Date: December 10, 2011 (Saturday)
Time: 3:09 pm
Location: Cabinet Event Space, Gowanus, Brooklyn
Weather: Cold, white sky
“We have a picture—” says Brian Dillon, UK editor of Cabinet Magazine. “Here we are—of Shaw turning his shed.” Dillon pulls out a photograph of Bernard Shaw in a military suit pulling a shed. Writerly sheds is one of the subjects Dillon will be—no, is—writing about in his forthcoming book, I Am Sitting in a Room, about writers and their workspaces. Thus far, he has written precisely 1079 words—in public, at Brooklyn’s Cabinet Event Space. He has on a white shirt, a dark waistcoat, a red tie, slacks, and grey Converse sneakers. As the first writer in Cabinet Magazine’s 24-Hour-Book Series, in which writers are asked to write an entire book in the space of a day, he has roughly 19 hours to go.
“You had paté?” Sina Najafi interjects from across the room.
“Sorry?” Dillon says and looks up. “Um, I will eat that.”
“I believe you had a BLT,” says Najafi who is writing down Dillon’s answers. “A Fresca.”
“I had a BLT, a Fresca, a coffee, one chocolate biscuit so far,” Dillon says, “and will attempt to have another.”
The 24-Hour Book series is a scheme concocted by the creative intellectual and experimentally inclined editorial minds behind Cabinet, taking as their cue historical literary precedents such as automatic writing of the Surrealists, the bricoleur “making due with what is at hand,” and the Oulipo—a group of French writers and mathematicians who used writing constraints and math problems to inspire ideas and creativity. Editors Sina Najafi and Jeffrey Kastner invited their UK Editor, Brian Dillon, to be the first author in this new series of books by writers and artists written under similar time and space constraints. “We’re going to do it with artists, and writers, and collaborative teams,” says Najafi. “It’s not the right format for every writer or artist.”
“Sina,” says Dillon. “The subject is going outside for a cigarette.” He throws on his tweed jacket and walks outside where it is still bright and very cold.
The room is rigged with the machinery of documentation: on one side there are cameras (both still and video) and tripods on either side of a set of white bookshelves that look like mazes suitable for lab rats. At the other end is Dillon’s desk with a microphone stand. Equidistant from Dillon are two other desks, for the editors. Najafi could be seen dutifully taking notes on every morsel of food that Dillon consumed, as if some quality in the text produced would result in fewer (or more) biscuits for the next writer who would undertake the experiment.
For 6 hours (noon – 6 pm), the experiment is open to the public, which brings to mind a stunt Belgian author Georges Simenon performed in 1927, in which he pledged to enclose himself in a glass room for one week, in full view of the public, while he wrote a novel. I was expecting a kind of side-show environment. But when I first enter there is almost no one there except for the people involved. As my entrance is conspicuous, I have to declaim my affiliation instantly. “BookForum,” I say, and survey the snack table. On it are shredded duck confit, sliced baguette, fresh fruit, mixed nuts, and a bounty of chocolate covered biscuits. I help myself to a biscuit.
The coordinates of the project were simple enough. At 10 am, on Saturday December 10, the subject, Dillon, would begin writing. Twenty-four hours later, the writer would put down his figurative pen (from our observations, he used a computer almost exclusively), and the book would be complete. The number of words (6-8000) was estimated based on the number that Dillon safely assumed he could write based on his prior experience (which included a recent all-nighter pulled for a 5000-word art review).
While he was writing, the editors would attend to the other elements of the bookmaking process. Completed parts of the book would be handed over to the editors for minor editing—copyediting, spell-checking, and fact-checking. The layout designer would arrive at 4 pm to convene with Najafi about the cover design and layout, and additional elements of the book (“The Colophon, a little intro about the series”), and it would be sent to the printers (in Minneapolis) immediately upon completion.
At 10 am the following morning, Sunday December 11, a PDF of the completed book would be simulataneously sent to Princeton where graduate students and faculty members of the Interdisciplinary Doctorate Program in the Humanities (IHUM) would write a series of critical essays about Dillon’s book, which would be compiled in a book, which would also be produced in 24 hours, after which time a Symposium would be held to “consider the book’s influence, past, present, and future.”
Dillon had done very little preparation for the book, except to think of a topic and to come up with some general ideas of what he would cover. The day before, he had met with the team at Cabinet to compile some images, though the images were part of a very limited selection of documents he had at his disposal. These were images of authors standing while writing (Hemingway), writing in their cars (Nabokov), or authors in their beds (Mark Twain, Proust). There was an image of Goethe’s study that Walter Benjamin dreamt about, and Joan Didion with the typewriter she used like a lap-top to type up notes at the airport after a long day of reporting. There were many images of St. Jerome, the Roman Christian theologian best known for translating the Bible into Latin.
About the subject of the book, Dillon says, “It’s kind of prissy and twee. Just like a fixation on your writing space and implements, it’s kind of inseparable. So I’m quite interested in that, and I suppose, my own slightly obsessive relationship with the places.” Yet the topic seemed reminiscent of George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, in which the author documents a few days in Paris by boiling it down to lists of banal events and activities he witnesses. And while I was watching Dillon in his space writing about writers and their spaces, I wondered if this was an attempt at exhausting a subject, but also at getting in some way at the essence of Brian Dillon.
