July 31, 2013
Hey there. How are you doing?
I'm supposed to be getting on a plane, while also finishing up the new issue of Bookslut that is to be released on Monday -- so I'm just going to direct you to the work we're doing at Spolia again. Spolia! Because I decided sleeping 8 hours a night was just too luxurious.
Over on the blog, I write about other writers using Casanova -- and other dashing adventurers like Lord Byron and Richard Francis Burton -- as a fictional character in their novels. Sometimes it works (Schnitzler!) and most of the time it does not.
Plus, I just really like using any opportunity to write about Richard Francis Burton that I possibly can.
"Then there are… others. Sandor Marai’s version of Casanova in Casanova in Bolzano feels more like a paper doll version of the man, especially compared to the flesh and blood of his own autobiography. Andrew Miller wrote a novel called Casanova, equally insubstantial. And then, of course, there are the more unfortunate romance novel bodice ripper Casanovas, written by women who do not seem to have read any of Casanova’s own writings. Which is a shame, because Casanova’s circling around the sex act is so much hotter than women explicitly writing about him sticking it in."
You can read the whole thing here. If that is your bag.
July 29, 2013
"[Eimear McBride's] exceptional novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, has finally been published after a long struggle to find a home. 'Nine years ago, there was a lot of interest in it. The big presses liked it but said they didn’t know what to do with it because anything experimental is deemed something that won’t sell. The most disheartening aspect was how near it got. I received all these lovely responses, saying that it was beautiful and affecting but they couldn’t publish it.'"
Half-Formed Thing is excerpted in the current issue of Spolia, and it got splashy, adoring reviews in the TLS and the LRB. And it is published by a tiny little publisher. And McBride's story is pretty much exactly what I kept hearing from writers I adore, and writers who I am now including in issues of Spolia. Brilliant, but "unpublishable".
Bookslut/Spolia (by which I mean, "some friends and I") are making a tiny little move towards publishing with a release on August 1. More information on that soon.
July 27, 2013
Booker Longlist alert! Four days late, but I felt it best to give them enough time to reconsider their shocking lack of Archer.
What has it got? Lots of books not published yet, which means dreamy Robert Macfarland is holding unfinished proof copies in this shot. There's also only one Canadian author, Alison MacLeod, not meeting my minimum requirement of five Canadians (or four big ones) to make a party.
Short list is out on the 10th of September, just enough time for J.K. Rowling to reveal herself as Tash Aw. The list of nominees in full under the cut:
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Harvest by Jim Crace
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
The Kills by Richard House
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Unexploded by Alison MacLeod
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
July 26, 2013
Image: Hermit Card from the Golden Tarot
After a back and forth with Amy Fusselman about tarot cards and the way you can build stories to tell yourself about the chaos of your life through the cards, she asked if I'd be up for writing a column for her site Ohioedit.com on the subject. My first entry, regarding the Hermit card, is up now.
"The Hermit could be Diogenes, who also carried around a lantern, looking for one honest man. He never found one. We remember him for being a pillar of wisdom, a philosopher and grandfather to the Stoics. In reality, he seemed kind of like a dick with all of his daddy issues, spending his time alone because he forgot that being part of a society means overlooking other people’s flaws, their weaknesses, the lies they have to tell in order to save their souls.
But then I never liked the Stoics much anyway. It’s all the grit needed to bear existence stuff. I am too prone to their positions as it is. I need something to pull me out of that corner, not bring me a pillow and quilt so I can make my home there.
The Hermit card is linked to Virgo, who has her own problems with the loneliness that perfection brings. The Virgo longs to be whole, unsullied by humanity. At some point, she will have to face the fact that the quest for perfection is a secret death wish. Being whole, being sealed and purified and perfect, soaked in bleach and boiled to sterility, is the opposite of life. To breathe is to sully oneself. It’s kind of the point."
Image: Albrecht Dürer, "Parrot in Three Positions"
As James Orbeson notes in his review of The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will by Heidi M. Ravven, “You can't swing a dead cat in philosophy's annals without knocking over the notion.” But for those who might be new to the debate surrounding free will, or at least not sick to death of it yet, here are some suggestions for complementary reading:
The Illusion of Conscious Will by Daniel Wegner
Daniel Wegner uses a number of examples from psychology and neuroscience to propose that free will is not really a causal relationship between will and action, but a feeling that the relationship exists (regardless of whether it actually does). Wegner’s book isn’t concerned so much with the ethical aspect of the subject -- Wegner instead chooses to approach the subject from a psychological angle, starting from this basic conundrum: If we experience feelings of conscious will for our actions in cases where it exists as well as in cases where it doesn’t, what separates actual authorship from the perception of authorship? Wegner gives the example of trying to play a video game in demo mode -- have you ever, unable to distinguish between the actions controlled by you from those built into the demo, mistakenly believed that you were playing the real game? Wegner’s book looks at different cases in which we experience the feeling of conscious will, as well as cases in which we perform actions without seeming to will them. For those interested in the neuroscientific component of Ravven’s book, The Illusion of Conscious Will offers another fascinating, accessible approach toward the discussion of free will.
Conversations on Consciousness by Susan Blackmore
Susan Blackmore interviews twenty-one great thinkers (including Daniel Wegner) in the fields of science and philosophy to discuss the issue of consciousness, as well as related questions that arise regarding the nature of free will, morality, etc. For those interested in a survey of ideas about consciousness and free will, Blackmore’s book provides a broad variety of informed perspectives.
Fate, Time, and Language by David Foster Wallace
Devoted fans of David Foster Wallace are probably already aware that his undergraduate philosophy thesis was a response to Richard Taylor’s essay “‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality,” which basically asserted that humans have no control whatsoever over their futures. Fate, Time and Language includes an introduction by James Ryerson, an epilogue by Jay Garfield (Wallace’s thesis advisor), the text of Wallace’s thesis, the text of Taylor’s “Fatalism,” and other essays on free will. Much of the philosophical jargon in the essay will most likely be lost on readers despite the editors’ attempts to contextualize and make accessible Wallace’s arguments -- it was never intended for commercial publication, after all -- but the book should provide, in addition to more academically-oriented discourse surrounding fatalism and free will, greater insight into the intersections between Wallace’s academic studies, his fiction and his life.
July 24, 2013
Image: Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, "The medium Stanislawa P: Emission and resorption of an ectoplasmic substance through the mouth," 23 June 1913
The Greeks believed that libraries were places of great healing, and that poetry and literature revealed deep spiritual truths. I still believe that today, that seeing alternatives played out in a novel can give you an idea of what to do in your own life, and that sometimes a made up story has more insight into heartbreak, despair, loss, frustration, and failure (and joy, and hope, and love) than any life coach-supplied affirmation or self-help to do list. Every other Wednesday, I will be answering questions about life's quandaries with a little bookish insight. This is an extension of my Kind Reader column, and you can find past entries here. You can submit your own questions by emailing me.
I broke up with this guy, let's call him Doug, a few years back. It was not a "hey, let's be friends" kind of break-up, it was a break-up that nearly brought down the apartment building we were living in. After that, we didn't talk, because a lot of really hurtful things were said and the relationship had been really bad for a while before we got around to finally, totally, breaking up. It was a bad relationship, and we really brought out the worst in one another. And once he moved out the last of his stuff (and within six months moved in with some other woman I had never even heard of, but whatever), I didn't expect to hear from him ever again. And I didn't want to! I thought we had mutually agreed we were bad for one another, and it was best if we just stayed out of each other's lives.
Now we both seem to be in much better places. I'm in a relationship with someone who is really supportive and not a trainwreck. I have a job I love and friends I am close to. (None of this was true when Doug and I were together.) The only reason that I know Doug is in a better place is because he suddenly won't stop emailing me. He's still with the same woman, he's got a stable job, he's thinking of going back to school. I wrote him back and told him I didn't think we should be in touch, and he said that was fine, but then he started to send friend requests to all of my friends on Facebook. Not our mutual friends from the break-up, my now friends, and my friends from before I met him. He started following me on Twitter. And he occasionally writes me late night emails anyway, about how great I am. I delete them.
