I’m not a Luddite. Sometime later this year, I’ll probably buy an e-reader. I’ll do so with regret, because I really love printed text. I love how I can totally lose all sense of the outside world when I’m reading a book—and I worry that I’ll never be able to achieve that sense of totally immersion when reading on an e-reader.
A couple of days ago, I caught a podcast of J. Robert Lennon interviewing Nicholson Baker
. Besides writing some of my favorite novels (Mezzanine
, A Box of Matches
, The Anthologist
), Baker’s also writes thoughtfully on text preservation and the effects of technology on the written word. Recall, for example, his 2009 New Yorker article
on the Kindle.
Baker seems to be more comfortable with e-readers nowadays, yet he still “connect[s] better with a printed book.”
“[T]here’s somehow a kind of connection that the text [provides]… There’s a more complete experience. I remember it more. I come away with more. I don’t know if it’s just my own [experience], you know, just because I grew up in a paper-based world or something, but it’s still true for me.”
So it looks like Baker’s not getting total immersion from his e-reader.
I also worry about how an e-reader will change my relation to the books I own. I doubt I’ll build the same kind of attachment to an electronic file as I might form with the ratty paperbacks I buy at thrift stores.
I’m not a rare book collector, but over the years I’ve picked up a few rare items. Sixteen years ago, I came across a set of uncorrected galleys to Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time
. Conroy, as I wrote recently
, was my first creative writing teacher, so the galleys to his masterpiece have personal meaning to me.
The galleys were previously owned by Carter Burden, the one-time publisher of The Village Voice who had amassed one of the finest collection of twentieth-century US first editions. To house the galleys, Burden had a special case made.
Another mentor, John McNally
, introduced me to Stuart Dybek’s short stories. After McNally had me read Dybek’s “Pet Milk,” I sought out all of Dybek’s work. Eventually, I came across his 1993 chapbook, The Story of Mist
(State Street Press Chapbooks). The flash fiction collected within this volume is gorgeous.
A few years after I bought the chapbook, Dybek came to Washington as part of the Pen Faulkner reading series. ZZ Packer was also reading on the same bill. Afterwards, lines formed so that audience members could meet the writers. Dybek looked startled when he saw I wanted him to sign my copy of his chapbook. Most people were asking him to sign copies of his then-current collection, I Sailed with Magellan
—and here I was with some obscure chapbook that had been issued more than a decade prior. Dybek seemed wary. I sensed he feared I was some kind of fanatic—a mad fan who might attempt to chat him up for hours or even stalk him after the event. It was awkward. He had been friendly with almost everyone else in line, laughing and telling jokes. With me, silence.
That same night, my wife and I talked with ZZ Packer for maybe five minutes. She was charming, totally at ease with all the attention she was receiving for her collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
, which we had her sign for us.
Still, despite that experience, I'll always treasure my copy of The Story of Mist
Donald Barthelme’s The Emerald (Sylvester & Orphanos) fills out my “rare book collection.” After this story appeared in Esquire, a small Los Angeles publisher (Sylvester & Orphanos) published a handsome hardbound limited-edition. Barthelme signed each of the 330 copies. Somehow my wife acquired a copy, giving it to me as a birthday gift a few years back.
This book is just so beautifully printed and bound. What pictures I’ve snapped just cannot do it justice.
I guess to some degree I’m fetishizing the printed object, or at least already mournful that in the coming era of the e-book, there may be little room for these types of cherished mementos. Five years from now, are printed galleys even going to exist? And autographed e-books? Can such things even exist?However…yesterday…. my thoughts changed.
While future generations may never know what a limited edition chapbook might be, I saw something that made me confident that, in one form or another, the fetishizing of the printed object will continue.
Yesterday, I took my son to Kids Tech University
, an awesome program developed by Virginia Tech’s Bioinformatics Institute to spur youngsters’ interest in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In the morning, a scientist spoke about her research in Antarctic core drilling samples. In the afternoon, the kids explored exhibits of various University-supported engineering projects.
An exhibit on 3-D Printing, a manufacturing process that can reproduce any physical object, caught my attention. I first read about 3-D Printing last year in a New York Times article
. Last month, I heard again about it through an NPR Talk of the Nation
story, but seeing the exhibit astounded me.
As the Times wrote,
“A 3-D printer, which has nothing to do with paper printers, creates an object by stacking one layer of material — typically plastic or metal — on top of another, much the same way a pastry chef makes baklava with sheets of phyllo dough.”
Digital pictures are taken of an object, which are then computer-processed, building up a digital record of the object’s dimensionality. The objects, which can be comprised of many components (including moving parts) are then “printed out” by spraying layer after layer of materials upon each other, allowing for each layer to dry before another is applied. The objects exhibited this weekend were made from rubber and resins, but other materials, like copper and concrete, can be used. To print out a fully-functioning adjustable wrench might take several hours but it’s amazing that objects which used to be hand-forged or assembled from molded parts can now be manufactured more effortlessly with much greater precision.
Although I didn’t ask, my guess is that the process needn’t begin with the photographing of an actual object. Instead, one could probably design the objects through computer animated designs.
One of the exhibitors said that the images can even begin as CT scans, allowing surgeons the ability to print-out a patient’s body organs to get a better idea, say, where malignant tumors may reside.
