Five on Fiction
Author: Janet Kauffman
Publisher: Burning Deck (2004)
From her early stories on, Kauffman has redefined terms — of literature and of human nature. Here, short paragraphs cut across genres to assemble a poetics of narrative. She shows us fiction’s elements grounded in the materiality of language: plot as ground, action as just what it looks like, one word after another. Five on Fiction sets out the bones and flesh of narrative, in bits and pieces, evidence of its connections to the physical and natural world.
Janet Kauffman grew up on a tobacco farm in Pennsylvania and has worked on farms, and with language, all her life. She has published several collections of poetry and 3 books of short fiction: Places in the World a Woman Could Walk, which immediately thrust her to the forefront of her generation of writers, Obscene Gestures for Women, and Characters on the Loose. Her trilogy novels, Flesh Made Word, includes Collaborators, The Body in Four Parts, and Rot. She lives in Michigan, where she has restored wetlands on her farm and worked for watershed protection.
“Janet Kauffman’s latest book, Five on Fiction, consists of five sequences, each composed of ten very short prose pieces. Each sequence is ostensibly about one aspect of fiction writing. These are odd, tentative pieces, operating somewhere between prose poems, essays, and short fiction. The titles, such as “On Eliminating Characters from Fiction” and “On the Transportation of Background to Foreground,” read like section titles from a perverse creative-writing handbook. At moments there are what feel like fragments of essays on writing: “If you don’t say the name of the person, a good many things are possible in a sentence. . . .” Other moments offer what feel like bits of lost plots, meditations on the natural world (and its relation to narrative), reflection on human and animal territories, lost voices, commands, and hats made out of sticks. Five on Fiction thus demands that you read between the genres you are used to, making brief forays out of but always coming back to the mulchy space that exists beneath the formation of genres. This is mixed-genre work, but it has an unexpected modesty to it. And in addition Kauffman seems to be operating by touch rather than with clear purpose. The majority of writers become complacent, falling back on what has worked for them in the past. Kauffman is one of the few writers I know who consistently takes more chances with each new book. In Five on Fiction these chances pay off remarkably well."