Over at Sabotage Reviews David Clarke has written a fascinating review of Enemies: The Selected Collaborations of SJ Fowler. Drawing on Bakhtin’s arguments around the dialogic text Clarke (as I understand it) argues that the dialogic elements are actually most evident in texts that refuse a clear sense of who wrote what, maybe even of form and subject. Without this certainty, the reader has to get involved, and the possibility of the text as a multiplicity of possible and actual voices emerges.
I found myself relating Clarke’s ideas to some of the decisions Steve and myself have been making regarding the book form of our collaboration, forty feet, an extract from which appears in the Enemies book. Something of the process Clarke describes has been evident in our ongoing and changing decisions about how to arrange the text on the page, what kinds of sections and designation to give the writing, to what extent the text should indicate the presence of two authors, and/or a more general process of exchange and response by which the book’s writing unfolded.
Originally our text had forty distinct sections, in which we took turns as author. Although we never had a manuscript that named our respective contributions one early idea was to have two distinct fonts for our respective writings. For the extract in the Penned in the Margins book, sections were cut up, placed in columns, our separate contributions mashed one to the other. I thought the book might take this further, but instead it seemed right to go back to 40 numbered sections, although now those numbers broke up some our existing sections, whilst the text itself no longer had each section starting neatly on a new page.
Cyril Connolly Enemies of Promise (1): Getting Blocked in By Your Own Book Collection
Reading what we have now, I no longer know who wrote what. This isn’t entirely true, of course, but there are specific lines and sections where I mean this literally, and the whole text has moved, in my reading of it, beyond that sense of two alternating voices as its organising principle. This unknowing in the face of my/ our own text made me think of Maurice Blanchot’s comment about the text that removes itself from its author. I could only remember Blanchot’s view in these most general of terms so I went back to The Space of Literature and read on page 24:
The writer cannot abide near the work. He can only write it; he can, once it is written, only discern its approach in the abrupt Noli me legere which moves him away, which sets him apart or which obliges him to go back to that “separation” which he first entered in order to become attuned to what he had had to write. So that now he finds himself as if at the beginning of his task again and discovers again the proximity, the errant intimacy of the outside from which he could not make an abode.
All I have said here, of course, is from the writer’s point of view. Clarke’s review focuses on the experience of reader and reading and how the knowledge that a text is a collaboration (more particularly in the case of Enemies: some sort of couple) relates to the sense of voice, location and exchange that is named or intuited by that reader in the text’s form and content. The (currently) final version we have made of forty feet seems one where writer and reader find some sort of equivalence.
One other point that I found useful in Clarke’s review was his sense of why the book – and Steve’s collaborations project as a whole – should be called Enemies, a title I realised I had responded to primarily as a provocation that cleared away a certain complacency about what might be involved and at stake. For Clark, again, it is best understood through how we read:
His collaborations are not friendly: neither in the sense of seeking to arrive at a position of harmony between those producing the work, nor in the sense that a finished artistic product offers the reader any easy answers. In fact, these collaborations are the opposite of a ‘finished’ product: they remain open to a dialogue with the reader, indeed to many dialogues (as in many re-readings) with the reader.