“On the one hand it looks like this Sadistic exercise,” says Najafi. “And on the other in some sense it’s an interesting experiment in what happens in these kinds of compressions. Everyone in some sense has constraints already built in. It’s just usually the constraints are you—your ego, your life-related skills. So this is an exercise in radically compressing one of those constraints, and making it very visible.”
This is not the first stunt Cabinet has pulled in which they’ve put artists and writers under significant duress. In 2009, it presented the Iron Artist at MoMA PS1, in which they had two teams of artists vying before a live audience of 1000 people to create works of art in forty minutes. The work was simultaneously critiqued in writing by a two art critics, also under time constraints.
Najafi was partly inspired by the “fantastic” writing produced for Iron Artist to do the 24-Hour Book. He sensed that the release from the ordinary course of critical reception is perhaps one reason why this might be beneficial, even liberating, to the writer. “In some sense failure and success are not criteria that are operative here,” said Najafi. “It’s not like the books or the series can fail or succeed in the traditional sense of those words.” Najafi mentioned Ludwig Börne’s essay “How to Be an Original Writer in 3 Days.” “It’s all about this in some sense. In order to become a successful writer, you have to leave aside the things that you know.”
After his smoke, Dillon walks back to his desk, puts down his Fresca and a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, and places his tweed jacket over his chair. After typing for a while, he looks up. “First request coming in,” he says and tilts his head toward the microphone. There is a flurry of activity from the editors. Then the room is quiet. His voice booms out from the speakers: “I need a history of St. Jerome.”
Date: December 11, 2011 (Sunday)
Time: 1:34 pm
Location: My kitchen table, Brooklyn
Weather: Cold, cloudy
I receive an email from Sina Najafi that the book has been completed as scheduled.
“Sorry: I forgot to email this to you at 10; we were all falling over, but done.”
The email has a PDF attachment of the completed book, I Am Sitting in a Room. It has a red cover, which bears only the title of the book and the name of the author. It is 74 pages long, split into 6 chapters.
Date: December 12, 2011 (Monday)
Time: 3:25 pm
Location: Dinky, train from Princeton Junction to Princeton University
Weather: Cold, sunny
I read from the PDF, the list at the back of the book of foods that the author ate, which begins:
Saturday, 10 December 2011
10:32 am Earl Grey tea with milk
10:51 am cigarette
12:01 am cigarette
12:03 pm water
1:47 pm cigarette
Date: December 12, 2011 (Monday)
Time: 4:30 pm
Location: McCormick Hall, Room 106, Princeton University
Weather: Cold, dark
“With me, 1, 2, 3,” says Jeff Dolven (the director of IHUM) at the podium in a camel colored sport jacket. He hums, and the entire room hums in unison. (Dolven later explained that the group hum is a playful custom for starting meetings—a balance they aim to strike between the “musical (hum) and meditative (hmmmm).”
Dolven projects an image of the cover of two books, that of Dillon’s (red) alongside that of the book of critical responses, Reception Rooms: An Anthology of Recent Responses to Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room (blue), which was completed as planned and would be released in a few days. “The internet,” he said, “can hardly keep up with this kind of stuff.”
Dolven introduces the subject by illustrating some images from the book like the writer’s spaces of the critics (a tussled bed, and a bench on grassy square of land floating in a river) and excerpts of their essays to show the variety of directions the exploration of “the problem of writing in a room” had taken. “If speed is the negation of space,” he read from an essay he thought nicely captured the substance of their discussions, “then space is the negation of speed. Space therefore is the natural retreat for the author of the 24-hour book harried as he is by a clock hanging over his head; a place that in its complete invulnerability does away with temporal restrictions.”
When Dillon comes to the podium, he says the central problem for him was imagining the voice that could write the book. “Somehow I’ve ended up with a book that sounds like me,” he says and takes a sip of water, “and I’m not sure I like that.”
After Dillon, the four panelists convene before the room, beginning with Brook Holmes, Assistant Professor of Classics. Holmes was titillated by the term “reception,” noting its current status as “buzzword” in Classics circles. She ponders aloud the parallel spaces of writer and critic, and compares Brian Dillon acting simultaneously as writer and reader of his work to St. Jerome acting simultaneously as reader and translator. She speaks of the writer sustaining himself (“there is a list of food in the back”), and after asking “does the critic have a list of food?” responds: “No.” “The critic eats the text.” Another panelist invokes Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text and says he prefers seeing the rumpled beds of the critics over the beds of the writers because the “erotics of the voyeuristic project” seemed more native to the critic, and the “apotheosis of the Barthesian idea of criticism.”
The question of failure is raised and Dillon responds that there was always the possibility of failure, but that in this situation, it would be okay to fail, to produce a blank book. “There was a risk that I would produce nothing. And the risk was taken away in the same gesture.” Najafi adds that they had never discussed “failure.” “There was no contract,” he says. The discussion turns to the “blank book.”
In all this talk about “reception,” and the possibility of a book that contains no writing, I wonder about the reader. “What,” I ask, “does the reader and the public get from a book written in 24-hours?”
“If the reader doesn’t like it,” Najafi interjects, “they have 24 hours to return it.”