Ecstasy as the Deepest Level of Aesthetic Purity: The 7 Levels of Aesthetic Subordination

Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination

The discussion of value of a particular narrative too often misidentifies rhetoric or realism as the sole factor placing a text at a high (or the highest) level of quality; realism, in particular, has this false association with narrative purity, and rhetoric in narrative has the mistaken association of intellectual engagement as a necessary component of artistic value. This is a narrow perspective born from the notion that rationality has a greater value than emotional/visceral reaction. A more significant problem with this perspective is that it displaces value from the text or the work of art itself. The text has no intrinsic value, only its capacity to represent something else: so-called reality, a philosophical concept, a social condition, a sociological perspective, etc.

This is the aesthetic problem of subordination which art in the twentieth century strove to and should have eliminated. William Carlos Williams and the Abstract Expressionists should have, finally and completely, highlighted the falsity in the notion that subordination is superior to aesthetic purity.

Alas, critics seem resistant to accepting what Williams should have taught the world, slow to accept that thousands of years of traditional Western concepts of artistic value have been upside down this whole time (something that Eastern concepts of artistic value have acknowledged for just as long). This is partly because there are so few systematic ways to analyze a text given the elimination of subordination. Understandably. How do you rationally analyze something that is at its core irrational? When writers say (as so many writers do) that they have no rational purpose or intention in writing a narrative other than to explore a character’s tapestry of emotions, how then do critics take that irrational but perfectly valid claim and honor it without forcing rational analysis in places it doesn’t necessarily belong?

This is why I keep attempting to make something systematic, hence the Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination.

A more effective way to approach a work of art which has greater potential to give the irrational core its due weight is to look at the various levels on the spectrum between aesthetic purity and subordination. Considering this as a spectrum better highlights the value at both ends (since critical analysis has been stuck at one of the spectrum for too long).  By “aesthetic purity,” I just mean acknowledging the text based on its own value without subordinating the value to something outside of it. The most aesthetically pure is the least subordinated; the most subordinated is the most rational/cerebral but also furthest removed from its aesthetic core, that which gives it stimulant (visceral/emotional) value.

A spectrum, however, is not the most accurate way to consider these levels since each element in the scale builds on the next, so a work of art must start with that pure, irrational core as a condition of being a work of art. Thus, one could argue the higher levels have greater value in their relative complexity. What I have identified as the “Rhetorical” level, the highest level of subordination, most likely contains the other six levels as well, thus allowing the possibility of argument for the superiority of this type of text. However, as this level is farthest removed from the aesthetic core, it is least likely to be enjoyable, beautiful, viscerally stimulating, etc. Also, this complexity is not a necessary condition of the Rhetorical level, and containing each of the previous six levels is likewise not a necessary condition. For example, most children’s narratives are Rhetorical without necessarily being complex and without necessarily containing all seven levels within them.

Also, to clarify, I focus on levels  narrative subordination particularly because the first two levels (“Ecstatic” and “Paratactic”) work well with any type of art, but the other five apply best to narrative. For example, considering the rule systems relevant to each level is a way to understand its level of subordination, a consideration that is less helpful for non-narrative art. As a more specific example, the “Mythological” level functions based on its own internal rule system, a concept that is very useful in understanding narratives but not as useful in understanding visual art. Rule systems in narratives are an important aesthetic consideration since violation of a perceived rule system may seem like a flaw. To say this is an intrinsic or universal flaw is false, but it is important for a writer to recognize that the reader is likely to perceive this as a flaw. For example, a story on the Mythological level may include imaginary creatures who must adhere to an internal rule system without necessarily adhering to the rules of the so-called real world. A violation of this internal rule system may seem like a flaw no matter how beautiful the text may be at its core. Likewise, what I identify as a Rhetorical story must adhere consistently to the premises of the argument, and failure to do so may seem like a flaw even if the story itself is beautiful and adheres to internal rules irrelevant to the argument.

Here are the seven levels:

1)Ecstatic: The direct, visceral, irrational experience that eliminates the barrier between self and other.