As the technology progresses, I wonder if fully-bound books might be printed out this way. Theoretically, 3-D Printing might actually expand book culture’s fetishizing of the printed object, allowing for the custom printing of newer, more fantastical books.
The other day, in my post about The Official Catalogue of the Library of Potential Literature
, I quoted the Adam Robinson’s idea of a “wooden novel” composed of different “drawers.” Today, such a thing might not be possible. However, through 3-D Printing, it’s conceivable that such a book might yet be made, allowing readers new ways to immerse themselves in the printed word. Meaning, the technology behind the printed book need not be dead.
Consider this: at various points during the last 150 years, painting has been said to be on its deathbed. The nineteenth century emergence of photography required that painting justify itself. Other forms, like collage, sculpture, video, and installation art cut into painting’s share of the visual arts marketplace. Yet painting persists, much re-defined and evolved since its crisis began.
Consider this: the book—and, by extension, writing—is now said to be on its deathbed.
I thought of these things last night when reading The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature
(Cow Heavy Books). The anthology, edited by Ben Segal and Erinrose Mager, consists of blurbs, dusk jacket copy, and descriptions for unwritten and, perhaps, unwritable books. In their call for submissions
, the editors made clear that they both wanted to writers “to imagine that they’ve just read the most amazing book they’ve ever encountered” and, in the broadest sense, “conceptualize forms and potential works: not necessarily to bring them into being.”
Sixty-two authors provided entries for this Catalog,
most in fundamentally unique ways. Some satirized the hyperbolic language of the blurb form (Blake Butler
: “this book lit down upon my house and ate my children and my mind”). Others used the occasion for socio-political barbs: (Vanessa Place
: “Capital—the most important epic poem of the twentieth century”).
Where the Catalog succeeds most, in my opinion, is in the entries where the book form itself is brought into question. Rather than be just a bound collection of text printed on paper, Catalog
writers point to other possibilities. Michael Martone
, writing about Nabokov’s lost book about butterfly collecting in the “central Indiana hardwood swamps,” envisions the book as a kind of Joseph Cornell wonder cabinet
, complete with “… scale reproductions of the wing scales taken from the Karner Blue… a coupon redeemable for a podcast recording of the Luna moth calls....”
Assemblage also features in the book that Lance Olsen
imagines, Paradise Blind
, which is “contained in a text packed with typed over passages, torn postcards, poems that can be deciphered only when held up to a mirror, pages ornamented with trompe-lœil
paperclips and coffee stains and buzzing houseflies…”Craig Dworkin
proposes The Cube
: “Set in a grid, the book’s words can be read conventionally, across the page, as well as down each column… But they can also be read as stacked strata…By opening up the z-axis to reading in this way, The Cube
recognizes the book as a three-dimensional sculptural space.”Shelley Jackson’s The Slow Book
is hammered out and “encoded into a series of punctures on a strip of copper… at a rate of one word per century (local time).”Ben Mirov’s Inadequate Pillow
is “seems to be about nothing in particular.” Yes, it contains “orthographic symbols,” but its primary function is as a physical object: “It might be used as a pedestal for a vial of dust. In certain cases, the book may be used for sexual intercourse…”
The book’s physicality is further explored in Sean Higgins’s The Paper Archivist
entry, while, most tantalizingly, Adam Robinson
writes that he “opened the third drawer of Barbara D’Albi’s wooden novel.”
Can all the modifications in book technology suggested by these many writers be implemented given present book industry operations? Perhaps not. Yet like the Oulipo movement
that inspired this collection, the works show that even this late in the game, we still have not fully explored what “book” might mean.
Nick Kocz still mourns the October 2009 loss of his beloved cat, Bashful, whose gray and white fur remain constantly on his mind. Bashful used to go meow. Now, he just moulders. Kocz's mother worries about him. She wants him to take on odd jobs so that, occupied with fresh toils, he will think less about the dearly departed cat. He worries sometimes that his writing will never be so good that he can book himself passage on a cruise ship. Chiefly, he is worried that he lacks the imagination necessary to insert "proportions" into his bio note. And rainbows? Don't even get him started about rainbows.
In Spring of 1986, as an American University senior double-majoring in international studies and economics, I signed up for my first creative writing course. Frank Conroy
, who was in Washington as the Reagan-era Director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Literature Program, taught the class. Frank was fifty at the time, his hair starting to gray like in this picture, a rumpled man who smoked throughout each class. Stop-Time
, his groundbreaking memoir, had been issued nineteen years earlier—but when I signed up for the course, I didn’t know his work; to me, he was just the professor assigned to teach my fiction workshop. It wasn’t until the semester began that I realized he was <gasp> A REAL WRITER
. Eighteen months later, he became the Director of the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Counting summer conferences, community workshops, and grad school, I’ve now taken twelve fiction workshops. Of these, Frank’s was the most brutal. None of the eight or ten of us taking the workshop wrote especially well, as we repeatedly reminded each other. Nor were we delicate in pointing out each other’s failings. We were not a good community. Several times, people left in tears.
Frank was not adverse to letting us beat up on each other.
Amid such cruelty, Frank performed an incredible act of kindness.
My first workshop story was 52-pages long. I had labored over it during a long weekend, stuffing it chockfull of allegory and literary allusions and foreshadowing and incredibly philosophical yet witty dialogue. I thought it was brilliant.
