A note on compiling The Cafe Irreal anthology

At first we had assumed that much of the work of putting together our soon to be released anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from The Cafe Irreal, would be technical (e.g., tracking down authors we might not have had contact with for ten or more years, minutely proofing the anthology). But long before we could send out the first author’s contract we first had to decide on which stories would go into the anthology and this also proved to be quite a challenge, though of a more creative and theoretical nature.

When we select stories for any given issue of The Cafe Irreal, we are able to quickly and readily eliminate a fair number of the submissions that we have received because they are not particularly irreal or, even if they are, they may not be particularly well-written.  But with the anthology, we had to carefully read over hundreds of stories all of which, by virtue of the fact that they had appeared previously in our publication, we considered to be well-written and irreal. So, instead of, as is often the case when we are coming out with an issue, having to decide whether a particular story fits within a specific framework of the irreal, the story selection for the anthology became in part a question of which stories were the most irreal. Especially seeing as the anthology would stand out as a kind of flagship of our concept of the irreal.

And so we were thrown into a mini-version of what we’d gone through when we first worked out our writer’s guidelines (detailed in our Journal of the Kafka Society of America article, a synopsis of which is here) — though in this case it meant us further refining what we mean by the irreal. Or, to paraphrase from the anthology’s liner notes, we had to decide which from among the many, excellent irreal stories we’d published over our first 40 issues “take us most definitively into the realm of the Irreal.”

Thus, unlike some of the issues raised in our theoretical texts (such as “What is Irrealism?”), in which we go to some lengths to explain what it is in a story that takes it out of the realm of the irreal (e.g., extensive description of the setting, especially when it utilizes naturalistic touches), we focused on some devices that authors sometimes used that might be said to take some of the “edge” off the irreal, and which more often than not made us decide against using them in the anthology, even though they too were fine, irreal stories:

1) In some of the stories that we ultimately decided against, the narrative voice used irony in its description of the events or situations that constituted the story (this was especially characteristic of fiction that was self-consciously trying to be edgy). The problem here tended to be that an irreal story already possesses, in its very being, the conflicting, double-code characteristic of irony, and so to add to this a self-consciously ironic narrator added at best a gratuitous, at worse conflicting, element into the story.

2) In other stories, the narrative voice was, it seemed to us, excessively empirical and neutral in its description of the irreality unfolding in the story. That we found this to be the case was somewhat surprising to us, as we consider a distanced narrative to be a key to an irreal narrative. But there is, of course, a difference between empirical and being distanced. Distanced narration is a quality of what is called “objective” fiction, objective in the sense of the work being seen by the reader as an object, as opposed to “subjective” fiction in which the narration strives to make the reader forget he or she is reading a book and have instead the sense that they are really there, where the action of the story is. The former is exemplified by Kafka’s typical narrative voice, distanced, but not merely empirical in its description of the irreal events going on in the story (As in the beginning of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested. Every day at eight in the morning he was brought his breakfast by Mrs. Grubach’s cook — Mrs. Grubach was his landlady — but today she didn’t come. That had never happened before.”). Stories that have an excessively empirical and neutral narrator can tend to undermine the dream state, with its vague, diffused backdrops, that irrealism strives to create.

3) Related to this is the tendency of some narrative voices to use excessive description. This is, of course, in general a problem in American literature, where the long established “cult of experience” continues to make writers feel that they must, to cite a worse case scenario, describe the room the protagonist is sitting in to the last detail whether this has any bearing on the story or characters or not. In these irreal stories what is being described is not, of course, real nor could it ever be; nonetheless, a large amount of description often excessively concreticizes the story’s — albeit fantastic — world, working against its being able to sustain a sense of the irreal (let us not forget here the general lack of detail in dreams).

4) Another device that tended, we found, to have a negative effect on an irreal narrative is the use of the pseudo-2nd person narrative, in which the reader is not only addressed as “you” but also discovers him- or herself to be the protagonist in the story. Thus, if we were to re-write the beginning of The Trial using this device, the reader might be told that “Someone must have been telling lies about you, because you knew that you had done nothing wrong and yet, one morning, you were arrested…” This narrative device, we believe, tends to weaken the irreality of a story because of the importance of the highly personal, “accidental” symbology inherent in irrealism, in which the irreal writer, instead of working with universal symbols (such as water, widely considered a symbol of renewal), works with that set of personal symbols that comes from their personal life and which tend to be manifested in dreams (see “On International Imagination). The pseudo 2nd person narration can thus weaken the irreal effect of a story if it attempts to place the writer’s personal symbology in the mind of the reader as though it were the reader’s which, of course, it isn’t, and so it can seem an artifice.

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