  • Rule System: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No distance between the work itself and the experience of the reader/viewer.
  • Analytical strategy: As this is the most irrational level based purely on individual experience, the easiest element to access and analyze is individual emotional/visceral reaction.
  • In brief: As the narrative or artistic experience requires the elimination of the barrier between self and other, this is the most basic and purest level of an artwork or narrative, and each subsequent level must contain this at its core. This level could be called “Absurd” as absurd narratives are the most characteristic examples and least likely to contain one of the other levels as well, and it’s provocative to say that all narratives must be absurd at their core, but that word contains so much baggage it may be counter-productive. Most philosophical treatments of absurdity as a concept are Rhetorical in nature, not truly and purely absurd. The Ecstatic level is the level of pure artistic absurdity where philosophy is irrelevant and unnecessary (in other words, absurdity certainly isn’t a problem to be solved). To clarify, narratives or artistic works can function on other levels, and often with more purely absurd texts critics attempt to impose order and meaning on them (the need to impose unnecessary order and meaning on things is a common and often intense desire); however, since absurdity/ecstasy is at the core of all successful narratives and art works, meaning and order are more incidental factors than necessary components. There is resistance to recognizing this as the core of all art, arguably, for two reasons: 1) artifice appears impure; 2) pleasure for its own sake engenders discomfort and seems like a frivolous, indulgent, gratuitous, or self-serving moral violation. The answer to both of these objections/misconceptions is in the nature of ecstatic engagement: it eliminates the barrier between self and other. It is artifice (and all art is artifice to a degree) only in that it has no necessary relationship with physical reality and exists primarily in the interaction between self and other free of barriers. Tangible/physical/material reality is only more pure than this if you believe science is the only authentic mechanism for discovering truth. That is a valid position to hold, but it is hardly helpful in creating or understanding art. This connects likewise with the notion that ecstasy is mere frivolity or self-pleasing immorality, but empathy (elimination of the barrier between self and other) should be the root of morality, arguably, and is the root of morality in many religions, from the “Love your neighbor as yourself” of Jesus to the compassionate non-duality of Buddha. To feel the pain and joy of another can only be immoral frivolity if your moral system is devoid of empathy as an essential component. Again, this is a valid position but hardly relevant to art.
  • Favorite Examples: Incidences by Daniil Kharms, Amedée by Eugene Ionesco, “Sorrows of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka, etc. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is essential reading in understanding the one-to-one interaction of the ecstatic text and the irrelevance of universality.

2)Paratactic: The juxtaposition of viscerally stimulating but seemingly unrelated images without a rational, directly stated, or necessary connection.

  • Rule system: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No element is necessarily subordinated to another, by definition, but images can relate to elements or concepts outside of the text itself.
  • Analytical strategy: Determine the images that create a visceral response in juxtaposition. Do not look for a rational connection but a purely irrational resonance. If you find a rational connection, especially where one element is subordinated to the other, this likely qualifies as the Representational level and muddies the aesthetic purity with overt rationality.
  • In brief: The line between the Ecstatic and Paratactic level are blurred since both levels function quite similarly. However, the Paratactic differentiates from the Ecstatic in that images can relate to concepts or a so-called reality outside of the text. For example, a William Carlos Williams poem might relate a “red wheelbarrow” and “white chickens” without stating how they connect (a classic, basic example of parataxis), but understanding of this parataxis might relate to the reader’s own experience or concept of farming or poverty without necessarily subordinating the images to the concepts or experiences. The text, however, becomes one step away from the pure ecstatic experience in this outward-stretching web. Another example: a text might contain multiple blue objects, and the reader may yearn to find some rational connection between these blue objects. However, the yearning for connection (a type of visceral stimulation vital for this level) is far more important than an actual, rational connection, and the reader may think of traditional associations of blue and the Virgin Mary without necessarily subordinating the text to Christian concepts. In other words, the color blue does not necessarily make the text about (“about” generally implying a level of subordination) the Virgin Mary or Christianity simply because of the presence of blue, but this irrational connection could add visceral value to the text. If the weight of history aids in arguing the importance of parataxis, subordinating a text to abstractions may be the traditional Western way of understanding a narrative (thus the taken-for-granted superior position), but parataxis is the traditional Eastern way of understanding imagery in multiple art forms.

3)Mythological: This narrative level functions based on its own internal rule system.

