My Year in Books, 2018

springbooksLooking back, I see that I did a lot of rereading in 2018. Some of it was out of necessity (teaching), and some for pleasure. Some of it showed up in the reviews I post here, while some of it was devoted to books I’ve already written about in the last five years. I was glad to have an opportunity to write about some old favorites, like Hamlet:

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

I was also glad to revisit The Crying of Lot 49, Watchmen, and White Noise (all the action in that review is in the footnotes, an old academic trick), to update my sense of Ernest Hemingway and, especially, Gore Vidal.

In my most sustained act of re-reading, a project started in the summer of 2017, I re-immersed myself in the work of Grant Morrison, a comic-book writer I’ve been struggling with since my age was in the single digits, since I was puzzling over the grim psychosexual psychedelia of Arkham Asylum as the cheaply-bound hardcover came apart in my hands in the year 1989. Is he a genius trickster-author, a postmodern prophet, or just a charlatan with an ear for invigorating ad copy? The answer varies from project to project, I think, but the question gets at the true purpose of re-reading, which can feel like such a waste of time when there are so many unread books in the universe: we reread to measure the changes we’ve undergone.

The cliché is that a book changes each time you read it; but, honestly, the book doesn’t change (though it may fall apart). The drama of rereading is rather your encounter with your old self over the selfsame object. Cold pastoral!

I did read a number of books for the first time too, though. It’s hard to discern much of a theme in that haphazard quest for novelty. Much of my fiction reading was devoted to American writing: not only Pynchon, DeLillo, Hemingway, and Vidal, but also Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sarah Orne Jewett, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, Jerzy Kosinski, Ishmael Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Jenny Offill, and Lisa Halliday. Even Margaret Atwood—a Canadian novelist, no doubt, but her Handmaid’s Tale, which I finally got around to reading, is in its way an American novel.

As for American nonfiction, I was bemused by or dissatisfied with everyone from Tom Wolfe to Richard Rorty to Maggie Nelson, but Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues came like a shower to our drought-dessicated culture:

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

Likewise, I praised the bold aesthetics of William Giraldi’s American Audacity and the bolder politics of Wesley Yang’s Souls of Yellow Folk, and I also found I still admire Susan Sontag enormously, less for any one text she wrote than for the shape of her mind and life:

I recently gave a lecture on the development of Sontag’s ideas, aesthetic and political, her advance and retreat, her many recantations. A student asked why we should read an author who never made up her mind and who never seemed to say anything usefully final. I suggested that we should read Sontag, or any powerful author really, not to find conclusions but to behold the mind in motion.

These critics bring me out of American literature to the world of criticism and culture at large. I essayed on an unlikely pair of world essayists: Samuel Johnson

Johnson prescribes work as an antidote to what we would call anxiety and depression, and he insists that it is necessary to achievement. He is also canny about how we delude ourselves with busywork without actually accomplishing anything (“no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours”), and about how we propose impossible tasks for ourselves as a form of self-sabotage, excusing our failures by making them inevitable.

—and Theodor Adorno

If the conservatives who rail against “cultural Marxism” were to rise to the challenge of reading Adorno’s mind-bending prose, they might find an ally rather than an adversary. Adorno judges socialist utopianism vulgar, merely a power trip that can only produce images of the good life out of experiences of the bad life, leading inexorably to totalitarianism; faithful to Proust, he finds sustenance in the past, in the old bourgeois world eliminated by leveling mass society and fascist politics, and even in the domestic realm from which images of peace and freedom come…

Speaking of Marxist critics, I explained what was wrong with Terry Eagleton, just as earlier in the year I took Adrienne Rich’s landmark collection of polemical poetry, Diving into the Wreck, as an opportunity to explain where and why I differ from the radicals promoted by academe and official activism:

While Rich was writing, more literal ideologues of her anti-civilizational persuasion dispensed with the myths in the customary fashion as they burned books and Buddhas and crushed the hands of pianists. Rich is not responsible for the crimes of Mao, anymore than, say, Eliot is responsible for those of Hitler, and the Cultural Revolution doesn’t answer for Vietnam—and I am certainly not denying that Rich writes about very real problems—but it does go to show that immolating the works of human culture is no solution to war, rape, and exploitation. Such destructiveness usually gives rise to war, rape, and exploitation themselves, albeit with other, perhaps more hypocritical, justifications.

