I recently came across Bernard DeVoto’s 1936 essay “Genius is not Enough,” which took Thomas Wolfe to task for including too much “placental” material in his published novels.
At that time, Wolfe’s critical appreciation was at its apex. On the strength of his first two novels, Look Homeward, Angel
(1929) and Of Time and the River
(1935), he was widely considered one of the best novelists then alive. DeVoto’s take-down put an end to that. Nowadays, if Wolfe is remembered, he is remembered as an out-of-control stylist who famously asked Maxwell Perkins (his editor) to fashion something that might resemble a “novel” out of the tens of thousands of manuscript pages that he had delivered to Perkins in a steamer trunk.
DeVoto recognized that passages within Wolfe’s novels could be brilliant, but he added that
“… there were parts that looked very dubious indeed—long, whirling discharges of words, unabsorbed in the novel, unrelated to the proper business of fiction… aimless and quite meaningless jabber…”
This material, DeVoto suggested, might have been necessary to Wolfe when conceptualizing and writing his novels.
“…it was as if the birth of the novel had been accompanied by a lot of material that had nourished its gestation.”
As the novel progresses through various stages of completion, DeVoto believed it was the job of the novelist to discard the placental “psychic material” that guided its creation.
“There comes a point where the necessities of the book are satisfied, where its organic processes have reached completion… The [purpose of the placental] material which nature and most novelists discard when its use has been served.”
Several weeks ago, my son Sebastian let on that he and his friends had been reading my blog at school. He told me that his friends thought the blog was “awesome,” and then when that compliment did not have the desired effect, he said that, “Dad, you don’t understand: my friends think you’re, like, the greatest Dad ever.”
I’m often forced to rally around whatever stray supports I can find to justify the efficacy of my life, so I truly appreciated what Sebastian said. Yet, these compliments were strangely inhibiting. Not only did I worry that I might write something that would radically alter how my son’s friends would regard me (and, by extension, him), but it also never occurred to me that what I wrote could possibly resonate with a fourth-grade audience.
Of course, it also occurred to me that Sebastian was maybe buttering me up with praise just to make me feel good, for Sebastian is like that: someone who genuinely cares how others might be feeling.
I’ve been working furiously at novel revisions lately. A couple of weeks ago, I shot my agent a revised draft. I had line-edited the manuscript again, paring down my sentences and bringing characters into sharper focus. As I was doing this, and doing away with my baggier sentences and razzle-dazzle effects, I realized I was achieving the emotional resonance that I had sought. I chucked a few scenes, and added others that I hoped added insight into characters’ motivations and inner conflicts.
Last week, my agent questioned certain aspects of my novel that she thought caused readers to disengage with the narrative. From the outset, I had rigged the novel with a series of supports that had nothing to do with the novel’s actual story. For example, although my novel is set slightly in the future, I included an 1,800-word digression about the Palmer Raids of 1919. Another chunk dealt with the etymological derivation of “pupil.”
What my agent was questioning was my placental material.
This material provided a kind of background chatter as I built up the world of my novel, yet it wasn’t until several days after my conversation that I realized NONE of it was necessary to the novel itself.
My agent tells me that a couple of editors have specifically asked to see my novel again. Others will also be seeing it soon. This brings me great hope. What had been a 399-page beast
is now a relatively sleek 359-page monster. It’s a novel that I honestly believe deserves to be published.
~~~ Hessel errata
: Stéphane Hessel’s Indignation
will soon be re-titled and published as Time For Outrage
in this country. Here’s the announcement from Publisher’s Marketplace: French Resistance hero Stéphane Hessel's TIME FOR OUTRAGE, translated by Marion Duvert, a 29-page call-to-arms that has reportedly sold more than 4 million copies worldwide since its publication in October, rejecting the dictatorship of world financial markets and defending the social values of modern democracy, reminding us that life and liberty must still be fought for, and urging us to reclaim these essential rights we have allowed our governments to erode, and to defend them for those who can't defend for themselves, to Cary Goldstein at Twelve, for publication in September 2011, by Eileen Cope at Trident Media Group on behalf of Sylvie Crossman at Indigene (US).
This news also brings me great hope. I’ve written before on this blog
, and also mentioned his work in an interview
. Hessel’s message is exactly what is needed to re-invigorate liberal activism in this country, and Twelve has a fantastic record of bringing thoughtful books to the forefront. ~~~Tallman errata
: Last week, The Rumpus published a fantastic story
by Jenniey Tallman, my friend and one-time collaborator. If you have some time, check it out. But warning: it’s “an illustrated sex toy mystery,” so be careful if you’re browsing it at work!
Following the Nazi invasion and the collapse of the France's Third Republic in July 1940, one of the first acts of the pro-Nazi Vichy government undertook was to junk the national slogan.
Gone was Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
In its place: Travail, Famille, Patrie
(Work, Family, Nation).
One needn’t perform doctoral work in semantics to understand that the two slogans represented radically different expectations of citizen involvement. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
emphasizes freedom and equal rights.
But Travail, Famille, Patrie?
It’s the cynical statement of a government that wishes to treat its subjects as if they were insects—it might work as the governing principle of an ant colony or a beehive, but not in a community that valued free thought and the rights of the individual.
If you add Dieu
to the mix, it also seems like the kind of order that right wingers wish to impose on this country. The Nation
recently published a translation of Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-Vous!
, marking its first official US publication. Consider buying their March 7 issue or reading it at your local library—for now, at least, it’s available online only to subscribers. Another English translation is available here
, but of the two, I much prefer the one that appears in The Nation
In the time since I first wrote about
Hessel last month, his call for indignation has become especially relevant in this country.