  • Rule system: Internal rule system set by the author, genre, narrative conventions, etc.
  • Subordination: A concept of order is grafted on the irrational/visceral elements of the text, but this rule system is essentially arbitrary; it may relate to rule systems in reality/outside of the text, but this is not necessary.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal rule system and how the text fulfills or violates this rule system; recognize the relationship between the imposed order and the irrational, visceral core. For example, if a character has imposed a system of order on the absurd universe, does he/she violate this imposed order, or does the universe violate/fulfill this order in some way?
  • In brief: I call this level “mythological,” not because it has a relationship to myth criticism (as most of that sort of criticism functions on the Representational or Rhetorical level) or any narrative identified as myth (which is only one of many other types of stories on the Mythological level) but because it comes from the same impulse as myth making: to impose order on the disorderly whether or not that order has any rational relationship with scientifically measurable reality. Myths, likewise, must conform only to their own ordered system and not necessarily to any system outside of themselves. I would go further and say most narratives, by the nature of being a narrative, are intrinsically mythological if they have any sense of order or conform to any rule system. The most obvious place to see this is in so-called “genre” fiction – a vampire story follows the well-established vampire rules or sets its own but follows those consistently. However, internal rule systems are as relevant to a so-called “literary” work as they are to a so-called “genre” work. The terms “literary” and “genre” are grossly inaccurate and sloppily applied in most cases, but considering their relationship with internal rule systems clarifies their basic difference more accurately: a “genre” work conforms to rule systems within its own type and a “literary” work establishes its own, supposedly (and a “literary” work becomes “genre” when it follows the rule system established by the “literary” type). However, the most egregiously applied term associated with this level is “escapism” – escapism is indeed one of the effects of works which remain more purely within the Mythological level, but this one effect is hardly its most significant value. “Escapism,” especially in its pejorative sense, inverts the value system placing so-called reality above the narrative experience. The narrative experience can as easily be considered a greater level of reality. The relationship between the mythological and the realistic level is incidental – so-called reality fills in the gaps left by mythology but is far from a necessary condition of mythology.

4)Psychological: A separation between the purer aesthetic levels and reality by attributing the contrast to an internal/external split.

  • Rule system: Two separate rule systems, internal and external. The internal rule system may function the same as the Ecstatic, Paratactic, or Mythological level, but the subordination implies that the external rule system functions the same as the Realistic level.
  • Subordination: The non-realistic or seemingly disorderly elements are subordinated to external reality because they are attributed to psychological reflections of external factors.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal and external elements in the story and determine how one reflects the other; for example, how does a non-real element reflect some more realistic element within a character’s world or something psychologically significant to the character?
  • In brief: This is the transition between irrational and rational levels because it acknowledges the value of both sides. However, this dilutes the aesthetic power of the Ecstatic core because it is subordinated to so-called reality. This is not necessarily limited to psychoanalytical criticism or rules of psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. though this can be enlightening method for approaching texts on this level. Most forms of criticism hover in the Representational level, but the Psychological level can resonate in both directions as long as it remains rooted in this two-level contrast between internal and external forces. For example, elements can function by internal rules, thus making it a Mythological narrative, but function simultaneously on the Representational level if elements stand in for abstract concepts. If this resonance takes place on two levels – for example, Mythological elements take place inside a character’s mind while Representational elements are outside of the character’s mind – and the internal elements are subordinate to the external elements, this narrative exists on the Psychological level.

5)Realistic: The narrative exists to depict something in the real (material, tangible, physical) world.

  • Rule system: The narrative must follow the rules of the scientifically measurable, so-called real world.
  • Subordination: The narrative is subordinated to the real world outside of it.
  • Analytical strategy: Focus on the accuracy of the narrative within the context of the real world. For example, an element inaccurate to material existence, scientifically established rule systems, or social conventions becomes a flaw.
  • In brief: While works within the genre called “Realism” are often depicted as purer forms for their elimination of imaginative elements, they are aesthetically impure because of their dependence on a material, tangible, physical reality outside of the texts. Any consideration of the text’s basis in reality displaces value from the text and places value in elements only incidental to the text’s core Ecstatic value. This is not applicable only to texts based on real events or texts in which events are depicted as being real. More important at this level is recognition of a narrative as being dependent on reality and valuation of the accuracy of this depiction of reality. However, if a text functions to reflect some universal concept (like the “human condition,” etc.) or has non-realistic elements which stand in for universal concepts, it is more likely Representational, a step further in subordination.