Of the stories that were to be workshopped that afternoon, mine was to go last. We spent an inordinately long time discussing the other stories. Every few minutes, Frank would fling out his arm, look at his wristwatch, and go back to discussing those stories.
At the end of class, he flung out his arm again and winced. He turned to me. “I’m sorry. It looks like I didn’t budget enough time to get to your story. Why don’t you come back to my office and we’ll talk about it.”
I don’t recall much about his office, other than it was in a state of disarray. Books and papers spilled out over his desk. An ashtray sat in one corner, overflowing. Because I was young and stupid, I thought he was going to praise my story. He had told us about his New Yorker
editors and the office he shared with Norman Mailer, how the two of them would lunch at The Automat together. I thought he was going to suggest I send it to an agent or another of his literary connections.
We made small talk for several minutes. I asked what he thought of my story.
He lit another cigarette. “Well, I could tell that you read a lot.”
This small compliment inflated me greatly. “And?”
When Frank smiled, which he did whenever he wanted to let you know he meant no harm, he could appear downright boyish. “Don’t try so hard, okay? Just do what you’re capable of doing.”
Years later, I realized that had he formally workshopped that story, I would have been scarred for life. That story was called “Somewhere They Care.” I could only imagine how the workshop would have torn it apart—and rightfully so: it was wretched. Talking with me in private allowed me to escape with my dignity intact.
As a workshop leader, Frank was a mixed bag. He did nothing to curtail our nastiness towards each other. While I can’t recall him actually belittling our writing, the fact that he did not rein us in probably encouraged further nastiness. Constructive criticism and thoughtful discussion, two aims of any workshop, did not have a chance in that poisoned environment.
I’m still appalled at how nasty that workshop was. I struggle to understand why he did not create a more positive environment. I remember what Flannery O’Connor once wrote
“Everywhere I go, I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.”
The only thing I can think is that Frank bought Flannery’s tough-love approach.
Yet, strange as this sounds, we all trusted him implicitly with our writing. We were naïve and he was probably the only New Yorker
writer that any of us knew.
Frank’s workshop was also unique on one other count: all the focus was aimed at the sentence- and word- level. To Frank, sentences were like mathematical proofs: if everything added up right, you’d end up with a clear sense of meaning. We’d read our sentences aloud, pin-pointing where meaning became fuzzy due to poor constructions or word choice. Many of us (me included) wanted to believe that imprecise sentences were worth retaining because however poorly written, readers would still understand the gist of their intended meaning. Frank disabused us of that notion. He would not cotton to figurative language. Or especially fancy language. What he strove for were clean, crisp sentences.
I say this was unusual not because my other teachers were fond of imprecise language, but because the focus in those other workshops usually was on more global issues like story structure and character motivation.
Sometimes, in those other workshops, we’d look at stories that were so “hastily” (hastily
: a euphemism meaning “poorly”) written that one would be hard-pressed to say exactly what happened in them. Instead of discussing the prose, we’d have half-hour discussions about why character X would or wouldn’t do a particular something. Or we’d talk about why an ending just wasn’t satisfying
The impulse to withhold comment on glaringly bad prose stems from a desire not to offend fellow writers. Criticism about improper character motivation is easier to stomach than being told that your writing is bad. Spared of this nice-nice ethic as we were in Frank’s workshop, we’d rip savagely into each other’s prose.
Misguided as it sounds, I’d like to think that Frank's focus on prose helped me. I was so new to writing that talk about story structure and plot points would have been of no immediate use.
The other three stories I wrote that semester were shorter, more concentrated—the longest might have been twelve pages. The last of those was actually one of the few workshop stories that semester which Frank actually liked—well, “like” might be too strong of a word. The workshop was so dysfunctional that when he praised a couple of my lines, other workshoppers tried to convince him that his praise was misplaced. How’s that for nasty?
My wife, Alison, was sick earlier in the week. It came down suddenly on Sunday morning, a case of the chills combined with a bad stomach virus. She threw up, several times, but mostly what she did was sleep. To give her peace and quiet, I took our three children to Roanoke College’s Olin Gallery to see an exhibit by Kurt Steger, a local artist whose wood- and fiber-based sculptures can remind me of Martin Puryear’s work.
Actually, it was my youngest child, Ellie (6), who most wanted to go. She had seen a picture of one of Steger’s sculptures on the postcard that the gallery mailed out and instantly fell in love with it. Looking at it, displayed to the left, I can see why it drew her interest: it looks like some kind of weird Seussian fairy tale castle, doesn't it?
On the drive up, I thought I heard my oldest son, Stephen (11), say that he wanted to "bury someone someday.”
My ears immediately perked up. He was seated right behind me and because I was driving, I couldn’t turn around. “You want to bury someone?”
Stephen laughed. When he was a baby, my wife and I used to call him “Laughing Boy,” for he had such an infectious laugh, a trait he has luckily not outgrown. “Not bury someone. I want to marry
This relieved me greatly. Not that I’m ready to contemplate the inevitable crushes and heartaches that will come once he begins dating, but at least he wasn’t turning pre-maturely Goth; I need not fear him taking it upon himself to shovel bodies into the earth.
