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“I be drunk,” my mom texts me on a Tuesday night, “Call mama.” At the edge of downtown an October sunset is turning the clock tower orange, then red. I suck the last watery inch of a vodka soda through my cocktail straw, say goodbye to a friend on the patio and follow the brick street until I spy my mother’s Jeep.
This fall I’ve moved back to the college town where my great grandmother was born, where my stepfather died, and where on my 16th birthday, following tradition, a friend gifted me a fake ID. Two weeks later, a van-cab picked a group of us up from the college bars and I immediately rolled down the window to puke four times. When we pulled into my family’s driveway with the headlights off, my friend ran inside and grabbed one of my mom’s nice dish towels to wipe down the side of the van.
In “Everyday Barf,” Eileen Myles describes a choppy boat ride they took from Provincetown to New York to visit their mother. Between descriptions of the boat’s many vomiting passengers, “Everyday Barf” traces the history of Op Art, Myles’ guilt about not living with their mom, and meditations on writing the mundane. After reading “Everyday Barf,” Dodie Bellamy, a self-described anti-fan of experimental feminist essays of the 1980s, who called collaged texts “watery,” became obsessed with the stylistic possibilities within the “relentless wall of sound” that Myles’ essay created. In Bellamy’s subsequent talks entitled “Barf Manifesto” and “MLA Barf,” she described how the formal compression of what is public, private and mundane in Myles’ essay “tracks how the personal intersects content intersects form intersects politics.”
My mother is thin and beautiful. My mother has a different politics. My mother has been my best friend ever since we stopped trying to kill each other. When I was 16, the brat I was told her that she “no longer deserved to cry.” Sitting in the back seat tonight, three of her friends, widowed and retired, are having a conversation about thigh gaps. When I’m with them I sometimes imagine the aliens who might be observing us, how their scientists will note that human specimens of a certain sex, class, and color simply stop eating once they reach a certain age. Bellamy coined “the essay as barf” as a form that conveyed a woman writer’s compulsion to bring it all back up—the daily charges swallowed—to perform womanhood of a certain era. Bellamy named a form so dense and continuous it appeared to be happening live, “the claustrophobic intensity of her now,” leading us “from dead words to living words.”
To the reading eye, a solid block of text suggests a takeover. It demands immersion. It may not be easy to find your place once you look up from the page. It reminds us of the body’s limits. But over the past year, like Bellamy, I’ve become obsessed by what I’m calling liquid texts, texts without any gaps. I am fascinated to notice the “wall-like” form common to prose poems and flash fiction emerging in contemporary examples of nonfiction, especially essays, sometimes for an entire book. What does it mean?
Looking over his shoulder in 1974, at the rise of nonfiction writing in the 1960s, the critic John Hollowell wrote, “Perhaps it is a common tendency of a nation to find its historical situation unique and unparalleled.” He observed that the “apocalyptic fervor” of the era had presented Americans, especially American novelists, with a problem many writers had summed up in the phrase “reality is stranger than fiction.” As if a failure of literature to speak to its context were always a failure of premise, or plot.
Today, as many of us crane our necks to remember what America has been, it seems that the problem for writers working in the 60s—the era of the first publicized mass shootings, when a new racial and class consciousness emerged in a “prospering” economy, when the rich youth became artists and grew their hair past their shoulders—was not just the problem of surreal broadcasts. Since the 50s, radio and photo journalism had been shifting the public’s attention to forms of visual and auditory media that eventually combined to form the 24-hour news cycle. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan suggested that by the 60s, people who had been visually oriented to the pages of newspapers and books had switched their “‘sensory balance’ from the eye to the ear.” In 1958, The Blob incarnated the red scare tangibly and audibly on screen. By 1960, the year my grandmother graduated with a college degree in Home Economics, examples of first-person nonfiction had replaced the short story in magazines by flipping their content 70/30. What did it mean?
At the time, articles with titles like “Who’s killing the Novel?” claimed that “nonfiction” had stolen literature and “undermined public taste,” or that women readers were drawn to “personal writing.” Hollowell called this backlash a “hysteria.” But the writer Leslie Felder described how “audience need” had shifted during the era when Americans were reading in rooms full of speakers and screens turned low. In the 60s, when the news claimed a new, objective authority, multisensory and infinitely immediate, readers sought out counter-immersion. Not through “story” in its traditional sense, or “voice” for its auditory landscape, but through a plotless form that was both explicitly subjective and differently credible. During the 60’s apocalyptic fervor, “nonfiction” began to offer American readers the intimate presence of one speaker who was willing to describe what they were seeing, who didn’t have the answers, but who was continuously, as Ander Monson describes essayists, “working [their] way through a problem.”