Which doesn’t let liberalism off the hook, as I explain in my review of Frances Stonor Saunders’s amusing, frightening The Cultural Cold War, nor does it absolve the far right of their ideological depredations, for which see my summer post on QAnon and the literary imagination.

I offer an alternative to these reductive politics that insists instead on the irreducible complexity of great art, an inviolable density of thought and feeling upon which I suggest we model our selves and societies. This is why I wrote both “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” in January—

Bad politics and bad personal behavior may indeed be bad, but from the Inquisition to the Cultural Revolution, public efforts to purify political and moral behavior have often been just as bad if not worse. Another reason to read great books by bad people: as a reminder of what humanity is capable of and a caution against self-righteousness. We could all be bad people and not even know it.

—and “In Praise of Semicolons” in December—

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.”

Not to mention a comparison of Joyce to Woolf in June.

Speaking of irreducible complexity, then, I went head-to-head with a few monuments this year. Anyone who thinks there is anything like a settled “dead white male canon” that promotes some kind of conservative values should disabuse themselves by taking a look at Goethe’s Faust, especially Part Two:

Likewise, the poem’s vision of femininity is a complete one, more complete than any male archetype Goethe here presents. In fact, Faust itself is structured according to, or modeled upon, its female presences: it is as ethereally beautiful and aristocratic as Helen, as sentimentally soulful and bourgeois as Gretchen, as transcendental and mystical as the Mary to whom Gretchen prays; and ultimately as chthonic and formless as the Phorkyads, as incommensurable and incomprehensible as the Mothers in the very night of time.

The best novel I read this year was almost certainly Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Whatever controversies may exist over what Bellow became in his later years, this life-riot and word-riot of a bildungsroman will make you forget them:

Praising and thereby recommending heroism used to be a function of fiction. And not only in the superannuated genres of epic and romance. Certainly not only in the superhero saga, whether devised for throwaway pulp with fantastic enterprise by men of Bellow’s own background or else captured and rebroadcast as narcotizing spectacle by the multinational corporation. But rather in Bellow’s and Balzac’s own field of action, and that of Stendhal and Dickens and Tolstoy and Charlotte Brontë too: the grand old “realist” novel, not that it was ever as realistic as reputed, and never less realistic than in this book.

Let me also put in a word for another Jewish-American novel of the 1950s, one with aesthetic priorities at the opposite pole from Augie‘s: The Assistant, Bernard Malamud’s bleak, moving moral drama, a novel that deserves to be far more widely read than it is.

Speaking of moral and midcentury fiction, I finally read Iris Murdoch this year with The Bell. I was impressed and disturbed in equal measure by her theory and practice of fiction, but what a pleasure to encounter such a formidable philosophical intelligence among novelists, which is perhaps where a philosophical intelligence belongs. I suspect I will be struggling with her thought, even as I am entertained by her dazzling plots, for the rest of my reading life. Coming toward the present, I made the uneasy acquaintance of Gerald Murnane and, by contrast, easily delighted in Anna Burns’s Milkman, a contemporary novel so superb in every way that my cynical heart still can’t believe they gave it the Booker or that it made the American bestseller list.

I began with rereading, so I’ll conclude with some new discoveries. Aside from Burns, Murdoch, and Albert Murray, not to speak of Jens Peter Jacobsen or Anna Kavan, my best finds came in the field of world comics.

I didn’t have time to write about Joann Sfar and The Rabbi’s Cat, but if you think as I do that comics should be as intellectually weighty as prose fiction, as dense with disquisition and as wise with fable, then you might like it. Not for nothing did I discuss Sfar in the company of Malamud. Sfar’s fellow practitioners of the Franco-Belgian comics tradition, François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, also delighted me with four volumes of their surreal and beautiful Les Cités obscures series. From Latin America comes José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s vicious but heartfelt classic Marxist noir, Alack Sinner, which I recommend in case you feel any stirrings toward the banal blandishments of “hopepunk.” I also read some manga classics. Moto Hagio’s pioneering boys’ love masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas, allowed me to address our current heated bafflement over sexual ethics, while Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk saga Akira gave me a chance to dilate upon the 1980s as our culture’s lost golden age, both in and out of comics.

