Like we did last year, we’re going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it’s interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
1. I started making my living as a writer the day after Jimmy Carter got elected president. Today, more than 30 years later, a novel of mine is going out to publishers in purely digital form for the first time. That is, after writing the book on a manual Royal typewriter, I transcribed and edited it on a laptop and sent a digital copy to my agent, who read it on his Kindle, then forwarded it electronically to editors, who presumably read it (or skimmed it, or didn't) on their Kindles, Nooks or iPads. So eco-friendly! So fast! So cheap! Of course the half dozen rejection letters that have come back so far have not been actual letters on publishing house letterheads – who has time for such nonsense anymore? – they've all been those curt blunt instruments called e-mails. Three decades ago I received typewritten rejection letters that were thoughtful, insightful, sometimes even beneficial. The electronic burps I'm getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer. Sad but true, the rejection letter, like so many things in book publishing, is a shadow of what it used to be. 2. For years I've kept what I call an Agony File, mostly rejection letters from agents and editors, but also critiques from valued readers. The "agony" is meant ironically. While some of the letters were painful to read, I've kept the ones that contain constructive criticism that helped make me a better writer. I've also kept a few that are so badly written, so inane, so lacking in insight or comprehension that they serve as a reminder that there are as many idiots in publishing as in any other line of work. A sense of superiority has a magical way of softening the sting of rejection. One of the oldest items in my Agony File is a typewritten letter on Franklin Watts, Inc., letterhead dated March 10, 1986. It was written to my agent by Ed Breslin, who was then the publishing house's Editor-in-Chief. The letter, which consists of four long single-spaced paragraphs that cover two pages, offers a detailed critique of a novel I'd written called Henry Miller Lives!, the story of a Nashville disc jockey named Peter, a frustrated writer who's visited by the ghost of his literary hero, Henry Miller. Fireworks ensue. "Greatly did I appreciate the opportunity to read Bill Morris's Henry Miller Lives!," Breslin's letter begins. "The idea for the story is a good one, and a true writing talent is shown developing with every page. Yet, and most unfortunately, a number of people reading the book also saw problems which when corrected, we fear, will take away its magic." He then dissects the book's flaws, including one character who is "a cartoon-like straw man for the Yuppie existence," another who is "shallow and fickle." And: "No character presents an attractive alternative requiring a real choice for Peter...forcing a most anti-climactic ending." As for the ghost of Henry Miller: "Finally, and this is most important, the appeal that Henry Miller has for Peter as a role model is never clear. (Miller) is certainly a lovable character – like a favorite uncle who drinks too much and whores around – but from this description it is unclear who he really was, or how he inspires Peter." Breslin's letter concludes: "Admittedly, it is unusual to try and explain so many of our reservations for a book we are returning. What I hoped to get across to you with all of this detail – and what I hope you will relay to Mr. Morris – is that there is real talent in Henry Miller Lives!...and we are most certainly interested in such talented work in the future." This is about as good as agony gets – not only because of Breslin's encouraging words but because he (and "a number of people" in the publishing house) read the manuscript closely, thought hard about it, discussed it and came up with valid ideas on how to make the book better. This is what rejection letters are supposed to do, what they used to do, and what they almost never do anymore. Now comes the truly odd part: I wrote Breslin a two-page, single-spaced letter thanking him for taking the time to explain, so eloquently and incisively, why he wasn't buying my book. "Over the years," I wrote, "I've received my share of rejection letters (this novel is actually the fourth book I've written); but never have I received a rejection letter that contained half as much honesty and understanding. Rejection never feels good. Somehow you've made it feel less bad." After explaining why I agreed with most of Breslin's criticisms and disagreed with a few, I told him about a new novel I was working on, then closed with: "I'm not trying to sell you anything. I'm just trying to thank you for reading Henry Miller Lives! and for responding so thoughtfully to it. And I'm hoping that when I finish a first draft of this new novel, you and I have another shot at each other." As it turned out, Franklin Watts did not publish that new novel, but Knopf did. I've often thought that without the encouragement I got from Breslin's rejection letter I might not have finished that next novel. After writing four unsold books I was close to throwing in the towel. Thanks to Ed Breslin, I didn't. 3. The electronic rejection letter didn't arrive on the publishing scene yesterday, of course. My Agony File reveals that e-mail started supplanting typewritten letters about seven or eight years ago. Looking back, I can honestly say that only one of the e-mails I've received in those years contained a fraction of the insight in Ed Breslin's typewritten letter. Here are three e-examples from 2008, when I was trying – and failing – to sell a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 race riot. An editor at Henry Holt wrote: "I just didn't entirely connect with these characters, in part, I think, because most of them are pretty masculine guys." (What do you want, I wondered, more feminine