Sebastian, my nine-year-old, started making yuck-y sounds. The idea of love and marriage are, right now, totally abhorrent to him—which is funny, because if you’d watch him around other children, you will see immediately what a flirt he can be with the girls.
And Ellie? What were her thoughts on marriage?
“I want to be a mommy when I grow up,” Ellie said, repeating her oft-cited desire. She just adores her mommy and wants to be just like Alison when she grows up.
One of the boys then told Ellie that, to be a mommy, she'd first have to marry someone, which I guess is their pre-teen understanding of the world. Judging from her reaction, this disappointed her.
“Are you a king?”
I had no idea where this conversation was going, especially because I’d like to think that even a six-year-old would recognize our lifestyle was far from regal.
“No, Ellie. I'm a Daddy.”
Ellie sighed. “No, Daddy. I meant, were you a king before you got married?”
“No, Ellie. I never was a king.”
What followed was a long-ish silence.
Then Ellie said, "Whoopsie."
It took me a moment to figure out why Ellie assumed I was a king—at her age, all the romance and love stories she hears are about kings and queens, princesses & princes. I doubt she even realized that, occasionally, non-royals fall in love and get hitched.
I wonder about the dangers of not exposing her, even at her early age, to different story lines, to different possibilities.
While at AWP, I had dinner one night with a couple of friends in Adams Morgan. Among the things we talked about was Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on “The Dangers of the Single Story.”
What Adichie means by “single story” is the propensity for a single stereotype to emerge from all the stories we read, see, or tell about a particular place or people. The single story, or stereotype, allows readers to think they “know” a subject or person, but at best are only half-truths.
Consider how Africa is portrayed in Western literature, movies, and popular culture.
Then consider how you would respond if, as an American on your first day at college, you discover that you have an African roommate.
Adichie, a Nigerian, was that African roommate. She says,My American roommate was shocked. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was this: she had felt sorry for me even before she saw me, had a default position toward me as an African with a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
Her roommate’s reaction shocked Adichie. In Nigeria, where people drive cars and live in houses just as in this country, she grew up with middle class niceties and conveniences. Her family did not live in thatch huts or wore grass skirts or subsisted on whatever wild game they might be fortunate enough to spear.
Although she doesn’t say so in the TED talk, she ended up transferring to a different American university. As she spent more time in this country, she began to see why that roommate would have so misconstrued her: news, media, film, and books all portrayed the same vision of Africa. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew of Africa were from popular images, I too would think Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying from poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.
I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this Single Story.
Having no other storylines to rely upon, her roommate naturally assumed that there were
no other storylines.
The other day, when writing a book review, I wrote that an author’s characters were “drifting fast into that most chronicled of fictional types: deadbeat alcoholic loser-hood.”
It’s always bothered me how prevalent the “deadbeat alcoholic loser” type is in American fiction. I admit: I’ve employed it in the past, largely because I had seen it so often that I just assumed it was what readers and editors expected in certain situations. Today, “deadbeat alcoholic loser” has just about reached the default mode for character representation in stories depicting unhappy family life.
Tolstoy wrote, famously, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Now though, I guess we don’t have the patience to see or portray the gradations of differences in our unhappy families.
Is there some truth to the “deadbeat alcoholic loser” in American life? Yes. But is it the whole
To bring back Adichie, we might also ask if it’s true that some Africans still live traditionally? Are there still senseless wars and poverty and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa? Do some Africans live in the veldt, away from the comforts of modern housing and Mariah Carey cassettes? The answer, of course, is yes.
But as Adichie says,To insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that form me. The Single Story creates stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete: they make one story become the only story.
There are other stories, and it’s very important, it is just as important to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the Single Story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.
Adichie also makes it clear that “Single Stories” exist everywhere—even in Africa, “single stories” exist, casting uni-dimensional light on various communities.
Last week, via Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes
blog, I came across this Paul Maliszewski take-down
of Wells Tower in The Brooklyn Rail
. Maliszewski takes issue with a number of things in Tower’s fiction and magazine journalism, including his use of metaphor and his piling on of description to create a false sense of character (isn’t that what realism is all about?). Athitakis does an excellent job analyzing Maliszewski’s charges, but what bothers Maliszewski most is the smug superiority that hangs over most of Tower’s nonfiction. Maliszewski writes,However new these tales appear, they are in fact hidebound by rigid formulae, rules that all the phenoms of the magazine world, from Tower and [other writers], know well to abide. The first rule of magazine journalism is to entertain. The second is to detect the preconceptions of the editorial class and deliver on them. Every accomplished magazine writer satisfies expectations. Their writing, almost completely barren of original thought yet so rich in sensory detail, fits comfortably into a pre-existing view of the world. Such writing reflects, like a trick mirror, that things are just the way they’re believed to be. The problem is that this is not writing; it’s flattery.
Tower’s… persnickety modifiers [are] aimed not at rendering a careful portrait but rather at casting a harsh light on whoever gets caught in the author’s line of vision… [His] deep-left-field metaphors and other literary baubles are forged, not to clarify or enlighten but to put down and entertain.
Tower lets none of [his subjects] speak for themselves.
He waits to catch people at their worst and so sees little else… A woman—“probably toothless,” Tower says, “though I can’t tell for sure”—catches his eye and he unspools over 200 words about how she treats her child… What did this woman do to earn such casual cruelty? What did any of these people do? Aren’t they owed their power of speech, the dignity to say something on their behalf?
