The Unknown: The Orange Line.

Date: Tuesday, 24 Nov 1998, 14:41:55
Subject: Okay let’s talk aesthetics
From: Scott Rettberg
To: Frank Marquardt, Dirk Stratton, William Gillespie

>From: Frank Marquardt
>To: gillespie william k, Scott Rettberg
>Subject: Re: Proofreading notes
>Date: Tuesday, Nov 24, 1998, 12:29 PM

>It’s comfort-zone issues, in part.

Let me admit first of all that I think The Unknown is now way past any comfort zone, including my own, in terms of personal obnoxiousness, in terms of self-indulgence, in terms of respect for the established boundaries of writerly behavior. At this point, it is the greatest weakness of the hypertext, but also its greatest strength. I think, however, that we do what we have done well enough that we are at least somewhat absolved of our sins. I think we are getting away with what Mark Leyner, and in a different context, Paul Auster, get away with. The Unknown is as indulgent a metafiction as John Barth’s Letters. Probably even more, in that our satire is one of real people, using their real names. Make no mistake about it. This will make us some enemies. Many people, Frank, I suspect at least partially included here, will think that what we are doing is not funny, but disrespectful. However, it will also make us some friends. I think, as Barbara Trent said at our Champaign reading, that our disrespect is so thorough, that we are so even-handedly offensive, that the entity as a whole becomes benign, and not offensive. Does that make sense?

>I think we’re talking about aesthetic issues w/r/t to
>the “real life” point. What’s fodder for art? What
>works as art? What’s art’s purpose?

Now what happened, I think, at some point this summer, right around when I stuck in a private letter to Kendra, which was itself a form of potential betrayal, and then William did the grass page, and then we stuck all those pictures in there, is that we confused “real-life” w/art, but confused it in an aesthetically interesting way.

Part of this also has to do with what “works” on the Web, as well. Part of this emerges from a conversation that Dirk, myself, and Brian had when we were in Cinti in August?—I think. We spent some time talking to Brian about what he admired in terms of hypertext projects that were out there, and looking at some of the “best of.” What was interesting to me, there, is that the most accomplished hypertext projects to be found on the Web were not, in fact, the hypertext fiction that had been written, but the massive digital diary projects, like Justin Hall’s (, which seemed closer to reaching toward the aesthetic I have developed at ISU and UC, particularly under the tutelage of Tom LeClair, which takes as its arrogant thesis that what great art, art like Moby Dick, art like Gravity’s Rainbow, art like The Gold Bug Variations, what great art does is to evoke nothing less than an entire world, a world with details and nuances and layers and cross-references in and out of itself. As to how we could achieve something similar in the realm of a hypertext novel in which there were already characters w/our names—well, why not include simulacra of our “real selves” as well? And so I uploaded all our old letters I could get my hands on. I think, and you could agree or disagree, that what the letters section does is give our text a depth and a history that it otherwise would not have. They turn this from a six-month hypertext novel, funny but slight, into a five-year hypertext novel that tells the story of our friendship (a wonderful mystery, given its origins) as much as it tells anything else. It also, more or less, leaves us bare-ass naked on the Web. My mother, for instance, has read parts of the hypertext and probably learned things about my life that I probably would have never wanted her to know—but there you have it.

>I don’t know how to say my aesthetic; some things
>sound right and some things don’t. But there always
>seems to be a personality behind something that’s
>written. Hence all the first novels that have as
>their narrator somebody who for some reason
>resembles the author. The novel isn’t real life but
>there is an authorial presence behind what’s written.

Which is what is exhaustively confusing about our project. There are at least five presences here, including Katie. We have all taken an even further step into confusing the authorial presence by writing things in each other’s voices. It’s all fucked up. But I think that there is a gestalt consciousness formed here, the sum of all our voices. Every reader that spends any time with this text will grapple with this issue. Readers' reactions, I predict, will either bend towards being frustrated by the inexhaustible puzzle of who is who and who wrote what, or they will (the good readers) find it as compelling a reason to keep reading as any other that we offer them.

>Actually I’m not clear on what the question/subject
>is I’m nervous about the whole project because it’s
>so sprawling. This cuts two ways. 1) Strong desire
>to have control. 2) Desire to have no control, and
>hence eschew responsibility. (Then there’s 3) Just
>send over some writing and say fuck it, and
>don’t worry about it.)

Control is obviously a major issue, and I’ve been the chief sinner here, though I’d argue that to a certain extent that it was “beyond my control,” that I had a disproportionate amount of control. I was the one with the technology and the (albeit, I grumble, some times I think misallocated) time to glue all our shit together into a great monsterpiece. I have been trying, progressively, for the sake of my orphan novel Agency as much as anything else, to gradually give up as much control as possible, but I’m still presently dictating, for instance, the links, which are a major aesthetic component of the text as a whole (and in the beginning, let’s face it, I had no idea what I was doing with the links, now I think we all have a better idea of the useful poetic function of a link, but there’s still a ton of backwork to be done there). I do think we need to share control a little more. I’ve been trying to be less controlling. Here—want some?

>What comes to mind now is a comment K-M made about
>something I wrote: how it sounded whiney like the
>narrator was feeling sorry for hisself. In a sense,
>this was valuable criticism: stepping outside the
>agenda that may lead one to write to the writing, if
>that makes sense.

One other thing that we former proles of Krass-Mueller must remember is that his advice to us was most often contrary to the way he himself wrote (see “Himself” in In Cold Jest—which said novel is probably the greatest example in American literature of not one but a series of [albeit well and skillfully masked] whiney, self-indulgent narrators—at root, ICJ is largely about the life of the poet). As much as I valued K-M’s criticism (and I did, we all did, Wm. F. I, we’re still grappling with/hobbled by/enlightened by the same issues we discussed in those workshops), I realize that what Krass-Mueller was doing in his workshops, at least subconsciously, was using us as sounding boards for his own self-criticism. Do as I say, not as I do. Or perhaps more givingly: here is what I did that I now think I should not have done, young writers. Don’t use the techniques that made me what I am today. They will only make you prolific, famous, and unhappy.

>i sign myself

So I think we should continue this, and yes, put it in the hypertext. . . .


novel META
al bull
shit sort of
a doc
ary corr
ence art is
at art live

The Unknown at Spineless Books.