guys?) An editor at Algonquin wrote: "I never quite 'believed' the narrator in some three-dimensional way. His voice seemed inauthentic to me in certain ways – too overly polished and rhetorical with every fact and figure at his fingertips." (The novel is told in the first person by five different narrators, which leads me to believe this editor didn't get past the first chapter.) And an editor at Bloomsbury who is obviously a big believer in brevity needed just 11 words to diss the manuscript: "As much as I'd like to like this, I don't. Sorry." Of all the many cliches in reject-speak, the most maddening surely is this: "I didn't fall in love." Of course you didn't fall in love. It's a book, for chrissakes, not a super-model! To be fair, some of the typewritten rejections I've received were more than a little superficial and slapdash. In pre-e-mail 2001, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote this about a novel I'd set in near-future New York City: "I think this kind of near-future fiction is going to be very difficult to do...until we are more certain of what the near-future might actually look like." (Say what?) And an editor at Grove/Atlantic must have just returned from a long liquid lunch when she wrote: "I found the action exciting writing skillful." And electronic rejection can be thoughtful, constructive, even wise. After revising that novel set in near-future New York City, I mailed a copy of the manuscript to the agent Bill Clegg at the William Morris (no kin) Agency because he had given a close reading to an earlier manuscript of mine. (At the time I was unaware that Clegg had been wrestling with the crack cocaine demon, which he chronicles in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man.) Soon after I sent my manuscript to Clegg, he wrote me an e-mail – roughly the same length as Ed Breslin's long-ago letter – that was striking for its detail and the acuity of its insights. After laying out the book's strengths and weaknesses and suggesting how I might go about making it better, Clegg closed by offering to take a look at a revised manuscript. So I know it's possible for agents and editors – for anyone – to write a thoughtful, insightful e-mail. But hard experience has taught me that it almost never happens. Clegg's e-mail is, sadly, the exception that proves the rule. 4. The publishing world has embraced e-mail rejections for obvious reasons: speed and convenience. The need for speed is driven by the simple fact that there are too many people writing too much stuff and publishing houses are producing too many books, most of them bad, some of them decent, a few of them truly dreadful, and a tiny handful of them brilliant and destined to last. All of a sudden everyone with a laptop has a novel inside them, or a book of short stories, or at the very least a memoir about incest, anorexia, substance abuse and/or the thrilling world of rehab. More than 4,000 Americans apply to creative writing MFA programs every year. American publishers cranked out about 280,000 "traditional" titles last year, including about 45,000 novels. That's nearly a thousand novels a week. That's insane. When you factor in on-demand, self-published and "micro-niche" books marketed almost exclusively on the Internet, the number of new titles surpassed 1 million last year for the first time. Understandably, agents and editors complain that they're swamped with product, and anything that can hasten the culling process is a godsend. There's simply no time today for such tweedy niceties as writing thoughtful, constructive rejection letters to some schmuck whose book you're not going to buy. But I would argue that American book publishing doesn't need to speed up; it needs to slow down. Nobody can stop people from writing, of course, but editors can – and should – determine what is truly worthy and then take the necessary time to make it truly great. One way to buy that time would be to publish fewer titles. It's no secret that most books today are sloppily edited if they're edited at all, that a disturbing number of memoirs are figments of the writer's imagination, and that most published novels and short story collections simply do not deserve to exist, either on aesthetic grounds or on the brute reality of what the market will bear. We've all had the experience of walking into a bookstore and feeling overwhelmed by the number of titles on the shelves. You may know in your heart that there are only a few gems in those tall cliffs of books – but how do you spot the gems? I say it's time for writers, agents, editors and publishers to admit that less would be more. We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter. But wouldn't a cutback in the number of published titles hurt me and every other writer? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that a reduction of quantity would lead to a rise in quality, and everyone would benefit – editors who actually get to be editors again; writers who get the attention, and possibly even the money, they need and deserve; and, especially, readers, whose eyes will no longer fog over when they walk into a bookstore because they'll be confronted with fewer choices and they'll be confident that the quotient of gems is far higher than it used to be. The only losers would be the companies that pulp unsold books. 5. Ed Breslin is alive and well and still living in New York City. Since retiring as a book editor in 1992 after a 19-year career, he has concentrated on writing, book doctoring and freelance editing. Now 63, he remembers the Henry Miller Lives! manuscript and the letters we exchanged a quarter of a century ago. He regards those letters as relics from a gone world. "People don't even write rejection letters anymore," Breslin said when I reached him by telephone. "Rejection letters were educational and they often were important for the encouragement they gave young writers. People don't have the time today, and they don't have the money to spend on amenities like publicity or parties. Book publishing's not as social or collegial as it used to be. It's more cut and dried, and it's not as much fun." With the world becoming more digitized by the minute, Breslin doesn't expect the publishing industry to slow down, or return to its collegial ways, or even stop churning out so many unwanted books. "It's not going to stop," he said. "It's going to proliferate more and more." He's probably right. I thanked him for taking the time to write that rejection letter on March 10, 1986, a dose of bad news that gave a struggling writer the strength to keep trying. "You're very welcome," he said. We wished each other good luck and then we hung up. Image: ROYGBIV, via Ed Siasoco's photostream