In effect, Maliszewski accuses Tower of being a hired gun who crafts whatever Single Stories his magazine editors wish to perpetuate. It’s a pretty damning charge, when you think of it, rife with intellectual dishonesty. Instead of say, training his assassin’s pen at Adichie’s Nigeria, his Harper’s
and Washington Post Magazine
editors have him investigate those who less conscientious people might refer to as “rednecks”—carnival workers and Florida Republicans. Tower returns from his safaris and tells the presumably liberal readership of those magazines what he thinks they want to hear—namely that “those people” are kinda weird and maybe not so nice.
I used to think that I was never victimized by the Single Story. Now, I’m not so sure. My parents were blue collar, both of them working in factories most of their lives. Some people in my life might easily be classified as “deadbeat alcoholic losers.” I could only imagine what someone could write about us.
And Ellie? What must she think of the world, knowing it so far mostly through the Single Story fairy tales, Disney films, and blessedly simple storybooks?
Once, I suppose, I believed in fairy tales. I’ve heard it said that, secretly, to some small degree, many young women want to be Cinderella—that good, honest girl who, after falling happily-ever-after in love with Prince Charming, is swept breathlessly from her mundane existence to live in splendid, regal fashion.
My secret? I once wanted to be Prince Charming. I wanted to be that wealthy, powerful, charming, and splendidly witty man who could sweep a woman off her feet, transforming her mundane life into a fantasy.
When I first met Alison, I knew instantly she was the woman I needed to marry. Yet we waited six years. She probably thought I never was going to propose. I waited so long because I knew I wasn’t Prince Charming—there was no way I thought myself capable of transforming her life as much as I thought she deserved. Though I might have been witty (at least she didn’t disabuse me of that notion), I wasn’t rich or powerful, or particularly charming. So I waited. And waited. It seemed like such a long time.
Okay, so yesterday I wrote about Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-Vous!
, which concludes with the exhortation “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST; TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”
Yes, I understand the skepticism. As writers, we’ve been trained to mind-numbingly nod our heads at the feel-good platitudes about the worth of our work. We instinctively clap upon hearing for the billionth time Shelley’s line about “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
And we even cheer for despicable Ezra Loomis Pound
’s “Literature is news that stays news.”
But who are we kidding? However, um, elegant Harry Reid and John Boehner may be, my hunch is that neither can write so much as a limerick. If literature is “news,” how come it receives such scant attention?
In this case though, I believe Hessel is right if what is being created is not the same as everything else that’s already been created
I’m not one of those people who believe literature has to be proscriptive or even directly address sociopolitical issues. But I think it ought to attempt to pose questions and scenarios that haven’t been posed before. Innovative & imaginative forms can be the best means to voice our unease or indignation. But you know this. Just as contemporary installation art is capable of saying different things than classical marble sculpture, innovative literature can provoke different responses than traditional realism.
So why is innovative literature so disparaged in the marketplace? Probably because there’s not enough of it.
I’ve been thinking about “Defining Deviancy Down,”
the Daniel Patrick Moynihan essay first published in 1993. Moynihan, an aide to four presidents and a four-term New York senator, was something of an intellectual in his day. Putting aside his troubling use of “deviancy,” the essay is illuminating.
Moynihan posited that society’s tolerance for criminal acts is relative. In times of high crime, lesser criminal acts will be tolerated or even be deemed to be “normal.” If the land was overrun by serial killers, we’d suddenly become a lot less fussy about prosecuting petty larceny so that we could concentrate our attentions on those serial killers.
In this circumstance, Moynihan writes, “society will choose not to notice behavior that would be otherwise controlled, or disapproved, or even punished.”
In other words, it’s the behavioral outliers that dictate our societal norms.
I wonder if the same idea could help explain society’s tolerance for artistic innovation and prevailing aesthetics. Could aesthetics be dictated by the extremes?
Permit me the following illustration:
The first line represents a relatively constricted aesthetic marketplace. The yellow oval represents the “sweet spot” of society’s tastes—books that fall within this mainstream range can be expected to have some currency; they may even sell. The “1” dot, which might be marginally “imaginative,” represents about as far as mainstream tastes may go.
In that first line, the “3” dot represents the extreme of available “imponderably imaginative” works. Because it lays at the extreme, my guess is that it will pass totally unnoticed by mainstream culture.
Now imagine the second line. Here, the bounds of imaginative literature are pushed even further. While there may be more net imaginative works (dots 6-10) that are banished or ghettoized outside of the mainstream, their mere existence increases society’s tolerance for imaginative literature. Works that otherwise would have been outside the mainstream (dots 2 & 3) are now within the mainstream—hugging the most conservative border of that mainstream.
To use a Gladwellian term, this is how imaginative literature can reach its “tipping point.”
Will it work overnight? No. But can it work? Maybe.
Over 200,000 copies of Donald Barthelme’s SNOW WHITE were in print within its first year of publication. Barthelme’s novel is an incredibly innovative work and, at times, incredibly challenging. If it were published today, it would probably pass unnoticed. So why was it such a success?
