Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

In Praise of Semicolons

Buss, Robert William, 1804-1875; Dickens's Dream
Robert William Buss, Dickens’s Dream, 1875 (via)

Literary influence is usually amorphous, which is why an influence-obsessed critic like Harold Bloom has to bring in words like clinamen, tesserae, and apophrades as well as esoteric schools of thought like gnosticism, kabbalah, and psychoanalysis to explain it.

Even when you can identify what one writer took from another, it is often a matter of “sensibility” or some other indefinable; when Borges reverses time to propose that Kafka influenced Browning, he’s referring to an air of menace hovering over a quest and not some more specific gleaning. More narrowly, writers may borrow archetypes or registers, as with the mad king/captain/judge done up in apocalyptic, archaic English that passes from Shakespeare to Melville to McCarthy, or the inward young middle-class woman whose inwardness morally redeems her world that we find in Richardson, Austen, James, and Woolf. But influence is not usually much more precise than that: a tone of voice, a heroic ideal, a vision of nature or humanity.

On the other hand, I know precisely who gave me my immoderate love for the semicolon: John Irving. It was not so much his practice as his outright advocacy that drew me to imitate his punctuation habits. I may not have noticed how semicolon-laden his sentences were if I hadn’t encountered a few interviews with the author where he expressed his faith in the compound sentence; I remember copying into a notebook, at the age of 15 or 16, a few lines from a TV appearance where he mocked (I quote from memory) “the one comma, one period, and you’re out Hemingway bullshit.”

I must have associated what I then found to be his novels’ enveloping atmospheres and knotted plots with his punctuation. In each of his sentences he joins two separate independent clauses, just as in each of his novels he joins his disparate and far-flung characters into one overwhelming destiny. Insofar as I aspired to write fiction that felt as densely fated as his, both complex and unified, it seemed useful to adopt the mark of punctuation that stood for complexity and unity. This is an after-the-fact reconstruction of what were more inchoate teenage impulses; all I know for sure is that I began writing semicolon-studded prose around the 10th grade.

As he always insisted, Irving himself was inspired by Dickens. In his essay on Dickens, “The King of the Novel,” which I read in high school as the foreword to the Bantam Classics edition of Great Expectations and which is more readily available today in his collection, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, Irving writes of the 19th-century novelist:

It was relatively late in his life that he began to give public readings, yet his language was consistently written to be read aloud—the use of repetition, of refrains; the rich, descriptive lists that accompany a newly introduced character or place; the abundance of punctuation. Dickens overpunctuates; he makes long and potentially difficult sentences slower but easier to read—as if his punctuation is a form of stage direction, when reading aloud; or as if he is aware that many of his readers were reading his novels in serial form and needed nearly constant reminding. He is a master of that device for making short sentences seem long, and long sentences readable—the semicolon!

There are two assumptions worth specifying in this passage. First is that punctuation is an aesthetic matter, not a question of correctness: most creative writers aren’t grammarians. Dickens used commas and semicolons to give direction to breath, a script for performance. Over the course of the last century, however, we have split text from speech, literature from orature. Poetry and fiction may trace their roots to song and stage, but modern technology and reading habits have removed the voice from literature. We read silently, whether in public or private.

Both of the 20th century’s major artistic-intellectual movements, oversimplified as modernism and postmodernism, converged on this point, or at least their chief theorists did: think of Hugh Kenner’s observation that modernist poetry is written for the eye in an era when the typewriter democratizes print over script; or Jacques Derrida’s thesis that language in all its iterations is scored by structural failure, and that therefore speech no more than writing can guarantee meaning, value, or authenticity.

Have you ever heard deconstructionists read literary texts aloud? They give the same weight to every word, including a, an, and the, often pausing in pregnant befuddlement after prepositions or conjunctions, as if permanently baffled by every last signifier. (I believe, but cannot prove, that this academic style is the origin of “poet voice.”) Given these assumptions, Dickens’s use of semicolons and other punctuation to give directions for a shapely rhetorical performance can only seem naïve; hence the belief that the semicolon is aesthetically outdated, whatever its grammatical function.

The second of Dickens’s assumptions as explained by Irving is that an excess of punctuation should make a text easier to read. Semicolons, like commas, are clues in the labyrinth of the text: they help you find your way.

The modern conviction, though, is that a text should not be a labyrinth. It should be simple, direct, transparent, and “impactful,” both in its meaning and its design. Think of everything from Strunk and White’s journalistic rulebook to the midcentury popularity of the Helvetica font (as explained by the excellent film on the topic). This is corporate modernism; simplify everything so it is easier to manage. Thoreau may have said “simplify, simplify,” to resist being ensnared by a commercial culture, but over a century and a half later, simplification is one of that culture’s devices to disarticulate (literally) resistance.

Which brings me to the controversial polemic against semicolons, published almost a year ago but now making the social media rounds, that inspired these reflections:

This goes back to that Kurt Vonnegut quote at the top of this story. The semicolon is a flashing red light that says, “Hey, reader, I know things.” And flashy writing isn’t accessible writing.

Consider that roughly 88% of Americans have high school diplomas, but only around 32% have finished college. So along with avoiding what I like to call “$10 words,” like braggadocio, schadenfreude and despoil, sentence length is critical.

I’ll return to the point about class and education shortly, but the Kurt Vonnegut quote alluded to goes like this:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

It’s true that you can’t attend or teach college with that attitude: the ideology implied in the slur “transvestite hermaphrodites,” whatever it means exactly, probably qualifies as gender-based harassment under Title IX. And there is probably a point to made about how the fear of linguistic impurity may reflect a fear of “social impurities” at large: see, for instance, Ezra Pound (“Use no superfluous word”; “Consider the definiteness of Dante’s presentation, as compared with Milton’s rhetoric”).

