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.

____________

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!

Buy Portraits and Ashes for Small Business Saturday!

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

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

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

TM: How do you recommend aspiring writers find agents?

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punching What?

Let us continue to count, and talk, and think about the numbers.
—Claire Vaye Watkins

As one of the major theses of Claire Vaye Watkins’s celebrated manifesto, “On Pandering,” is that the subject-position I represent should not be acknowledged as a legitimate authority on the essay’s quality or cogency, I will not address myself to its argument.

I would, however, like to enter into evidence the gendered aspect of my own experience in the literary world, supported by numbers, even at the risk of alienating my so-far rather small audience or even future publishers or employers. Many other critics have criticized Watkins’s exclusions, but I have not seen anyone observe the material reality of literary publishing and literary education, which is to say the exact constitution of the “motherfucking system” Watkins claims to want to “burn…to the ground.” Some realities of the literary field that go unacknowledged in “On Pandering,” then, both anecdote and data:

Data-wise, consider that 73% of Ph.D.s in English literature are awarded to women, women outstrip men by large majorities at every stage of creative writing study in academia*, and somewhere around 70% of English majors are women. Consider, too, that publishing is overwhelmingly, and ever-increasingly, staffed by women and that women appear to account for 80% of the entire fiction market in the U.S., Britain, and Canada. Watkins calls for her readers, or those of her readers who are not male, to “punch up.” It is hard to say what that could mean, considering these numbers.

In almost a decade of teaching English classes at a large research university, I can tell you that there is usually something like gender parity in introductory courses, but by the time one reaches higher-level courses intended for majors, the ratio is 3:1 or 4:1 female. Have you ever tried to get a literary agent? They are mostly—I would guess, based on my experience, 3/4 or more—women, and this is truer when you account for age  (i.e., male agents, when they retire, are replaced by female agents).

I spend almost the entirety of my literary life as both teacher and writer—not “pandering to,” a phrase that would demean both parties—but addressing women. Middle-class or upper-middle-class white women, to be more precise. Maybe that is a problem and maybe it isn’t; maybe it is even a long-overdue redress of injustice. But it is reality: the numbers don’t lie.

A question, in conclusion: Watkins’s manifesto, delivered as a speech, received enthusiastic applause; published online, it received breathless plaudits, even in spite of its rather cavalier use of a violent rhetoric that would get some people reported to the police. It has crowned her literary success; it has burnished her fame. Yet I have been staring at the draft version of this post, which contains little but facts and certainly no call to action, for hours, worrying about what might befall me professionally if I hit “publish.” What could this mean about the respective directions in which Watkins and I are punching?

*This article only takes poetry into account. I was not able to find numbers for fiction programs, but I imagine the results would not differ by much or would be even more tilted toward women, given women’s traditional prevalence in fiction-writing.

Robert D. Richardson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process


First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative ProcessFirst We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I got what I was supposed to from this book, even as it is a book that argues for the rights of readers to get whatever they need from their reading. I think it is self-help for writers, less a collection of technical recommendations than a set of inspiring reflections on why we bother and how good it feels when it goes right. Unless you have a soul of steel, such books are necessary from time to time, and this works well in that genre. The quotations from Emerson, which take up much of the text and come as much from obscurer sources (his letters and journals) as from his very famous essays, are gratifyingly eloquent and energetic.

My favorite set of Emersonian reflections concerns the art of reading, or not reading. Emerson believed one could read too much, so that it obscured one’s own insights and sensibilities; he also thought it did not matter much what one read as long as one read it with imaginative insight and intensity. He is sometimes credited with coining the phrase “creative writing,” but he did so in a passage contrasting it with “creative reading,” to the latter’s benefit. Richardson writes:

The logic behind Emerson’s apparent disparaging of reading is the logic of a person who expects his reading to be useful above all. “Do not attempt to be a great reader,” Emerson tells Woodbury. “And read for facts and not only by the bookful. You must know about ownership in facts. What another sees and tells you is not yours, but his.” The reader is take only what really suits him. Emerson tells Woodbury that he ought to “learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time over them. Remember you must know only the excellent of all that has been presented. But often a chapter is enough. The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.”