My guess is that back then, publishers must also have been putting out a lot of books that were even more innovative than Barthelme’s—so many so that SNOW WHITE wasn’t seen as being extreme (or, to borrow Moynihan’s term, “deviant”) but “normal.”
[Political aside: I’ve always wondered why conservatives are so eager to nominate candidates for major offices who, to my tastes, seem so “extreme.”
Now I think I know: people like Sarah Palin are necessary because they allow the John Boehners and Mitch McConnells of their ilk to appear positively “normal.” They’ve broadened the political marketplace. Politicians who twenty years ago would have been seen as too conservative to be viable candidates have been mainstreamed.]
The other day, Jenniey Tallman and I were interviewed by Ariana Lenaciela
about our story, "The Boy and the Palm Reader,"
which appeared in their January issue.
[Speaking of Jenniey, her excellent story, “Truths about Suicidal Women,” was published yesterday in Alice Blue
The interview was fun, more of a conversation than the kind of Pull up your sleeves and let’s talk about literature!
talk I expected—and I always find it flattering when someone asks my opinion about anything.
At a certain point, I brought up the new Stéphane Hessel booklet, Indignez-Vous!
, which has sold over a million copies in France since its October release. When I heard of it through this Christian Science Monitor article
, I was amazed. Hessel is a former Nazi prisoner, leader of the French Resistance, and the last surviving author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I didn’t think heroes like Hessel still existed in this world—to put this in an American perspective, it’s like discovering Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine are still alive and rabblerousing just down the road.
By all accounts, Hessel remains remarkably spry, yet he begins Indignez-Vous!
as if he were on his deathbed:
“After 93 years, it is almost the final act. The end for me is not very far off any more. But it still leaves me a chance to be able to remind others of what acted as the basis of my political engagement.”
After helping to liberate France, he is now indignant. The French spirit of Liberté, égalité, fraternité
has eroded. Corporate interests now outweigh civil interests. Income gaps are widening. Like in this country, social safety nets are unraveling.
“Some dare to say to us that the State cannot afford the expenses of these measures for citizens any more. But how can there be today a lack of money to support and extend these conquests while the production of wealth has been considerably augmented since the Liberation period when Europe was in ruins? On the contrary, the problem is the power of money, so much opposed by the Resistance, and of the big, boldfaced, selfish man, with his own servants in the highest spheres of the State.”
His prescription is indignation, which he pegs as “[t]he basic motive of the Resistance.”
Yet indignation, he says is hampered by “the consumption of mass trivia, contempt of the weakest and the culture, a generalized amnesia, and the hard competition of all against all.”
To this, I’d add that celebrity culture is now the opiate of the masses.
“Look around you, you will find topics that justify your indignation… You will find concrete situations that lead you to strong citizen action. Search and you shall find!”
However, it is scarily hard to get people to look, to search, to question—and when questions are posed, the default response often seems to be tautological defeatism: the world is how it is because that’s how the world is.
As Hessel wryly says, “Search little, and that is what you are going to find.”
Despite the difficulties that in the path towards mass indignation, I am buoyed by Hessel’s conclusion:
“To those who will make the 21st century, we say with our affection:
“TO CREATE IS TO RESIST; TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”
Of course, I’ve heard such sentiments expressed elsewhere before, but this time it really spoke to me. And it also made me think again about the “purpose” of writers and artists.
When I first began writing, I liked to say that I wrote to understand—but back then, what I mostly wrote were taut little exercises to display to the world what a wonderful person I was. I wanted people to note my appropriately evolved socioeconomic political beliefs. Really. I wasn’t looking or exploring or even understanding—I was just saying sweet nothings to myself.
Sad to say, but it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve finally allowed myself, both as a writer and as a citizen, to exhibit the kind of indignation that Hessel demands. I guess we all have to crawl before we can walk, right?
I’ll add more about Hessel and his “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST” ethic, which I’ll do tomorrow. Friends have already chided me for my overly-verbose blog posts. If you’ve gotten this far, I thank you for your attention :)
[An English version of Indignez-Vous!
was released earlier this month as A Time For Outrage
by Quartet Books. According to Amazon, the first printing may have already sold out.]
When I was in high school, my best friend took an elective “television” class. This was in the ‘80s, and back then, I gave him grief. You’re taking a television class? What? Can‘t you get into Basket Weaving?
But my friend stood his ground, asserting the class was intellectually valid.
Chuck Holtz, a social studies teacher who also coached most of the boys’ sports teams at our school, taught the course.
“What’s the difference between film and television?” Holtz asked on the first day of class.
People squirmed in their seats. These were high school students who never really thought about the matter. To them, both were just forms of visually-driven narratives. Someone said that the soundtracks were better in movies. Someone else said that TV shows were generally shorter than movies.
As my friend told this story, I pictured a pained expression coming over Holtz. Much as the class tried, they couldn’t identify more than superficial differences. Our school had pitiful basketball and football teams, teams so bad they had trouble executing the simplest plays. Now he was finding out his kids couldn’t even do television right. If he had a whistle around his neck, he probably would have blown it on the spot and made everyone run five laps around the classroom.
Finally, Holtz answered his own question: Television shows were built to keep advertisers happy, while movies were built to generate ticket sales. Looking back, I doubt this was an original thought—but as a naïve high school junior, this staggered me. Commercial television, he said, was purposefully bland so as to not offend advertisers’ sensibilities. Films couldn’t afford to be bland, since from the moment of their conception (Hey! Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter!
