Richard (Cory) Kostelanetz Essay - Critical Essays

Kostelanetz, Richard (Cory)


Richard (Cory) Kostelanetz 1940–

American poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, short story writer, and novelist.

Kostelanetz is one of the major supporters of avant-garde literature written during the past twenty years. His oeuvre consists of nontraditional creative writing in nearly every literary genre, and he also promotes and encourages young experimental artists. Kostelanetz describes these writers as "fictioneers" and has devoted several anthologies, including The Young American Writers: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Criticism (1967) and Breakthrough Fictioneers (1973), to their work. As an experimentalist, Kostelanetz is best known for his "visual poetry," a concept which combines elements of poetry and painting. His poems in Visual Language (1967) and I Articulations (1974) often contain the repetition of one letter or word accompanied by graphic design.

Kostelanetz's work has earned him a prominent position in small press publications. However, his reputation in mainstream literary circles is not nearly so well established, for it rests almost entirely on The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America (1974). In this book Kostelanetz discusses what he perceives as a conspiracy against experimental artists by established literary groups. Although most critics dismissed this book, some applauded Kostelanetz for his insight on the state of present-day literature and publishing.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Granville Hicks

Richard Kostelanetz, a young critic who is acutely conscious of both his youth and his critical responsibilities, has edited a volume called Young American Writers…. As some of the young politicians do, he distrusts everyone who is over thirty, and therefore he has included only authors born after 1936. As it happens, several of his best writers were born in 1937, and it must grieve him to feel that within the next twelve months they will be lost to the cause. Indeed. Kostelanetz himself has only three years to go.

Older artists are always conscious of the hungry generations that come along to tread them down, but nowadays they come faster and faster. "American writers born 1937 and after," Kostelanetz says, "comprise the third literary generation of the postwar period." First there were such writers as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, James Jones, and John Aldridge. The second generation, which was "thoroughly disorganized," included LeRoi Jones, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, John Updike, John Barth, and others. The third group, to which Kostelanetz devotes this volume, seems to him "a talented generation, more thoroughly educated and culturally sophisticated than earlier chronological sets; and although we are hardly cautious, the mistakes of our elders, particularly their vulgarisms, oppress us." Although he complains that most of the younger writers are neglected, he takes consolation in the fact that "by 1972 one-half of the voting population will be under thirty-two … the future is very much...

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Richard Kostelanetz, who edited The New American Arts …, has also written or edited several other books on literature and the arts. In [The Theatre of Mixed Means] he defines "mixed means" as various noises and sights—people shuffling along the street, electronic beams, even the noise of many butterflies being released from a bag—which constitute a special kind of theater when these accompany some sort of dramatic happening, no matter where it may be presented, in a street, field, hall, or theater…. The mixed means Mr. Kostelanetz describes are often used, or are happening, at the same time as the plot (if there is one), apparently distracting the audience. The modern mind seems to need to be splintered in many artistic directions at once in order to feel involved. To an old theatergoer who wants to find some meaning in a dramatic action that has a beginning, middle, and end, mixed means may not seem to be theatre at all, but another form of art. This question is among the many Mr. Kostelanetz discusses with practitioners of this new art: composers, dancers, poets, sculptors, and others…. For those with open minds about what "theater" means, this book is instructive and interesting. (pp. 1497-98)

Marquerite McAneny, in a review of "The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings, Kinetic Environments and Other Mixed Means Performances," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, April 1, 1968; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1968 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 93, No. 7, April 1, 1968, pp. 1497-98.

L. J. Davis

Richard Kostelanetz introduces his new anthology of so-called innovative writing, "Breakthrough Fictioneers," with a long, peevish preface, the gist of which is (if I read it correctly) that fiction is pretty much anything he says it is, and the only valid innovation in it is going to follow, more or less, the lines laid down between these covers. This bold statement is accompanied by the usual pro forma assault on the blindness of the critics and editors of the world, and is footnoted by the rather astonishing statement that if James Joyce were alive and writing today, he couldn't get "Ulysses" published in a month of Sundays. One might be more inclined to indulge the point if only the writers Mr. Kostelanetz had selected were somewhat better at their jobs than they are.