Moreover, though, note the presumption that formal educational attainment alone gives a person a taste for aesthetic ardor or complexity. This would have been very foreign to Dickens, a reformer and liberal who lacked the classical education once thought to qualify a man of letters. The anti-semicolon article makes an example of H. G. Wells, whose class origin was lower than that of Dickens. Or consider a contemporary writer: Gerald Murnane, also of working-class origins, who is an ardent champion of the long sentence. Or recall the many noted testimonies out of the African-American tradition, from slavery to Jim Crow, from Douglass to Ellison to Baldwin to Wilson to Morrison, about how serious reading and writing may free a person’s mind though the body may be oppressed.

The pseudo-democratic argument that complex thought and expression are fit only for the social-economic elite is bigotry disguised as enlightenment, like so much of what is today called “identity politics” on the left and “populism” on the right, both of which uphold marks of deprivation as signs of authenticity or superior perception, and both of which regard so many of humanity’s treasures and pleasures as the property only of “white males” or “the global elite,” as you like; whereas my credo is not Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” but Borges’s “the universe is our patrimony.”

The semicolon, anyway, is not replaceable by the period, as the author of the above article argues. This idea is corporatist-totalitarian ideology that sees every individual as a fungible element of the labor process. The period separates, but the semicolon separates as it joins. Its push-pull suggests the tense relationship of the clauses it both marries and divorces. Christian Thorne, prefacing his own summa against a more rarified strain of elitist populism, one that favors the exclamation point, puts it this way:

It is through punctuation marks that even ordinary writing overcomes its own ingrained positivism, its tendency to reduce the world to rubble, static things and discrete events. Commas introduce relation to the simplest sentences, as periods do disjunction. Dashes and semicolons establish relation and disjunction at once; they sunder even as they join, which makes them the typographical face of dialectical thought.

Punctuation is often the last thing I do when I write. My tendency is to put a semicolon after every sentence to announce that each element of the text is both irreplaceably itself and part of a discernible if complex structure. (There is an implied social vision here.) Why should a period fall until that structure is completed?

Today we read with our eyes, not our ears, scanning blocks of text as they scroll past for keywords to inform us or, more likely, to support our pre-fabricated idea-identities; we collaborate with the system’s desire to be comprised of predictable component parts. The eliminationists of the semicolon, who want everything bullet-pointed, wish to aid this process. But I aim to disrupt it; I desire my writing to so arrest you in your scan that you must pause and read it again, or aloud. And if I fail, I will only try again tomorrow.

John Irving sometimes comments on the oddity that Kurt Vonnegut was his teacher, given their diverging ideas about semicolons. I’m sure Vonnegut was the wonderful teacher Irving says he was, but at the same period of my life when I was possessed by Irving’s novels, I was repelled by Vonnegut’s. Between the ages of 12 and 20, I started three and failed to finish any; I still haven’t finished one. I was personally affronted by their prose; they were written in an infantile idiom, by a man obviously capable of writing in other registers, so that I felt simply patronized. What does this man who addresses me with babytalk, or, worse, with crude drawings of anuses, think of me?

Irving, by contrast, with his brain-twisting plots and compound sentences, seemed to consider me adult enough to handle whatever came my way. It would be an immeasurable cultural improvement if we all began to have enough self-respect to be offended not by unfamiliar arguments or the treatment of painful subject matter but by oversimplification, condescension, and talking down.

I mentioned above the collaboration of certain modernists or modernisms with the standardization I decry, of which semicolon-eliminationism is a symptom. It was mainly the poets, philosophers, designers, and architects, not the novelists, who were responsible. Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner: each one is discernibly Dickensian. But then there was, as Irving mentioned, Hemingway, and before him Stein and Flaubert, to whom we might trace the MFA routinization of literary fiction. With all these things in mind, I conclude with another passage from Irving’s “The King of the Novel”:

And here’s another wonderful thing about [Dickens]: his writing is never vain—I mean that he never sought to be original. He never pretended to be an explorer, discovering neglected evils. Nor was he so vain as to imagine that his love or his use of the language was particularly special; he could write very prettily when he wanted to but he never had so little to say that he thought the object of writing was pretty language; he did not care about being original in that way either. The broadest novelists never cared for that kind of original language—Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville…their so-called style is every style; they use all styles. To such novelists, originality with language is mere fashion; it will pass. The larger, plainer things—the things they are preoccupied with, their obsessions—these will last: the story, the characters, the laughter and the tears.

“The laughter and the tears” is a bit much—despite my censure of Vonnegut’s scrawled asterisk-asshole above, I am reminded of crude humorists popular in my youth who scatologically mocked “the laughter and the tears”-style advertisements for Oscar-bait movies: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll hurl.” Nevertheless, Irving’s main point stands. A scientific ideology of progress applied to literary language serves the rationalization of all relationships, the confiscation of individuality, and the abolition of the psyche. Think before you delete that semicolon; they may be telling you to delete it because they do not want you to think very much at all.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Q, Conspiracy, and the Novel; or, Why Portraits and Ashes Should Be Your Summer Read

Readers who perceive an esoteric subtext to my writing and who therefore keep a paranoiac tally of my cryptic allusions will recall that I have mentioned the “Q” or “Qanon” conspiracy theory twice. Both references occurred in the context of paranoiac fictions: Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. But there is more to be said about the crossroads where conspiracy and literature meet.

If you are unfamiliar with Q, here is the briefest possible summary I can manage: Q is the pseudonym of a 4chan/8chan message board poster (or group of posters) who claims to have a top-secret security clearance within the Trump administration. He further claims that the administration is mounting a sophisticated revolution or counter-revolution against the “deep state” at home and abroad—against, essentially, the global hegemony of administrative liberalism, which Q accuses of being a nearly satanic force of exploitation and predation, especially sexual exploitation and predation. A regular Q catchphrase: “These people are sick.”