Finally, I will put in a word for a new book by an author as old to me as is his occult nemesis Grant Morrison. A little over a week ago, I finished Alan Moore’s latest graphic novel, the Lovecraftian Providence, and while I have so many criticisms of it that I don’t know where to start (nobody picks up a comic book wanting to read that much prose! two scenes of gruesome sexual violence are at least one, maybe two, too many!), I also have not been able to shake its nightmare haze, its disquieting ambiguity over the very nature and purpose of art. Just what is it that we bring into being with these readerly and writerly imaginations of ours? I look forward already to rereading it in a decade or two, to see what I and its author used to think, who we once were.

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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!

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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!

Announcing Portraits and Ashes

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The cover. Image: Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (via Wikipedia)

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s defense of self-published literary fiction, I have independently published a novel, Portraits and Ashes. For a brief description, here is the back cover copy:

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.

John Pistelli unforgettably portrays three people desperate to lead meaningful lives as they confront the bizarre new institutions of a fraying America. A suspenseful and poetic novel in the visionary tradition of Don DeLillo, David Mitchell, Kazuo Ishiguro, and José Saramago, PORTRAITS AND ASHES is a scorching picture of our troubled age.

Portraits and Ashes is available for sale in print and ebook formats through Amazon, and it is listed on Goodreads as well. I am happy to offer free pdfs of the ebook in exchange for honest reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, or your personal blog or website. If you’re interested, please contact me at johnppistelli at gmail.com.

* * *

For an expanded description of the novel, please read on:

Reading [Portraits and Ashes] is like following a well-marked and yet unfamiliar winding path—the footing is sure, but it’s impossible to guess what’s around each corner…everything I hunger for in a novel.
—Craig Conley, author of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables, and more

Portraits and Ashes is about artists and cities, men and women, cultists and individualists, libraries and museums, respectability and poverty. It is about the widespread desire to burn down the contemporary world and return to something simpler. It is about the struggle to live in the contemporary world and create meaning and beauty within its confines.

portraitsandashes
An early version of the cover.

Set during the economic collapse of an unnamed Rust Belt city, Portraits and Ashes tells the intertwined stories of three main characters. Julia Bonham is a young aspiring artist with no money and no direction, haunted by a strange family history. Her high-school boyfriend, Mark Weis, is a seemingly successful architect and happily-married man who finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice Nicchio-Strand, the former mistress of Julia’s estranged father, is a famous artist and museum curator who was disgraced when the last art exhibit she oversaw proved fatal to twenty-one people.

As each of their apparently failed lives moves toward its crisis, the trio falls into the orbit of a strange new apocalyptic cult called the Its, a sect of wandering ascetics who seek to obliterate the individual and reject the world—and which may be tied to Frank Jobe, the mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist responsible for the murderous art installation that led to Alice’s own downfall. As these three fascinatingly flawed protagonists—Julia the arrested adolescent, Mark the good citizen, and Alice the willful quester—desperately try to lead meaningful lives, they confront the bizarre new institutions of a fraying America: an underground secret hospital for the poor, a deconsecrated church turned artists’ colony and pornographer’s film set, a library whose gallery is a haunt of suicides, and a death-cult that may or may not be a radical art experiment.

A novel that combines the surrealism of avant-garde art with the social and psychological portraiture of realist fiction, that challenges the stability of character with the chaos of a disintegrating social order, that shows how hope and endurance may (or may not) pass through the fire of despair and how art may yet be a redemptive force in our world, Portraits and Ashes is mostly about Julia, Mark, and Alice, whose journeys to the underworld may, if all goes well, provide some comfort or at least some company on your own, as they have mine.

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For the novel’s opening pages, please read on:

1. THE BRIDGE

In the choir loft of the deconsecrated church, the artist posed her naked body this way and that. He moved her limbs with his bare hands, crack-skinned and turps-smelling, tufted with wiry black hair. Caked beneath each fingernail, he had lines of that glossy blackish earth-brown color made when all the oil paints mix together. His touch felt so impersonal to her, like wood and moss and soil, that even when he took up her left leg to drape it over the blanket-heaped pew she sat on, the heel of one hand pressed bracingly on her inner thigh and the palm of the other cradling the sole of her foot, no question of sex or trespass arose. She was not what he wanted.

“Right foot touching the ground, left foot in the air,” he said in his thickly-accented English. “It is a symbol.”

She didn’t ask of what: Julia didn’t believe in symbols. She didn’t believe in what she couldn’t taste, touch, see. She’d always been that way: she’d stood aloof from her friends, for instance, during that vogue for dream-books in middle school, when all the girls sought the faces of their future husbands or intimations of their picturesque deaths each night. Belief, she thought, was expressed only in action. Those Soviet bulldozers clumsily chomping at gilded onion domes: pure sorcery. The domes, altars, and crosses were not symbols of something that, if you wrecked them, would continue to persist in heaven or the mind. They held all their reality in themselves. Get rid of His altars and you would also be rid of the reality of God.