The book—hectoringly punctuated by quotations from academic theorists who happen to agree with the editor, rather as if his craving were for Establishment legitimacy rather than artistic freedom—is a kind of cross between a lobotomy, a college literary magazine and a joke book. The selections are relentlessly minor. There are no names to conjure with here, no writing that makes you either want to stand up and cheer or denounce from the nearest soapbox. The strongest emotions that I experienced were, on the one hand, a fleeting smile, and, on the other, a barely audible sigh. (p. 49)

L. J. Davis, "Two Novels, an Anthology and an Alphabet," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1973, pp. 48-9.∗

Thomas Powers

After a solid week of reading Richard Kostelanetz's long book about literary politicking [The End of Intelligent Writing], I got a bright idea of how to proceed with this review: I would start by describing "the New York literary mob," the familiar oracles of Commentary and The New York Review of Books. I would list (per Kostelanetz) their alleged abuses of literary power—log-rolling, back-scratching, puffing, touting, "white-collar mugging." Then I would consider whether there really are interlocking literary establishments that control writers' grants, fellowships, academic appointments, concluding that the answer had to be yes and no—"yes," there are constellations of writers and critics with similar attitudes and interests who write for and about each other, but "no," this likemindedness is neither corrupt nor conspiratorial.

But in any case, I would ask, what is really at stake? Which writers does Kostelanetz think have been frozen out of the literary marketplace?

And then I would quote something like the following passage from Toby MacLennan's "I Walked out of 2 and Forgot it," which Kostelanetz cites for its originality:

He was bombarded by various memories. An A and an Of, the toe of a shoe, a half of an apple. That night as he sat down for dinner, a stone dropped out of his ear.

Or, perhaps, the following passage from Armand Schwerner's poem, "The Tablets," which Kostelanetz admires for its musical qulities:

min-na-ne-ne Dingir En-lil-ra
uzu-mu-a-ki dur-an-ki-ge
Dingir nagar Dingir nagar
mu-mud-e-ne nam-lu-galu

And then I would express amazed disbelief: This is the new literature Kostelanetz is worried about? This is what the New York literary mob is suppressing? This is what "our children will study with respect"?

The trouble with this approach, so appealing for low reasons, is that it unfairly ignores Kostelanetz's fine passion for writing, the strength of his case for the existence of a cultural conservatism very like (if in the end not) a conspiracy and the problem of what to make of the work of Toby MacLennan and Armand Schwerner. His defense of their experimentalism is really the heart of his book; it's what makes the first 300 pages of sociopolitico-literary polemic worth paying attention to. What Kostelanetz likes and defends is elusive to say the least, but it ought not to be dismissed out of hand.

In one of his many illuminating asides, he points out the way established critics make fun of experimental writers as if they, the critics, were the neglected, mistreated minority, when of course it is quite the other way around. (p. 97)

Still, I can't help feeling grateful that Commentary and The New York Review are at the gates, defending future generations of college freshmen from one-hour essay questions on stone symbolism in "I Walked out of 2." Kostelanetz cites 836 poets, playwrights, essayists, and "fictioners," all born since 1937, whom he considers to be the embryonic giants of the age. This makes me feel, as it does the New York literary mob, that the dams are about to burst, that literature of the heart and mind is about to be drowned by a formalist, experimental, manufactured literature of the head. So Kostelanetz is right, and something of importance is at stake.

The New York literary mob's conspiracy to keep "the young and the new" unknown and neglected is described by Kostelanetz as being of the informal sort in which no one has to mention the rules to guarantee that no one breaks them. The mob members, despite the occasional family squabble, share a common ground in their interests and intellectual style. They are passionate about politics and are well-grounded in Marx and Freud. They hold important professorial posts in and around New York; frequently publish their books with Random House, Pantheon,...

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Roger Sale

"The End of Intelligent Writing" isn't about that, and isn't itself as intelligently written as it could and should have been. Many will say the title should have been "Richard Kostelenetz, His Enemies and Friends," and while they would be wrong, Kostelanetz has let himself in for it. He spends the first half of the book on his enemies—he takes Jason Epstein and The New York Review of Books to be the centers of power in literary-political America, and he works from there, identifying establishments here and in-groups there. He offers his list of those who count, one that is accurate enough, one supposes, but boringly rude, and not as much news as Kostelanetz himself thinks. The second half is about his friends, the...

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Welch D. Everman

A book is a possibility for action. Like a musical score, it does not exist until it is performed by a reader, and, of course, some texts are more difficult to perform than others.

Mr. Kostelanetz's unique and fascinating Recyclings, apparently composed from earlier essays by aleatory techniques, are as difficult to review as they are to perform. In these pieces, the reader must come to terms not with plot, character, theme, or idea, but with words in themselves, devoid of connection, syntax, and guidelines. Performance is controlled by the printed page but remains infinite in interpretation, for the elements of these important texts are simply what they are: words as openness, words as...

