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Getting Me Wrong: Responding to Some Enclyclopedias

Richard Kostelanetz

Sometime in the year 2000 I discovered in the course of surfing the Internet, surprise, this entry on me on Britannica.com. Later it was reprinted in the Encyclopedia Britannica that was published in 2002 as both a multi-volumed book and a CD-Rom:

b. May 14, 1940, New York, N.Y., U.S. in full RICHARD CORY KOSTELANETZ American writer, artist, critic, and editor of the avant-garde who is productive in many fields.
Kostelanetz attended Brown University (B.A.,1962), Columbia University (M.A.,1966), and King's College, London. He served as visiting professor or guest artist at a variety of institutions and lectured widely.In 1971, employing a radically formalist approach, Kostelanetz produced the novel In the Beginning, which consists of the alphabet, in single- and double letter combinations, unfolding over 30 pages. Most of his other literary work also challenges the reader in unconventional ways and is often printed in limited editions at small presses. Kostelanetz's nonfiction work The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America (1974) charged the New York literary and publishing establishment with inhibiting the publishing and promotion of works by innovative younger authors. His "visual poetry" consists of arrangements of words on a page, using such devices as linking language and sequence, punning, alliteration, parallelism, constructivism, and minimalism.
Among his other works are Recyclings: A Literary Autobiography (1974, 1984), Politics in the African-American Novel (1991), Published Encomia, 1967-91 (1991), and On Innovative Art(ist)s (1992). His films include A Berlin Lost (1984) and Berlin Sche-Einena Jother (1988), both with Martin Koerber.
Kostelanetz issued many recordings and audiocassettes on his own label and edited works on musicians such as B.B. King and Philip Glass. His A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes was published in 1999.

This is pretty accurate, literate, and fair in my judgment, not only placing me as "avant-garde" but identifying me as a "radical formalist" in my creative work and acknowledging my activities in several literary domains and art media, including my more scholarly works (Politics in the Novel) along with the more polemical (The End of Intelligent Writing) and the more experimental.

What's missing are the factors that makes the entry such a genuine surprise to me. Though the radical character of my art and activities is identified correctly, there is no acknowledgment of the difficulties I've continually encountered, functioning as I have with no positions, no power, no patrons, no agents, no "elite" affiliations, no loyal commercial publishers, too much integrity, no best-sellers let alone good-sellers, no publicists (other than myself, alas), no literary-political machine whose tail I could be, a distance from fashion, scant notice in the most prominent reviewing media, no single "handle" such as poet or critic by which my work can be grasped, disadvantageous race and gender, and endless obstacles (still) in getting my strongest work into print. Most of the magazines publishing me have small circulations. Some of my books were even self-published, which has been regarded as suicidal professionally. Since some colleagues find it remarkable that I've survived at all as a writer, recognition in Britannica was unthinkable to me (and no doubt to others) until it happened. One editorial assumption might be that, since most individuals honored in Britannica arrive there without so many disadvantages, there is no need to mention them. Culturally backward though this venerable encyclopedia might have been in the past, perhaps it no longer is. To check the quality of its selections, I entered a few dozen names into its search engine, available on www.britannica.com. While several names should be in the book, I couldn't identify any already listed there who, in my judgment, didn't merit inclusion, thankfully. Anyone with an internet connection can make his own test.

With the text of this Britannica entry in mind, consider the later entry on me in the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of American Writers (2001), promoted so frequently on C-Span, where I first learned about it. Here I follow Jerzy Kosinski, whom I've followed before (except not into suicide,) and precede the academic literary critic Murray Krieger, whose proximity to me is new. This opens: "Kostelanetz attended Brown and Columbia universities and King's College, London, and has since been a visiting professor or guest artists at a variety of institutions and has lectured widely." Twice I had to look to realize that this differs from Britannica in implying that I failed to take any degrees, which is, of course, false.

Merriam-Webster continues: "He became associated in the 1960s with the avant-garde group of artists known as Fluxus." This is simply wrong, as an association with any group is not my style and Fluxus admitted few new people after 1966, when I moved downtown in Manhattan. The entry continues: "His output, which has included performance pieces, recording, art, and films, has been bewildering in its size and variety." Flattered though I am by the encomium "bewildering," this errs in crediting me with "performance," which is one art I don't do. How these last inventions happened isn't easily imagined. One hunch is that the unidentified writer is confusing me with my closest professional colleague–the late Dick Higgins.

The Merriam-Webster then describes In the Beginning, which is so scarce that I suspect that its anonymous author read not the original book but the Britannica entry, to no surprise, before listing some titles of my books and only books. No titles appear for my work in media other than print, even though one theme of my work has been establishing that writers can work as writers in audio, video, film, and holography. Trying to be helpful, I wrote the publisher a letter proposing some corrections, but never got a reply.

The phrase "productive in many fields" appeared before in the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature (1995), which also introduces me as an "avant-garde writer, artist, critic, and editor," placing me between Kosinski again and the Hungarian writer Dezsö Kosztolányi (1885-1936), whose name seems to resemble mine, perhaps in the common derivation from the Spanish Costallanos. This entry repeats the universities I attended without giving me any degrees along with the description of my In the Beginning quoted before. The same entry is repeated word for word in Webster's Dictionary of American Authors (1995), which has a blanket acknowledgment of the M.-W. Encyclopedia on its title page.