1. I went back to Ohio Friday night to see another friend from college get married. This was my fifth such wedding in three years. Surrounded by my Ohio friends and their spouses, I found myself having to consider, once again, what it means to be 29 and not in a meaningful relationship. My last long-term romance concluded in the wake of my graduation from Ohio University in 2006. I immediately migrated to the creative mecca of New York, a city that doesn’t pressure you to grow up in the same way the Midwest does. Professionally and creatively-speaking, it is a world class incubator, no doubt. But if you wish to remain a career bachelor, you receive a Big Apple cosign into your seventies. Every transplant I know has had to head home at some point to face the germinating evidence of their profound singleness. I was in Ohio less than 24 hours, as I had to return to perform a poetry set on Sunday afternoon at the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Tompkins Square Park. I am a working poet. Over the past six years, I have led creative writing workshops and performed poetry in auditoriums, bars, syringe exchanges, universities, libraries, prisons, youth centers, bookstores, and theaters in Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and across the United States. The pay is modest but manageable, and every time I seriously consider a less freelance source of income, some new window of opportunity opens whispering, don’t be afraid, you are supposed to be here. When asked to explain my choices, I’ve said, “Art is how you explain what it feels like to be alive in the 21st century. I am an emotional historian.” But that’s really my answer to, “Why should we all make art?” My why is more personal. When I hit a writing groove, or perform, all these divided parts focus into one story. In these small moments, I am not confused about what matters. Looking out at the crowd in Tompkins Square Park, I realize that this is the largest audience I have ever performed for. Over 6,000 people spread across the grass and concrete to see jazz. I go to the bathroom five times in 45 minutes, and nearly throw up in front of the Summer Stage photo backdrop. Jeanne Kabenji once told me that, “Stage fright is your body informing you of a journey into the unknown.” I wish I had asked anyone I love to be here. 2. Yesterday, my mother drove two hours from Cincinnati to take me to breakfast. While my hungover stomach caved in around itself in the Columbus Red Roof Inn, I prayed to the gods of clarity to make me a good son. I’ve spent too many years taking out my own emotional confusion on my mother because she never stops loving me. She would rather be with me than without me, even when I’m a dick, and I’ve spent years fashioning that into some sort of license. I make it through a breakfast burrito, and keep the narratives about last night’s reception minimalist. We have two hours until she drives me to the airport, so we go to Goodale Park. My mother is the kindest person a lot of people know. I often tell her this, and she consistently assures, “You haven’t always known me.” She was the seventh of twelve children in an Irish-Catholic, anti-contraception household in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. In 1995, my grandmother was losing a battle with cancer, while single-handedly caring for my grandfather whose brain was succumbing more, each day, to Alzheimer's. She allowed my mother to visit and stay until she passed; to change my grandfather’s diapers, take him on walks; to bring my grandmother water, and make her bed. My mother has a history of never asking more from those who are suffering, and she listens to people (not just loved ones) in a way that makes them feel heard. That scene in White Men Can’t Jump where Rosie Perez explains love to Woody Harrelson, something like, “I don’t want you to bring me water, I want you to sympathize. To say Gloria, I too know what it’s like to be thirsty.” My mother invented that shit, but she also brings water. This spawned years of rebellion from me, her youngest son. I pursued independence by repeatedly rejecting, resenting, desperately succumbing to, and then ultimately depending on this profound well of empathy. By “repeatedly,” I mean over, and over, and over between the ages of 13 and 28. This didn’t prevent me from appreciating my mother, but it did prevent me from humanizing her kindness. After my parents’ brief separation when I was 14, my body would not let my mother cry around me. I would, literally, fall asleep. My father, with a heavy heart, had left the home of his wife and four children in order to find out more about the love he had for another woman. It was impossible for my mother to talk about what was happening without crying, and my reaction was always swift. Eventually, she stopped telling me. For 14 years, we focused on a subject we both loved: Me. This Saturday in Columbus is the longest time I’ve spent alone with my mother since I was a teenager. The overt parts of who I am, I immediately trace to my father. I was a chubby kid (as was my dad), and my three older brothers were not, which made everyone assume I was the primary recipient of his genetics. We are both viscerally stubborn, until quietly we are not. We don’t allow the ones we love to know we have heard them. We lash out defensively, then, over time, we let them watch us change. 