He was really controlling and manipulative when we were together, and so all of this worries me. And I started dreaming about him, which I haven't done in years. (None of these are nice dreams.) Can I go all stalker prevention and start blocking him and asking my friends to do the same? They're a bit weirded out by his actions, they've heard the stories. Or am I overreacting? I am bad at relationships, it's possible this is just what exes sometimes do.
If I learned anything from the post-breakup month I spent in bed, watching eight hours of Supernatural episodes a day, surviving on a steady diet of potato chips and Benzodiazepines, it is that ghosts appear when there is unfinished business. None of the ghosts ever started throwing cutlery around or scaring little children after living a long full life, and dying while surrounded by the friends and family who loved them. The ghosts died bloody and they died hard. Which sounds a bit like the death of the relationship you just described to me.
A couple of emails and this guy has got to you. That wouldn't be the case if things were over and done and classified and understood and absorbed. If you're dreaming about him, unpleasantly, things are re-emerging from the deep, things that want or need to be resolved, or the haunting will continue.
Almost every ghost story in the world agrees: the way to deal with an unwanted to ghost is to find out what he wants, satisfy that need, and then he'll be able to happily wander off into the afterlife for whatever exactly happens there. (Of course Supernatural teaches us that you can also just set fire to the body, but we will leave that option in the corner, for if your ghost gets more aggressive.)
I'm not saying you have to invite Doug over for tea. I trust your judgment that the two of you in the same room produces unaccountable, spooky activity. You built a home with this man, so imagine now that you built the physical structure of a home with him. You filled it with all of your childhood dolls and family heirlooms (because you can't help but drag that stuff behind you), all of the beautiful furnishings you expected to last a lifetime, all the gifts he gave you and all the stories you told him. And while you were breaking up, the walls, the ceiling, the hardwood floors absorbed all of that yelling and lying and deliberate evil a couple in a love/hate dynamic will do to one another. Then you both fled, leaving the garden to go to seed, letting the weather strip off the paint and warp the floorboards, and letting feral possums take up residence. Leaving it wide open for a haunting. As Algernon Blackwood tells us, "There is nothing more desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished house dimly lit, silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by rumour with the memories of evil and violent histories."
In his short story "The Empty House," the spinster-y, occult-attracted Julia and her nephew Shorthouse decide to go investigate the neighborhood haunted house for fun. In the dark, because why not. People have been renting the place and then quickly abandoning it for years now, and there are rumors of a murder on the staircase. A jealous young man, a poor servant girl, and then a execution by hanging. And what begins as a thrilling curiosity soon devolves into terror, as a woman figure disappears before their eyes and the doors begin to slam behind them. Shorthouse decides the only thing to be done is to thoroughly air it out, examine the property from top to bottom. It is the dead lovers whose souls are trapped there, fused to the property by hatred and regret.
Your investigation into the hold Doug still has on you may be as terrifying as the one that Julia and Shorthouse find themselves performing, but you should follow Shorthouse's example. No expression of fear, investigate every bump and noise to discover whether its source is a fantastical imagination or a true spectre, start with the upper floors and work your way down to the foundations. Bring some sage with you, or hell, a priest. Because even if you have moved on, as you say, you have not entirely moved out. Your ghost haunts those halls as well, and if you want to be fully in that new, happy life with the new job and friends and lover, then you're going to have to go back for her. And then properly burn that blight of a structure down to the ground.
Submit your own questions for the Bibliomancer column to email@example.com.
July 23, 2013
I was trying to think of a little special offer we could do for the Casanova issue of Spolia, something like the tarot readings I offered for the Black Magic issue. All I could think of was this kind of package deal: I would meet you in Venice, feed you pasta, seduce you (or allow you to think you were seducing me, which was Casanova's big deal), listen to your stories, and then leave you forever but at least thinking magical thoughts about our time shared. But it seemed complicated, and we couldn't really decide on a price. So we had to do without.
Besides, I do too much of that on my own as it is.
As it is, I'm running out of English language books, and I've run out of fiction entirely. And while the English language selection of nonfiction is outstanding (I don't know whoever convinced the bookstores of Central Europe to stock all of the Routledge essentials, but whoever that is, thank you so very much), the fiction is not so great. They have like all of the Ken Folletts, I suppose I am just being picky.
What I have found, though, is the entire oeuvre of Mary Midgley. If you do not know her yet, you are in for a treat. She is the smartest person I know to critique scientism. Don't you hate when you are watching a science fiction television show and inevitably there will be some kind of psychic and they are always so apple-cheeked and wearing of loose-fitting flowing garments and kind of intellectually lobotomized and they are supposed to represent people of faith? Mary Midgley [not a psychic] is the antidote to that, arguing for something more than rationality and an unwavering belief in science and doing it with a fucking fierce intellect.
So right now I'm making my way through Science and Poetry. And, lucky us, her lecture series Science as Salvation, about the turning of rationality and science into a religion, is online. Bookmark it, we will be discussing further.
July 22, 2013
To know who one's ancestors were, and what they were proud of, can no longer suffice for people who think of themselves as different from their parents, as being unique with opinions of their own, and who feel uncomfortable with traditions embedded in violence. People who want to be free need to dig over a much wider area, and deeper, to understand their personal emotions and ambitions. Looking at one's most obvious roots does not automatically equip one to choose one's friends, one's partner, one's life's work, nor to cope with anger, loneliness, and other inadequacies. To discover in what direction one wishes to go, one needs to acquire memories with a new shape, memories which point into the future, and which have direct relevance to one's present occupations.
What humans have thought they could do in their own lives has been colored by what they saw happening in nature around them. Their ideas about how the universe came into being and functions have limited their imagination when they considered how much freedom they personally had. Their ideas about roots are a good example. In modern botany, roots are not merely anchors through which all nourishment is drawn: they produce hormones too. So if humans want to compare themselves to plants, on the basis of what is known about plants today, they should not assume that roots give nothing but stability: they could say that roots also create moods. Everything that is remembered about the past is washed, and often drowned, in nostalgia, pride, illusions and passions of all kinds. Indeed, few people can extract solutions to their problems from their roots. The past no longer speaks with a clear voice; nobody seems to be agreed anymore about what the lessons of history are. The old-fashioned sort of root could feed humanity only so long as differing opinions were treated like weeds, gouged out or poisoned. A new way of looking is needed in a world which believes that every individual has a right to flower, within limits, in his or her own way.
From Theodore Zeldin's An Intimate History of Humanity
July 19, 2013
Image: Cecily Brown, "High Society"
The last time I was in Budapest, it was because Dubravka Ugresic was attending a conference at the Central European University and she said I should come down. And if I have learned anything in this life, it is that 1) you always do what Dubravka Ugresic tells you to do, and 2) you take every travel invitation you possibly can, no matter how off-handedly it is presented to you.
I sat in on the keynote speech she gave, where she called for a new kind of literary genre, the stories of the wayward woman. The border-crossing woman. The woman adrift and the woman abroad. She echoed what I had recently read by Marina Warner, "we must develop a richer vocabulary for female activity than we use at present, with our restrictions of wife, mother, mistress, muse." And it also echoed what I had read by Vanessa Veselka, "The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters."
And I sat there in the back, having been living out of a carry-on sized suitcase, wearing the same four outfits over and over and over and over again for the past year or so, and I started collating reading lists in my head. For this new wayward woman library I wanted to start. It's not that the books don't exist. They are not bursting in number, it's just that they are outshone by the wife/mother/muse stories. They are scattered, not neatly organized onto one shelf. In our bookstores, everything is tightly categorized and labeled. There is no "Etc" bookshelf.
Although honestly, it's not just women who need this shelf. We need new male narratives, too. Transgressors. The male rebel tradition might be older, but it is just as restricted, I think. There are all of these boxes one must check to fit into that category. There must be, there are, other options out there.
Two conversations in the past week: When I explain or update a woman on what I am doing, that I have been on the road for a year, and sometimes I go months without having a face-to-face conversation with family or friends, that I spend most of my time in a language I don't read or write, that I can now mark the percentage of my life I spend in line at passport control, they react with the same thing: I can't imagine doing that. I would feel so lost.
I want to say (I sometimes say): Yes. And sometimes that lost feeling is wonderful. But yes. You also have to get used to a lot of crying.
