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Over the past decade, it has seemed to me – perhaps this a valid observation, perhaps just a result of my increasing awareness of the fields around the hermetically Literary – that there has been at once an expansion of what may be deemed "literary" – in such diverse fields as music, visual art, performance, to name but a few – and an adoption of traditionally "literary" forms and tropes into these fields.  The following five artists – the ones mentioned in bold – are typically aligned with specific fields that, before this decade and even well into it, had perhaps been considered quite distinct from literature; they have since challenged their fields' separation of its innate qualities and tenets from those of literature, and have thus created tremendously adventurous, fun, insightful, and variously provocative works.

Perhaps the most notable recent "entry" into the broad field of literature has been the ostensibly more confined one of graphic novels and comics.  There are certainly those who malign this development: another co-option of the avant-garde and underground by the man.  But for those willing to allow that both mainstream and less well-known works may equally bear the potential to be great works of art, this should not seem a problem.  I have chosen Chris Ware, somewhat predictably and somewhat arbitrarily, not as someone representative or emblematic of the literary value of comics – this phrase alone, "the literary value," is likely to stir up fevers; it is intended to reflect the growing acceptance of comics as an artistic form, and not a value judgement of when, how, why, or if they received or need this "validity" –, but as someone who has steadfastly pursued graphic novels as an artistic arena in which narrative, characters, plot, thought, emotion – the most typical elements of traditional literature – are widely explored and considered.  Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth is likely his most famous work, and one of the most famous contemporary graphic novels, at that.  What is remarkable about Ware, as with the other artists herein mentioned, is not his ability to "broaden the horizon" of the comic – as has so often been said of him – but to challenge the nature of narrative itself, if very subtly.  Jimmy Corrigan in many senses started what quickly became a frenzy over what was seen as the sudden literary merit of comics – a typical condescension from those new to the medium –, and the field has increasingly become almost self-consciously literary, now having to deal with tremendous pressure to in some way align with the more traditionally literary.  This is a problem, to be sure; but it has its terrific benefits, and there will always be those – as in any field – who resist the increasing codification of their work as something dependent upon a certain, limited definition.  David Mazzucchelli's recent Asterios Polyp is, in many ways, very traditionally literary: it could be an illustrated version of a novel by Saul Bellow; but, as with Ware or Charles Burns or Lynda Barry – among so many others –, this collision with the more traditionally, almost aloofly literary has given rise to thrilling new experimentations with both forms.

The Wooster Group is my favorite theatre company, and this decade has seen much of their best work; but many could argue, not unconvincingly, that their innovations belong more to the end of the 20th century than the beginning of the 21st.  I would take issue with this – such newer productions as Poor Theater and To You, the Birdie! are as pioneering and new as anything they have ever done – but would concede to the fact that much contemporary theatre may be seen through a post-Wooster Group prism.  Many groups imitate their technological prowess and inventiveness, often at the cost of other elements of their productions.  One such "post-Wooster Group" theatre company that does tremendous and uncommon justice to its forbear is Pan Pan; as with the Wooster Group, the technical elements are used as methods to explore what cannot be expressed by or within the temporal and spatial limitations of the stage, not as devices solely to impress, and as much import is given the text, performances, and dramaturgy as anyone could hope for.  The group was founded in 1991, but much of their most recognized work – internationally, at least – has come in just the last few years.  They are absolutely thrilling; it is no small solace to know that they exist and are continually pulling at the loose threads of narrative and theatrical pretensions.

In many ways, the playwright Enda Walsh is similarly post-Woosterian: his texts are self-reflexive, playfully dense, and cue emotional reactions that are difficult to rationally place.  His most well-known play, The Walworth Farce, is one of the most extraordinary works I've recently seen; it toys with notions of what a play must be in order to be "realist" and what stories must be in order to be "realistic."  It questions why we need and rely on stories, and what this does to us.