Credit the unidentified author of the entry in the HarperCollins Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature (2002) with ignoring the other compendia, as it emphasizes a few facets of my activities to the neglect of others. This latest successor to Reader's Encyclopedia edited previously by William Rose Benet (1948), Max J. Hertzberg (1962), and George Perkins (1991) opens with a definition of me as "editor, poet, novelist," which is perhaps more generous and avant-garde than the unidentified author knows, as the books of mine approaching book-length fiction have either numerals exclusively, blank pages behind a printed cover and title page, only line-drawings that evolve in systemic sequences, or paragraphs no more than two words long, all of which is to say my "novels" are scarcely conventional. HarperCollins continues: "Kostelanetz is an advocate of experimental techniques [true] and editor for otherwise unpublishable writers." The latter is not quite true. I've compiled an annual titled Assembling, which has become a generic epithet for gatherings ostensibly devoted to "otherwise unpublishable" work printed by contributors who have sufficient respect for their work to want to see it assembled alphabetically by author's surname into books. These ten Assemblings are quite different from the more than three dozen anthologies I've edited of literature, criticism, and social thought, all of them drawing nearly all their contents from work previously published.

The writer behind HarperCollins continues about me: "He attracted attention with The End of Intelligent Writings: Literary Politics in America (1977), alleging a conspiracy by the New York literary establishment to silence innovative writing." This description of my longest book of literary criticism is less false than at once exaggerated and insufficient. "Assembling Press, Future Press, and RK Editions–his publishing labels have been open to writers excluded by mainstream publisher. [True.] For the most part these have been the entities in which he published his own long list of titles [not true, even with gross counting], though Wordworks: Poems New and Selected (1993) and the critical essays in The Old Poetries and the New (1981) were published by well-known presses." Here the writer flatters, respectively, BOA Editions and the University of Michigan Press in the course of implicitly neglecting Routlege, Schirmer, Morrow, Praeger, DaCapo, Macmillan, Dial, Avon, Dell, Penguin, and Prentice-Hall, all of which have published books of mine but apparently are not so "well-known."

That's the entire HarperCollins entry, conspicuously lacking mention of many activities acknowledged in the other compendia such as, say, Britannica. Insufficiencies notwithstanding, one virtue of HarperCollins is characterizing me as a radical about whom unique remarks can be made. Bless 'em, I guess.

A few years ago, a much longer entry appeared, again to my surprise, in A Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers (1996), edited by Peter Parker for the Fourth Estate imprint in England and Oxford here. I say again surprised not only because I didn't know anyone connected to this book, not even on the list of advisors, but because it appeared initially in England, where only a few of my books have appeared, which I've visited only once for a few days since completing my year at King's College in 1965.

This entry is peculiar in emphasizing my fiction:

"Kostelanetz's chief claim to our interest is that he is probably the world's most experimental writer, or at least he represents the farthest extreme of the formalist approach within the broader field of 'experimental writing.'  He goes much farther along the route more popularly associated with Georges Perec, who wrote a novel without the letter 'e.' Kostelanetz's work includes a novella with no more than two words to a paragraph, a story with only single-word paragraphs, a 'novel' of 1,000 blank pages, stories composed exclusively of cut-up photographs, 'narratives'--one of book length--composed entirely of numerals, and a good deal more, often of some complexity, including film, video, and audio-tape pieces.  His output in 'visual poetry,' a medium between poetry and painting which differs from most concrete poetry by being non-linear and non-syntactic, is among his most significant work."

Here I appreciate the writer's familiarity with my more experimental books, along with acknowledging the distinction, important to me, between visual poetry and "concrete poetry." Much as I enjoy being portrayed so superlatively, I can't be alone in thinking I must have strong competitors for "the world's most experimental writer." While the remainder of the entry acknowledges a few anthologies of mine, nothing is said about my efforts at criticism or cultural history, which are equally radical to some and certainly important to me. You'd think the unidentified author of the entry, might not even know about these activities, though the entry concludes with a fairly complete bibliography including "non-fiction" that was perhaps compiled by someone else. Here my name appears after Kosinski again but before Stanley Kowalski, as this book includes entries on literary characters (here from Streetcar Named Desire), as well as authors. Incidentally, friends, particularly in the academy, are surprised to know that I have not a clue who selected me for any of these books, I assume because in academia one can always identify someone bestowing favor, for whom favor might in turn be done.

Less scholarly than the others criticized here, nndb.com characterizes me as a "Prodigious avant-garde artist and author," which is accurate, measuring my "level of fame"  as "niche," which is probably right as well, in addition to directing its readers to my "official website" for further information, which is also correct.  Where the anonymities behind this encyclopedia fail is in their list of "author of books," identifying only thirteen titles, with nary a mention of my work(s) in other media. Scholarly this isn't.

What the discrepancies in these entries reflect finally is that encapsulation of me must be problematic, in spite of all my attempts to clarify. Not only is my work various and unconventional, defying both in sum and in part previous categories of appreciation; but the dimensions of my activity are perhaps unprecedented for a writer and unique as well. More seriously, my career has not benefited from publicity people to tell not only book reviewers but, by extension, encyclopedia writers how my activity should be best regarded. Given such disadvantages, glad I should be that the unidentified encyclopedists discovered me on their own (or through each other), even if their entries are askew. Don't get discouraged, I must tell them, as I know that in drafting an entry on me you should be credited for assuming additional problems. Nonetheless, one reason to write this essay, aside from recording my own puzzled pain and pleasure, is helping later encyclopedia scribes to get me better, if not right.

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