Words By Andy Devine

    Many years ago the critic Roland Barthes argued that there were two kinds of texts: “readerly” and “writerly”. Put baldly (or badly), a ”readerly” text is one that displays the virtues and qualities that appeal to readers andd “writerly” texts display virtues and qualities that appeal to writers. Using these tropes, I would argue that Words is both a readerly text and a writerly text. The book is a writerly text in that its author seems to be engaged in a bold attempt to fill each page with as many words as possible and it is a readerly one in that the author seems to leave any sort of meaning up to the reader.    Words as book consists of two alphabetical lists of words that should and should not be used in fiction, an aphoristic grammar of fiction writing, nine alphabetical stories and a 90,000 word novel that is condensed to twenty pages. Yes, twenty pages.

   In the note at the beginning the author states that:

The first thing that confronts the reader is the fact that the pages have a sculptural, lapidary quality. This happens before any sense can be made of the words on the page. After that, the reader should read each of the alphabetical pieces in alphabeticalOrder while also flipping back and forth between the pages. The expectation is that certain words will be remembered (for emphasis or for distinction) , that connections will be made between nouns and verbs, and that all words willaccumulate into story or critique.

In other words the author has done away with all the traditional elements of fiction such as plot, story, character, description, meaning and even sentences but has given the reader a method by which he/she can supply these elements.

    The first section of the book is titled Words. It is just that. There are two sections of alphabetical lists of words. One of them is words that should be used in fiction, and the other is words that should not be used in fiction. Both lists run from A to Z. By using the above mentioned technique the reader is able to formulate his own critique of fiction.

       In the next part of the book, titled Thoughts, the author lays out his theories of fiction in a series of aphorisms that run the gamut from a phrase to a paragraph long. My personal favorite is “It is important for the fiction writer to have a sense of purpose even if that sense of purpose cannot save the fiction writer.” Many of these aphorisms contain much wisdom and would be worthy of E. M. Cioran.

    Then come the nine stories. Seven of the nine stories are alphabetical lists of words which call for the the reader to use the suggested flipping method to create sentences, plot, and some sort of meaning. The other two stories, ‘Untitled” and “I Needed to Make Cuts”, seem to be much bolder in their conception. Both stories have titles but no other text. The author seems to be leaving it up to the reader to place his own story in these pages.

    Finally the reader comes to the novel. Again, by removing all traditional fictional elements , the author is able to use his distinct alphabetical syntax to achieve an amazing feast of brevity and condense thousands of words to twenty pages.

    After all this, the reader will come to an afterword by Michael Kimball which is supposed to explain it all. The tongue-in-cheek seriousness of Kimball’s prose and his imaginary citations casts doubt on the whole enterprise. Was this a fine example of avant-garde writing or a brilliant parody of postmodern pastiche and reader-response criticism? The reader begins to wonder. Bold experiment or elaborate joke? I’ll let the reader decide for him/herself.


About Thomas Baughman

I am an unemployed factory worker in Northeast Ohio
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