There has been a healthy level of interest in the past decade in the lyrics of pop songs; much of this may be attributed to the growing influence – and now near-permeation – of hip-hop in American culture, and in the form's basis and interest in lyrics.  By some weird re-adoption of the most prized elements in hip-hop, much of what has been termed "indie music" has increasingly been driven toward the lyrical.  I wish I were more knowledgeable about contemporary hip-hop so that I could provide examples of current practitioners who use their lyrics as a foundational artistic element – more popular hip-hop lyrics, as with those of most popular forms of music, even the similarly lyric-based country music, has long been mired in trite, repetitive and much-repeated mantras – but instead, I'm afraid, I must focus on these "indie" artists.  Many, indeed, strive for literary appeal, most less successfully than others.  The Decemberists' lyrics read like Led Zeppelin lyrics updated and translated to its contemporary audience's interests, which, apparently, lie in awkward and embarrassing approximations of Early Modern English poetry.  Somewhat along the same line, but more successful, is Joanna Newsom, whose lyrics – which may often seem worryingly close to the same Mannerist appeal to more antiquated English forms, before they save themselves through some unexpected, delightful, and often moving turn – exhibit an extraordinarily thoughtful and surprising writer.  Some of her more uneasy lyrics are often saved by the startling nuances that her voice, which may at first seem quite limited, offers; she is very similar to Bob Dylan in this way, and both, I think, deserve more notice for the unique impact their delivery gives to their lyrics.  And so while many may groan upon hearing the lyrics, "And the meteorite's just what causes the light/ And the meteor's how it's perceived/ And the meteoroid's a bone throne from the void that lies quiet in off'ring to thee," from her song "Emily", they would miss out on the poignancy and power of the refrain, which serves as a method by which to emotionally locate and hold dear within herself that which is valued by her sister, who is an astrophysicist: "You taught me the names of the stars overhead that I wrote down in my ledger/ Though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December/ I promised you I'd set them to verse so I'd always remember."  What may at first seem a grating effort at charm instead reveals itself to be a moving detail of how love – sisterly, in this instance, but it is by no means limited to just this – makes one value the interests of the beloved through one's distinct capacity for admiring them.  As far as song lyrics go, The Fiery Furnaces' first album, Gallowbird's Bark, contains some of their best lyrics, which toy in obscurity and nonsense to create a unique emotional and sensational pitch; "Inca Rag / Name Game" is maybe my favorite example of this from the album.  Animal Collective's lovely "Derek" is another one of my favorite performance poems, and Arcade Fire's terrific "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" offers one of the best short stories in recent memory.  Click on any of the song titles to link to their lyrics; I apologize that the sites on which they appear are so annoying and unseemly to look at.

Charlie Kaufman has become, with great good reason, the exemplar of cinematic literariness.  But it is unfortunate that something need display self-consciousness of form or explicit intellectual playfulness and provocation – however exciting it is to come across the successful examples of this – in order to be considered "literary."  One of the most literary filmmakers, to me, is Lucrecia Martel, all of whose films – but particularly the phenomenal La Ciénaga, from which a still is above taken – bear many aesthetic and thematic similarities to the greatest of the American Southern Gothic writers, particularly in her treatment of the Grotesque.  Her films – which contain little dialogue, but all of it is terrific and often hilarious – convey an inexpressible, bodiless disquiet similar to those that Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner manage, at their best and most visceral, to evoke.

Excerpt from Chris Ware's comic, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Boy in the World.

The following, in descending order, are: a trailer of sorts for the Under the Radar production of Pan Pan's theatre piece The Crumb Trail; a trailer for the National Theatre's production of Enda Walsh's play The Walworth Farce; and a scene from Lucrecia Martel's film La Ciénaga, subtitled in English.

On the upper right side of the page is the recording of Joanna Newsom's song "Emily" used on her album Ys.

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Chris Ware
Joanna Newsom


Performing Arts


10 For 2010


Pan Pan
Enda Walsh
The Wooster Group
Lucrécia Martel