Since last October, Q has regularly posted communiqués in the form of almost poetic questions or fragmentary hints, to goad his audience of Trump supporters to do their own research into the supposed perfidy of the international order. His goal is evidently to prepare a cadre of citizens to spread calm throughout civil society by providing rationales for the defeat of the deep state in a future climax of high-profile arrests (including Obama’s and Clinton’s) and even martial law. Another regular Q catchphrase: “Where we go one, we go all.”

The Q conspiracy is strange on several grounds. First of all, conspiracy theories do not generally assure their adherents that all is well, that the powers that be are on their side. Q takes elements from prior conspiracy theories, particularly those that describe cabals of shadowy perverts who manipulate states and economies, and rewrites them. Q revises conspiracy from a horror story, where evil is all-pervasive and defeated temporarily if at all, into a superhero story, where evil is defeated consistently and predictably by collective good.

In fact, Q is the only example of a positive conspiracy theory I can think of: it says that conspirators in high places are working quietly to serve us, to help us, to bring about the world we desire. In this sense, we might amorally describe it is an innovation in the history of legitimizing authority. A final regular Q catchphrase: “Trust the plan.”

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Another strange feature of Q is that it is becoming mainstream. An advocate for the overthrow of the liberal world order, for a coming military coup and the arrest or even execution of previous elected officials, has just been included by Time on a list of the 25 most influential people on the Internet. While the tone of the write-up, by Melissa Chan, is lightly disparaging, the lightness has a mollifying effect on the reader, as if a military junta were being described in a gossip column:

Last October, an anonymous user, known simply as Q, started posting cryptic messages on the controversial message board 4chan—the common theme being that President Trump is a secret genius and his opponents, namely Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are evil. Q reportedly claimed to be getting this information directly from the government, thanks to top-secret, “Q-type” security clearance. There has been little—if any—hard evidence to support Q’s musings. But over time, thousands of people started to believe them—or at least, to acknowledge they might be real.

Propaganda often works not by arguing for a claim, but simply by placing the claim before audiences as an appropriate object of open-minded discussion. Similarly, almost sympathetic treatments of Q, often with a literary bent, have recently appeared in Tablet and Harper’s.

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TV writer Ted Mann opens his Tablet exploration of Q with an account of his researches while working on Homeland. I have never seen Homeland beyond one episode, but I was once obsessed with another show Mann worked on, Chris Carter’s ludicrously underrated grim and apocalyptic X-Files follow-up, Millennium (1996-1999). The series follows ex-FBI profiler Frank Black, an empath who is able to see through the eyes of serial killers, as he becomes embroiled in an involuted shadowplay among secret societies, intelligence services, and metaphysical forces struggling over the fate of the world ahead of the turn of the titular millennium. It was an uneven but brilliant show that overcame its obvious influences (Se7en above all) to create an uncommonly foreboding and psychedelic vision of a demon-stalked, rain-drenched landscape where goodness is just the fragile flame of one man’s love and integrity. In other words, all the Q themes, but played mournful and slow.

Anyway, Mann, in a worldlier tone than Chan’s, a tone heavy with winking savoir faire and barely withheld knowledge, also manages to “acknowledge that [Q] might be real”:

There’s a lot more to the Q anon story, but you’d never believe me if I told you now. Think of it as a dream. A world without war, a world of tremendous abundance powered by non-linear technology, a cure for cancer, the restoration of civility, kindness and humor to the long-suffering peoples of the earth, God only knows.

We are here witnessing a writer’s admiration for another writer, a writer of pre-millennial dystopias tipping his rumpled noir fedora to the gold-hatted scribe of post-millennial utopias.

These two themes, the literary and the utopian, are played still more insistently in novelist Walter Kirn’s Harper’s essay on Q. Kirn puts his conclusions about Q in someone else’s mouth, but this half-disavowed thesis is the same one we’ve seen above. Kirn “acknowledge[s] that [Q] might be real”:

Could Q have actual foreknowledge? Was he somehow the oracle he purported to be? Having followed the posts for months now, I wish I could summarily dismiss them, but so outrageous is our current reality, so reliably unpredictable and odd, that it does not seem impossible to me that there might exist an internet seer stationed in the White House whose job is to brief lowly geeks on global intrigues. My friend Matthew, who saw combat in Afghanistan and has reported on intelligence issues, believes that Q may be the result of psyops conceived to maintain morale among Trump’s base.

To be fair to all the above writers, I am in agreement with their arguments and intimations, not least because Mann and Kirn seem to have inside information (as I do not): even if the Q conspiracy theory is untrue as stated, Q himself (or themselves) is likely not some shitposting chan troll but rather a mouthpiece for genuine powers that be—for “powers, principalities, thrones, and dominions,” to quote Ted Mann quoting St. Paul.

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Which makes me all the more bemused (or should I be alarmed?) at Q’s so far rather blasé reception in mainstream media, especially in its more literary corners. What is going on? Is the discourse hedging its bets? Or is it only the old Pynchon/DeLillo phenomenon: novelists’ envy of those who write novels with nations and lives?

Like Ted Mann, Walter Kirn frames his Q analysis with a discussion of fictional narrative. He first recounts his failed attempt, over a decade ago, to create an Internet novel, and he concludes by stating that Q, though working for disturbingly authoritarian ends, shows the way to a genuine literature, fragmentary and participatory, for the current age:

The Q tale may be loathsome and deeply wicked, a magnet for bigots and ignoramuses whose ugly dreams it caters to and ratifies, but as a feat of New Age storytelling I find it curiously encouraging. The imagination lives. A talented bard can still grab and keep an audience. Now for a better story, with higher themes. Now for the bracing epic of recovery that the dark wizards have shown us how to write.