6)Representational: The narrative stands in for some abstract concept such as philosophy, sociological perspective/condition, or universalized concept of humanity.

  • Rule system: The narrative may follow essentially the same rules as the Realistic level but applied universally or at least broadly to a sociological condition, or it may follow the rules or principles of a particular philosophy without necessarily making an endpoint argument.
  • Subordination: Both real and non-real elements are subordinated to universal/philosophical concepts.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Rhetorical level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: When considering narrative analysis, this and the Rhetorical level are too often considered the only relevant levels or the levels with the greatest capacity to highlight the value of a narrative – this is the limited perspective I’m attempting to correct. The concept is that a narrative has value in that it “means” something or is “about” something when this perspective separates, by several levels of subordination, the narrative from its core aesthetic value. The Representational level essentially bridges the Realistic and Rhetorical level in that realistic elements are elevated into the abstract realm by being treated as representations of universal conditions (humans aren’t humans but stand in for all of humanity, for example) or reflect one of thousands of possible philosophical perspectives without necessarily making an argument (which would qualify it as Rhetorical). The various philosophies are well-established within criticism, so I need not spend much time explaining them, but an example might be a Marxist perspective which views elements within a text as representations of class oppression, commodification, historical cycles of revolution, etc. Characters aren’t people but social forces and conditions and only have value in their capacity to represent.

7)Rhetorical: A catch all term for anything with an endpoint value based in some abstract concept, argument, lesson, etc.

  • Rule system: The narrative must consistently follow the principles of the argument or lesson.
  • Subordination: Elements within the narrative are subordinate to the argument or lesson.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Representational level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: I call this level “Rhetorical” for the sake of the catchy three R’s of rational-level narrative subordination, but this includes many types of narratives beyond the argumentative – didactic narratives, for example. The significance is that the narrative has a purpose or that the narrative is leading to a particular end. This endpoint may be open to interpretation, but the writer is proposing some rhetorical premise subject to the rules of rhetoric or a moral principle subject to the rules or designed to develop or disseminate that particular moral principle. It differs from the Representational level only in that a Representational narrative can function more purely as a portrait of an abstract or universalized concept, but the Rhetorical level further subordinates that portrait to the ultimate purpose, argument, lesson, etc.
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The Importance of William Carlos Williams to Fiction Writers: Letting Go the Need to Mean Something