Another conversation in the past week: "I didn't know I could do X, until I read this book. I didn't know it was allowed." Hence the need for the library.
Sometimes I miss stupid things like my clothing hanging in my closet so much I can't breathe. But mostly I would not be doing anything else.
"You've never been in Sydney, have you?"
"We have quite a literary and artistic set there. Not much in my line, but sometimes I couldn't help myself. Women chiefly, you know. They talk a lot of tosh about books and then, before you knew where you were, they'd be wanting to pop into bed with you."
-- The Narrow Corner. W Somerset Maugham (and gin) solve all travel problems.
July 18, 2013Image: Weldon Kees, 8XX
The original subject of Blake Bailey’s latest literary biography, reviewed in this month’s issue, was to be a collection of the “failed, forgotten writers” he’d stumbled across while researching his biographies of Yates and Cheever. Writers Flannery Lewis, Nathan Ash and Calvin Kentfield had all been considered rising literary stars of their time -- now a Google search for their names turns up almost nothing.*
Often the tipping point between obscurity and longevity has little to do with the writer’s talent. While Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend was considered a masterpiece by critics at the time, today its fame is mostly eclipsed by its film adaptation. Here are some great writers who have either been or come close to being unfairly forgotten in the midst of perpetually fluctuating literary tastes and trends.
A contemporary of John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, poet (and novelist, painter, filmmaker, and critic) Weldon Kees is not a name readily recognized to most people today. However, he enjoyed moderate success in his time -- his poetry was published in The New Yorker, he briefly served as art critic for The Nation, his circle of friends included Pauline Kael and Truman Capote -- and today his legacy as a poet has left its impact within certain circles of poets, though he may be forgotten by the general public. Kees’s life and work still resonates with some, such as poet Dana Gioia, who edited Kees’s The Ceremony and Other Stories. Gioia relates his own fortuitous discovery of Kees in the essay “Naked Kees.” Though the few who admire him today do so fervently, Anthony Lane, in his profile of Kees titled “The Disappearring Poet,” observes: “There has been a devout effort to revive, or perhaps create, his reputation, yet the impact has been limited. Something about Kees, in his afterlife as in his life, feels determined to elude any ambitions we may harbor on his behalf.”
Although James Salter is enjoying immense success right now with his newest novel, All That Is, for a time he was known as a “writer’s writer’s writer,” or, according to James Wolcott, “our most underrated underrated writer.” In 1990, Adam Begley wondered in the NY Times Book Review, “Where will the tireless, indifferent clerks file the name James Salter? His readers, few in number but adamant in their conviction... will eventually take his place in the canon of American literature.” Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker profile of Salter tells the story of Jack Shoemaker, a bookseller from the Bay Area who was in the process of starting a publishing company that would focus on forgotten masterpieces. At the recommendation of other prominent literary figures at the time, Shoemaker approached Salter to to talk about issuing a collection of Salter’s short stories -- the collection, once published, drew attention to Salter’s novels, which had fallen out of print. Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, however, had kept his name alive over the years as an unsung literary master. The manuscript, originally rejected by numerous publishers (due, Salter suspected, to the novel’s sexual content), had caught the attention of George Plimpton at the Paris Review, who recognized a hidden gem upon reading it, and published it.
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Sylvia Townsend Warner had been well-received in her time -- her debut novel Lolly Willowes was “an instant hit” -- but today the great British writer is not widely known. However, her work still resonates with readers (who are often writers themselves). Colm Toibin, who read her short story, “The Children’s Grandmother,” for the New Yorker fiction podcast, stumbled across Warner in an old anthology of New Yorker stories while browsing a used bookstore in Dublin. He was deeply impressed. In 2011 NYRB Classics reprinted three of her novels with new introductions for its Sylvia Townsend Warner collection: Mr. Fortune (actually a collection of two novellas), Lolly Willowes, and Summer Will Show.
John Williams’s powerful, understated Stoner is now beloved among booksellers (at least the booksellers I know) and other readers, but for a while the 1965 novel was kept under wraps. At the time of its publication it received good reviews but modest sales, and while Williams went on to win the National Book Award (split with John Barth’s Chimera) for his next novel in 1973, he never received the popular recognition that critics might have predicted. Although Stoner remained out of print for years, its reputation as an underground classic was preserved by word of mouth as readers passed on used copies to their friends. Stoner was finally reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2006 after John Doyle, owner of the bookstore Crawford and Doyle, recommended it to editor Edwin Frank.
For the full story of Stoner’s revival, here’s Claire Cameron’s essay for The Millions: “A Forgotten Bestseller: The Saga of John Williams’s Stoner” as well as Alan Prendergast’s profile of Williams.
If you’re interested in learning about more forgotten favorites, the website Neglected Books specializes in (according to its description) “lists of thousands of books that have been neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.”
* To hear the full conversation between Blake Bailey and D.T. Max, the video of their discussion at the Strand is available online.
July 17, 2013
Just a note to say that I have moved back into a more reasonable time zone, and so I have more openings for my tarot and astro readings. You can either book a standard reading, or one of my readings that I designed particularly for writers. It's like a mini writing workshop! Except without that one girl who always complains about your unlikable narrator. Also with more swords. Email me if you're interested.
July 16, 2013
Image: Frantisek Kupka, "Head of Slut"
Every couple of weeks or so, I get an email from a woman who has just that day discovered Bookslut.com, and she wants to try to convince me to change the name of the site. I got that email last night, after a bunch of horseradish vodka, and so I maybe sent a slightly rude response back. ("Go away, no one cares," I believe it read.) So she went a step further. I am contributing to rape culture. When women are raped, it is partially my fault.
I am used to this kind of thing by now. There was this whole article written a few years back about how because I was running a site named Bookslut and interviewing male authors, I was a tool of the patriarchy. That's fine. These types of things don't really bother me. Mostly because I feel like if you are the type of person to write emails using words like "tool of the patriarchy" and "rape culture," your goal is not to open a dialogue, it's to shame me into correcting my behavior. It's not likely to happen, unfortunately.
I should state up front that I hate the phrase "rape culture." It's not because I don't think we have a culture where rape is normalized, where women are in danger, with television programs with pretty violated dead girls lovingly filmed for our viewing pleasure, whatever. I'm not stupid, I know how this works. But I also think that throwing around the word "rape culture" is a silencing tactic, that shuts down dialogue, that creates an atmosphere of animosity. I think it is stories, not slogans, that change things, that bring people around. And hearing out a person's viewpoint, rather than scolding or telling them they are wrong, is the only way to find middle ground.
One day when I was living in Chicago, I was walking to the market to get some milk. I took a new route, because of some construction. Suddenly, a woman comes up to me to show me a picture of an aborted fetus. I unleashed a serious amount of fury. Then another man approached, telling me I would live with this regret for the rest of my life... and I realized I was walking towards an abortion clinic, and they thought I was about to go abort my unborn child. I became even more unhinged, until the woman just fled and the male protestor actually backed away slowly, his hands raised like I was some sort of feral creature about to leap at his face. It was pretty funny. I felt really good after that. It did absolutely no good, it brought nothing helpful into the world, but I felt invincible.
It must have been about three months after that when I went on a third date with an attorney, and I realized that he was pro-life. I can't remember how it came about, probably I had mentioned that I used to work at Planned Parenthood. We were fond of each other, although I think we both had realized at this point there was no potential. (I had slept over one night -- he took the guest bedroom -- when the ceiling in my apartment collapsed. I woke up to find a picture of the Pope on his nightstand. The nice, communism-fighting one, not the Nazi Youth one, but still. He had mentioned he was Catholic, but come on.)
So there we were, having a nice dinner and a bottle of wine, and suddenly, intractability. I remember asking his reasoning, and his reasons were religious. And also he just kind of believed in fate, that children, even in difficult circumstances, were gifts from above. He had like seven siblings, he probably believed that. I remember that I had taken off my heels under the table and my feet were on top of his feet, and his hand was on my arm, and I went ahead and told him that I had had an abortion when I was 21. And I went through it, very honestly, had said it was a messed up situation I should not have been in. I didn't try to make excuses, it was a bad time in my life. And it's possible that it could have worked out, that I would have been able to work things out. It would have been difficult, but maybe I could have kept the pregnancy and still had this kind of ridiculous life that I like so much. But I chose not to, because I was unemployed and broke and the guy was not a good guy and it felt wrong. I remember he sat there, recalculating. It didn't really fit in with what he thought about women who had had abortions. And he did not at that moment become pro-choice, but it dented this blockade about the issue he had formed. And certainly he upended my view that pro-life men were a bunch of controlling women-haters. He was one of the kindest people I had ever met. After that conversation he walked me home, we kissed, and we continued dating for a while. That night is really strong in my memory.