Well said. I would find it well said, since my novel Portraits and Ashes is a story of art and conspiracy, paranoia and redemption, that acknowledges the mysterious forces pervading and degrading our world even as it also shows how they may be transcended by men and women committed to love and beauty. It is undoubtedly indecent to write propaganda for oneself, but I don’t know what to say or what to do about the paranoid forces marauding my country and my world; all I know is that I wrote Portraits and Ashes to drive myself sane. I hope it may do the same for you.  A page-turner and a philosophical novel, Portraits and Ashes will satisfy your desires both to indulge paranoia and to recover from it. From the back cover:

Julia is an aspiring painter without money or direction, haunted by a strange family history. Mark is a successful architect who suddenly finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice is a well-known artist and museum curator disgraced when her last exhibit proved fatal. Running from their failures, this trio is drawn toward a strange new cult that seeks to obliterate the individual—and which may be the creation of a mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist.

Plus, it is a literary novel that will also serve for the beach or the plane. If you ever get sick of the news or its refraction in social media’s mazy and scary missives, Portraits and Ashes will come as a relief: a novel for our exciting and petrifying millennium.

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Images 1-3: screencaps from the opening credit sequence of Millennium.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

My Year in Books, 2017

But let’s start with movies. Ten years ago, the Scottish musician and critic Momus observed that one of the most acclaimed films of 2007, Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-Civil-War fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, was morally and politically simplistic and (or because) artistically complacent. He gave ten objections to the film; I will quote the first two:

1. The film bore all the hallmarks of COG screenwriting. COG screenwriting is the opposite of personal vision, the opposite of imagination. It’s screenwriting as taught by “experts” in screenwriting class, a kind of brutal, plot-advancing writing style based around a Centre of Goodness (COG) who wins the audience’s sympathy (usually by pure genetic superiority — ie a very good-looking actor is cast — but also by a series of sufferings overcome throughout the narrative). It takes no prisoners — and no risks. COG screenwriting is the filmic equivalent of modern managerial techniques. It’s brutally efficient — yes, it can and will make you laugh and make you cry — but the difference between a film made by a COG director like Guillermo del Toro and an artist like Jodorowsky or Arrabal is like the difference between a house designed by a Project Manager and one designed by an architect. I will not let del Toro pass for an artist. I’m sorry, critics. He is a cinematic Project Manager.

2. The film’s moral universe is one that was decided by the events of the 1930s — the once-and-for-all template, apparently, for all clear moral distinctions. There’s a Manichean division — hammered home to us by means of graphic depictions of brutal violence — between the good characters (Jews, resistants, children) and the bad ones (cartoon Spanish Nazis). Needless to say, in an age when the worst politics trades on exactly this sort of Manichean division, this is in itself a problem. The film teaches us to hate the baddies (its own violence-justifying “Axis of Evil”) and long for their deaths, “richly deserved”. In other words, the film brutalizes its audience (in a way that, for instance, the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki has resolutely refused to do, to his enormous credit) by making us long for certain human deaths. The film becomes, in its own way, totalitarian for this reason, although it doesn’t seem to realize it.

Momus’s decade-old critique comes back to me at the end of 2017 because I recently saw del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a film that is if anything cruder than Pan’s Labyrinth. Depicting a cartoonishly oppressive past—in one scene, a straight white diner worker berates a gay man and then literally leaps to his feet to eject some black customers while he’s at it—the film uses its fairy tale armature as an excuse to arrange easy moral and political binaries that at first seem in line with contemporary liberal thought. The villain is another straight white man, inexplicably and totally malign, and the heroes are all outsiders (female, disabled, queer, and/or black). But uncritical stereotype replicates like a virus irrespective of good intentions, and The Shape of Water has some of the direst clichés of race, gender, and sexuality I’ve seen in a supposedly artistic film, from the repressed whimsical mute white girl (Amélie by way of The Piano) to the sassy black girlfriend (I would allude to The Help, but del Toro makes The Help look like Quicksand).

A film I did like in 2017, one no less monster-ridden than del Toro’s, is Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. I smuggled an essay on it into what was nominally a review of César Aira’s extraordinary novel, Ema, the Captive, since I saw both narratives purposefully manipulating myths and stereotypes toward the end of befuddled sublimity rather than moral clarity:

I went to see Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant this weekend; I was surprised to discover that its villain, aside from various iterations of H. R. Giger’s monstrous xenophallus, was Oscar Wilde: or rather, David, self-named for Michelangelo’s sculpture, an android become an omni-cultured aesthete, cultivator of monstrous lifeforms for their own sakes, explicitly queer seducer. Condemning nature and himself artificial, spawning new life not through insemination but through the ideological organization of organic matter (including the forced insemination of others and the gender-disordering conversion of men into mothers, i.e., incubators for the aliens of the title), the film’s antagonist is a flagrant allusion to the Wilde archetype: the Platonic idealist as dandiacal aesthete, sexual antinomian, threat to public order, and, eventually, martyr.

[…]

Though Aira wrote [Ema, the Captive], according to its subscription, the year before the first Alien film’s release, this coincidence is not exactly an accident, as both the avant-garde novel and the pop-culture film franchise are playing variations on the same coupling of narrative genres: the imperial romance with the gothic romance. Both narratives show colonizing missions derailed by inhuman assault. The difference is that Aira’s audience is a minuscule fraction of Scott’s, so he is allowed his indifference to public life—allowed, that is, to openly side with the inhuman.

The piece on Alien/Aira is my favorite of my own essays of the year.

Why, anyway, is complexity important? Why should artists be allowed to “side with the inhuman”? Why not sit back and enjoy a rousing tale of good vs. evil? Momus, recall, was writing at the end of the Bush era, when an aggressive war that claimed millions of casualties was launched with the stated aim of fighting evil. That war’s devisers have by and large been rehabilitated in American public life, their worldview now seen as progressive, if slightly errant, and mainly on the right side of history. (On this topic, see Jackson Lears in the most recent London Review of Books.) 