Diego Max

As a fiction writer, I consider William Carlos Williams the most important twentieth century American writer. This is a statement likely to meet with much disagreement, and perhaps isolating the statement to the second half of the twentieth century might turn the competition into a no contest, but there is no reason to isolate a poet’s influence to poetry. He’s just as important to fiction and theater. His importance is best summed up in the statement “No ideas but in things,” the letting go of ideas as the central value of literature and with them all those persistent Greek infinities indelibly inserted as central literary values for centuries: the supposed ideals by which literature and all beautiful things were to be judged; the structural goldenness that tied literature to nature’s order; the timelessness and universality literature was meant to achieve as if relating to another human regardless of different setting were some secondary function to all humans conforming to generalizable features; components like imagery subordinated by mechanisms like metaphor and representation to concepts outside of the text itself. Williams’ “No ideas but in things” and all its connected implications represented a sea change, letting go of all those old, worn out, unnecessary notions. Letting go of ideas meant literature didn’t have to be subordinated to concepts; images didn’t have to be subordinated within metaphors to abstractions. Images could then be images for their own sake, for the stimulation of their beauty or ugliness. What they mean could then be secondary. A red wheelbarrow doesn’t have to mean anything other than itself. Letting go ideals meant questioning how these ideals were created. Beauty, the good, perfection – these weren’t manifest by some eternal force outside of the perspective of humans (and Christian European males most often accessing supposed objectivity to justify their subjective ideas of the universe’s functionality, subordinating anyone outside of their group as outsiders, servants, fools, or savages). “No ideas but in things” localized ideals subjectively within humans and their varied concepts of perfection opening up multiplicity of possibilities. This, as significantly, meant letting go of the need to be perfect, closer to the Japanese concept of beauty, wabi sabi (hence why I’m qualifying Williams’ influence to twentieth century America – he was more an adamant propagator of this concept than an originator). Letting go of the old structural ideals so important to the Greeks led to the innovation for which modernists are most commonly given credit, and this might close-mindedly limit the perception of Williams’ influence on fiction since the collapse of poetic meter might seem irrelevant to fiction, but the dissolution the ideals at the source of this development marks Williams as iconoclast regardless of genre. Letting go of timelessness meant literature could be about the present moment; letting go of universality meant both letting go the notion that universality is possible and narrowing focus on interaction between writer and reader. Instead of writing something for all people at all times, an impossibility only the arrogant can believe is achievable, the writer now needs only to write for one person at one time. This is one of the major points Charles Olson focuses on in “Projective Verse” and credits Williams and Ezra Pound for their developments in this direction. Olson is credited with being first to use “postmodern” to refer to literature, and “Projective Verse” in 1950 essentially inaugurated postmodern literature (though postmodern literature is most often discussed in a very limited way based on some concepts by a handful of French philosophers catching up to Olson about twenty years too late and making claims that only ever worked well with a small portion of postmodern fiction—no wonder Williams gets lost in that). Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is another important essay in postmodern poetry which gives significant credit to Williams – O’Hara says only Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Williams are “better than the movies” – though O’Hara’s importance is too often limited to promoting spontaneous composition, something O’Hara identifies at the beginning of that essay as an irrelevant distinction compared his apocalyptic, if smart ass, attack on universality.

Williams, the avuncular family doctor with his quiet and simple poems, seems like an odd figure to place at the top of this revolution, hardly ever as aggressive in his promotion of it many other revolutionaries, but it’s there in his poetry. “The Red Wheelbarrow” perhaps receives too great a place as masterpiece since its importance is too easily isolated to its structural innovation and its strong use of concrete imagery – its “red wheelbarrow,” “rain water,” “white chickens,” and so on – but as important as adapting the structure and imagery of haiku (and more important when considering fiction) is the concept of how imagery works adapted from haiku, taking the essential content of poetry from metaphor to parataxis. Metaphor traditionally requires imagery to be subordinated to something outside of itself, concrete or abstract; it either represents or means something and has much less importance than the thing it represents or means (in I.A. Richards’ terms, the vehicle must stand in for the tenor). This is also how we frequently understand fiction: a realistic piece must either represent something “real” accurately or some convenient generalization/false universalism called “the human condition”; something imaginative must function as metaphor for some abstract concept or some real human experience other than what the imaginative piece directly depicts (Alice’s experience represent childhood experience, for example). With parataxis, the value of the imagery is the imagery itself. Williams said he wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow” because he saw a wheelbarrow and thought it was beautiful. The readers can certainly feel in what “depends” on the red wheelbarrow, as the first line certainly invites them to do, but for Williams, it was the wheelbarrow itself, and for other readers, that’s all it has to be. It can be as many things as there are readers, and this approach breaks from the classical concept that ideals are set outside of the reader. A better place to see the way parataxis works is in “Spring and All” which starts with “By the road to the contagious hospital” and then presents images of a winter landscape where new plants are preparing to grow. This might easily be read as a metaphor for the abstract concept of regeneration, but Williams presents only the images. Whether or not the abstraction is necessary is up to each individual reader. The value is in the beauty of the juxtaposition, sickness next to rebirth and no philosophizing to guide the reader’s reaction. Likewise, fixating only on timeless and impersonal poems like this may make his influence unclear on later postmodern poetry in which confession and tying poems to the present moment are mechanisms by which poets reject the old ideals, but one need only look at Williams’ great epic Patterson, a palimpsest of fragments that are very personal and bound to a particular time and place. Patterson is essentially most of the seemingly contradictory strands of postmodernism in one book.