So yeah. It annoys me when someone sends an email telling me that my language needs policing. It annoys me when someone writes to say, "I just today discovered your site and you are doing it wrong and hurting women in the process." You are acting as a tyrant, not as a human being when you do that. I have that impulse, too, god knows. But if you're getting hung up on words, these forbidden words that you yourself are changing into weapons, like slut or bitch or hysterical or whatever else I've been called out for using, you're missing the story. And you're missing the human being using the words. And I don't answer email sent by tyrants.
July 15, 2013
Image: Bernini's Pluto and Proserpina
Over at Spolia we've traded in our cauldrons and spellbooks for sex by an open window overlooking the Venetian canal. It's our Casanova issue.
Greer Mansfield writes the introduction:
Introducing his 1894 translation of Casanova’s memoirs, Arthur Machen exclaimed:
A series of adventures wilder and more fantastic than the wildest of romances, written down with the exactitude of a business diary; a view of men and cities from Naples to Berlin, from Madrid and London to Constantinople and St. Petersburg; the ‘vie intime’ of the eighteenth century depicted by a man, who to-day sat with cardinals and saluted crowned heads, and to morrow lurked in dens of profligacy and crime; a book of confessions penned without reticence and without penitence; a record of forty years of “occult” charlatanism; a collection of tales of successful imposture, of ‘bonnes fortunes’, of marvellous escapes, of transcendent audacity, told with the humour of Smollett and the delicate wit of Voltaire. Who is there interested in men and letters, and in the life of the past, who would not cry, “Where can such a book as this be found?”
Giovanni Giacoma Casanova. Gambler, spy, diplomat; a wandering cosmopolitan, at home in all the courts and capitals of Europe, and in gambling houses and country inns; a prisoner (given to playing faro with his guards) and a prison escapee; the classic incarnation of 18th century libertinage, and a sincere “God”-invoker who enjoyed poking fun at stoic and deistic philosophers; a kind of seducer, but just as often easily (even gullibly) seduced himself. In the countless trysts we find in his memoirs, Casanova comes across more like Bottom in Titania’s bower—playful and good-natured and a little goofy—than the robotic cad of popular myth.
The “amour” that Casanova describes isn’t the brotherhood-sisterhood of gentle hearts evoked by the Provencal troubadours and the Dolce stil novo poets. Nor is it Romanticist love, the force that “breaks all chains from every mind” (Blake) or the “state of mind which, despite its agitation…saw all Nature fraught with novelty, passion, and interest” (Stendhal).
Even though he wrote his memoirs in old age, Casanova’s adventures never have the accent of disillusionment that we find in The Tale of Genji (to take another great story of strenuous womanizing). It is also very far from being “libertine” in the way of, say, the Marquis de Sade. As Kenneth Rexroth wrote:
With its hundreds of sexual capers, his narrative has no prurience whatsoever and no monotony. It has no malevolence, either, and Casanova’s Italianate vengeances are without petty malice. He is always being ruined by his naïve good nature…Always in his love affairs he seeks first the pleasure, sexual and otherwise, of the girl. This talent made him adored in a brutal time by countless women of all ages and conditions from Moscow to Portugal.
This last point is important, and is spelled out by Casanova himself in the tale of his encounter with Therese-Bellino (a woman who initially disguises herself as a castrato; Casanova is immediately smitten): “The happiness I gave her increased mine twofold, for it has always been my weakness to compose the four-fifths of my enjoyment from the sum-total of the happiness which I gave the charming being from whom I derived it.”
This issue of Spolia includes a chapter from Histoire de ma vie, in the Arthur Machen translation. The two primary English translators of Casanova’s endless memoirs are Machen— revered for his weird and spooky fiction and his eccentric essays—and, more recently (in the late 60s and early 70s) Willard Trask, a scholarly magus who also translated books like E.R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middles Ages, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, and the entire corpus of Mircea Eliade. We mention this not to rattle off names and tomes; it’s simply very intriguing to find Casanova in a company with the likes of Eliade, Auerbach, and Curtius. It’s not an entirely unlikely group, though. Like Eliade (and Machen), Casanova had occult religious longings. Like all of them, his writing opens up an entire cultural galaxy. Casanova’s 18th century world of cardinals and courtesans, opera singers and salon hostesses, card games and lightning storms, is as vivid and fleshly as a painting by Titian or Giorgione. You, reader, can (and should) be the judge of just how much Casanova’s Histoire has in common with our moment’s assembly line of sexual tell-alls and Compelling Online Personal Essays.
Also in this issue: Ivan Cankar, who wouldn’t have disdained the first line of History of My Life: “I will begin with this confession: whatever I have done in the course of my life, whether it be good or evil, has been done freely; I am a free agent.” And there is Miklós Szentkuthy and his dazzling note-novel Marginalia on Casanova. There are Goethe’s “Venetian Epigrams,” written in Casanova’s home city (apparently the two crossed paths at some point): a sordid, smutty counterpart to his ecstatic love-poem cycle “Roman Elegies,” and a gritty foil to Casanovan exuberance. And more, though the issue doesn’t run quite as long as Casanova’s memoirs.
July 14, 2013
Image: Mikhail Vrubel, "Six Winged Seraph"
We can't just talk about Gentrification of the Mind forever, which is a pity, because it was the most rousing thing I've read this year. Also, nothing really seems as good, like that thing that happens when you finish a Henry James novel and then try to find something to follow it. "These sentences only have five words in them, what is the fucking point" etc. After Schulman, it's more like "This book does not make me want to call for revolution or start a fucking commune in Berlin, why am I even wasting my time." Let's finish out our current conversation with that book with a look towards the future, because the news today is unbearably brutal.
We're finishing up the next issue of Spolia, which will be released tomorrow, and after the whole discussion of Schulman's disapproval of the homogeneity of literature it seems like a good time to re-post the Spolia manifesto.
Also, do note that Spolia's contributors receive a percentage of the income made from sales of the issues. We split the money evenly. So if you are interested in supporting strange writers, one way to do so would be to purchase an issue of Spolia.
Some unhappy literary trends—
- Self-cannibalism. That is, “personal essays” where writing is reduced to “self-expression,” and the self is reduced to a set of opinions about TV shows. Most often and prominently the TV show the writer imagines his/her life to be.
- “Write what you know,” i.e. repeat the same set of assumptions and formulas to yourself and your friends forever, so that the mind and the language have nowhere to go.
- Clamping the reader’s hand like an ingratiating salesman. So to speak.
- Professional Internet bombast. A literary quality in its natural habitat, probably, but: assembled-for-pay blog posts composed exclusively of exclamation marks and stock phrases are the McMansions of writing. And they are legion.
- Speaking of Online Content: Not only the language but the ETHOS of the corporate world has taken possession of art and literature. Writers and artists must “brand” themselves (even cows understand the pitfalls of this). Poems, paintings, novels, and sculptures are start-up projects in need of investment. Imagination is, as ever, an unaffordable production cost.
- Inordinate pride about being a Cultured Literary Person who, you know, enjoys the occasional superhero movie or reality TV show.
- Believing that enjoying and being interested in pop culture as well as “high” culture is any way new, or a radical shaking-off of chains.
- The curious tribal belief that—despite the fact that we live in an age where translations are plentiful and access to foreign literatures is easier than it’s ever been—certain neighborhoods in New York City =
We write no prescriptions for these maladies.
But we do, perhaps, offer a diet.