Many forms of art in the same era responded similarly, by adopting first-person and documentary strategies that continue to play out across poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and plays today. Next Tuesday, by the clock tower, my mother will buy me a pizza. I’ll drive her and her friends past cornfields, down the road where I once puked out of a moving cab. Dear Mom, blah, time folds over and the details run together. Dear mom, blah, I still can’t stand to see you cry.
Most of the gapless, “liquid” nonfiction I’ve encountered in the past five years has been written by essayists, or poets-turned essayists: writers who come to the page with the expectation that space can mean. In the book-length-essay Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through (Coffee House), T. Fleischmann cruises between theoretical and everyday subjects—from “the fleeing of the suburbs and small towns of Middle America” to the “Post-Scarcity” of estrogen pills. Rather than “braid” sections that are designated as separate by white space, Fleischman carefully situates various subjects mid-conversation, by arranging them mid-paragraph. While reading this book, I have the sensation of zooming in and out of a photo simultaneously. Fleischmann’s lived experiences and reflections on art soon become conspiratorial across a web of joyful and petulant voices.
As in examples of autotheory by Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldùa, the formal density of Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through enacts a rejection of intangible cultural scaffolding: “I distrust linearity,” writes Fleischmann, “but bodies can seem like one of the only linear things—age, getting bigger and then smaller, death. Another reason to appreciate the transitioning body, which ages backward, every person seeming to become younger, with or without taking hormones.” Fleischmann rejects a linear reading by wielding a form that rejects the expected trajectories of a life lived according to market success (career-marriage-children-retirement). Time’s mode of physical compression may gesture at what some today would call a queer form, a literary structure emerging from a generation of writers already living full lives more fluid than feminist texts of the 80s could imagine.
The pleasures a “liquid” nonfiction can offer through a form that echoes its literary ethos are highlighted in Calvin Walds’s first book, Flee (Split Lip). This book moves deftly between the personal and the critical, the pop and the academic, to explore how types of captivity replicate themselves across time and space. “Longing is my political apparatus,” writes Walds. “I still dance in the mirror. I think people still wonder why we don’t just accept the world?” Flee is a transnational narrative, almost entirely without paragraph breaks, that asks Adorno to converse with Aaliyah and moves our viewfinder from Detroit to Bushwick, to Paris, to Ghana, to Brooklyn, and back. Across the book, moments of seeing and being seen shift the traditional relationships between writer and reader as Walds reminds the audience that they are not the only ones who are looking: “I am watching Musa Okwonga’s performance of ‘The Migrant Manifesto,’ I keep pausing I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone by Tsai Ming Liang to take screenshots.”
Flee’s density is immersive, more akin to reading across webpages than to bedding down with a novel. The project is a keen example of the quality Jen Soriano names in her essay “Multiplicity from the Margins,” when she describes literary forms that signal “multiple Is” looking prismatically through “multiple eyes.” Flee doubts the reality of escape while performing small, masterful ejections at every turn. Its density speaks through the multiple presences of selves that are considering layers of images, simultaneously.
In Borealis (Coffee House), Aisha Sabatini Sloan offers another mode of continuous presence through formal density. Borealis is about vast landscapes and closed quarters where Sloan moves with other Black travelers, and about the invented borders queer relationships stretch to cross. Borealis is a semi-liquid form that seeks to pull us into its pages. In her forward, Sloan describes the book in progress as “a grid of small, white rectangles on my kitchen table. I’ve left space between some of the rectangles, and now I’m making collages to better visualize what those spaces might be for.” Corporeal reading, might be one of the book’s answers. Rather than silence, transition, or a shift in subject, the places where white space does appear in Borealis spread across the reader’s sternum, pull us into the space of the scene, the ongoing text:
To give my days structure, I take walks along the spit or a busy road. I want to want a more intimate experience with nature but keep not turning down thinner trails, even ones that lead toward a potent memory, for fear of moose tramplings or men. Two dogs that look quite sweet begin to bark as I pass, unleashed and running, so I cross the road, now worried they will cross after me and get hit.
When I brought my dog, named for an author, not a bird, to Alaska, she ran toward the ocean at low tide until she found the skull of a seal.