Isolating this influence to just Williams is, of course, a convenient over-simplification since so many other American and non-American writers have been integral in promoting this concept. It’s a centuries-old taken for granted truth of art in Asian cultures. There are plenty of European writers who might take this same position of importance. I would nominate Tristan Tzara for his vigorous attacks on reason and tradition (identifying Williams and Tzara as the American and European figureheads of this revolution, promoting similar concepts in very different ways, might more clearly unify the development of the so-called “postmodern” fiction, poetry, and theater, for the sake of simplification). Other American writers who are candidates for this position include Ezra Pound, for example, helped adapt Ernest Fenollosa’s ideas of how Chinese language – as an interplay between images instead of a subordination to abstractions – in a highly influential (if somewhat inaccurate) way, but Pound was too thoroughly married to ideas in much of his work to function as a consistent anti-idea iconoclast. Wallace Stevens, likewise, made similar statements about the relationship between ideas and things, but struggled to accurately understand Surrealism. However, the factor that might alone make Williams’ the most important American poet of the 20th century is biographical: Stevens can’t claim the same legacy of mentorship. From the Beats to the Black Mountain Poets to the New York School to the San Francisco Renaissance to countless other poets beyond, Williams directly mentored and inspired younger poets who went on to mentor and inspire many generations after them. The spiritual children of Williams are so numerous that it’s hard to name a single significant American poet who started publishing in the 50s and after who was not connected back to Williams by at most two degrees.

The poet who more often gets the credit as most important twentieth century American poet is T. S. Eliot, and isolating focus to the first fifty years might make the contest somewhat even. Ask anyone in the poetic establishment in the 1940s, it might seem ridiculous to claim some obscure provincial poet like Williams could have the same impact as the great champion of High Culture and indirect founder of New Criticism, but starting in the mid-50s, when Williams’ spiritual children came of age and started publishing in overwhelming masses, it might seem equally ridiculous to think that High Culture and New Criticism were ever considered the eternal standards of great literature. True, Eliot is important in challenging traditional form in his poetry and criticism, but Williams’ impact is equal in this realm through his direct mentorship of young poets, giving his flavor of anti-traditional form a longer impact. The problem with Eliot’s legacy as significant influence is he’s too thoroughly married to the subordination of old. His mission was to save high culture from destruction by finding some way to represent the fragmentation. In this way, Eliot would always be tied to the past, always retrogressive, making him less and less important for the forward progress of poetry. One way in which Williams is most significant is shifting poetry from metaphor to parataxis, but here’s a metaphor describing Eliot’s place: it’s like an armada of Greek ships got shattered to pieces, and Eliot’s plan is to keep patching the ships together. This may seem inspirational to other survivors who wish to retain the integrity of Greek structures and seem to have few other options, and they might start patching boats together too, but a survival plan like that has diminishing returns; soon the fragments will cease to function as proper sailing vessels. Meanwhile, Williams, who was perhaps part of that armada’s original disintegration as well, has found an island where he’s growing crops and raising children. Eliot’s line is bound to die out, and Williams’ line is bound to thrive.

This whole claim is based on a concept I have taken for granted, that moving away from ideas is the natural development of literature, but the arts seem to leap forward starting with the visual arts, then poetry, then fiction. Any visual artist who places ideas, high culture, or representation as a central value would seem old fashioned today, but that has been true for 150 years. For poetry, that has been true for about one hundred years. For fiction, that has only been true for about fifty years. William S. Burroughs most aggressively promoted this concept in fiction (see, for example, his piece “Apocalypse” which summarizes this concept most effectively: “everything is permitted because nothing is true,” etc.). Whether or not Naked Lunch was the beginning of postmodern fiction is up for an unnecessarily complicated debate since “postmodern” as a term is so poorly defined, inaccurate at its core, and overly fixated on relatively recent developments in fiction and criticism; regardless, Naked Lunch marked a major break in the old concept of what fiction could be and opened up countless worlds of possibilities. “No ideas but in things” has been slower to catch on in fiction as so much of it seems fixed forever in the nineteenth century. Likewise, much of what followed Naked Lunch relied heavily on gimmickery. I would never bemoan the fun of gimmickery, but it’s not built for the long haul and collapses easily under its own weight since its bones are so brittle, but the alternative has offered little to replace it but rehashing Flaubert. Somewhere beyond the same old Victorian novel and the weak gimmickery is the gloriously irrational future of fiction.