“Don’t look to me,” the artist said. “Look to the distance.”

She lifted her gaze out over the empty church and lowered it down the nave until it came to rest on the space where the altar had been. She stole glances at the artist occasionally, when he would forget about her and fix his eyes on the picture taking shape under his hand. His eyes were a bit too wide, too fierce, just the way an artist’s should be, she thought: his flashing eyes, his floating hair. The old man’s mouth, though tensed, the teeth clenched, nevertheless maintained a bare little smile, as of satisfaction. This felt wrong to her. Her own art never satisfied her; no, it was a constant frustration, the inability of the image on the paper to align with the image in her head. Who was he to feel satisfied? She felt a small desire to ruin his satisfaction somehow, to kick out her heel and send the canvas over the rail of the choir loft, to see what would happen if she destroyed something.

When she was in first grade, she slowly tore a religion textbook to shreds. In her little Catholic school, a red-brick building with massive gray crucifixes hanging in stony agony at the end of each long hallway, every student was assigned a homeroom desk in which to keep their schoolbooks during the day while they circulated among other teachers’ rooms for their classes. During her math class, which she found dull because she did not understand it, she would keep herself awake by reaching inside the desk and slowly making small tears in the top textbook on her classmate’s pile. She ripped it a little bit every day, careful not to make noise and attract Sister Grace’s attention. By February, the book was in ribbons. Sister Grace sternly summoned her one Friday afternoon from her homeroom; she remembered looking up the hairy nostrils, at the dark-spotted face of the old nun, the jowls and forehead like dull clay extruded from the tight navy-blue habit.

“Did you tear this book, Julia?” Sister Grace asked, holding up in evidence, in her liver-spotted and meaty hand, the ragged strips that hung between the covers of the compulsory slipcase her classmate had made out of a paper grocery bag. Sister Grace pronounced her name with two syllables in a kind of slur: not jul-ee-yah but jul-ya.

All she remembered saying was no. She said it brazenly, not turning down her chin or dropping her eyes from the nun. She felt she had a fire in her mouth and beneath her cheeks.

“Six students sit in that desk during the day; I can’t prove which one of you did it. I’ll tell you what I told the rest of them,” said Sister Grace. “There won’t be a punishment. Not in this world, Julia. But remember this, little girl.” She bent her hunched back slightly, a sharp scent of mothballs coming out of the pleats of her tan skirt. “Remember this: hell isn’t a place you go when you die. Hell is what you do. If you destroy things, if you tell lies, you are already in hell. You are in the hell of your own making, where everything appears ugly and false, which is why you destroy and why you lie. So say what you want, little girl, but the truth is the truth. If your hands have been destructive and your tongue has been false, you are in hell, you are consumed from within, burning right before me, and it doesn’t matter what you say.”

The old nun never did know how to get along with children. She was retired the next year, and dead the year after that. Julia intermittently remembered her words. Now she had hardly any beliefs at all, but she was convinced that what she said did not in fact matter.

A customer in the café once hit on her by asking, while she prepared his espresso, if she believed in God. “Do I look like I believe in God?” she said over the sound of the machine. He frowned and narrowed his eyes, and then, after she handed him his drink and rang him up, he turned away and didn’t speak to her again, nor did he leave a tip.

Eventually, the artist allowed her to relax. He had finished capturing her pose and now went to work on tones and textures; he still wanted to study her bare flesh but not in any particular position. It was five-thirty in the morning, but the painter paid her extra for his preference for working before dawn. She lay on her back, knees drawn up, imagining his tight little elderly smile.

“Can I ask you something that might annoy you?” she said.

The artist now smiled broadly with his old-world courtliness and said, “Yes, of course, but if you are too annoying I will not answer.”

“Isn’t painting finished?” she said. “Museums, galleries, and art schools are all about installations, performance, multimedia, various kinds of street art, new forms of interactive art. There have even been defenses on these grounds of The Last Café.”

He grunted in disgust at her allusion.