While the most successful piece I wrote this year—it was quoted in the Washington Post; though, in a sign of the times, Facebook drove far, far more traffic—argued for aesthetic criticism as opposed to political criticism, aesthetic criticism itself bears a politics. It is a politics of circumspection and ambiguity, a suspicion of action, even a deferral of judgment. The politics of no-politics, the comrades used to call it, and no, it will never be popular; it doesn’t have to be, so long as it is at least able to inform popular or activist or pragmatic politics. This used to be the job of the arts and humanities: not job preparation or ideological indoctrination, but training in, for lack of a better word, irony. “Negative capability,” as the poet called it.

Though I didn’t plan it as an antidote to the social climate, I read a lot of lyric poetry this year: John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Virgil, Claudia Rankine. And two epic poems: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Derek Walcott’s Omeros.

Walcott, who died in 2017, exemplifies the difficult question of what to do with the beautiful art when the artist’s behavior was ugly. My thesis on that question will displease some, but I think it will prove durable as moralism falls short of answering every cultural question:

And why would we even attend to such art if not to recognize not only our ideals but also the corruptions of those ideals, in the probably—but not quite certainly—vain hope of transcending them to become a better person in a better world tomorrow? We like our poets scarred and wounded, but perhaps we should learn to appreciate them no less—strictly as poets, not as people (as people, they are and should be subject to ethical and juridical law)—when they are wounding and scarring, unless we think we are always and only the victims in our own stories and never the perpetrators. If we claim to be unmarred by the so-far endemic evils of human nature, why should anyone believe us? Your fave is problematic; you wouldn’t want it any other way.

In Dante, who lived so long ago and in such a different place that it hardly seems worthwhile to criticize his morality or politics (you might as well criticize him for not having had a smartphone), I found a politically and spiritually totalizing imagination complicated by the will to poetry:

God is the artwork that holds the totality of experience, including every opposition (male/female, spiritual/temporal, good/evil) in perfect balance and tension. God is the total book, the highest epic—or, as an incorrigible post-Christian like myself might insist, the supreme fiction. God is the Divine Comedy.

I spent an appalling amount of the summer reading a prose epic (or mock-epic) that speaks uncannily to the paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that characterizes so much of the American imagination today, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: 

Pynchon emphasizes that we common people are also, in a sense, Them: “The Man has a branch office in each of our brains,” we read toward the novel’s conclusion; our own manias and psychoses, our own dreams and desires, draw us into the quest for power that puts us in Their hands.

Another perverse American classic I read and will remember was Melville’s beautifully bizarre Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, whose subtitle states my whole agenda:

Pierre is a domestic, sexual Moby-Dick; it shows that you do not need to be at sea to find yourself shipwrecked on your own reckless journey toward the reality you intuit behind reality.

Other great novels were read or re-read and will have to go unmentioned, though re-readings of The Scarlet Letter, My Ántonia, Quicksand, The Ghost Writer, and Paradise stood out. Speaking of novelists, I was pleased that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize and not even too displeased that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker. For more, you could always see the review index.

If it is not too much of a sin to be pleased with oneself (Dante understands that he will spend time on Mount Purgatory for pride), I enjoyed writing an unofficial trilogy of essays this summer on Angela Nagle, Grant Morrison, and Boris Groys. By reading these three very different writers together, I began to understand more about the central dynamic of western art: rebellion against anything that seems official, established, middlebrow, and boring. Nagle, for all the controversy occasioned by her book, grasps this better than anyone, even if I question her belief, in this hour of reactionary rebellion, that old-fashioned Marxist politics offers much of any solution:

Readers of my essays on writers as various as Georges Bataille, Boris Groys, and Grant Morrison will know that I sympathize with [Nagle’s] downgrading of the avant-garde and the counterculture. Yet the revivified Marxism for which Nagle stands has never shown sufficient psychological awareness of the human necessity for revolt expressed by the ideology of transgression. In seeking to eliminate transgression as a cultural ideal in the name of collective peace and freedom, Marxism and related traditions (Nagle seems likewise drawn to a second-wave-style feminism) have often created the kind of repression that makes someone like Bataille look more convincing than perhaps he should.

How to express what Whitman praised as our “latent right of insurrection” without destroying the world, rebelling against life itself? For answers to that difficult question, I had to leave the realm of criticism: 2017 was the year I ventured upon independently publishing a literary novel, Portraits and Ashes. In that book, I entangle a cast of characters from murderous avant-garde artists to militantly normal suburbanites in a plot about art and apocalypse. A paragraph, to whet your appetite:

At first, she’d tried to write poetry, but she found soon enough that she lacked the strength to strip words of their merely descriptive function, to transform them into events in their own right rather than just labels for events. She wanted to make something happen, not chatter about something that had happened. When she reached high school, she turned to sculpture. Her art teachers recognized her talent and seriousness and allowed her to use what materials she wanted and to sculpt during study hall and lunch and the hour after school. A gallery of men and women, a veritable town full of people, emerged, moist as newborns, from her labor, before she fed them into the kiln’s fortifying fire: naturalistically detailed and geometrically abstract, nude and clothed, suffering, luxuriating, reclining, leaping, dancing, singing. She liked to work in wet clay, to feel the body she intuited taking shape beneath her hands. It made her feel as if she had chanced upon a person in the dark and were palpating him or her for vital information with her sensitive fingers. She won awards; she received a scholarship to the most prestigious art college in the state; she came in second for Most Likely to Succeed in the senior yearbook but won Most Unique.

If you wish in any way to support my work, I would urge you to buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes (or even just pledge to review it publicly in exchange for a free ebook). I hope 2018 contains more reading, more writing, more complexities, and more ambiguities. Happy New Year and thanks for your time!

Buy Portraits and Ashes for Small Business Saturday!

