the work.

CL: Is it fun? Does it feel like a luxury of your new position as a tenure-track professor? This is another way in which, as your book illustrates, the lived context within which scholarship gets produced is so important. It seems like the university system in this country is pretending as if creating these contexts within which faculty are increasingly contingent won’t have an effect on the kinds of ideas that are produced. Or the way in which knowledge is produced.

LB: One of the things that appealed to me about a tenure-track position at a community college specifically, which I’ve just recently begun, is that I could write in whatever way I want, free from an intense pressure to produce. I strongly agree with your critique about how the increase in contingent academic labor effects knowledge production and would extend it even to the conditions among the tenure-track ranks. The drive to professionalize—the necessity of it, if you want to have a chance at a career—creates constraints upon the types and forms of knowledge we imagine as possible to produce. In theory, academia provides for writers and intellectuals something of a haven from market concerns: don’t worry about what sells, just write what’s valuable and good. In practice, the academic marketplace pressures practitioners toward its own warped brand of mediocrity.

CL: Exactly. Academia should be this space where you don’t have to conform to consumerist demands. Yet there’s this whole other set of demands that amount to much the same thing.

LB: For the socioeconomic reasons you just outlined, I think we’re on the cusp of several paradigm shifts in higher education: expectations for knowledge production and career trajectories will look very different in twenty years. It’s not just a systemic problem but a spiritual one: lots of people feel dissatisfied with current institutional paradigms. But the paradigms are only just now beginning to shift. Some people will make careers from the transitional opportunities but many more will, in plain terms, be fucked because they’re on the wrong side of the shift.

CL: Early on in your book you talk about how you discarded the dissertation idea, on Native American literature, that felt more marketable to you. But to me it seems like one can’t possibly contrive to engineer marketability into one’s work. Even the most disciplined, career-oriented humanities graduate student, the one who plays by all the rules, can’t be assured of success. Aiming for a tenure-track position feels like entering a lottery. Could there be some kind of potential in that? That playing by the rules doesn’t work anymore?

LB: Yes, perhaps, but with a giant BUT caveating the “yes.” Not playing by the rules is a high risk/high reward proposition: you’re less likely to make it but if you do make it, you’re more likely to make it big. For example, my friend Nick Sousanis wrote his dissertation-turned-book, Unflattening, in comic book form and is garnering significant attention for it. That said, I don’t think it’s the case that playing by the rules doesn’t work anymore. It’s just that playing by the rules doesn’t give you as good odds of success as it would have ten, twenty or thirty years ago. The odds aren’t great for any one individual but some job applicants still have much better odds than others. It’s not a pure lottery. As I explain in my book, I used a version of lottery logic as a rationale for my project: the academic job market is so bad, I may as well do things the way I want and not play by the rules. And from an intellectual and artistic standpoint, it was the correct decision for me. But from a market standpoint, my logic was flawed in ways I wasn’t quite able to recognize at the time. In fact, I naively thought doing it this way would give me a better chance of getting a job, because I’d stand out, when in fact it gave me a worse chance of having an academic career but a better chance at achieving some degree of notoriety if I did manage to have one. I’m not saying don’t take risks. The pursuit of a humanities Ph.D. is already a big risk from many different standpoints. But I am saying it can be hard to know the full terms of the wager you’re making. Even Nick, as well as his book is doing, has faced unanticipated obstacles for doing it in the way he did. At the time I made the wager of my own dissertation, I was a part-time professional gambler, so I was used to assessing risk, and I still overlooked important angles because of my lack of knowledge and experience.

CL: What didn’t you know then?

LB: Lots of things. For example: I didn’t know how little the actual writing you do matters to the average academic career.

CL: How do you mean?

LB: Arguably, the only things that matter about your dissertation are: 1) where parts of it have been published, and 2) how well you can summarize it into two paragraphs in a job letter. What matters is not its quality but how it discursively situates you. The writing itself is almost immaterial. And this is true not just of dissertations. The academic ideas with the most currency tend to be easily packageable, capable of being boiled down to conceptual catchphrases, in ways both good and bad. At most you need to read the introduction to the book, maybe even just the key passage where the concept gets explained. In a sense, the consummate academic concept is a concept whose meaning is self-evident just from its name alone. I was talking a moment ago about paradigm shifts. Generations of learnèd folks have been talking about paradigm shifts, myself included, without most of them having read a word of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

CL: This is a key difference with your book and its unusual structure: it’s un-skimmable. That’s a quality it shares with poetry and not scholarship.