July 12, 2013Image: Thomas Eakins, "Wrestlers"
True crime at its best highlights the tensions within an afflicted society -- or as Joyce Carol Oates describes in her essay on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the “profound and disturbing disequilibrium provoked by the commission of a crime.” In this month’s issue, David McConnell discusses his new book, American Honor Killings, which deals with murders committed by men and boys who believed their masculinity somehow threatened by their victims’ homosexuality. American Honor Killings examines the common thread that runs through each of the sometimes bizarre-sounding, seemingly disparate hate crimes discussed in the book: the ways in which homophobia in America is deeply concerned with masculinity and power.
For more on the relationship between masculinity and violence, here are some indispensable readings:
There’s a definition of homophobia floating around the internet that goes: “Homophobia: the fear that gay men will treat you the same way you treat women.” The idea is illustrated well by this story submitted by a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog in response to a post about catcalling:
We were discussing homosexuality because of an allusion to it in the book we were reading, and several boys made comments such as, "That's disgusting." We got into the debate and eventually a boy admitted that he was terrified/disgusted when he was once sharing a taxi and the other male passenger made a pass at him.
The lightbulb went off. "Oh," I said. "I get it. See, you are afraid, because for the first time in your life you have found yourself a victim of unwanted sexual advances by someone who has the physical ability to use force against you." The boy nodded and shuddered visibly.
In a piece for TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit provides a straightforward, disturbing analysis of rape and rape culture today in the United States (and elsewhere). The piece outlines the link between men and violence -- particularly violence by men against women -- and how sexual assault by men is ubiquitous, institutionalized, and often accepted. Solnit, too, recognizes that our conceptions of masculinity are at the heart of continued violence against women and its continued endorsement by most of society:
There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed.
“A Rape a Minute, A Thousand Corpses a Year” - Rebecca Solnit | TomDispatch
Michael Kimmel (author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History) provides a thoughtful examination of the anxieties surrounding masculinity and the ways that homophobia is integral to our current perceptions of manhood in America:
Homophobia is more than the irrational fear of gay men, more than the fear that we might be perceived as gay... Homophobia is the fear that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, reveal to us and the world that we do not measure up, that we are not real men.
“Masculinity as Homophobia” - Michael Kimmel | originally published in Race, Class, and Gender in the United States
David Combs, writing about sexism in the punk scene, reveals the ways in which misogyny subtly (and not so subtly) manifests itself in everyday interactions between men and women. Combs uses his personal experience to expose the dangers of unchecked male privilege and to make a clear and compelling case for feminism.
It was liberating to hear someone take on those traditional expressions of masculinity, because I hated the ways I was expected to act as a man. I hated the toughness and numbness that was expected from men, because I wanted to be able to express my emotions without fear of ridicule. I hated the predatory way that men acted towards women, because I wanted to be free to have meaningful relationships with women. Likewise, I hated the homophobia, because I wanted to have meaningful relationships with the men in my life.
“Sexism in the Punk Scene” - David Combs | punknews.org
Combs’s essay is a great place to start for people who might be new to the issues surrounding sexism and patriarchy. He also links to other relevant works for those wondering what to read next.
July 10, 2013
Image: Cranach the Elder, Judith Victorious
The Greeks believed that libraries were places of great healing, and that poetry and literature revealed deep spiritual truths. I still believe that today, that seeing alternatives played out in a novel can give you an idea of what to do in your own life, and that sometimes a made up story has more insight into heartbreak, despair, loss, frustration, and failure (and joy, and hope, and love) than any life coach-supplied affirmation or self-help to do list. Every other Wednesday, I will be answering questions about life's quandaries with a little bookish insight. This is an extension of my Kind Reader column, and you can find past entries here. You can submit your own questions by emailing me.
I knew that my boyfriend was an alcoholic when we started dating, but he was in recovery. He went to meetings and was really open about why he stopped drinking. There were nights he didn't remember, and a really destructive relationship. I didn't think it really mattered. I really loved him, to me it didn't matter what had happened in the past. He seemed like a good man now, and I read all the books you're supposed to read about addiction and being a partner to an addict and all of that. I mostly stopped drinking myself, unless I was only out with girlfriends. I didn't want him to feel uncomfortable.
Everything seemed fine, until I found an empty whiskey bottle under his couch. And then I found one behind the books on the shelves. And one in the dresser under his sweaters. And he confessed that he had been drinking again, and he swore that was it. Then I found out he's been seeing some other woman, too, who he says is what started the drinking, because she's kind of wild and it was stressful having to keep secrets from me. He would pretend he was traveling for work when I guess he was still in town, maybe with her, I don't know. And there's other stuff, too, stuff I'm really embarrassed to talk about. So let's say he was lying about a lot of stuff for quite a while and leave it at that.
My friends think I need to leave him, but this is part of being with an alcoholic, right? It's a relapse and they happen. Mostly I am just hurt that he felt that he couldn't talk to me about it when he relapsed, that he had to spend so much time lying about everything. But maybe they're right and I'm enabling him? I love him and I want him to get better.
I will say that I am not here to declare, you should leave or you should go. Relationships are mysterious. Each one creates its own intricate, peculiar eco-system, and so there are no universal rules. And being an outsider, trying to examine your eco-system from afar with just my little telescope, I have no idea what the pH levels in the water are or whether you are in the middle of a die-off in amphibious life over there. I can only see major features, and so we have to leave that part of your letter out of it.
What I can see from here is that you are in serious need of redirecting your anger. I don't mean you should go on one of those righteous fury rampages, because a long session of badgering your partner for not being what you want him to be never did anyone any good. Not you, not the partner in the wrong, not the relationship. So no, I don't mean that. But it sounds like all of your anger is currently occupied with tearing away at your insides, telling you that if only you had paid attention, if you had been a better partner, if you had seen the signs, you could have stopped this before it went so far. We all use this language now that alcoholism is a disease, but it's not cancer, yes? And fucking around and lying and drinking are not side effects of chemotherapy. So what we need to do is to take your murderous impulse, currently directed inwards, and we need to get it pointing outwards.
Because honestly, this guy, whatever his worth and value as a human being and as a boyfriend, took you to Mongolia and then spent an awful lot of time trying to convince you you were in Bolivia. That level of lying and confusion -- to create this fantasy world of sobriety and monogamy and intimacy -- is a kind of induced schizophrenia. Reality is one way, but all of the information you are taking into your brain is something totally another. You should be angry about this. You should be furious. It's important not to have a go at your own brain with this anger. He's done enough of that for you. And it's important that it find a good target and a good outlet because that shit comes out one way or another. It's very dangerous to carry around a potential misfire like that.
All we know at the beginning of Edna O'Brien's Johnny I Hardly Knew You is that our heroine Nora has killed a man. A lover. A lover she swears she cared for and treasured. But alas, now he is dead, and you know, whoops. As she mounts her defense, both for the upcoming court date and for the reader, she begins by tallying all of the hurtful things men have done that she has just allowed for them to do. She has taken married lovers who swore they would leave their wives. She has been brutalized. She has been neglected and abandoned and imprisoned. "Haven't I always been attending to a him, and dancing attendance upon a him, and being slave to a him and being trampled on by a him?" she asks us. And she has. Her stories are worst than most, but so, my dear, is yours.
But for the catalogue of horrors that she withstands in the name of love, for all the times she approached a man for a little scratch behind the ears and got a kick to the ribs instead, she never strikes back. She absorbs and she directs it back at herself. She guides in their knife, points out her fleshy bits where he can do the most damage. Until one day... because that shit has to come out sometime. "I should perhaps say that I am proud and jubilant to have killed one of the opposite sex, one of that breed to whom I owe nothing but cruelty, deceit and the asp's death." Yeah, okay Nora, let's walk this one back a little.
What you do with your anger -- tear down a building with a penknife, run away to Russia to drink with sailors, create a work of art along the lines of Edna O'Brien's here -- is up to you. But you should find a way to do something with it soon, before they're dragging you away in front of the camera, your mascara all a mess, mumbling something like, "I don't understand, I just put a tiny little bit of cyanide into the tea, I didn't mean for anything like this to happen..." For the amount of anger you should have, given what you've told me, they'll be counting the bodies for weeks.