Portraits_and_Ashes_Cover_for_Kindle
There was a debate recently on social media over indie press Tyrant Books’s tweeted proclamation that “they no longer accept agented authors.” The pro-agent side argued that agents were necessary as advocates for the economic and creative interests of authors, while the anti-agent side claimed that agents were bottom-line-focused gatekeepers of the middlebrow, inescapable duller of maverick creativity. This fight reminded me that I have my own interest in promoting independent literature, at least my own!

I generally dislike splits along the lines of indie vs. corporate, avant vs. middlebrow, maverick vs. complacent, because, like all binaries, they are over-simplifying and mutually reinforcing in their reductiveness.

To give the indie side of the debate its due: my own attempt to get a literary agent suggested to me that they tend, no doubt under intense economic pressure, to be a bit too consumed with the middle of mainstream culture. Like any gross generalization, this is unfair to individuals, and I certainly had more success with agents than with small presses, as several agents did generously ask to see more of my work before deciding it wasn’t “a good fit.” But an old interview from The Millions suggests some of the problems with agents as arbiters of literary value:

TM: How do you recommend aspiring writers find agents?

EH: I’m easy to find. Just treat me like you would any celebrity, because that’s sometimes what it feels like for an agent to go to a party. I once dated a writer for months before I found out he was trying to sleep his way to representation. I get it, it’s nice to meet me. In general, I’d recommend cutting to the chase. I’ve had good luck with new writers lately — no mouth breathers in the bunch at The New School’s MFA program — I met some in person on campus, listened to the ones that approached me, invited them to send pages if I thought it was something I’d be interested in, and did/am doing my best to follow up on each one.

It’s rare that I try to go out there and find new clients — they have to come to me. This is almost always done by referral from another writer, editor or colleague. I do look at slush email but only if the queries are short and exciting to me. If they are, you’ll hear one way or the other. If they’re not, I usually just delete.

The it’s-who-you-know clubbiness of the agent/author exchange, as portrayed above and which is in my experience typical, is obviously hostile to writers whose personalities, let alone whose works, may be in any way outside the norm, not to mention outside of the circles of those who would, by virtue of their class and education, already be in a position to get a literary agent. Whatever agents’ value to writers’ careers after the agent has accepted the writer, their function as gatekeepers is not an unalloyed good, and a reform of their practice (if not a minimization of their power) would probably result in a more diverse literary market in every way.

On the other hand, indie-world often constructs itself in too-precise opposition to the middlebrow, and thereby comes to represent not a substantial alternative to mainstream values but a rote inversion of them. I made this point in a long review I published in 2012 in Rain Taxi; the review, ironically enough, was of a Tyrant Books publication, Blake Butler’s excremental novel Sky Saw (at one point, I mis-typed the novel’s title as Shy Saw, and a Germanophone friend suggested I leave the typo as a bilingual pun on scheiße). I ended the review, give or take a paragraph and a couple sentences, with this:

Sky Saw’s promotional material emphasizes this thesis of language’s enliveningly destructive force, even as it also suggests its troubling limitations. The first blurb on the back cover is a lengthy contrast between Butler and Jonathan Franzen taken from a Bookforum review. Franzen, today’s realist standard-bearer, is quoted as saying that the composition of Freedom involved “‘pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and the characters in those stories.’” The Bookforum critic dryly concludes, “Blake Butler is the opposite of that.” In other words, if you want domestic tales told with Oprah-ready narrative clarity and philosophically-naïve linguistic transparency that evades “the barf of phrase,” Blake Butler is here to disabuse you of your complacent illusions. Then, as if to prove the point, albeit with a lack of charity more disgusting than any imagery in the novel, Sky Saw’s promoters quote an exasperated Amazon.com reviewer (by her full name, no less) who blames herself for failing to find one of Butler’s previous books properly instructive: “I must be a daft idiot cause (sic) this book made me want to kill it and myself for even trying so hard.” The message from Tyrant Books is clear: this poor plebe should have stuck with Franzen’s pedestrian prose! It is perhaps not incidental that this figure of back-cover ridicule is a woman, because domestic realism’s main audience was and is a largely female one.

[…]

Extremity carried on too long becomes its own form of complacency—an observation that may apply not only to Sky Saw but to its enabling tradition of bad-boy shock tactics from Sade to Bataille to Burroughs. The full-frontal assault on middle-class morality is, after all, as old as the middle class itself, and what do we have to show for it? Even Franzen’s Freedom contains a scat-fetish scene. There is almost nobody left to shock by the mere act of flinging shit in a novel. Instead of attempting to reanimate the bourgeois family with the realists or to liquidate it with the avant-gardists, maybe we should turn our attention to some other subject entirely, or at least place our emphasis elsewhere.

As suggested by my invocation of male/female stereotypes above, the indie/mainstream opposition is too often also a proxy gender war, going back to modernism, of bad boy against good woman, and while it’s true that some great novels have been written by bad boys and good women, the binary is a stultifying and unimaginative one. You can see the results not only in the undying Beat routine of many indie presses, but also in the commodification of identities in more mainstream publishing, as anatomized at length by Anis Shivani in his thoughtful polemic against “the ascendancy of identity politics in literary writing.” Mine is only a straight white man’s complaint to the extent that straight white maleness has now been as thoroughly commodified as any other identity. (This might well be just desserts, but then again maybe it is not good that this equality-in-debasement, everybody dragged down to the same level, is nearly the exclusive understanding of equality in today’s world, as opposed to the older humanistic model of universal advancement.) Sometimes it does seem as if you have to be either a Cormac McCarthy or a David Foster Wallace, either a Faulknerian hellfire regionalist or a tormented boy-genius maximalist, to be recognized as a writer by the scanners of commercialism. To play along with an entirely inane but not-entirely-wrong way to advertise my fiction: Wallace’s subject matter in McCarthy’s style. (I do use quotation marks, though!)