Fred Moten, speaking of the Black outdoors, talks of stopping off on a road trip to hike with his children. But “I could just always hear somebody running.”
By wandering landscapes, by pressing moments together in resonant discourse, Sloan creates yet another space, perhaps what Soriano means when she describes “a new location that allows for telling.” In Borealis, Sloan conveys the temperature and tone of moments that are both awkward and threatening, lonely and communal. The density of image and anecdote across Borealis asks the reader to tune their living body to the page.
Caryl Pagel’s Out of Nowhere Into Nothing (FC2) is a collection of essays about sinkholes, views from high rises, gazes upon gazes upon faces, and local myths that are written continuously to and through friendship, as one reader described, “like an open fire hydrant.” In the book we are with Pagel in a physical sense, perhaps in a tight booth or on a long, meandering walk. Across feats of page-long sentences, paragraph-long lists, it is the intimacy of Pagel’s voice—sitting at our shoulder, brushing our hand mid-step—that holds us within each long block of text: “M. tells me that last week, on the EL, she was nosily peering over a man’s shoulder, reading his large phone’s text in Spanish… She swore out loud in reaction to something she read and was caught in her snooping, resulting in a conversation with this stranger.”
When reading Out of Nowhere I’ve often considered how Pagel uses the space of a page in the most economic fashion possible to enable uninterrupted reading, the way the Greek boustrophedon style (“writing like the plow”) once did. Some have suggested boustrophedon (writing like a lawnmower, left to right and then right to left in reverse) was designed to allow “continuous coding by the eye” if a text was inscribed on a stone up high, or enable the continuous tracing with the finger if the text was close at hand. Others think the form was designed to mimic speech, which the ancient Greeks agreed was “the superior form.” Perhaps Pagel’s book comes to us, in the era of infinite connectivity and widespread loneliness, as a literary form that offers friendship, physically, by incarnating friendship’s ready immersion, its occasional claustrophobia, its attention through consistent near-touch.
Dear critic: The liquid text is not difficult to read, it is difficult to stop reading. The gapless essay is not a monologue or a news feed; what the form resists is what within you is resistant.
Out the car window past my mother’s shadow are miles of what some still call “the inland sea,” a landscape that used to be prairie-swamp before boys like my grandfather rode stone boats across it. Before this place was tilled, sewn with blood, claimed by the planting of universities, the topsoil was full of rubble that glaciers had left behind. The stone boat was a flat wooden platform roped to a plow horse. Groups of small boys rode across the mowed prairie listening with their feet for a thud—a rock—then climbing out to excavate the rubble before slapping the horse’s flank. This year I am living in the prairie city I left to become a writer of essays, often “watery,” often “collaged.” A new version of The Blob has captured the attention of pre-teens who find community on “AsmrTok.” My newest book, Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit (Noemi Press) has taken Bellamy’s theory of “essay as barf” and answered it with “essay as slime.” Slim Confessions is a liquid text that uses images in place of paragraph breaks. The project subverts an old rule of fiction—that the text should “avoid becoming what it is about,” and delivers “slime” as a narrative tool, as a trope of screen-based horror, as a method of confession, and as a personal story of a month spent working on a farm during lambing season. The book experiments with a “slow pour” of story, anecdote, and confession: slime as a literary form, slime as always near-apocalyptic.
“Such fears now seem highly exaggerated” writes Hollowell of the decade my mother was born into, when the news was “stranger than fiction,” when “literature, like the American experiment of democracy itself, seemed to rest on such a precarious foundation.” In 2021, our speakers and screens sit even closer at hand, some of them are listening back, and many of Hollowell’s sentiments have come full circle. The job of writers and artists to describe and depict their “social reality” has presented additional challenges. Today the mundane always takes place against the background of the news ticker. Again, many writers sense the pressure of a denouement. In response, some writers are making texts made of long, continuous sentences that pull us under, with few paragraph breaks, to offer a counter-immersion. A liquid text. What does it mean for nonfiction? For the coming apocalypse? For the reader whose train has arrived?
Dear reader (writer) and writer (reader): Sunlight ripples the grasses. We are riding the stone boat across what was once an ocean but is not yet a field. Everyone is puking over the side. We are speaking to each other in the overwhelm we recognize. We are listening with our joints. We are tuning ourselves to something that looks solid at first but offers, everywhere, an opening.
Sarah Minor is the author of Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit (Noemi Press 2021) and Bright Archive (Rescue Press 2020). She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Find images of her work at www.sarahceniaminor.com.