You’ve Got Wail


The avant-garde has always had a secret desire to be loved. At its core is a tension between wanting to remain marginalized and anticipating a future when the widespread embrace of its values and practice means the revolution has finally arrived. These days, most experimental writers just want a good teaching job in a decent-sized city. It’s no coincidence that extended sections of Richard Kostelanetz’s 62,000-plus word An Intellectual Correspondence in the 21st Century: My Emails revolve around the topic of having or not having a comfortable university position. This isn’t only because the interlocutor here is an 80-year-old former professor of his, who insisted that his name and side of the correspondence not be included in the project. It’s because in moving to Soho in 1974, Kostelanetz personally experienced a pinnacle of 20th-century artists communities, located a stone’s throw away from one of Correspondence‘s bêtes noires–NYU.

Championing working models of alternative cultural communities is a good thing. But plowing through Kostelanetz’s 600-page Microsoft Word document burned onto CD-ROM and self-published feels a bit like living in a time warp. It begins with the format. Kostelanetz has imaginatively edited and authored some of the most important collections of experimental writing of the past few decades, including The Yale Gertrude Stein and A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, a book much closer to a hypertext document than this latest project, which barely exploits digital technology beyond word processing’s “find” feature. Visually and conceptually, the poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley’s typewritten correspondence from 50 years ago reads way more radically.

Then there’s the content. Hearsay-fueled rants against the inner workings of academia, repeated references to his entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and remarks about women and minorities now being disproportionately favored by cultural institutions add up less to “an intellectual correspondence” and more to a case of sour grapes gussied up in Nietzschean swagger (Ctrl + F: “elite”). As a prolific experimental writer and artist in various mediums, as a formidable editor and scholar, Kostelanetz would be better served by a carefully edited volume of his extensive correspondence–electronic or otherwise. In the meantime, skip this CD-ROM and wait for the inevitable blog.