Which brings me, all complaining aside, to my purpose: I wrote this little piece for a weekend consecrated to commerce. As the hour has just turned to midnight, small business Saturday has begun, and you might celebrate with an independently-published novel that combines the philosophical heft, unorthodox imagination, and incisive cultural critique of small-press fiction with the aspiration toward grand storytelling and memorable characters that is the hallmark of mainstream fiction at its best.

Portraits and Ashes is an artist’s book and an apocalypse, a satire and a romance, a quest and a stillness. Set in a city preyed on by a totalitarian death cult, it tells of the troubled artists who may be the only citizens able to offer resistance. It can be purchased here in print or ebook format.

To whet you appetite I offer two paragraphs loosely connected to the argument above. In this passage, my heroine, Alice Nicchio-Strand, while in the throes of a strange love affair, writes a book attempting to mediate between the claims of the avant-garde and those of common humanity (and if there is another character like Alice Nicchio-Strand in contemporary fiction, I would like to hear about her):

For six months, their ménage à trois went as planned. In those six months, she drafted and sold to a university press her second book: a creative piece, an artist’s book, that described radical and probably impossible artworks that would not, if realized, represent existing landscapes but rather create new ones, unprecedented and dangerous. A lake shimmering at a forty-five degree angle on a mountain’s slope, monstrously large orange fish dotting it here and there, hanging as if from their gaping mouths by the slanted, placid surface of the water. An open-air prison cage in the blazing heat of the desert full of parti-colored birds small enough to slip through the bars but too obscurely indolent to do so; the birds would die and be replaced from time to time. An art gallery that was also a meat locker, dim and frigid, the long rack-ribbed bodies and striated shanks dangling from hooks in dancers’ postures suggestive of a cattle ballet; after their tour of the gallery, the patrons would reward the artists by purchasing the choicest cuts of meat. A beach where each liquid wave that crested and spumed fell as a pane of crystal, smashing and scattering itself in glittery crystals across the shingle. A xeriscape where amid the spiny cacti and orange poppies and wine-stained yarrow grew the bodies of women, long and sinewy fragile-looking stalks with thoughtful faces, who survived on little and would accordingly live long.

Her fanciful little book won her plaudits from the coterie of artists and thinkers she most respected and earned her comparisons to certain revered intellectual fabulists. Somehow it also certified her as a brilliant artist even though she had scarcely made a work of art since deciding to get her Ph.D., because she had not changed her mind about finding the imitation of reality pointless and the creation of more reality almost impossibly difficult, a task with a failure rate so high and a risk of repetition so great that it should only be attempted once or twice a lifetime. Her book struck a compromise: she revealed her extreme and even occasionally murderous visions without inflicting them upon reality. In this, she aimed both to honor and to censure all those hard men of the twentieth century who’d mistaken their dreams for something that had to be done to the world by force. Years later, when she was in the midst of another of her maddening dry spells, when she had abandoned teaching and abandoned writing and had taken up the directorship of the city’s Modern Art Museum out of sheer imaginative exhaustion and desperation, this compromise could not protect her from the intellectual seductions of Frank Jobe, a creature who seemed to have stood up and walked out of the pages of her book.

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Back to School: Literature and Life

Older generations of writers who had come up through the ranks of journalism (and who had often been to war) used to complain about the academic colonization of literature, particularly of the novel, that ostensibly most democratic of forms. In “American Plastic,” for instance, his survey of postmodern fiction, Gore Vidal lamented a context so rarefied and intellectual as to produce the works of Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, and others, which he saw as reaching a professoriate but not a public. William Styron once told Harold Bloom, “Your opinion is irrelevant because you are only a schoolteacher” (Bloom later remarked that he did not remember a sentence as memorable as that anywhere in Styron’s oeuvre).

Whatever one thinks of this trend, it has now reached its apogee or nadir, and I speak wholly from within its context. Here, then, are the fall semester’s books for my literature classes (syllabi here):

fallbooks

Bet you’re envious! Now, whether you are a student who has to write a paper or a professor who has to grade a stack of them, you will certainly need something to read while you procrastinate this fall. Let me recommend a novel by someone who may be a (para)academic but who is at least a relative outsider to the MFA/NYC nexus of today’s mainstream literary establishment: Portraits and Ashes by your humble correspondent, which is to say, moi, or in other words, me. For your delectation, a passage on the topic of education and its relation to a life:

The price they made you pay for the life of the mind was exile. Because you had the hubris to claim that thought could be adequate to your deepest needs, they punished you by forcing you to go wherever they sent you. They dared your self-admired consciousness to build a house anywhere, on alien or hostile ground.

So Alice found herself in this lonely eastern city. To find oneself in a city at all was lucky enough: people she knew in graduate school who had come from cosmopolitan world capitals now spent their days staring at cows or mesas, and while it was possible that these new visions carved irreplaceable grottoes into their minds, she still felt fortunate it had happened to them and not to her. This city, though, had its four strong seasons: its winter so icebound the ice seemed like stone; the summers so burning she thought the sidewalks would melt; the fall with its apple-crisp air and ankle-deep leaves; and the spring, when everything, including the concrete, smelled green and wet like new shoots of wood. This city, small and old and to this day identified with the hard men who had built it and their steel virtues and vices, startled and jarred her senses. It made her feel the deep isolation that comes from losing a land, from learning that your place in the whole intricated reticulation of things was fragile enough to be lost forever with only the passage of a few years or miles. Someone else, someone stronger, might have imagined this mobility to be a form of power, the power to be at home everywhere, as some wise man or other had once said. To Alice, however, it had come with a great and diffuse sorrow, not enough to lay her out flat but sufficient to tint her every glance gray, because she thought of the move from her city to this city as her first death.