Submit your own questions for the Bibliomancer column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 9, 2013Image: David Wojnarowicz, "Rimbaud In New York 1978-79"
In Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman includes Kathy Acker in the list of AIDS casualties, even though she died of cancer instead. But her death came during the AIDS years, as people were still dropping dead but Andrew Sullivan was declaring that AIDS was "over." And Schulman also connects the erasure of Acker's work, the contemporary lit scene's total lack of engagement with what she was doing and how she changed literature, with the erasure of the writers and artists and musicians who died and were similarly forgotten.
It was a shock to read that, because for me, Kathy Acker is it. I was 15 when I picked up her books, and everything kind of spooled out for me from that one copy of Pussycat Fever. I would not be the reader I am now if it had not been for that book. I would not be the writer I am now if it had not been for that book. And yet there are writers walking around today who think that that era from the late '70s to the early '90s was all about Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis and that is it. What a deprivation.
So yes, it matters who is left to tell the story. It matters who gets left out of the story. It matters that that era, which devastated a generation of artists and writers has been remembered for its contributions by the shiny shiny Jeff Koons, and the grittier, more complicated and angry work has been sidelined. (Helen Molesworth's This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s is a great explanation of what was discarded in the visual arts world.)
In our final installment of my interview with Sarah Schulman, we discuss her work with the oral history of ACT UP, and how even our history gets gentrified in the retelling. You can read part one and part two.
What's been your personal experience with publishing lately? This book came out at University of California, and you've been published at Duke in the past. Was your move to university presses voluntary?
All of my nonfiction books have been university presses. My first one was in 1994, My American History. That was from Routledge. Then I had a book from Duke, Stagestruck. That was in 1998. That was the first book about how the gay movement was being turned into a market. I think I was way ahead of the curve on that one.
What's weird about that, the kind of books that I write, 20 or 30 years ago, would have been mainstream presses. But because of the commercialization of mainstream presses people like me are at university presses, but I'm not writing academic books. It's because these general interest books that are progressive have been pushed out of commercial publishing. The actual, truly academic books can't get published. Now I'm pushing out what used to be academic publishing.
In terms of fiction my last commercial book was 1998. Since then, I've been with small presses. I wrote this book called The Child that was about a sexual relationship between a 15 year old boy and a 40 year old man. That took nine years to find a publisher because the content was so unacceptable. Then I wrote a very experimental book that I really love called The Mere Future, it's about a New York where the only job left is marketing. I think it's one of my best books, but I couldn't get it published because it was too formally inventive, so I published it in Canada. I've been through that kind of thing.
I have a new manuscript now that is very literary, and I'm hoping to re-enter mainstream publishing with it. It's going up for sale now. It's called The Cosmopolitans, and it's a rewrite of Balzac's Cousin Bette, but it's set in New York City in 1958. I called it The Cosmopolitans because I wanted it to sound like a Henry James novel. We'll see.
And your students, are they finding their way into publishing?
No. They're not ready. I have a couple of students who are working on things that I hope will be publishable, but they're not ready to go into the marketplace.
Do you know about Topside Press?
Topside Press is really interesting. It started as a trans press, it's run by one of my former MFA students because I used to teach at a low-residency, his name is Tom Léger. They started it because a friend of ours, Cheryl B., died a few years ago and left behind a memoir. Me and a couple people edited it and they published it, it's called My Awesome Place. It won the Lammy. They also published the first trans fiction compilation, and that also won the Lambda award. Now they're branching out into publishing novels. They published an incredible novel called Nevada by Imogen Binnie, it's doing very, very well. They've got a very sophisticated system going over there. It's a small press, but it's run by people who understand the new technologies in a way I never will.
The goal, of course, is to get into mainstream publishing.
I was reading this New York Times feature on a young writer who wrote World War Z, which is now a Brad Pitt movie. He has talked in other places about how his zombie inspiration was growing up during the AIDS crisis. And about how to him, it seemed like the sick were a zombie plague out to infect him.
I was reading that interview as I was reading your book, and I was really worried that this is now how we remember the crisis, as being akin to a zombie plague that threatens the lives of the children of Hollywood elites.
The mainstream has never been able to handle AIDS. Mary Gaitskill, one of my favorite writers, wrote this book called Veronica. It's spectacular. It's about a fashion model who dies of AIDS. I asked her, what's it like to publish an AIDS novel now? And what kind of feedback have you gotten? She said no one mentioned that it was about AIDS. Every review was about how it was about the fashion industry.
We had a couple documentaries come out in the last few years, the documentary that you were involved in and then How to Survive a Plague.
My film was called United in Anger. The two films make opposite arguments, I don't know if you realize. Have you seen them?
I have seen yours, but not How to Survive a Plague yet.
Ours is about how the AIDS movement was a very diverse movement. People with AIDS of all classes and races and homeless people and drug users, and there were women of color in leadership, all that. His was about the five white people who changed the world. It's really interesting. Jim Hubbard, who was the director of the film I co-produced, and the other director debated each other. You can watch it online. They're talking, and it becomes clear that the other guy knows nothing about AIDS. The first question the audience asks him is, why are there no women or people of color in your film? And he says, well, I focused on a group of wealthy white men because they had the time to devote their time to ACT UP.
I run the ACT UP oral history project, and I've interviewed 164 surviving members of ACT UP, and that is bullshit. People of all classes and races devoted their whole lives to ACT UP. People who had no money at all devoted their whole lives to ACT UP. This concept that only wealthy people can make a social movement function is completely absurd and ahistorical. And then he said, these people went to universities and that allowed them to understand the science. All of the research I've done, and I've been running the archive for 12 years, says that is complete crap. People from all backgrounds could understand the science. One of the most informed activists inside of ACT UP was a 19 year old girl, who was just brilliant and self-educated herself by studying. This idea that wealthy people propelled the AIDS movement is ridiculous. This guy got nominated for an Oscar. If what you find is that wealthy white men are the most important people in the world, then you get rewarded. No matter how far away it is from the truth.
It reminds me of your section about Andrew Sullivan in the book, about his inability to comprehend that his position was a position of privilege, that sense of, "No, I went through the same channels that everyone goes through!"
So many years later, now I'm involved in Palestinian rights, my last book (Israel/Palestine and the Queer International) is about that. And of course he is a very right-wing defender of the current regime in Israel. He's doing the same thing now. He runs things on his website that really reinforces racial supremacy systems in Israel, apartheid-like conditions. He has no understanding that all human beings, by virtue of being born, deserve equal opportunity.
This person somehow became the spokesperson for the queer community. I don't know how that happened. They [the media] realized they needed someone, they couldn't ignore it anymore, and they had to pick one of their own. It's like when they choose your leadership for you, and they tell you this is your leader.
So you said in your book that because of the credit crisis that the age of gentrification is over...
Yeah, I was wrong about that. That was right in the middle of the crash when I wrote that. I was wrong. It was an opportunity that didn't happen. It's like 9/11. I remember thinking that day, now we're all going to understand what happens to other people when we bomb them, and we are not going to want to do it again. Boy, was I wrong!
One of my arguments with your book was that the blue states should secede from the red states. As Kansas born and bred, I can't agree with that.
Kansas is an interesting example. When you look at the states that look at Romney, and he was a very weak candidate, he was not smart, he was ultra-rich, no one liked him, and he still almost won. When you look at the states that supported him, it's the same states that were the slave states. Kansas was not a slave state, right?
Right. Very progressive history.
So Kansas is one of the states that slipped historically. It went from being progressive to... I don't know what its problem is. But the bulk of the Republican support is the slave states, so we should have just let them secede, right? Fighting the Civil War was a mistake.
I don't know. I think sometimes the greatest potential for change comes from these places. I have hope that they'll pull it together.
Yeah, I don't know.
July 8, 2013
Image: Franz Kupka's portrait of Baudelaire, entitled "Look at this Motherfucker." Oh wait, I was wrong, it's "The Yellow Scale"
In Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman attacks the MFA industry as homogeonizing American literature, flattening out any complexities, any eccentricities into bland sameness. Across the nation, writers are developing their skills while reading the same books, attending the same structured workshops, entering the same system as all of their peers. And you can see it in the literature. If you care about literature at its extremes, if you care about experimentation and individuality, if what you value is strange and weird and inappropriate, then you will probably have responded to the literature that develops in MFA programs with disgust and disappointment. They are touching coming of age stories, complex memoir narratives about overcoming tragedy and setback with dignity, all written in the same flat prose. Personal essays that run online are entirely interchangable with each other, as if there is one monster writer who cranks out hundreds of thousands of words a day about how that most recent episode of Mad Men really gets at the heart of their relationship with their father/how their most recent break-up taught them valuable life lessons about giving and sharing and who they really are/how what they thought was an obstacle really turned out to be the key to overcoming past trauma.
