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  • Realism and Utopia:Sex, Writing, and Activism in New Narrative
  • Rob Halpern (bio)

The literary movement known as New Narrative emerged in San Francisco during the late 1970s. The cultural moment was one of engagement and conviction, agitation and uncertainty, as tensions were beginning to flare between new projects and old affiliations in the Bay Area literary scene—Language writing, Feminist writing, Black Arts, Beat poetry, New American Poetics, and others—each asserting a distinct set of aesthetic values and social stakes. New Narrative registers many of these tensions, while offering one response to some unresolved impasses between Gay Liberation, the Avant-Garde, and a New Left that seemed at times unresponsive to the exigencies of sexual politics. Bruce Boone, Robert Glück, and Steve Abbott were the movement's earliest theoreticians and practitioners, and they shared many affinities with other radical writers, including Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper, who accompanied the group as coconspirators, in friendship and publishing projects alike. Abbott first defined this loose confederacy in his editorial statement for the 1981 New Narrative issue of Soup magazine: "New Narrative is language conscious but arises out of specific social and political concerns of specific communities. . . . It stresses the enabling role of content in determining form rather than stressing form as independent from its social origins and goals."1 Abbott's reference to the movement being "language conscious" quietly acknowledges New Narrative's ties to Language writing, with [End Page 82] whose community it intersected. Although New Narrative evolved together with late twentieth-century avant-garde poetries, it pushed against Language writing's privileging of poetic form, stressing instead the value of storytelling—in both verse and prose—as the means by which to deepen the convergence of writing and politics, while aligning that convergence with the work of gay community building.

Boone offers a partisan description of this socio-literary landscape in his short postscript to Glück's Family Poems (1979), "Remarks on Narrative: The Example of Robert Glück's Poetry." Boone writes, "The poetry of the '70s seems generally to have reached a point of stagnation, increasing a kind of refinement of technique and available forms, without yet being able to profit greatly from the energy and accessibility that mark so much of the new Movement writing of gays, women and Third World writers, among others" (29). This characterization of the moment suggests a prehistory of the notorious "poetry wars," which would divide the Bay Area writing scene during the 1980s. In what now reads as a founding document for New Narrative, Boone goes on in his postscript to posit what would become the movement's tenets, arguing for the importance of narrative method for a "movement writing" otherwise thought to be content-driven and mimetic. Boone begins by praising Glück's poems for the way "they remind us of the actual, though often unmentioned function of narration as a device for registering social meaning" (32). He then looks to two mid-century American poets of the New York School, Frank O'Hara and Ron Padgett, as models because they "integrate narrative material as a technique to constitute the poem again socially," stressing "a strongly judgmental or juridical aspect of this narrative function . . . that declines to be 'objective' in any sense that would satisfy us" (32). Taking the work of his New York School antecedents as a point of departure, Boone emphasizes subjectivity as both an effect of subjection and as a social force with the potential to intervene and affect, organize and change. Subjectivity thus emerges in New Narrative not as stable fact, but as a volatile social process full of transformational energies, and narrative becomes one mode of stimulating and organizing such energies.

Boone's emphasis on subjectivity speaks to the appeal for New Narrative of Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," which theorizes ideology as a productive force in the making of social [End Page 83] subjects, a force in excess of its repressive functions. By "productive," I don't mean "positive," but rather instrumental; in other words, for Althusser, subjectivity becomes a function of ideology. In his "Long Note on New Narrative," Glück himself remarks how Althusser...


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