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Ubu Publishes the Unpublishable

Writer Blake Butler's guide to some of the most gloriously and perversely unpublishable texts you can read for free online at UbuWeb.
February 26, 2015, 9:00pm

From 'Between Words' by Elisabeth S. Clark

Why does one book get published while another doesn't? Who makes this decision, and when, and why? It's a question that's been asked over and over since the dawn of publishing, I'm sure, and without any kind of actual answer, because in the end the answer is something unsatisfying and meaningless like: "It just did." Someone somewhere with specific tastes and access to power said it could exist outside itself, and so it did. And there are certainly elements, at least in mainstream publication, that one could list to try to define what makes something desirable for publication, probably to great snarky effect—you happened to have written a veiled novelization of the hit TV show Friends, for instance, or perhaps your Dad happens to be having sex with an editor at Knopf—but instead let's take a look at the opposite, more mysterious end: What makes something unpublishable?


At the end of the day, we know, unfortunately, that so much of this comes down to money. I think we all thought that when the internet came along and technology got cheaper we would see the reins be freed, that cheaper access to widespread distribution meant more insane shit could be given wide terrain, but somehow almost the opposite has become more true: There is so much now—major house presses, independent presses, vanity presses, electronic presses out the ears, not to mention the daily miles and miles of social media—it's hard to know where to ever look, and the majority often ends up looking where the most eyes go—the flash of keywords, sharing, brands.

Fortunately, at the same time, the nature of the archive also grew; that is, the more obscure things, while perhaps not trending on some barf-bag social website , can be housed, and searched out and found, all for a relatively low cost, if you are willing. One such vital experiment, as such, is UbuWeb, founded by celebrated poet and White House guest Kenneth Goldsmith, which for years has been housing massive gigabites of work that exists outside the lines—from audio archives of rare performances by avant-garde musicians and video artists, known and unknown, to whole lifetimes of textual and interpretative work dug up and given new life online.

Among their many recovery projects, available free for your perusal, one is Ubu Editions, whose stated goal out of the gate has been "bringing vital new literature to the attention of a wider public—while moving into an area that most small press publishers are not able to approach: reprinting important works from the past decades that are too commercially unviable to do as print books." Among these, their series, Publishing the Unpublishable , provides a particular kind of eye into the question of what makes something accessible, permissible, or not.


"What constitutes an unpublishable work?" Goldsmith asks on the introduction page. "It could be many things: too long, too experimental, too dull; too exciting; it could be a work of juvenilia or a style you've long since discarded; it could be a work that falls far outside the range of what you're best known for; it could be a guilty pleasure or it could simply be that the world judges it to be awful, but you think is quite good." Perhaps the most important idea here, in my mind, is the concluding one, distinguishing the importance of preserving uncompromised individual vision, beyond all cultural commodification, particularly in the era of the hashtag.

In whole, it's an appealing premise, and the result is an array of truly widespread, and often extremely fetishistic, personal, and astonishingly meticulous creations. Some of the manuscripts consist of huge dumps of every poem the author had written and not collected over their entire life, amassing vast catalogues of language, arrangement; others, rather, have particular intents of such unwieldy stature that they were likely imagined never to be seen by the world ever at all. Some had been withheld by the author for what they'd assumed was an ingrained weakness in the work, such as poetry written at a young age or while still learning a new language , which once then allowed to be seen in the context of a long career thereafter provide new light on the way one learns to write at all. And yes, some are simply too long, or too short, to be feasible as objects, or full of so much white space in relation to the text that it might have seemed wasteful to print it out.


Though what is waste in art? Who decides where the value lies? Often, we know, it is the people with the money, who in the end get to say yes or no to what exists and what won't, though now, with the supposed freedom of the internet, why couldn't anything be free? Why couldn't the most insane and unmanageable thing of all be the one that changed another's person's life? The greatest secret might be hidden in the most obscure document, while all the waste in the world might be the thing that fills the widest percentage of our minds. If nothing else, the chance to stare into the face of deletion and creep around in the bins of what might never have been gives us the chance to see the world a completely different way.

Below are some notes on highlights from this one corner of the Ubu archive, and how they do something all their own; the rest is out there waiting for you.

Bruce Andrews: " WhDiP," a sequence from White Dialect Poetry

This is a 445-page excerpt from a presumably much larger work, apparently consisting entirely of one-word snippets of speech borrowed from rednecks. "Purtiest," one line reads, a mangling, we must imagine of prettiest, leading then into "purty " for pretty, and "fer" for for. Gems like "look-a-here" and "rickollections" and "mistakend" are littered throughout the single column, ringing like a weird uncle in your ear. Putting on display one of the least historically literary ways of speaking ever, each word is a little window onto a world that you're free to imagine more deeply. This isn't a dictionary or a dialogue or even a transcription of conversation from the world, leaving the document in full as something like a skeleton of the brains of a whole certain sort of speaker who, with each word he speaks, offers a mangling of what came before.

