I hear people say this about literature a lot, particularly literature that exhibits some obvious formal property, which means that it acknowledges that it is doing something formal—

—as if any text we construct does not play by formal rules, as if laying sentences down one after another, subject and predicate, is not a received form, or if the arc of narrative is not a received form.

Clever is meant as subtle critique. The reader is worried that the writer may be too clever. Smarter than them. They fear that they are, in some way, being had. That the writer is manipulating them—

—though that is what writers do, right? Write. Manipulate. We ask readers to channel us, our words, to try on this simulated mind or world for a little while, as you are doing, sort of, now.

I find it inexplicable. Every piece of writing, particularly an essay, is an experiment. We don't know where we are headed. We are going to try something, to essay, and are not sure where it will end, what the results will be. Some experiments fail and some succeed. Maybe this is what we mean by clever, by simply clever, that the experiment has failed in that the piece we are reading has tried something and failed to accomplish it. That we are in the audience at the magic show and we can see every rabbit stuffed in the thin man's sleeve.

Clever is designed to keep the brain in the box, bounded, subservient to the rest of the stupid stupid body.

It is not a useful comment to trot out in critique. Clever would seem to mean smart, but not yet fully realized. The balls got thrown up but then we lost them. Which is in itself admirable in my mind. At least the story, the essay, the poem, whatever, acknowledges the balls. At least it knows how to throw or levitate them into the air.

Maybe clever means conscious, as in admitting this thing we are creating is artifice. It shows its work. It is to be lauded. Maybe clever can denote ambition. Let's make clever sexy again. Let's bring clever back and let it dance.

(It's tough not to think of cleaver as something to be afraid of. Cleverness isn't dangerous, is it, but cleaverness can cut your fucking face open and expose the brain for what it is: meat meat meat meat meat meat meat meat meat.)
  My approach to everything is clever, to turn the brain loose on text, on form, on letterforms. My interests in the brain finally do terminate in the body. I sort of believe in the maxim that if language wants to deviate from the mean, from the genre expectations, from tradition, then it should protrude pretty obviously and serve a purpose. Is that a maxim? It sounds pretty obtuse.
  That is and is not important. I contain at least two ways of thinking on the subject:  
  I am interested in calling what I do literature, which implies a history, maybe a canon or a capital L, and my sentences react to others' sentences, to some of the great sentences that have been written. How could they not? The brain is aware, even if it does not acknowledge it, in the intricate history of my reading, elliptical and sad as it is. So if I want to write something and call it story, or novel, or essay, or poem, then I am capitalizing on and capitulating to the history of the box that the term encloses and signifies. So when I feel like deviating (and I do, quite often, obviously, flagrantly), then I want to make the journey worth it. The essay should justify its deviation, should make that deviation mean. It should work the formal element that sticks out, that is obvious, that asks the reader to do something a little bit more, cognitively, to read the piece in question. Risk and reward. I want to say that even so-called style-less, realistic, plainspoken writing consists of style. It consists of structure. What clever writing does is that it acknowledges that and says, sure, there are those rules, and they're good, and I'd like to modulate them a little bit, and then the puff of smoke and the story or essay or whatever is off (I don't differentiate between story and essay and poem in this way—they all situate themselves, and are situated, in the same way with respect to tradition, though the traditions themselves are pretty variable) and we can watch it or we cannot, depending on our preference.
  I am a sucker for sentiment, even as I fear sentimentality. I too want to be moved by writing. I don't want it to seem like the writer is just doing it because it's cool—

—cool is the enemy of art and invention; it is risk-averse, ironic, distant—
  Though technical wizardry (which is related to cool: the exploration of a gadget to see what it can be made to do, not just what it does) is worth the effort. It can produce some spectacular results. These results, when they appear, if they appear, are termed briiliant or genius, not just clever. But clever is a stage towards genius. So we should reward clever when we see it and push harder on it, not pull back.  
  If you are of the mind to do so, I suppose you can return to the "main" "text" if you want to: (re)turn to the Questions page