) they must generate hype to guarantee a paying audience.
Like I said, this was back in the early ‘80s, before the full impact of cable TV was felt. And before Hollywood movie producers learned to make money off product placement deals. So we can argue whether the point is still valid today.
But Holtz’s point was that film and television producers knowingly crafted their end products in different ways to suit their different revenue sources; where the money came from determined both the content and governing aesthetic of the art form.
Today, most literary journals are not reader-dependent for their funding. Instead, they perform as prestige projects—deriving their income either from academic institutions, or wealthy patrons; in many cases, the editors themselves foot the costs. Subscriptions and advertising may supplement the journals’ finances, but rare is the journal that is solely dependant on these traditional market-driven forces.
Unencumbered by audience or advertiser accountability, journals seem to exist to make their editors happy. The editors select stories that they personally find most satisfying—they want to be seen as promoting hip new work, or traditional realistic work, or whatever other social and/or aesthetic predilections they have. But the editors are largely putting out a product to satisfy their personal aesthetic missions.
Universities and regional arts’ councils alike are cutting back support for literary journals, leaving them scrambling to locate new sources of funding. Some journals, like The New England Review
, have been told by their host institutions that they must become financially self-sustaining. Others, like Shenandoah
, are slashing costs by abandoning print and becoming electronic journals. One Story
has been most innovative, initiating a series of workshop and mentoring programs, as well as hosting a “Literary Debutante Ball” fundraiser.
Increasingly however, journals are opting to meet this funding crisis by charging submission fees—that is, demanding payment from writers who wish to have their work considered for publication. In most cases, the fees charged are comparable to the postage costs a writer might pay to snail-mail their work (two or three dollars), yet some magazines (like Narrative
) charge substantially more.
Last week, I learned through Roxane Gay’s post on HTMLGIANT
(via a Robert Smartwood blog post
) that Prick of the Spindle
will begin requiring a $10-15 submission fee.
David Lynn, editor of The Kenyon Review
talked with me via email about submission fees. Like most people paying close attention to the state of literary journals, he’s deeply sympathetic to the editors and publishers who are fighting to put out quality literature, yet uneasy about submission fees.
“Publishers and editors have all the highest motives. They simply want to publish the best new work available to them while maintaining the financial viability of their enterprise,” Lynn says. “At the same time, I can’t help but feel that submission fees taint the process.”
Journals stand to increase revenues by several thousand dollars per year when they begin charging submission fees. The fees may end up underwriting the bulk of journals’ operating expenses—providing a handy justification for supporting institutions (whether they be universities or regional arts’ councils) to further diminish their support.
While many claim the fees offset the costs associated with online submissions (the software to operate the most popular online submission manager program can cost $600), others claim that it allows them to pay more money to contributors. There’s even a thought that submission fees are necessary to discourage inappropriate submissions.
Putting aside the question of whether it’s ethical to set up pay hurdles for writers, I worry about the eventual aesthetic consequences. When editors start looking at submissions as revenue-generators, it changes in a very fundamental way the function of the end-product journal.
The old saw about novel writing is that the purpose of the first chapter is to entice readers to read the second chapter, while the function of the last chapter is to entice the reader to buy the writer’s next book. The function of a new issue of a literary journal, I fear, may well be to entice writers to submit to the next issue.
As more journals become dependent on submission fees, they will compete against each other not only for the best stories, poems, and essays, but also for submission dollars. Websites like Duotrope.com
provide writers with data about the chances of getting published in particular journals. Our nation’s most prestigious journals generally have a very low acceptance rate—this shouldn’t surprise, for they’ve built their reputations by publishing work of consistently high quality.
Should submission fees become the norm, with every journal raking in $2-20 per submission, writers with limited incomes (i.e., most of us) will have to balance costs versus probability of acceptance—and in this calculus, a journal’s selectivity could be held against it. If writers perceive that the cards are stacked against them at some places, they’ll direct their pay submissions elsewhere.
“A principal mission for most literary journals is to discover and support writers who are just emerging into the larger literary community, people who don't yet have academic or other forms of independent support,” Lynn writes. “Two or three dollars at a pop may not sound like much, but for those who are submitting their work as widely as possible, it can add up pretty quickly.”
Emerging writers will not be the only ones juggling where to put their money. Traditionally, writers employed by academic institutions have enjoyed many advantages, one of them being that their employers often pay the postage costs of their snail-mail submissions. Should reading fees replace postage as the main cost associated with submissions, it remains unknown if colleges and universities will defray these costs for their faculty.
What choices will an editorial board make when that journal’s existence is dependent on guaranteeing a large, steady stream of paying submissions? To give Duotrope-savvy submitters the illusion of having greater chances for acceptance, might journals become less selective? Or might the average length of each published short story dwindle, thus affording the journal to accept, say, 20 pieces of flash fiction instead of one 20-page short story? The aesthetic consequences of these decisions will be enormous. Think about it—who’s going to write long short stories (or novellas) anymore if their length makes them unpublishable?
Journals that serve niche communities or favor out-of-the–mainstream aesthetics could find that the pool of people willing to pay to have their work considered may not be large enough to cover the costs of the journal. If this happens, journals would have to re-model their core mission to attract more submitters.