From 'By M,' by Mary Jo Bang

Mary Jo Bang: By M

The entirety of this text consists of an image of a single handwritten letter dated from 1951 and signed "To Daddy" and "From Mary Jo," presumably the author as a young girl. The letter is coined entirely in childish all-caps penmanship and with the labored grammar of someone learning how to write; its simply stated inquiry as to when the father is coming home, followed by a brief list of events experienced during Halloween without him, is moving in the way that child's art often is: because it does not know anyone else will ever be looking; because it does not attempt to mask its heart. Depicting this letter as an unpublishable manuscript alone asks several questions: What makes this one-page message any less publishable than a novel? In what way does it tell so much more of a story than hundreds of pages of constructed plot? How can there not be a story in almost anything? Better, it doesn't try to answer those questions; it just is.


Tan Lin:BIB.

BIB. appears to be a 269-page list of everything its author read over a seemingly arbitrary period from January 10, 2006, through October 31, 2007, including the time and place of taking in not only books and magazine articles but student work, emails, eBay and Amazon listings, invitations, insurance-claim requests, Netflix reviews, and any other possible form of incoming text. The list is surprising in that it is somehow satisfying to see the forming of the queue of kinds of things that had come in, and whether they were skimmed or not, where the reader was, etc. Like Knausgaard, but without the blather, it creates a kind of itinerary of one's life, realizing how much can be imagined of what was going on in a person's head simply by understanding what he was thinking about or was made to look at. Somehow you get the idea you are by his side throughout, experiencing a completely different kind of memoir.

Alan Licht:Spring Without Alan Licht

The first two lines of this text, composed by the avant-garde jazz guitarist, go like this: "O, we re ookg, u, weer, u, ross, u, Irq obvousy ere for e ex sever dys, u, we ve, u, uy some good, good weer s expeed. Tey dd ve sdsorm ere erer, u, over e s weve o wey-four ours ose wds ve subsded d w uy oue o subsde." It continues on like that to the end, only occasionally dropping a recognizable word or number. It offers one way in and no way out. It exists because it does and it doesn't give a shit what you do with it, where it takes you. And yet it is itself. It has a mind. It doesn't open the mind for you. You can't have what it has, unless you can. And whether it goes anywhere or not is less the point than to allow one's self to be beguiled by it, or angered by it, as sometimes the very thing that makes something art is that someone else would say it isn't. Either way, the utterance continues: "U, ere w be eoug of wd ross e souer poro of e oury s my use some bowg sd omorrow. Oerwse we're ookg er o pry oudy skes og d omorrow, u, e weeked, u, s good weer, d e we oud ve sorm, u, geerg some srog wds, u, for Sudy g d Mody, u, eve e possby of e r Bgdd. U, urrey we ve, u, u, resg oudess, u, fores oy og, u, 's go be brsk d y, empe- rures geg dow o e mdde-res, d e some, u, erme r s expeed omorrow d omorrow g."

From 'Between Words' by Elisabeth S. Clark

Elisabeth S. Clark:Between Words

Perhaps the text with the most literal title in the database, Clark's text is an reimagining of a classic text, Raymond Roussel's insane and surreal Impressions of Africa, where Clark has gone through page by page in the original and removed everything but the punctuation. As such, she takes a work of extreme imagination and renders it brain-damaged, leaving only the scaffolding behind, and in the process revealing an underlying map of surprisingly sublime structure. Each page, removed of its language, has a nearly musical appearance of its own, at last removed of all the noise of syllables and sentences, and exposed to stand free, on its own. The pages weirdly remind me of levels of a crude video game, or perhaps a face, or some John Cage-creation no instrument could ever play. Perhaps this is not something you read like a book but instead hang on the wall and use as a reminder that within every book are hidden worlds, layers upon layers for the most part held forever behind the curtain.

Carlos Rowles:The History

And in the end, not all unpublishable texts have to be impenetrable in purpose, or willfully abstract, because the truth is, the components of the system of publication as it stands today are still as fucked and held strangled as they have ever been, despite what freedoms the internet would suggest having allowed. Because to look at a text like Rowles's The History here, one finds something not far off from what history has contextualized as its most titanic of components: work like Céline's, Beckett's, Joyce's, Stein's, Burroughs's, most of which if presented to a major house or even most independent presses would be pushed off into the pile. The obvious components here making Rowles's work difficult are that it begins in the middle of a sentence, employs what seems to be an ongoing run-on, cares little for obvious definition of character or plot, and instead generates its beautiful, frenetic feeling through the relentless melding of image, language, and sound. One page of this text, to be honest, carries more weight than so much of what I've found printed on paper in the last few years, and yet here it lurks buried in an archive labeled impossible. Unpresupposed beauty, it seems, is as much a reason something could be called unpublishable today as any other stumbling block above, calling forth the question of what the process of publication is for at all, outside of some shape of capitalism. I honestly don't know and don't want to know. If anything, it's a reminder that when it comes to creation, the work itself is what must hold up against itself; everything else around it—publication, attention, commendation, cash—means almost as little as the body after death does to the one who died.