Not scholarly advice (maybe American scholarly advice), but then the history of literature and thought probably bears Emerson out in this. I am often struck by how little the great writers read of even their supposed sources. Joyce barely read Aquinas before getting an aesthetic theory out of him, and Borges’s learning was “literally encyclopedic,” which is to say that he got much of it out of encyclopedias (see here). Even among critics or scholars or philosophers, Emerson’s recommendation may have the ring of truth; I have known distinguished commenters on literary theory and the like who have said things like, I can’t read Heidegger or Adorno means nothing to me, even though they publish professionally on topics in those thinkers’ traditions. Nobody can read everything, and all of us have gathered knowledge and impressions from disparate sources (speaking of Adorno, have I read every word of Minima Moralia?—not at all, and yet I feel I know it). I recall that the aforementioned Borges compared Ulysses to a city, which one may know intimately even though one never visits certain of its streets. It is difficult to imagine two more different thinkers who were also contemporaries, but Schopenhauer curiously agreed with Emerson on this topic; then Nietzsche, who may be regarded as the monstrous offspring of Emerson and Schopenhauer, cheerfully agreed with them both. While the disparagement of reading is slightly dangerous advice for a writer to give—nobody wants to defend ignorance, for one thing, and for another why should writers give readers any more excuses to ignore their works?—it is probably sound.

Richardson provides something more for the reader than Emerson’s edgy metaphysical cheerfulness, however. While this is a very short book and not at all an attempt at historical or social reflection, it indirectly reveals how much of what we take for granted when we discuss creative writing comes straight from Emerson,* from the ethos of his double-sided belief in the practical and the transcendent, or in craft and experience as royal roads to the godhead. So much of the pedagogy of creative writing is summed up in this book as Emerson’s wisdom:

1. the emphasis on the writer as expressive being and the consequent demotion of tradition as a deciding factor in his or her education;

2. the focus on the artistic process rather than the artistic product;

3. the belief that the near-at-hand is more appropriate subject matter than the exotic (i.e., the advice to write about yourself and your times, rather than ancient Egypt or outer space);

4. the aesthetic standard of authenticity, both of the writer’s personal experience and of the work, considered as the unfinished and unfinishable result of an undetermined process;

5. the elevation of the sentence, rather than the paragraph, as the smallest indivisible constituent element of a literary composition;

6. the faith in the writer/reader transaction as a humanistic enterprise of sympathetic exchange;

and probably some I’m forgetting. Whether he meant to or not, Richardson has written an encrypted intellectual history of creative writing as an autonomous discipline, with Emerson as its founder. As such, his book may function as a blessedly brief and suggestive companion to the exhaustive scholarly version, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era—a book I have “read” only in Emersonian glances, but with which Emerson emboldens me to say I am nevertheless quite familiar.

There are very good arguments against the pragmatic/transcendental drive toward experience and away from tradition, made by writers as various as T. S. Eliot and Elif Batuman; these writers worry that the process-driven, learning-averse method of writing will issue in compositions of melodramatic banality, which unknowingly repeat cliches and moreover imply an irrationalist identity politics opposed to all forms of order or universalism. There is also a way to reconcile the two positions, as suggested in the works of Harold Bloom as well as his feminist redactors, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar most clearly, all of whom see experience and tradition as dialectical; on this theory, part of the artist’s necessary apprenticeship is the processual experience of wandering in the wilds of tradition. This latter thesis makes the most sense to me; but Emerson’s rhetoric, in its visionary intensity, challenges all my presuppositions. Harold Bloom, by the way, called Emerson “the mind of America.” I doubt that can be true, but this interesting little book does give some evidence for Bloom’s claim.

*And from some of his predecessors and contemporaries too, of course, such as Wordsworth or Thoreau or Whitman.

View all my reviews

“The Embrace”

My short story, “The Embrace”—in my view, the best of my short stories to be published so far—appears in Vol. 3 of Winter Tangerine Review, an ebook version of which you can download instantly for $10. To arouse your interest in this tale about mothers and daughters, mollusks and marriage, adolescence and the ocean, sex and nature, memory and desire, I give you a paragraph of my heroine’s reminiscences and a soundtrack:

My mother’s marriage to Mr. Stanley proved a lengthy struggle. He traveled incessantly, he buried his head in advertising, he buried his dick in waitresses and secretaries and junior copywriters and vice-chairpersons and kitchen staff. As a stepfather, he offered me needful distance. (A bad husband perhaps makes for a good stepfather.) My mother consoled herself with her bar and her bar patrons until he left, and then she got old and unfuckable, and then she was sick, and then she was dead, is dead, will always be dead. At their wedding reception, when they danced their first dance to their song, when they swayed laughing to good old “Leather and Lace,” I sobbed uncontrollably, my whole body wracked, as if something shook me hard by the shoulders.