To Steve Tomasula, literature is the “wild west” of the arts today.
“As an artistic medium, the revolution that’s gone through music and the visual arts is now happening in books,” said Tomasula, an associate professor in the Notre Dame Department of English and director of its Creative Writing Program.
Consider trailblazing painter Robert Rauschenberg, who once sold one of his abstract paintings for a now unthinkable $16. “Nobody knew what art was becoming,” Tomasula says. “There was a time when they knew it could no longer take on traditional forms like portrait or landscape painting, but they weren’t sure what else it could become.
“Right now, publishing is in similar turmoil, which I think is really good for literature. Recently, multinational corporations dominated publishing, but the marketplace is becoming a lot more fragmented—the way it also has with, say, music—and that makes it interesting to think what literature can be.”
Tomasula’s own writing has been called a “re-invention” of the novel that crosses visual as well as written genres, drawing from science and the arts, and exploring how people represent each other. He won the 2010 Mary Shelley Award for Excellence in Fiction for a “new-media” novel titled TOC, which he describes as “a meditation on time” that the reader alternately reads and watches. Published on DVD, the novel is a hybrid of text, sound, animation, and art.
He has also published literary criticism, and more than 50 short stories in magazines such as McSweeney’s, Bomb, The Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, and Western Humanities Review.
Tomasula says he encourages his creative writing students to think expansively. “Most people think of fiction as story telling where the content is more important than how the story is told,” he says. “But what distinguishes literature from other kinds of writing is how it’s written. So one of the things I do in a class is get students to think of text as a medium—such as clay to a sculptor or sound to a composer—and ask, ‘How are you going to work this material?’”
Such questions will continue to be at the center of Tomasula’s own creative work as he embarks on a one-year Howard Fellowship to finish a new novel called Ascension.
“The book follows different ways we have represented nature,” he says, “ranging from early naturalist sketchbooks up through today when it’s all digital and genetic.”
Tomasula says he drew his inspiration for the work from an entomologist who studied fleas. “He was able, from the anatomy of fleas, to deduce that they were all on one land mass at one time. And this was well before Pangaea was accepted as fact.
“I don’t make up much of anything of my books, really,” he says. “I try to draw on actual things so my books are this kind of hybrid between fact and fiction—a collage.”