My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, “Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing.” His book is called Well, and every review I’ve found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the “yes pile.” You can find an excerpt on the official page.
Gogol’s The Overcoat and Flaubert’s A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: “After working to his heart’s content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate.” This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert’s Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters’ lives – By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, “For as to have no desire, is to be Dead.” And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol’s heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment – the state of having all you want – is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. (“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: “Stand out of my sunlight.” According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: “If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel’s piece in this weekend’s NY Times Book Review in which the “it-novelist” discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford’s Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: “What does ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ sound like when you’re in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?” It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I’m only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
If you’re a New Yorker obsessive like I am, then you’ll love the new feature at Emdashes. Emily has lined up a pair of librarians who work at the New Yorker to answer questions about the magazine, and as one might expect, they are very thorough in their responses. The first installment covers A.J. Liebling’s start at the magazine, spot illustrations, typewriters, Calvin Trillin’s food writing, movie reviews, and fact-checking cartoons. There will be more installments to come, so send in your questions.
Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country is turning into something of a surprise success thanks to prominent TV appearances and the fact that his essays appear to strike a chord with many Americans. From today’s AP story: “The book has reached the top 10 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, and publisher Seven Stories Press has already more than doubled its first printing, from 50,000 copies to 110,000.” Vonnegut has also taken the opportunity to remark on the onset of old age: “He jokes, sort of, that he has ‘lived too long’ and wishes he had been finished off by a fire at his home a few years ago, from which he escaped unharmed. ‘When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon,’ Vonnegut said with a wheezy laugh worthy of a long-term chain smoker.”Previously: New Kurt VonnegutSee also: Vonnegut talks about the new book on NPR.
What do you do when your nemesis (who you secretly sort of love) up and moves away? How do you fight the emptiness? How do you carry on? These are the questions I imagine Gawker has been pondering for the past two weeks. Lost in the to-do over the 9/11 anniversary was the last night of MisShapes. For those not in the loop (for shame, people, for shame), MisShapes are a trio of DJs whose weekly dance parties at Don Hill’s were, for a time, a modern day Studio 54. With their motley collection of absurdly hip hipsters, sporting self-styled monikers like Jonny Makeup and Tommy Hottpants, MisShapes created a party so phosphorous-hot hip it attracted a diverse crowd of celebrities, artists, and trust-fund brats. Max Minghella, Cindy Sherman, David Byrne, Leelee Sobieski – they all partied at MisShapes.While MisShapes flourished as a media phenomenon (the trio themselves became darlings of the fashion world), the backlash against them proved more entertaining. Nowhere was the bile better than on Gawker’s weekly feature Blue States Lose. Each week, Gawker took the best photos from websites like MisShapes, Last Night’s Party, and The Cobrasnake, and lampooned the partygoers pictured within. Dubbing MisShape member Leigh Lezark “Princess Coldstare,” and referring to the crowd at Misshapes as “hiptards,” Blue States Lose became weekly reading for anyone who ever saw a guy wearing American Apparel stretch pants, aviator sunglasses, and a Cherokee headdress and thought, “Maybe I should just kill myself now, if people like this are going to be free to breathe my air?” But all of that’s over now. Blue States Lose will have to soldier on without the MisShapes. They won’t have Leotard Fantastic to kick around anymore.To cope with the loss, Gawker is following MisShapes’ lead and publishing a book. It’s a first for the blogging giant, and it’s still unclear exactly what the Gawker book is all about. Is it a chapbook of old posts? Is it new material? Is it really a “guide to conquering all media?” Regardless of its content, the Gawker book should be a litmus test for how well the blog format can translate into print. Gawker, with its of-the-moment focus, its pithy snarkiness, is the epitome of “blogginess,” at least from where I stand. It’s sort of the Platonic ideal of a blog, so to imagine it in book form is, well, difficult. If it’s successfully carried off, readers can expect to find The Millions Guide to Reading on Public Transportation (Forward by Kaye Gibbons) at their local Barnes and Noble sometime in the near future.
I’ve been submitting my fiction to magazines big and small for six years, since I was a senior in college. It took two years to receive my first acceptance, and another two years to receive my second. Since then, my record has improved: I had a story published last year, and two more are forthcoming. Still, the rejections come. My first year at Iowa, I took a seminar with Cole Swensen called Poetics of the Book. Our first assignment was to make a book out of unconventional materials. One student wrote a poem on gingersnap cookies; another student silkscreened words onto panes of glass. I took my big pile of rejection slips and sewed them together with some ugly brown thread. The stitching was poor (I can’t even replace a button), and because I hadn’t done much planning, the book unfolded in many different directions and was difficult to puzzle back together. Still, my work was impressive (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!), and also pathetic (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!). At the very least, it was proof of my tenacity. I’ll admit, the process was therapeutic. Those slips, some small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, now had an artistic function, and if my stories weren’t going to be bound, at least something could be. I continued to sew new rejections to the collection, and it didn’t take long for the thing to grow unwieldy. Finally, I put it aside. Now I’ve got a drawer stuffed with new rejections. What should I do with them? Sometimes I imagine having a dress made out of the slips, a shift maybe, or some slinky thing with an open back, to wear on a future book tour. Or I consider building a mobile to hang above my desk – as a threat, perhaps? I’ve heard that Amy Tan wallpapered her home’s bathroom with past rejections, and in his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the spike on which he impaled his rejections. And there’s always this idea. But why I am keeping the damn things anyway? On author M.J. Rose’s blog, Dr. Susan O’Doherty explains: It is the childish, hypersensitive, irrational aspects of our psyche that connect us with the deep, primal themes and images that drive our most powerful writing. That primitive self is woven into the manuscripts we have the highest hopes for–and that self experiences every rejection as a blood wound, no matter what we know intellectually. I suspect that it’s this self that doesn’t want to let the slips go.Dr. Sue suggests a ritual of letting this pain go, perhaps by lighting a fire and burning each rejection, bidding goodbye or a fuck you to each one. I found Dr. Sue’s advice via Literary Rejections on Display, a blog devoted to the anger, pain and frustration that follows every “Good luck with placing your work elsewhere” from an agent or editor. This blog is itself an answer to what to do with your rejections: throw them away, but first, complain about them on the internet! The posts, penned anonymously, are sometimes funny, but the bitterness and wrath sadden me, especially when they’re aimed at small literary journals. Stop blaming them, and start subscribing. As much as I fret about my rejection slips, and get pissed off when I get a new one, or wonder when such-and-such magazine will get back to me, I try my hardest not to encourage the fixation. Too much attention on publication means less attention on the work itself: to the sentences, the images, the characters. Whenever I get frustrated by a rejection, I remember something my teacher Lan Samantha Chang once told me. “Publishing a story won’t change your life,” she said, “but revising it until it’s the best it can be, will.” Let’s all remember that the next time the mail comes.