More troubling, though, is the way the publishing industry has embraced this sameness. How writing that does not participate in this paradigm is having a more difficult time getting out into the world. You would think that with a million (I don't know, I am too lazy to look up the figure) books being released every year, that would mean that writing that is good and valuable and interesting would find its way out somewhere or somehow. But from the writers I have talked to, brilliant and talented and interesting and doing remarkable things, that is not the case. Manuscripts are sitting on shelves, writers are being told they cannot be published because they are not marketable, and meanwhile our literary culture has decided that the writer of our time is some straight rich white guy who just happens to have famous or important parents. Our memories are short. We forget that writing, good and important and lifechanging as it is, is not an industry. We are not content providers for fucksake. We are poets and outliers and dangerous and dirty and strange. We do not participate in the system. We throw stones at it from afar.
In this part of my interview with Schulman, we discuss MFA-sameness, and why we should all be worried that universities are taking over our culture. The conversation concludes tomorrow, with a discussion about the state of publishing and why relying on the dominant culture to tell our stories is dangerous. (Read part one here.)
I wanted to talk about your section about the MFA programs. People are very defensive about the MFA system, because if you do level a criticism at this new industry, there are ten very high profile responses in various publications the next day.
Right, I know.
It's so entrenched. You go through the objections you have in your book, but obviously the system has become more powerful. When did you see it affecting the work that was being produced?
When I started writing, I never heard of an MFA. I was a waitress in a coffeeshop, and it was the first coffeeshop in Tribeca so a lot of my customers were artists. The artists were just moving in there. They were telling me about this thing, MFA. I think I already had two books published, and they were saying, you have to have this. I enrolled in a program at City College, with Grace Paley. I only went for one day. [In Gentrification of the Mind she explains that Grace Paley pulled her aside after class and told her she didn't need the workshop system.] I got into MacDowell in 1987, and when I got there, it was still the eclectic artist mix. The other writers were basically just writers, and they had each developed through a completely individuated series of experiences and exposures. Then I went back twice, and the second time I went back, I think it was in '94, suddenly there was an entirely new type of person there. They were young, well-to-do people, who had the same teachers and had read the same books and had been in these workshops, and there was something very different about them. It was really off-putting. In the introduction to my book Stagestruck, I talk about it because I wrote it there. I was surrounded by these people, and I didn't understand what had happened. Somewhere in there in the gentrification period in the late '80s and early '90s, it started to become entrenched.
At that time it was all upper class people. Now of course there are so many kinds of MFA programs that you have working class people who are going into debt to go into them. I have never seen one single example of improved writing coming out of an MFA program. What you see is a lot of generic repetition of paradigms, tropes, voices, and styles. The writers I really admire, the only one I can think of who went to an MFA program dropped out of it.
I know a few writers I really respect who teach at MFA programs...
But that's different. They need to earn a living. Although now they're creating it so that you can't teach unless you have an MFA, that's the new thing, right? It used to be you could get a really great writer as your teacher, but today Grace Paley couldn't teach at an MFA program because she doesn't have an MFA. In my school when we do a search, we're not allowed to look at a resume if the applicant doesn't have a terminal degree. It doesn't matter what a great teacher, writer they are, how many books they've published, the degree is paramount. They put a lock on it now.
And then that form of writing just reproduces itself.
When you interview people for jobs, and you see the kind of writing that comes out of these programs, and look at their lesson plans, it reproduces the same thing. It's mass production.
I never understood the change of emphasis on writing as an artform to writing as a craft, but it seemed to coincide with the rise of these programs. This idea that art not only can be taught but should be taught in these scenarios.
It's a class seizure. Because they are professionalizing the arts, and when you do that, you limit who can get in. Because first of all you have to be admitted to these programs, you have to be able to afford them, you have to have the time for them, and you have to fit into the way they construct learning, which isn't really learning. It's obedience. It's very limiting in terms of class, race, values, character, aesthetics. They're streamlining it. It's a control mechanism. It's a cultural control mechanism. That's why I say it's been gentrified. Literature looks the same as a gentrified neighborhood. Everything is homogeneous and bland and uni-cultural.
If a talented 22 year old writer came to you and was thinking about an MFA program, what would you advise them to do?
What I usually tell them people is, if you can get a free ride, you should take it. Because it's much harder now to get anything if you haven't been through the system. I got into MacDowell, a fellow waitress wrote my recommendation. That's not going to happen now. You're not going to be able to get anything. If they're going to pay for you, you should go, because that means they believe in you and they think you can make it and they're going to invest in you. If they're asking you to go into debt for their MFA program, then don't do it. Because it means they don't believe in you, and they are using you as a cash cow for their school. You're never going to be able to pay off that debt, it's absurd. No one should get an MFA if they have to pay for it.
The better thing is to start a writers group, with real writers. To me, a writer is someone who writes. The best thing to me is to read eclectically, to go to readings, to have experiences, to live in the world, to mix with all different types of people, to take some chances, and to find some people and start a writing group. Or ask a writer you respect to teach a class. I charge $40 a class, it's not that much. Start your own thing. There used to be all these alternative schools, the University of the Streets, the Brecht. There were these left-wing places you could go and study outside of the structure of a university. As we know, universities are becoming more and more corporate, and universities themselves are gentrifiers. If you look at what NYU has done to New York City, for example, it's been one of the worst influences on the city. Now we are seeing universities that are selling their brands to Abu Dhabi and repressive regimes in China. Universities are becoming more and more globalized, corporate entities. To rely on these people to determine the artwork or the cultural output of your own time is pretty dangerous. If they're asking you for something -- money -- don't give it to them.
On the other hand, if you are poor, if you're working class, if you're an immigrant, if you're a person of color, if you can't get into the system, then you can't get in at all. That's another thing to consider. It's so closed now, my god. The MFA crew is so racially and culturally homogeneous. They don't even notice it about themselves. The cool thing about developing as an artist is hanging out with all sorts of eccentric people who have had strange experiences and you learn from them. These systems are the opposite. The eccentricities are kept out.
You have that great quote from Penny Arcade in your book, that academia will never be the art world. I was on this panel at Princeton, and these Princeton professors and students were discussing whether the new role of the university was going to be the new shelter for the art world, so it could flourish within its walls. Everyone was nodding and very pleased with the idea, and I was having a seizure in the back.
They look in the mirror and think it's a window. I really encourage my peers who are writers to run these groups in whatever communities they live in. Low cost writing groups. We meet once a month, it's really not that much time. A lot of people could do it.
July 5, 2013
Image: Untitled by Brassaï
I have been obsessed with Sarah Schulman's The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination since I read it, in love as I am with cities and their weirdnesses, and seeing over the years how so many of my favorites have been flattened out, ruined by money. She describes this process very well, the way cities have been taken over by people who want only things that they can procure with money, who want a $12 whiskey sour and a locally sourced asparagus soup with truffle foam, people who only want to engage with people who agree with them about politics and about the new New York Times Magazine feature. The amazing potential of cities to create new worlds, new forms, new ways of existing, is being traded in for a $5 cappuccino in a coffeeshop where everyone types out their memoirs while enjoying a nice pastry.
Cynical? No, angry, which is different. Schulman writes about how the AIDS crisis coincided with, and sped up, this gentrification process of the children of suburbanites snatching up the apartments of dead writers and artists and activists. And now the AIDS crisis itself has become gentrified, as people now think of it as a problem "over there" (=Africa), and that isn't it sad what happened in New York and haven't we all learned important life lessons? Rather than, there are politicians and church leaders with blood on their hands who have never been held accountable. And even the history of AIDS and its activist movement has become white-washed in history, as we remember a few well off white men as the movements' leaders, forgetting about the women, the people of color, the poor people who also made things happen.
