Thursday, March 03, 2005

Art of the Rant

"Art of the Rant" was the title of an essay I wrote for my New Philistine newsletter. I compared the violent, passionate rants of Frank Norris's novel The Octopus to what zeens of the 90's perfected.

One of the distinguishing features of many 90's zeens was the inclusion of striking rants. Punk and anarchist zeensters especially relied on rants to draw attention. I think of some of the best, like Kombat, or the Big Fish music/political zeen out of Grand Rapids. Many zeens included the word in their titles, like This Space for Rant, or Alfred Vitale's Rant.

The written rant is like a building crescendo in a rock song. (Think of how Pearl Jam ended many of their hits.) The rant's power comes from the words that are said, but also from the energy and rhythmn of the cascading words. Nothing in literature is more powerful.

The Octopus itself is music, notes turned into words; a vast sweeping symphony, themes played at the beginning extending and growing in thematic narrative velocity, driving building expanding crashing together spectacularly in an over-the-top display of the emotional power of outrage.

Hang onto the outrage. Norris's characters live full out-- love or hate. They plunge into their conflicts the same way Norris plunges fully into the ideas of his story.

In the aftermath of the ULA's 2001 debate with the Paris Review staff at CBGB's Gallery, as George Plimpton and myself discussed matters over beers, the old boy told me the one point on which we were wrong was the idea that polemics had a place in literature. I'd been told the same thing by other literary people over the years: No polemics!

Yet isn't polemical language part of life? Shouldn't it be yet one more tool to consider in the writer's toolbox; which can be used well or used badly? Should anything be excluded from literature-- including language which can stir arouse awaken anger the reader?

I've never bought the Ray Carver idea that people talk in monotone sentences of few words. When I worked in industrial shops or bartended near factories I heard workers' rants, riffs on their anger over spouses bosses jobs lives: the world. Their anger gave their expressive words rhetorical power. They ranted! They didn't sound like Ray Carver.

The art of the rant is polemics brought to life in the most forceful way possible.


Tim Hall said...

Yes, ranting is fundamental to our speech and interaction and should be used. It's something I use throughout Half Empty, but only in the internal monologues of the characters, and only in true character--never as a soapbox to attack straw men, which unfortunately is how it's used 99% of the time.

I've always believed that the Carverian laconicism that afflicted literature through the 80s was nothing more than a projection of the aesthetic castration caused by MFA/workshops/conferences (and of such social functions Carver was a regular attendee and demi-God). Carver/Lish built a strong, singular voice, but the floodgates of imitators were only expressing their lack of originality both in their prose and within their own deballed creative minds. In other words, they were double eunuchs.

No wonder he's the patron saint of Iowa!

Anonymous said...

Update on Barbara Ehrenreich.
I emailed Ms.Ehrenreich Kostecke's monday report, Wenclas' post and several of the comments on the blog. This is what she responded with, she didn't respond to one sentence we wrote concerning her piece. I think she is saying to us, "I'm a good person, what are you talking about." The email is below.


Thanks for forwarding the comments -- all of which make very good
points. I, too, wondered about the Puffin money since I am doing well thanks
to Nickel and Dimed royalties. But believe me, I have good ways to
spend it -- helping some low-income individuals (one in my extended family,
I'll admit) and helping support groups doing organizing.

And yes, after all I had written about poverty and class in the 80s and
90s, I was slightly irritated that the only thing that got any
attention was in the first person. My rather feeble response was to create a
website,, on which people can post their own stories,
solutions, etc.

Other suggestions are welcome.


Anonymous said...

I've never been thrilled by Raymond Carver.
His stories were always about drunk men snoring grotesquely while their wives sat in the dark. There've been a lot of drunk writers and they were far more exciting than Raymond Carver. I think he appealed to the whole snobbish set that wanted more evidence of how American life is shallow and dark and meaningless.

Tim Hall said...


Here's a great quote I just found in Dan Wakefield's yawner, "New York In The Fifties," which reads like an apologia for the entire class of post-war, 1st-generation MFA wankers. You could build a whole post around this one:

"Except for a few hip girls I knew, who admitted to a strange, aberrational passion for a greasy-haired guy who shimmied his hips on stage while he sang, we thought Elvis Presley was for hoods. Elvis the Pelvis in his blue wuede shoes--a joke, a crude idol for guys who gunned the motors of souped-up cars and their girls with beehive hairdos and toreador pants so tight they seemed to be painted on the skin. We were too cool and smart for that."

Having read the book and recently seen the documentary, I can say with confidence that this guy is almost heroically clueless. In the doc he still seems baffled, almost 50 years later, how Kerouac ever got so big, because Kerouac and his friends "were only a minor part, a small niche, of the whole scene." Catch that? Wakefield is actually amazed that some real writers came along and changed history, *even though* they weren't hanging around beating bongos and hitting on Barnard girls all night and shmoozing Esquire editors by day.

Wakefield could be the original demi-puppet: Columbia, Harvard, Yaddo, Esquire, dipped his toe in some political posturing that he excuses himself from and whines about in the book. Jesus.

Adam Hardin said...

"The Beats at Work."

Who writes the preface to such a book except the most un-beat writer who ever fucking lived. And within the first few sentences, what does this SOB do? He claims the beat movement was "centered around Columbia University."

M.F.A. Columbia Graduate Hiram F. Moody the Third.

Anonymous said...

Non-fiction political polemics have done well in bookstores recently. I think there's a lot of opportunity for political polemics in fiction and poetry too. Plus there's a long literary tradition of invective and flyting. Juvenal's satires may be some of the most famous and accomplished. It's an art. Or can be, if shaped into making various points. It can sometimes be counterproductive, no doubt, and is not always appropriate or effective, of course, but sometimes is.


In Norse and Germanic cultures, flyting is a contest of insults, either as a prelude to battle or as a form of combat in its own right. The exchange is regular, if not ritualized, and the insults usually center on accusations of cowardice or sexual impropriety or perversion. In Norse Mythology, several poems contain or contain only flyting.

Flyting is similar in both form and function to the modern African American practice of the dozens.


Definition: [n] abusive or venomous language used to express blame or censure or bitter deep-seated ill will

Synonyms: vitriol, vituperation

See Also: abuse, contumely, insult, revilement, vilification

Definition: \In*vec"tive\, a. [L. invectivus: cf. F. invectif. See
Characterized by invection; critical; denunciatory;
satirical; abusive; railing.

\In*vec"tive\, n. [F. invective.]
An expression which inveighs or rails against a person; a
severe or violent censure or reproach; something uttered or
written, intended to cast opprobrium, censure, or reproach on
another; a harsh or reproachful accusation; -- followed by
against, having reference to the person or thing affected; as
an invective against tyranny.

The world will be able to judge of his [Junius']
motives for writing such famous invectives. --Sir W. Draper.

Syn: Abuse; censure; reproach; satire; sarcasm; railing;
diatribe. See {Abuse}.

Anonymous said...

To the extent that ULA is interested in publishing books, it looks to me that ULA has materials already for at least two books and no doubt more: one an anthology of ULA's best writing, some of which I would think includes work of Steve and Karl and Urban Hermitt and others that appears in the zines, plus some ULA Monday Reports, some of these possibly expanded, plus excerpts from Tim's novel and Noah's book....

Another solid book could be made of Karl's weblog posts, possibly expanded (and thus a more compelling reason for it to appear in book form) and/or revised, possibly including some responses, etc....