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John W. Aldridge

There are several remarkable features of Mr. Kostelanetz's discussion [in The End of Intelligent Writing], one of which is that he should find the situation he describes so terribly shocking. However vigorously we may deplore the fact, it is simply in the nature of literary groups in all times and places that they will protect and promote their own and, with one degree or another of malevolent calculation, will exclude or ignore those who are not their own. This may not be a desirable state of affairs, but it is the usual one, and reasons for it are not difficult to discover. Since as a rule the members of a literary group initially come together as a beleaguered minority fighting to be heard against the...

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Charles Molesworth

What a sour book [The End of Intelligent Writing] is—no allowance made for its "heroic" attack on entrenched elites, or its wide-eyed support of the new and the young, or its implacable earnestness will alter this central fact, and the reader will leave it frazzled and stale…. Granted that paranoia and apocalypse currently serve to authenticate artistic believeability, Kostelanetz' network of sinister, aging moguls … are hard to recognize in their desperate power game, hell bent on conspiratorily censoring Jonathan Cott, Madeline Gins, and Clark Coolidge, thereby assuring that "serious new and young writers are publicly dead." There are, to be sure, more villains in the cast than this, and more putative...

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Michael Joseph Phillips

Richard Kostelanetz really staggers the imagination—another publication has listed him as a sort of Renaissance figure in modern garb. After all the things Richard has accomplished as a critic, editor, and scholar, one discovers that he is also a great visual poet…. The first poem in [Visual Language] is a series of manifestoes done circularly and in different sizes so as to overlap—one sees "the poetry of life copies," "artistry bellies argument …," and so on. The whole thing just jumps out off the page at you, and the poem is very pleasant provoking. A nice and easy to see Nymphomania work follows in the shape of a woman; then, lightly, a lollypop poem in the shape of a lollypop takes up a whole...

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Val Moorehouse

Kostelanetz focuses on kinetic/semantic book elements in his minimal guy-meets-gal fiction [One Night Stood: A Minimal Fiction] printed in contrasting formats. In 310 words he parodies the humorously familiar "rise and fall" progress of the one-night-stand. Plot's quickly done, leaving the shift in format, mini-book to tabloid, to assume the burdens of action, reaction, and relationship. The book, with one to two words per page, cultivates page-turning suspense not present in the tabloid. The tabloid, with word pairs zig-zagging down large pages, invites ironic comparison and cross-reading not possible page by page. Normally invisible, tension between design and meaning is here perceived.


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Edward Butscher

Kostelanetz remains a child of the 1960s—when he was in his twenties—a bad boy who refuses to grow up or be bought off, except, on occasion, by his own arrogance. His literary judgments [in Twenties in the Sixties] follow suit, swinging wildly from the unexpected shaft of insight to the petulant philistinism of blanket rejections. The "radical" typographical decision to print other essays and commentary alongside the main pieces is similarly both distracting and intriguing, but Kostelanetz is still essential, still fighting the "good fight" against the literary cabals and commercial barkers that have our literature by the neck.

Edward Butscher, in a review of...

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Small Press Review

["The End" Appendix and "The End" Essentials] is literally two books (in reversible format, front to back, and back to front) by the most perceptive watchdog of American publishing and writing, and one of the most articulate and persistent spokesmen for the experimental, the new and the young in contemporary American literature. It is sometimes irritable, often controversial and always articulate.

"The End" Appendix is an addendum to Kostelanetz's The End of Intelligent Writing, a book that stirred literary controversy for months after its publication. The End documents, after the fact, the difficulties the author had in publishing subsequent works, and analyses the causes...

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John Martone

Although his title [The Old Poetries and the New] might imply an evolutionary understanding of the relationship between traditional and avant-garde poetries, Kostelanetz finds them to be engaged in a battle to the death. His dichotomous view of contemporary poetry (one often gets the feeling that a poet is either experimental or morally deficient) comes across very strong in this retrospective, and one suspects that Kostelanetz's polemical tone may in itself have significantly hindered the development of the new poetry.

Surveying the old poetries in a series of reviews and articles on American poetry since 1949, Kostelanetz expresses an almost obsessive fear of and distaste for any poetry that...

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Peter Frank

Fiction is the last battleground between modernism and the academy, and is the best demonstration of the alliance and pattern of succession that modernism and post-modernism have established. The "innovative fictions" sampled in Breakthrough Fictioneers are seen by editor Richard Kostelanetz as moving…. In proving his point Kostelanetz draws on the work of ninety-eight authors, the inclusion of some of whom in an anthology of "fiction" may seem far-fetched, no matter how generous the rationale. But that rationale is elucidated with convincing insight with the observation that "fictions … favor sequential forms (and yet remain distinct from film), or the difference between the material on one page and its...

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