What’s going on in Wisconsin scares me. Plus there’s the wealth gap to consider. Yesterday, Michael Moore wrote
that the nation’s richest 400 people have accumulated more wealth than half of the entire American population. Think of it—wealth has become so concentrated that 400 people have more money than 155 MILLION people.
Moore’s facts have been called into question sometimes—but even if he’s wrong by a factor of ten, the implications are enormous. Recent Supreme Court rulings have allowed wealthy activists to have more influence in elections than ever. Consider that virtually the entire Tea Party movement (i.e., a group of people who like to think of themselves as grassroots populists) was bankrolled by a handful of individuals and you’ll begin to understand the oversized splash that a well-orchestrated cadre of plutocrats can make.
A joke making its way around the internet goes: A public union employee, a tea party activist and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, "Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie."
More than anything I’ve heard, this joke epitomizes the class resentment strategies which the super-wealthy have put in play.
I have faith that things eventually will correct themselves. I mean, I just can’t believe that cynical entreatments to self-declared “populists” will always deliver the results that the plutos desire. Is my faith in my fellow citizens misguided?
In France, where academic freedom is apparently less stable than I imagined, Sarkozy fonctionnairies
have repeatedly prevented Hessel
from speaking to university audiences.
In this country, I’m puzzled that Hessel’s message hasn’t been more rapidly embraced. Then again, here ideas are only embraced during election years.
The steadfastly pro-Israeli The New Republic recently published a scathing article
about Hessel. Their line of attack was rather bizarre. They dislike how Hessel condemns Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. However, on other issues, they charge that he is a damaged messenger because he is silent about the horrors of Darfur, the wars in the Congo, Vladimir Putin’s oligarchical rule, and the behavior of the Chinese communist party.
[Mind you, the entire contents of Indignez-Vous!
were printed in just five pages of The Nation; it was never intended as an encyclopedic catalog of current political atrocities.]
The New Republic also faults Hessel for trying to highjack the spirit of the French Resistance, which they paint as an apolitical movement.
As The New Republic writes, “For what defined the years 1940 to1944 in France was, precisely, the absence of politics: a country under foreign occupation is deprived of the opportunity, and the responsibility, of self-government. This is a source of humiliation and suffering, but it can also, to those brave people who continue to engage in public life, be a source of exhilarating clarity.
I’m not going to equate today’s Űber-rich with yesteryear’s Nazis. As self-interested as they are, they’ve yet to encourage a kristallnacht, erect an Auschwitz, or hurl V-2s willy-nilly at civilian populations.
However, increasingly they’ve taken on the appearance of an occupying political force. They’ve perverted electoral laws, poisoned political debate, and marginalized the influence of average citizens in the political process. Chrystia Freeland writes convincingly
in The Atlantic Monthly that the wealthy no longer see themselves as bound by national laws; they’ve become an international élite.
When the plutocrats are seen as an invasive occupying force, Hessel’s employment of the Resistance legacy is valid—as is his thought that non-violent indignation is the best way to reign in the wealth and power imbalances.
As WWII dragged on, French indignation registered in how citizens satirized the Vichy-imposed slogan. Instead of Travail, Famille, Patrie
, most referred to it as Tracas, Famine, Patrouilles
(Bother, Hunger, Surveillance). Word play and satire (like the joke quoted above about the cookies) does not directly lead to political change, but it can prepare the way.
Odyssey of the Mind
This year, Sebastian, my 9-year-old son, has been participating in his elementary school’s Odyssey of the Mind
team. For those unfamiliar with the program, Odyssey of the Mind is an international educational program designed to spur creativity and problem-solving skills.
For his particular program, he and his six teammates produced a one-act play. Adult input was strictly forbidden, so they were responsible for everything—including writing the script, creating the props, costumes, and stage set. They’ve been working on the production at least once a week since October and the results have been fantastic. Their play was genuinely funny!
The picture above was taken of Sebastian during their dress rehearsal last Friday.
On Saturday, I drove Sebastian to the OM regional competition. Moments before taking the stage, calamity happened: one of the team’s props (a glass fishbowl) broke. Sebastian had two roles in the play—not only did he have an on-stage speaking role, he also provided the “voice” of the fish. If this had happened to me, I probably would have been totally unnerved. Instead, the team hatched an improvisational plan, saving the day.
His team placed third in the OM regional competition—but they also earned a special award for the quick, creative way they overcame this adversity.
I look at Sebastian as something of a super-hero: he’s extremely intelligent, but also creative, funny, sensitive and (most shockingly!) humble. He’s such a loving brother to his two siblings. He’s been playing organized soccer for years, but also plays the cello. He goes to twice-weekly orchestra rehearsals but still plays with toy cars and marbles whenever he’s not inventing some new and super-cool game of his own.
He’s spectacular—but so are all his OM teammates.
OM has been a fantastic experience. Through it, for the first time really, he’s had to work on a long-term project with other people. He’s learned far more than just introductory theater skills—he’s learned to better communicate his thoughts, listen and negotiate, and respect others. Hopefully, these things will stick with him for the rest of his life.
People say that team sports teach children how to get along with others in group situations. However, learning how to execute over-lapping runs on a soccer field or pass the ball to an open teammate just does not compare to the skills one learns when preparing something as complex as a theater production.
Hessel argues that “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”
Sebastian and his teammates created their own reality—both offstage and onstage. I’m now starting to think that the world would be a lot better off if we pushed more of our kids into theater camps, and fewer of them into athletics. Addendum
: The photo of the Stéphane Hessel mural at the top of this entry comes from Theirry Ehrmann’s massive installation, Demeure du Chaos
(Abode of Chaos), located outside of Lyon, France. If you have some time, check out Étienne Perrone’s 999
, the 2008 documentary about Ehrmann’s installation.
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.]