LB: Ha ha, exactly. And even this digression about clothes is related to my book and to how my mind works. Because the thing I loved about learning the rules of men’s clothing is that it is all just combinatorics. There’s a limited set of pieces that, based on their color, material, connotations, and function, you interchange with one another until you arrive at the appropriate combination for wherever you’re going.

CL: This is how you actually go about dressing?

LB: More or less, yeah.

CL: Do you dress differently for teaching?

LB: The biggest difference is that I usually wear a tie. Teaching is the only consistent place in my life where I can wear a tie and it won’t come off as overdressed. The tie is the one acceptable ornament in men’s clothing: just this phallic piece of cloth hanging from your neck, an arrow pointing from your face to your penis.

CL: I’d never thought of the tie in quite that way before.

LB: That’s what it is: a socially acceptable ornamental penis.

CL: I always imagine ties as the moment of self-expression in the otherwise plain and dry wardrobe: Here is where I get to show you my fashion sense.

LB: Yes, that’s how they’re typically understood. Probably my strongest feeling about ties is that most of the ones you see are loud, awkward, or over-the-top designs that either are unappealing in their own right or don’t work well with the rest of the outfit. I prefer subtlety and understatement, like solids that have some texture to them. And this, too, is related to my book in that, stylistically, the book is over the top: rococo, baroque, zany. Whereas with clothing, while I went through a phase of a similarly bold and maximalist aesthetic, now I far prefer simplicity. So it’s interesting that, again, in writing I allow myself to behave in ways I wouldn’t in life.

CL: You wear that tie.

LB: Yeah, attention grabbing. Earlier, I mentioned Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories. Her category of the zany describes my book almost too well. It’s a very performative mode. And for Ngai, zany art insists on its status as playful but never has as much fun as it claims to be having. It’s play that has become so serious as to become a form of labor. And she says when you see something that is zany the typical response is to distance yourself from it. Yet my own response, writing criticism about an inherently zany aesthetic mode, was not to distance myself from it but to mimic it.

CL: It’s interesting because while “zany” does in a sense capture the eccentricities of your book’s style, at the same time you demonstrate a tremendous degree of control on the page. As someone who reads lots of student writing that lacks control, and as a writer myself who doesn’t feel I have that kind of control, I’m curious how you cultivated it. Do you see yourself as someone who has a great degree of control on the page, even though you often theorize writing under constraint in terms of wildness and letting go? From a teaching perspective, is that something that comes through revision? Is it an aesthetic you cultivate?

LB: I have a constant sense that my work is complete and utter crap. That it’s not good enough. I don’t even think it’s perfectionism. I’m not a perfectionist. I’m pretty fucking lazy in most aspects of my life, including writing. I don’t have good writing habits. But when I actually do sit down to write, I can’t move forward to the next sentence unless the previous sentence satisfies me. I need to feel confident that it’s really good.

CL: So this could actually be debilitating for others.

LB: And for me!

CL: I would completely discourage anyone from writing that way. It’s never something I would suggest to a student. This is really how you work?

LB: Usually. It’s probably why I like working with recorded speech so much: it gives me an excuse to get sloppier than I’d ordinarily allow myself.

CL: Do you revise?