Alice came from a place in the desert hills above the ocean. A vast city in the basin between the mountains and the coastal hills spread out its lights beneath her town. There the sun always shone in the clear blue sky, temperately enough, though even the foliage appeared dusty and parched. Whatever steel or iron men had erected the city were long gone, it seemed, leaving only the contented or the desperate. But the whole flawlessly desiccated scene was crowned by the drama of the landscape, the reddish mountains to the east, the western ocean that at evening washed the sun. This landscape with its moderate weather and severe topography moved Alice to poetry because it had the power to shrivel the merely human, to make all our arrangements seem meager and indifferent. Maybe the landscape’s inhumanity explained why the scandalously inequitable city’s affairs were so poorly and cruelly managed, she mused, but it nevertheless gave her, the privileged and ambitious girl, a broad expanse for her mind, or she might even say her soul, to grow in. And anyway, she lived not in the city proper, but in the hills that looked out over the beaches, far from the centers of commerce and entertainment and poverty to the east of her town. She very much needed the breadth the beach vista allowed her, because all her parents ever had or ever knew was money. Money meant love to the professional and progressive couple, Mr. Strand and Ms. Nicchio, so they spent their time earning it, both to love her and to show her that they loved her, and she didn’t, then or now, lack gratitude for their efforts. Only a fool refuses money, after all, even if the person who pursues it to the exclusion of all else is every bit as foolish. Without the distance, observable from her bedroom window when she was a child, where the blue of the ocean vanished into the blue of the sky in a common indigo haze, she didn’t think she could have developed an imagination.

Back in the cursed days when she used to have to teach, even though she knew that she knew nothing, she always observed the failure to form imaginations in her students from the suburbs. They’d also had tenderly money-minded parents when young but nothing compensatory to look at except treated lawns and beige bricks. Therefore, they never had the opportunity to extend their souls to the horizon. They shamelessly tried to cover up their lack for as long as they could with their mere intelligence, but Alice knew this was a poor substitute, however tempting.

___________________

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Literary Fiction: To Self-Publish or Not?

If American literature had been left wholly in the hands of established publishers—Ticknor and Fields, for instance—Longfellow might have remained our greatest poet. But Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, had Leaves of Grass printed, at his own expense, in 1855—he even set most of the type himself. Likewise, if Virginia Woolf had continued to rely on her half-brother (and erstwhile molester) Gerald Duckworth to disseminate her fiction through his established publishing house, she might have continued the fine Forsterean realism of her early novels rather than revolutionizing modern literature with Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s OwnThe Waves, and more, all published by the Hogarth Press, so named for Hogarth House, the private residence where the Woolfs literally kept their own printing press in the dining room. Like Whitman, Woolf often set her own type, and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, contributed cover illustrations.

Mrs_Dalloway

In her brief against the self-publishing of literary fiction, Ros Barber claims, “Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego.” I do know what she means. Self-publishing’s reputation as the preserve of cranks and pornographers is not exactly undeserved. There are problems with exalting the gatekeepers, however. Literary history offers many examples—I have given two in the above paragraph—of gatekeepers’ inability to recognize merit, either because of a too-cautious focus on supposed profitability or an excessive concern for outmoded notions of decorum. I have heard people lament that Ulysses could not be published today in the profit-driven and experiment-averse marketplace. But Ulysses was not able to be “published” the first time around either, in the sense of its being supported by a mainstream or respectable American or British press; it was printed by Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach and advertised to prospective consumers by individual subscription on a model not unlike today’s Patreon-funded art and literature.

Success in the literary—or any other—mainstream generally depends on playing by certain rules, all of them contingent, some of them more dubious than others. While I think it is juvenile to advocate “break[ing] every rule,” to quote Carole Maso (as if there would be some virtue in running stop signs!), I think that in art, where originality or at least vitality is prized, we do want an outside perspective on these fabricated rules of ours from time to time. That is where ego comes in. Like it or not, the writers we admire for their boldness and originality, their perennially urgent voices, were not shy, retiring, modest types.

LoG1856(frontis&title)_tif“Well and good,” I imagine the reply, “but you are not Walt Whitman.” No, and neither was Walt Whitman when he was hand-setting the type of his dirty free verse in a print shop in 1855: he was a nobody journalist whose idea of literature was not shared by the regnant literati, even though it would be shared—which nobody, including him, knew at the time—by the succeeding century.

Fortune favors the bold. So does misfortune, of course, but without boldness, you’ll never find out which is to be your lot.

Self-publishing today is not extremely bold. There is no type to set, no large lead letter forms to haul across an ink-stained shop floor, though in my experience you will have to endure a long night’s struggle with the maddening tab settings in MS Word. To self-publish literary fiction, though, which is to say fiction meant to be formally complex and intellectually ambitious as well as entertaining or beautiful, is a gamble. You risk associating yourself in the eyes of your social superiors in an economy of prestige with conspiracy theorists and smut-peddlers. Your self-published work is not something you would put, if you are in academia, on your CV (though I’m not sure how publishing your own work is really all that much more disreputable than having it published by your friends in whatever hip coterie you happen to belong to; but I digress). Self-publishing in any event bespeaks a certain arrogance, but unfortunately this world so discourages most human effort that without arrogance very little would ever get done, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary.

Portraits_and_Ashes_Cover_for_KindleRos Barber, writing in the British context, puts it well when she says that if you are a self-publisher, “You can forget Hay Festival and the Booker.” Reader, I’ve forgotten them already, but literary fiction does have one self-publishing success story, one Martian to boast of in prestige if not sales, in Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity. De La Pava, a devoted public defender, had an advantage I do not: a day job unconnected with literature and a consequent indifference to traditional forms of literary success. He only wanted to get the word out. Even though I probably care in my heart of hearts for the Booker more than he does, I have decided that I too just want my book in the world, on my own terms if on no one else’s. Watch this space.