Every issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern comes with a sort of prompt given to its writers. In some cases, the theme is more generic; in other cases, it’s a more limiting construct. In the case of Issue #31, writers were either given or allowed to select (I’m not sure which) an old cultural form of story or poem. In the finished product, each form is introduced with information about its era, use, and prominent adherents. Then the editors excerpt a short (no more than two pages) historical example of the form by one of its more prominent authors (if, indeed, you could call them “prominent”). Finally, a significantly longer (except in the case of poetry) new work by a McSweeney’s contributor which follows or attempts to follow that same form.
The quality of the entries is the usual Gaussian distribution that accompanies many McSweeney’s publications. Some new works are impressive (Doug Couplad1 writes a humourous tale about Survivor in the form of a biji, more or less the 800 A.D. Chinese equivalent of a blog; Will Sheff writes the store of Varg Vikernes in the form of a Viking saga), some are considerably less so (Joy William’s nivola is almost as uninteresting as the original by Miguel de Unamuno); most are in between, including the many pieces in the poetic form of the pantoum and Shelley Jackson’s attempt at a consuetudinary.
But the general quality of the pieces are not of any particular concern to me. More interesting, I think, is the editorial decision to devote an issue to reviving old forms. Here’s what Darren Franrich and Garahm Weatherly say about it:
Everything about the way we write changes constantly. New forms are created and destroyed, conjoined with others and absorbed back into the cultural mainstream; parchment is replaced by pen and paper, which is replaced by predictive text on Finnish cell phones. In the wake of those changes are dozen of dead forms from every corner of civilization, strange and wonderful styles thousands of miles and hundreds of years removed from what we read now. With this issue, we’ve dug up those old genres, dusted them off, and recruited writers to revitalize the ones we thought demanded it.
Far me it from me to steal a group a forward-looking writers and literature aficionados from the throes of their experimentation. I’m a fan of esotery as much as the next guy—but I wonder, at the same time, if they did not create a self-defeating product. After all, the excerpts of historical forms are the most pure or most illustrative of that form: the modern variation will, by definition, only approximate them. The editors even include red annotations in the grand old tradition to point out what part of the form the original authors are attempting to emulate.
The question becomes this: did the new stories need to be written? Let’s assume that all of the new stories are in and of themselves worthwhile pieces of literature (a generous but not ridiculous idea). While a reader conscious of the the editorial theme might judge the story based upon its adherence to the form (tallied ever-so-helpfully by the red annotations), a more astute reader would note that the stories which hew less to the form and take more liberties with its structure and tone are generally the best. Does Coupland’s “biji” actually emulate the historical biji provided? Not particularly—but this is hardly problematic because the story itself is humorous and well-written.
There is, in many cases, a good reason why these literary forms are no longer practiced: they aren’t very good. Most were the product of a brief trend (see Graustarkian romances) or a cultural artifact that has less to do with stories in the McSweeney’s sense and more to do with arbitrary communication. In this respect, either the form is historically important and should be viewed as a piece of history (and we should read its historical participants), or it’s not, in which case we should read Coupland’s piece regardless of whether it is a biji or not. Otherwise, the danger is that these new instances of old forms become little more than parodies or farcical emulations, and while there is nothing necessarily wrong with that2, an entire issue dedicated to the prospect is a little much.