For writers seeking to publish, the competition is tremendous. I keep tabs on my submissions through Duotrope, which tells me that my submission acceptance ratio over the last 12 months is 3.96%-- meaning I’ll have one acceptance for every 25 submissions. Which, yep, sounds pathetic—but also, according to Duotrope, “is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.”
Should submission fees escalate, many of us are going to stop submitting. Really. Think of it. If journals charge Narrative
-like $20 submission fees, it could cost me $500 ($20 x 25—thank god for electric calculators!) to eventually “contribute” a short story to one journal.
The end result of submission fees is not good.
Besides Lynn, another editor of another long-standing and highly respected journal. This editor dips quite frequently into his slush pile and laments that decreased submissions might lessen his access to the type of first-rate material he likes to publish, thus decreasing the end quality of his journal.
“To think that we’d miss out on a story or poem or other submission because the writer couldn’t afford the fee or took a moral stance against fees is unfathomable to me,” the editor said
Duotrope currently lists over 3,275 fiction and poetry publications. A mass movement towards submission fees will likely cause this number to contract. I just don’t see the present community of writers as being wealthy enough keep them all afloat
Editors and publishers need to begin thinking who their future writers will be. Will it be a pool of writers who have devoted their lives to studying and mastering their genres? Or just whichever folks can pony up the submission fees? And what will become of contemporary poetry and short fiction when it becomes the domain of the obscenely rich?
Richard Peabody, longtime editor and publisher of DC's Gargoyle
magazine and Paycock Press, is featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine
. Peabody was one of the first editors to publish me, and I remain grateful to him for that honor. I've met him a handful of times and have thanked him in person but still feel a larger debt.
The article touches on a couple of points that deserve further comment. The first is that a large number of critiques remain utterly baffled
as to where or how literary arts germinate. Jonathan Yardley, who's been reviewing books for the Post
since the days of mechanical typesetting, is one of those cranks who doesn't believe in the efficacy of MFA programs or, for that matter, any kind of writing instruction. That he'd not be able to recognize that DC does, indeed, have a thriving literary community, should not suprise.
The other point comes poignantly at the article's end. Although Peabody's taught and published some of our nation's finest writers, he feels regret for never having written a commercially-successful book. Right now, he's working on a new novel.
"I like to think -- and it may not be a complete delusion -- that there are some people out there waiting to see what I am going to come up with. After all these years. And I hope that's true, and I hope I don't disappoint them," Peabody says.
Good luck, Richard! I'm sure you won't disappoint us!
Until last year, I only ever knew one woman named Georgia. We lived on the same dorm floor during my freshman year of college. She had shoulder-length black hair and almond-shaped eyes and boasted that 100 pairs of shoes were crammed into her dorm-room closet. She was one year further along than I, a sophomore who exuded a loud boisterous charm that was often fueled by mixed drinks, gin-and-tonics mostly if I recall correctly. When she had the money, she’d buy wheels of Brie but though I was happy to eat the cheese, she wasn’t in the money that often.
The dorm's social life seemed to gravitate around her, for she was something of a drama queen who demanded such attention. She complained about her weight, which wasn't bad, and then complained that every time she lost weight, she lost it in the wrong places. I was young and naive and my facial expression must have indicated that I had no idea what she meant, for she brought her hands to her chest and smiled, educating me into at least one fact that apparently all college women knew.
During the previous summer, she had visited another woman that also lived on our dorm floor and, after an appropriately long evening clubbing, crashed that woman's car. They laughed about it, both of them, startlingly me because I would have thought that a crashed car meant the end of the world.
Georgia's parents were in the process of a messy divorce and though she claimed she had been nurtured on Southern Californian wealth, her parents had neglected to pay her tuition. Which was something of a problem; by mid-September, the university was threatening to forcibly remove her unless she pronto-quick remedied her dead-beat status.
But Georgia had a plan.
The Who, those aging once-mod rockers who stuttered that they weren’t “trying to cause a big s-s-sensation,” had announced what might have been the first of their many farewell tours. They were scheduled to play two nights at The Capital Center and tickets were to go on sale shortly.
Georgia’s idea was to convert every last cent she had, which I gathered could have bought no more than ten wheels of Brie, into concert tickets. Then she planned to scalp the tickets for astronomical sums. The night before tickets went on sale, she celebrated her good fortune. She apparently drank quite a lot. Which was her custom. And slept it off for much of the following day, not arising until well into the afternoon. The concert tickets sold out within a matter of hours. Perhaps she knew the idea was futile.
After she left for the uncertain lifestyle that awaited her, nothing much was said about her. When I asked about her, everyone just shrugged, changing the subject to whatever campus party everyone was attending that night. Even the woman whose car Georgia crashed shrugged, but it wasn't until many years later that I thought that maybe my first impression was right: a crashed car did indeed mean the end of the world.
It’s strange what you remember about someone who you knew only for a month. Six weeks, tops.
I remember her closet, how it overflowed with shoes of every description. The shoes were brown and black and neon pink, some with heels and some not, and they were all jumbled together. No way could she ever pick out a matching pair without wallowing through that heap for at least ten minutes. Most of the time, she just wore a pair of purple Pumas.