“Then there’s film, video, photography, the Internet. Whatever technological function the canvas served as a way of producing images has been entirely superseded. But even leaving that aside, didn’t art considered in and of itself run its course? Didn’t artists themselves bring it to an end with abstraction and pastiche and collage and blank canvases and soup cans and all of that? They took it to its logical conclusion. There’s not another development anyone can imagine. What reason is there to go on making pictures of people and things after that?”

He nodded as she spoke, his chin bouncing off the top of every word, no doubt because he had already heard every word before, probably in more than one language. Then he painted in silence for long enough to discomfort her. The hairs of the brush scratched against the canvas like a whisper that echoed under the high ceiling of the church.

“The answer is very simple,” he finally said. “I do it only so that it will not be finished. What you say seems as if it is true, but if I am doing it, how can it be finished? Logical conclusion, you say, but we do not live in logic. There is a way of being, of meeting, in this act that does not exist in these others that you mention. On this canvas comes together myself, yourself, this church. All are touching, which cannot happen in the machine, not even in photographs, where the apparatus comes between the mind and the mark and does its work by itself, no human touch. The apparatus itself is some other man’s creation. My rival, so to say. But here is no rival, only my hand, my tool, my mind, your body, your mind, this room, this hour. All touching. This way of things coming together I do not want to see finished, so I do it if nobody else will.”

“And if nobody sees it?”

“You see it, I see it. Are we nothing? You and I are not nothing.”

He turned the easel to face her. There she was, palely luminescent in the candlelit greenish gloom, refracted through the viscous medium formed by his mind and his hand, which had rendered invisible the totenkopf tattooed on her left bicep, presumably excluded as a rival’s vision. He had muted the neon-flame quality of her red-dyed hair to make it more nearly resemble a real fire, and he’d moreover harmonized her hair color with that of her nipples and her pubes, which were, in point of mere contemptible fact, brownish blonde. The portrait hinted that some kind of flame burned inside her, lit her from within, could barely be contained by her almost diaphanous skin. She didn’t feel that way at almost six in the morning after a night of work at the café.

After he packed up his painting supplies and she got dressed, he paid her what he owed her. The two hundred-dollar bills he gave her were crumpled and smooth, so warm and soft he must have had them for years. They smelled of oil and turpentine and were worn almost to bare fabric: they hardly looked like money at all. She followed him down the dark spiral staircase leading from the choir loft into the narthex, his materials rattling and clattering against the narrow banisters. They shook hands before he went off through the huge doors into the waking city. She hesitated for a moment and then walked the other way, into the nave.

Bits and pieces of Catholic school drifted in the after-work early-morning fog of her head. Long liturgies she couldn’t wait to end. The forced silence. The smell of wet stone and wood varnish. The booming of the organ through her chest. Her rigid posture on the kneelers and the nuns who would swat your ass if you bent at the waist while you knelt. She would have been horrified to learn that she might later feel nostalgia for such oppressions. What could a child know about nostalgia? Anything that vanished, no matter what it was, seemed precious just because it was gone. She stood at the end of a pew. How furious the nuns had been when they found the dream-books. “Pure sorcery,” Sister Anne had said. Julia genuflected and knelt, not because she believed, she told herself, but only so that this way of things coming together would not be finished. Did she look like she believed?

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.

Composition: Planned vs. Unplanned, Written vs. Typed

(Inspired loosely by this essay on planning vs. non-planning novelists.)

I have written two and a half novels now, and my method seems to always be the same, despite my best intentions: I begin blindly with a character or image or situation or metaphor and then explore it at random, writing toward I know not what. I end up with many false starts and dead ends; I delete a lot of text and throw away a lot of paper. In this haphazard and disheartening way, I discover the characters, the setting, the theme, the plot, and the tone.

I could, in theory, avoid being disheartened by planning everything in advance, but the quality of exploration and discovery would thereby be lost. I have to write the novel itself to write anything authentic; preparing an outline or making notes does not feel like writing at all. By the time I have written about half of the novel, though, I have also usually discovered its complete structure. Then I do make an outline, which I usually follow to the end.

outline

Writing a novel is a deterministic process: you begin with a feeling of infinite possibility, but every choice conditions and constrains each subsequent choice until you reach a point where you have no choices left. (This “point” is not the ending itself, but the moment when the total structure can be perceived at last.) I really don’t see how someone could write an entire novel without any plan, unless one just does not care whether the novel’s moral accounts balance or its tone and symbol-system cohere. (There can be perfectly good avant-garde reasons not to care about these things, but I am mostly not an avant-gardist.)

