For the past two years, Full Stop has brought in the new year with questionnaires. In December of 2011, we introduced “The Situation in American Writing,” a series of provocative political questions that prompted both new and established writers to consider their role in society. We followed this up in January of 2013 with “Pathos,” an exploration of the physical, emotional, and economic tolls that the pursuit of writing takes on its practitioners. Recently, we sought to continue this tradition of asking tough questions, of risking pretension and inviting varied responses, whether earnest, dismissive, combative, or absurd.
As in previous years, there was plenty of disagreement among the editors as we decided on a subject, and in the process, several potential, but ultimately flawed, questionnaires had to be abandoned. However, after so much work, it seemed a shame to allow these questions to simply be buried in our inboxes, never to see the light of day. And so we have decided to publish them here on the blog, so that perhaps our readers, at least, may have a chance to respond.
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The first of our failed questionnaires, “Theory into Practice,” was conceived to bridge the gap between literature and criticism by confronting contemporary authors with quotes from giants of criticism and philosophy. After weeks of culling, however, we realized that some questions are better left unanswered.
“Theory into Practice”
In The Trouble with Being Born, Romanian pessimist Emil Cioran says: “In a work of psychiatry, only the patients’ remarks interest me; in a work of criticism, only the quotations.” Please respond to this quote with another quote.
Cioran goes on to say: “We smile, because no answer is conceivable, because the answer would be even more meaningless than the question.” Why do we frown?
Maurice Blanchot, in his essay “From Dread to Language,” says: “The sign of his importance is that the writer has nothing to say.” In one word or more, prove Blanchot correct.
In Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett says: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Why was Beckett such a loser?
Jacques Derrida, in a 1983 interview with Catherine David for Le Nouvel Observateur, claims: “Nous sommes tous des médiateurs, des traducteurs.” What the fuck does that mean?
In Otherwise than Being, Emmanuel Levinas says: “It is as though subjective life in the form of consciousness consisted in being itself losing itself and finding itself again so as to possess itself by showing itself, proposing itself as a theme, exposing itself in truth.” Do you agree? If yes, provide an example of a time when your life lost itself, found itself, and exposed itself in truth. If no, briefly explain why Levinas is wrong about subjective life.
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Later, in what would become our second failed questionnaire, we sought to challenge literary fiction authors, an often polite and modest group, to speak frankly about the ways in which the solitary pursuit of writing has affected their love lives. But over the course of a long and drunken Google Hangout, the questionnaire gradually evolved into the following list, which would require writers to choose a notable book from 2013 and reimagine its title as a deviant sex act.
The Circle (Dave Eggers)
Middle Men (Jim Gavin)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra)
Body Geographic (Barrie Jean Borich)
The Valley of Amazement (Amy Tan)
Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Karen Russell)
Kansas City Lightning (Stanley Crouch)
Bough Down (Karen Green)
Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg)
Gulp (Mary Roach)
Speaking from Among the Bones (Alan Bradley)
Metaphysical Dog (Frank Bidart)
We Need New Names (NoViolet Bulawayo)
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After hundreds of emails, dozens of subtweets, and one unfortunate racial slur (sorry again, Alex), we realized that we were playing it too safe. What made “The Situation in American Writing” and “Pathos” successful was that we were not afraid of sounding naive or arrogant, of asking questions that some authors could not, or would not, answer. And so, with renewed vigor, we set ourselves to creating our most provocative questionnaire yet. To ensure candid responses, we also decided that, instead of emailing the questions as we have done in the past, we would have to ask them in person. Furthermore, it was essential that we ask the questions when the writers least suspected them. At the dentist, at the movies, in public restrooms, mid-coitus. By ambushing a diverse group of authors, poets, and essayists with a litany of controversial questions, reeled off in rapid succession, the “Hey!” questionnaire would elicit the most honest responses to date. Unfortunately, after approaching only a few writers, we were compelled to cease and desist. The final version comprised over one hundred questions. Here is a sample:
Are high school book reports too nice?
Can supervillains have it all?
People are talking more, but are they projecting?
Self-publishing: democracy, mediocrity, or Sharia law?
Malcolm Gladwell, am I right?
Should SeaWorld interns be freed?
Is clown college still worth it?
Is an MFA bad for your street cred?
Should puppies have smartbones?
At what point does Big Data become Obese Data?
How have infographics deformed the PowerPoint presentation?
Whatever happened to that Juan Luis Garcia guy?
Did you see Gravity?
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With the end of the year fast approaching, and still no viable questionnaire in sight, we finally realized that if we really wanted honest answers from people whose lives are devoted to hardbound lies, we would have to eschew traditional methods of interrogation. We finally understood that all questions are leading, all answers primed, that one cannot simply ask for the truth, one must take it. To this end, we emailed our “Theory into Practice” questionnaire as an attachment to 50 of our favorite writers. What the authors did not know, however, was that the file was a Trojan horse, concealing a virus that would allow us to monitor everything from their bank accounts to their pornography habits.
Unfortunately, after over a month of surveillance, we had little to show for our work. Lars Iyer watched the dancing chicken scene from Stroszek on repeat for 24 hours straight, while Jonathan Franzen scoured Urban Dictionary trying to figure out what WorldStarHipHop videos were all about. Gary Shteyngart gave us the most hope, as he opened our attachment using his Google Glass, allowing us to see everything he saw for weeks. But sadly, day after day, Mr. Shteyngart simply stared at his door from morning until night, his routine interrupted only when his handler arrived in the evenings to take him for a brief walk around the block.
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Fractured and disillusioned, we were on the verge of calling it quits, of shuttering the site and selling off our Twitter account to the highest bidder. But as we met one last time to decide who would get custody of features editor Jesse Montgomery, we were interrupted by a barrage of messages regarding an ambitious new article on the relative merits of snark and smarm. We took a break to figure out what all the fuss was about, and moments later, in a terrifying moment of parallel thought, it came to us, emerged fully-formed from the foamy waters of the collective unconscious. The “TL;DR” questionnaire had been born.
It was everything we’d hoped for. It was beautiful and treacherous, naked and vain. It was an empty cup into which better minds than us, minds like Choire Sicha, Astra Taylor, and Emily Gould, could spill the pennies and lint from the depths of their geniuses. There was only one problem: it would take a few more weeks to receive the responses. Would our readers be able to wait that long? Would our usual fare of reviews, interviews, and features, as well as weird blog posts that go on just a bit too long, be enough? What if we told them that we would also be unveiling a new design that would not only be more intuitive and easier to read on a variety of devices, but also feature 100% fewer fake shadows? Only time will tell. But in the meanwhile, we would like to thank all of you for helping us make it through one more year. And for not reporting us for that thing.
Eric Jett is a writer, designer, and teacher from Charleston, WV. He is a founding editor of Full Stop.
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