LB: Of course. However, we normally think about revision as something that’s retrospectively performed upon a completed object when it’s actually something that’s constantly happening as you write. You think of a sentence in your head and before you ever commit it to paper you’ve substituted words, toyed around with its shape, and so forth. That’s revision. Properly speaking, there’s no such thing as writing; only revision. And for whatever reason, I need to believe that the first draft is working as well as I can get it. And then I can hopefully get it working even better from there. This is related to my methodology in the book. The process of needing to “get things right” began before I’d even written a word. For each chapter, I couldn’t begin to write in any meaningful or productive sense until I got the choice of constraint right, until I settled on a procedure that I felt maximized the chances for an interesting result. Sometimes I would flounder for weeks, as with the chapter on Harry Mathews’s Singular Pleasures, which begins with a scene of writer’s block. It wasn’t until I happened upon the idea to include a colon in each sentence that things finally clicked. Once they clicked, that whole chapter almost wrote itself. But until I got the constraint right, I couldn’t go on to the next step of actually writing. And at the sentence and paragraph level, it’s the same way. I can’t go on to sentence two until I’m very confident in sentence one, can’t go on to paragraph two unless I feel secure about paragraph one. Even still, when I go back to look at that first sentence or paragraph again, having drafted part or all of the piece, I’ll often discover it’s terrible and needs to be changed.

CL: Wow.

LB: Dave Hickey says that he believes the decision to write well or not is almost purely a moral choice. You decide, essentially: I’m not going to allow myself to suck. I’ve quoted this passage in a couple of different undergraduate classroom types and no student has ever quite gotten Hickey’s idea. Very little in their educations has held them to a standard where sucking is legitimately unacceptable. Even smart students mostly view academic writing as a genre in which you have to reluctantly bullshit an authority figure. Which, to be fair, is how some academics themselves treat the genre.

CL: I can see why simply quoting that Hickey in the classroom doesn’t lead to significant growth on the page. It seems true of someone already possessed of the ability to be a good writer and denies that writing is a learned skill. It contradicts everything I believe about teaching writing.

LB: I think of it less as sucking in an absolute sense and more as sucking in relation to your current potential and abilities as a writer. But you’re pointing to what for me is one of the central challenges of teaching: you’d rather pitch the discourse to yourself and your own problems as a writer but that doesn’t necessarily make for good teaching. Good teaching begins with putting yourself in your students’ shoes. In writing, though, you can pitch the discourse to yourself, at least at first, because your initial audience is always never anyone other than yourself.

CL: In the chapter where you record and transcribe yourself having three therapy sessions, you describe how you like it when other people read your work but you also feel embarrassed by it. What’s your feeling about audience beyond just the initial audience of yourself?

LB: As I describe in the book, for a long time I liked the idea of remaining private and away from scrutiny. Now that I’ve written a book, I’m less precious about that Dickinsonian ideal: I’d love for the book to find its way into the hands of fellow travelers. I think ultimately I wanted to work on becoming a better writer before I became a public writer. In this respect, the “exercises” of the book’s title represent a form of self-imposed training or apprenticeship, like an athlete running drills or a musician practicing scales. Actually, this public conversation we’re having is probably one of the last times I’ll still be a potential—that is, not yet book-published—author. In English, the acronym Oulipo stands for “Workshop for Potential Literature.” What’s notable about potentiality, not just as it pertains to Oulipo but in a general sense, is that it creates a space for intense projective fantasies. In baseball journalism, for example, there’s a cottage industry of writers who cover minor league prospects. Most of these prospects, even the better ones, will not have meaningful major league careers, if they even make it to the majors at all: there are about six minor leaguers for every one major league roster spot. Yet many fans dedicate considerable time and energy to following prospects. Why? Because the fantasy of what that prospect could become—what scouts call his ceiling: his maximum potential as a player—is so seductive to dream on. Few prospects ever come close to reaching their ceiling. But fans fixate, optimistically, on the allure of potential rather than the reality of pervasive failure to reach that potential. This is a long way of saying that I have a feeling I’ll look back at this moment as the end of this Edenic period in my life when I was still an as-yet unpublished author. All potential receptions are momentarily still possible. I’ve at least followed enough baseball to know that’s not as rose-tinted a condition as we imagine. It just means your future hasn’t yet arrived to startle you.


Clara S. Lewis’s book, Tough in Hate? The Cultural Politics of Hate Crimes, was released as part of the Rutgers University Press series on Critical Issues in Crime and Society last year. She has published articles on hate crime perpetrators, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, vinyasa yoga, and online extreme sport videos. Currently, she teaches in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University.

Louis Bury is the author of Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint (Dalkey Archive Press). He is an Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY, in the Bronx, New York City.

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