Hey, Britannica!

By Beth Schwartzapfel ’01 / September / October 2006
December 4th, 2006

The Encyclopedia Project,edited by Tisa Bryant ’04 MFA, Kate Schatz ’05 MFA, and Miranda Mellis ’04 MFA(Encyclomedia); available at www.encyclopediaproject.org.

You’ve heard of a fiction anthology. Now here comes a fiction encyclopedia. What’s the difference?

Mary Beth Meehan
Top to bottom, encyclopedists Miranda Mellis, Kate Schatz, and Tisa Bryant.

Fiction grad students Tisa Bryant, Kate Schatz, and Miranda Mellis began their envelope-pushing five-volume Encyclopedia Project with a question: What occurs under the sign of fiction? “That question gives us a lot of room to play,” says Bryant. “Everything occurs under the sign of fiction.” While entries in a fiction anthology might be limited to works of fiction, the encyclopedia’s first volume, published this summer, also includes essays, stories, photographs, and e-mails. There’s a short play titled You Just Have These Moments (An Existential Celebrity Melodrama). Not the sort of stuff you’d expect to find in an encyclopedia. But then, this is not your average encyclopedia.

The encyclopedists like the multiple meanings of the word sign—a zodiac sign, a semiotic sign, or a mathematical sign. But when they envision the entries in their encyclopedia, they think quite literally. “If there was an empty lot, and there was a sign that said Fiction, what people would be in it?” asks Schatz. Bryant continues, “And if we asked all these people to come play in the empty lot, what would they bring to play with?”

Volume I—A through E—is a handsome hardcover art book whose 336 pages begin with “Accent” and end with “Extant.” In between are entries on “Amnesia,” “Chronopathy,” “Cross-dressing,” “Doppelganger,” and “Essay.” The entry about novelist Kathy Acker is an elaborate pictogram. “Dahlia,” by the California-based writer Jaime Cortez, is a short personal essay that weaves together visual art, encyclopedia-style facts (“the American Dahlia Society recognizes fifteen dahlia colors”), and personal reminiscences about childhood and family. Each entry is followed by cross-references to other entries; “California,” for instance, consists entirely of cross-references. Traditionally, says Bryant, fiction is understood to be about “making things up.” The Encyclopedia Project asks what is meant by “made up”—the project “includes the possibility of what is mis- or differently remembered,” Mellis says, and proposes that “fiction as such can sometimes tell the truth more than the truth.”

The project was born while Bryant, Schatz, and Mellis were fiction students in Brown’s MFA program. Gail Scott, a Montreal-based novelist and essayist who was then a writer-in-residence at Brown, urged her students to think about the fact that “there is an entire field of work and thought that is about poetry—about critically thinking about poetics—and there really isn’t a similar thing for fiction,” says Schatz. Scott challenged them to “put some grant money where our mouths are,” says Schatz, and start a publication.

They knew from the start they didn’t want to produce a literary journal. Rather, they wanted their project’s form to speak to the ideas in it. An encyclopedia, with its weighty goal of containing and cataloging all the world’s knowledge, gave them the opportunity to poke fun at the impossibility of the task, and cross-referencing let them make unlikely connections. Through fund-raisers, private donations, advance sales, and grants from the Graduate School and the Creative Arts Council, the three raised $12,000 to print 1,500 copies of Volume I through their own press, Encyclomedia. They priced the books low, at $25, to make them accessible, and have sold almost forty copies, sight unseen, from their Web site alone. They plan to roll any profits back into the project, and hope the next four volumes will pay for themselves.

The encyclopedists plan to publish a volume a year, reaching Volume V (V through Z) in year five. “F through K is crazy,” says Schatz. It includes hot-button “Fallujah” and “Katrina,” as well as such timeless literary concerns as justice, fiction and form, and feminism. If Volume II is anything like Volume I, however, entries will also teach us how to play “snapper comet” or “Make a Dadaist poem.” That is to say, they’ll be playing in an empty lot, and you’ll be invited.

Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance writer in Providence.

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