My process is as disorganized materially as it is intellectually. I can never decide whether to write by hand or to type. Because writing by hand feels like more work, it also feels more virtuous (we Americans are all Protestants, whatever else we may be), so I often start with pencils and pens and notebooks. But then my hand gets tired; I weary of smudged graphite and of empty pens and of spiral binding that carves itself into my wrist; and then I take to the laptop. This mixed and frustrating method would be a harmless quirk of my writing life, except that I write fiction very differently depending on whether I write by hand or type.

Writing by hand is such a slow, sensuous activity that it turns me into a writer of precision, concision, and concreteness; my descriptions seem carved out of marble with the Parthenon-envying Flaubert’s chisel, my dialogue incised with the fisherman Hemingway’s fillet knife. Writing by hand leads me inevitably to the visual and audible, to scenes and settings—to those older forms, poetry and drama.

written

At the keyboard, by contrast, where the writing is about five to ten times faster, I become a manic psychologist and ideologist in the Dostoevsky or Roth manner, and even the descriptions themselves become delirious and bizarre and overwritten, Faulkner rather than Flaubert. Narrative gets faster, the phenomenal world pales before the inner life, and ideas proliferate beyond what a poem or a drama could contain.*

typed

Each of these methods has its virtue: in the one, I am working so slowly that I feel I can perceive and convey what others miss of the observable world; in the other, I am working so quickly that I feel I can evade the inner censor and pull forbidden thoughts out of the unconscious, dripping black water. Each method has flaws too: the written-by-hand can become precious and airless, while the composed-at-the-keyboard can become loquacious and melodramatic.

I think the insights provided by both writing and typing are too good to miss, though, so I usually do a mixture of both. And usually I do the reverse of my aforementioned planning procedure: for the novel’s unplanned first half, I seek the precision and constraint of writing by hand; while for the planned second half, I take to the keyboard and race to find the hidden potential in the pre-formed material. That way, I hope that the spontaneous first half feels careful and purposeful, and the structured second half feels joyfully improvised. A novel should get faster and more intense for the reader as it proceeds, which is too often the inverse of the writer’s experience of the waning enthusiasm that accompanies structural clarity. I have decided to embrace my chaotic procedure as at least a partial solution to this paradox of the novel, which must be increasingly logical and increasingly intense at once.

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*In defense of the stylistic excesses of the keyboard: I am hostile to the application of journalistic standards to literature. “Omit needless words” is unreliable advice for the fiction writer or poet, as if words were industrial parts or tone and mood a matter of mere calculation. The proper reply to “omit needless words” is Lear’s riposte to Goneril and Regan when they wanted to reduce his royal retinue:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.

As for petty prohibitions on adverbs and the like, they mean nothing to me; I’ll use every word in the fucking language if I want. The columns whose scarce inches required these stylistic restrictions barely exist on paper anymore, anyway. Strunk and White is a product of its time; the Anglo vs. Norman (or, more broadly, Northern/Western vs. Southern/Eastern) ethnic subtext of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is hardly relevant to contemporary American writing; and Orwell and Hemingway and Didion are fine writers as far as it goes, but there are notes they can never play on their chosen instruments.

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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!

Published: “White Girl”

My short story, “White Girl,” which I had thought too controversial to be published even before it took on a new and ghastly relevance this summer, appears in the first issue of the brand-new (and especially beautiful) Amaranth Review. You can read the inaugural issue in its entirety here; my story starts on page 70. Its first sentence:

My father was a cop. That’s why I had to shoot him.

“White Girl” is a short story in the form of a confession about the political assassination of a police officer by his own daughter. While I wrote it about two years ago out of a sense of looming civil strife, I did not imagine that it would be published in a summer when something like the violence it describes is actually occuring. Just to be on the safe side, let me be clear that I am in no way endorsing such violence (my own belief is that so-called revolutionary or radical violence usually either reinforces whatever authority it presumes to oppose or turns its perpetrators into just the kind of people they set out to resist).

My purpose was to investigate through fiction what it might look like if some of the merely verbal radicalism that circulates today were to be taken with absolute seriousness; and to portray with fictional vividness (and a certain defamiliarization) a new social type, so far inadequately labelled as “the social justice warrior,” a fascinating Internet-age amalgam of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s or Charles Dickens’s sentimental, domestic, middle-class woman and the Dostoevskean-Conradian-DeLilloesque male gnostic terrorist.

So please read it if you like, and share it if you enjoy it!