I interviewed Schulman, and I'll be posting the interview in segments over the next few days. In today's segment, we discuss resistance and apathy, the suburbanite invasion of urban life, and how not to be a gentrifier. In the next section, we'll be discussing her provocative statement that the MFA program is antithetical to literature and art-making.
I read this book and then so many news articles and other books and films I was watching seemed to draw my mind back to it. Every day we read about affordable housing crises in just about every major city in the world, there are the eviction suicides in Spain, and natives of cities are being priced out or are just walking out in disgust of what their cities have turned into. Which is, expensive and yet boring, and every city begins to resemble every other. Do you think there is the ability to resist this motion? Or are we going to have to give up the idea of what New York used to be?
Who knows what's going to happen, because look at what's happening in Istanbul and Cairo and Rio? Huge megacities are in revolt right now. Will that ever happen in New York, we don't know. That's a hope. If there is no major shift in the way capitalism is enacted in the United States, people go to cities that are more open like LA or Austin, or they can adjust the way they live in a city like New York. A lot of young people have been asking me how to keep from being a gentrifier. You can't help it, that there's a housing crunch and you have to live in other people's neighborhoods. But the question is, how do you live there? Do you know your neighbors? Do you give back to the community, do you teach people how to read or how to swim? Do you work at the food pantry? Do you patronize the local stores or do you go to the $5 cappuccino places? It's not about who you are, it's not about your race and class, it's about how you behave and how you treat other people.
Unfortunately, a lot of these people were raised in these very rarefied and satisfied suburbs, right? Suburbanization is a new phenomena, it's a post-WWII phenomena, what we're experiencing is the first time surburbanization invades urbanity. It's never happened before. People come in with an ideology where they don't how to interact with people who are different from them. They don't understand what an apartment building is. That it's a community. All these different concepts of "mix." It's a consciousness issue. But if people can overcome that, then certain things are possible.
I've been watching this process happen to Berlin over the past four years, and the way that the city government encourages it and profits from it. Do you see in the students that you teach a continued political apathy, of, well, it's never going to change, there's no use fighting it?
My students are really different because I'm in CUNY. That's public university. That's mostly working class and immigrants and poor people. There are 23 campuses, and it's very, very separate. The students that I teach and the people who I'm friends with are like two separate worlds. They do not interact. My friends don't know anybody like my students, and my students don't know anybody like my friends. Because there's a privatized New York and a public sphere New York. There are people in public universities who only take public transportation who are in emergency rooms for health care, and then there are people who have private doctor and go to private schools. It's two parallel worlds. This is also part of gentrification because New York used to be more mixed than that.
My students have a different problem. They don't know how things work. That is what power is, it's information. Many of my students don't even know there are private universities because they've never known anyone who's gone to one. They certainly don't understand how bad the conditions are in their own classrooms. I wish there was an exchange program between CUNY and Columbia. It would be across the class divide. Seriously. It would be profoundly shocking to both parties.
And you also teach your own writing classes in your apartment...
It's a pretty diverse group of women. None of them are enrolled in any kind of degree program. They're working on their own prose work outside of the pressures of an MFA or degree program, because to me those programs are antithetical to art making. Particularly for women of color or queer women, you have to battle those systems when you're inside them, and I wanted to remove their pressures. Straight men mentor each other inside these power systems. My ulterior motive to all of this is to help people produce more work that is going to have value that the system doesn't support. I'm becoming my own system.
July 4, 2013
Image: Cesar Santos, "Farfalline Della Notte"
Jumbled etcs from a wildly fragmented existence these past few weeks:
Every two years my path manages to cross with John Biguenet (The Torturer's Apprentice), and I get to share a bottle of wine and be in his company. It's only every other year, but the quality of his conversation and the warmth of his presence is such that even a brief meeting sustains me. I am already looking forward to 2015.
Olivia Manning remains the best thing available for when you are shaky at yet another airport gate and crying behind your sunglasses. Her books ease things, and all of these displaced Brits she writes about manage to find their footing in strange places, and so then so can I.
The second best thing in that particular scenario is a flirty older Russian gentleman who talks to you and cracks jokes until you start laughing again.
As I travel around Europe researching this book I am writing, I have stayed in a lot of different apartments. 80% of them have contained a copy of Eat Pray Love.
At some point, I hope to get better at this whole travel thing. And by better, I mean find a way to leave behind the part where I cry in public and get wild anxiety and knock into doorways and luggage racks and other people's belongings until my knees turn almost black with bruises. If I am arranging my life around the idea that it would be a good thing to have seen every corner of the world before I die, I will have to improve the process.
July 1, 2013
Image: Pele by Michael Shapcott
While we are pleased to present to your July issue of Bookslut, we are sad to be saying good-bye to two columnists. Charlotte Freeman has been our cookbook columnist for years, after I basically stalked her and had to threaten her with bodily harm if she didn't start writing for me. Luckily she was frightened of me enough to agree, and that was the beginning of a fruitful working arrangement. Christopher Merkel will also be stepping down from the Unamerican column, where he has been blending travelogue with accounts of international literature. We are going to miss them both.
But that also means we have some writing openings available. If you are interested in writing a column about food writing or international literature, please get in touch. We could also use an essayist or two, particularly someone willing to write a reader's diary kind of monthly feature. I'd particularly like someone to fill that gap, and so please write to me with your ideas, your tastes, your hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow or whatever.
Bookslut columnists will all stay free at the Bookslut Literaturhaus of Sex and Death.
Oh, did you think I was kidding about that? I was not kidding about that. That is something I am going to do, because why the fuck not, right? We should all just live in a big building together and write things of beauty. I mean, I think so. Don't think it will be all jammed packed with Americans, though, it will be international. There will be an application process. Like, do you know how to rewire a 19th century building? Who cares if your writing sucks, come on in. That is the process. (There will be other questions on the application, but don't worry, none of those Google brain puzzles that turn out not to tell you any goddamn thing about a person's thinking abilities.) So yes, while we're already flooding my inbox, also please get in touch if you are at all interested in joining a non-commune in Berlin in a probably haunted building. There are things that need to be discussed.
Walter Biggins’s fascinating review of Austin Grossman’s You taps into the novel’s multi-faceted, intellectual take on video games -- how games and the gaming industry reflect the tensions between entertainment and education, art and commerce, geekdom and genius.
For those of you intrigued by You’s exploration of the philosophical aspect of video games, here are some supplemental resources focused on the critical study of gaming:
The Ludologist -- the blog of Jesper Juul, a professor at the NYU Game Center and author of The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. The Ludologist (“Noun. Video Game Researcher”) is accessible, enjoyable to read and covers a wide range of topics related to the study of gaming, from what makes a game a game to sexism within the gaming industry. Juul’s blog is also a great portal to other resources such as academic journals on gaming and gaming studies conferences and lectures.
Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research -- Game Studies can be read for free online and features several critical analyses of the role of games, as well as reviews of academic books in the field. From their mission:
“Our primary focus is aesthetic, cultural and communicative aspects of computer games, but any previously unpublished article focused on games and gaming is welcome. Proposed articles should be jargon-free, and should attempt to shed new light on games, rather than simply use games as metaphor or illustration of some other theory or phenomenon.”
Sample article: “‘Interactive Cinema’ Is an Oxymoron, but May Not Always Be” by Brian Veale
Well Played : A Journal of Video Games, Value, and Meaning -- Well Played, which focuses on the meaning of the gaming experience, is published by Carnegie Mellon University’s ETC Press and downloadable as a free PDF. From their website:
“Video games are a complex medium that merits careful interpretation and insightful analysis. By inviting contributors to look closely at video games and the experience of playing them, we hope to expand the discussion, and show how games are well played in a variety of ways.”
G|A|M|E : The Italian Journal of Game Studies -- Published twice a year and available for free online, G|A|M|E features contributors from around the world. The website, as well as many articles, is available in English. Some of their objectives:
“* The study of the technical, aesthetic, and historical evolution of games, both as meaningful texts and social objects;
* A consideration of games in the context of their relations with technology and the evolution of leisure, as a broad and encompassing vision of gaming culture;”
Sample article: “A New Angle on Parallel Languages: The Contribution of Visual Arts to a Vocabulary of Graphical Projection in Video Games” by Audrey Larochelle