3. My time slot at the Jazz Festival is just before the headliner: Gregory Porter is a legend, and the park quakes for him. The ten minutes it takes his band to set up is to be filled with poetry. The festival host from Jazz 88.3 says only, “Now welcome the author of The New Clean, Jon Sands.” Followed by 6,000 people who do not know I can see each of their faces, individually. I begin a poem called “When I See Andre 3000 Buying Bananas at Trader Joe’s.” The first line is, I say everything you’ve ever done/ has meant so much to me./ He says, I’ve done PCP. I say/ that meant so much to me. When I get to the part of the poem where Andre 3000 asks me about everything I’ve ever done, I have to admit, I masturbated this morning picturing/ a woman I made out with two years ago./ I am preachy and self-important/ when I talk about race with my family,/ sometimes when I’m not listening,/ I make my face look like it’s SUPER listening. The crowd communicates two types of people: those who have no idea what is happening on stage at this jazz festival, and are entertained by that, and those who have no idea what is happening, and are decidedly not. I’m not sure which camp I fall in. The poem ends to a confused smattering of applause, and I say, “The other poem I’d like to read you today is a love poem.” This is the first time I have ever been booed. It was only about 100 of 6,000, but 100 sounds like a shitload. I say, “I know! I can’t wait to hear Gregory Porter either, but he needs to set up!” Then I introduce the poem I wrote for the wedding of my brother Ben in October of 2011 on the occasion of his marriage to a Texas transplant named Wendell. They had been engaged before same-sex marriage was legal in New York, and whenever fielding questions of whether they planned to go to Massachusetts to legitimize their nuptials, they’d reply that they wanted to get married in the city where they had fallen in love, where they go to work, pay taxes, argue, take walks, and drink coffee. If the civil rights didn’t exist yet— they would vote, and they would wait. The first time I read the poem aloud was to my brother, sunk into his couch in Hell’s Kitchen. It documents the night Ben first knew he loved Wendell, four months into their relationship. Wendell leapt from the bed they shared, mid-credits of a James Bond movie, to execute an interpretive spy dance around Ben’s bedroom in his underwear. This man, possessed only by the desire to bring him joy, unlocked Ben. The poem says of my brother, You are traveling into your past where he is/ not, but now you see him everywhere./ In the moving van at nine years old. At thirteen,/ in the mirror and the bottle of pills, he was there./ In the arms of the first man to hold you/ and assure you were beautiful. In my high school of 2,200 kids, Ben was the only student out-of-the-closet. He came out the summer before his junior year, but four years prior, after being bullied at choir practice by an eighth grader who called him a faggot (something that had happened to him since he was in second grade), he quietly admitted to himself that everyone was right. He was shameful, and it would be best for our family if he wasn’t here. He walked into our bathroom and swallowed a bottle of Advil. A half hour later he told my mother, and in three minutes he was riding shotgun in my father’s Ford Taurus doing 55 on the back roads to the hospital. The doctors induced vomiting, and he spent the next four hours in a hospital bed while my mother brushed the hair across his forehead and whispered over and over again that she loved him. I read the poem I wrote for his wedding to this man who I need to never lose faith in me: my brother, who has played an unimaginable role in the person I am attempting to become. The poem had to claw from my mouth as we held each other sobbing on the couch. The reading in Tompkins Square Park is less cathartic. I can see the individual faces, the ones that have no idea that I’m looking at them. Some are angry that I am still on stage. A few have tears in their eyes. Some are confused. Some not. As though nudged from a dream, my set is over, and I am free to consider what just happened. The stage manager says, “Tough crowd, huh?” I am 29 and single, walking backstage to mild applause. 4. My mother’s younger sister Mary died at four years old. She drowned in a lake behind their house. My mom is 60 now, sitting with me in Goodale Park. She tells me that years after her death, the man who found Mary’s body would die as a drunk driver in a car accident. He had carried the body back to their house. Each brother and sister saw her laid out at 4:00 p.m. on the only free bed. A neighbor cooked them all hot dogs and heated up frozen corn, and by 5:00 p.m. all the younger children were put to bed. In the morning, they woke for the wake, and by 2:00 p.m. Mary was buried forever in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She tells me that when the family got home from the funeral, her two eldest siblings, both in high school, were scheduled to attend a weekly sock-hop. My grandparents urged them to go, saying, “You have to move on with your life.” For years, her parents rarely spoke of Mary. My mother would learn in her adult life that they had spent three years of nights privately crying in the dark. My mom was seven, learning that grief did not involve sadness. You die, then a hole closes around where you were, perhaps leaving a small scar, and then the survivors continue with the business of mortality. Her parents fought, perhaps, the most difficult battle of their lives in silence in order to not burden their children with even a small share of grief. “Did you think that was a good thing?” I ask. “Honestly, as a child, I never thought about that.” It wasn’t until over a decade later, when my mother was at Creighton University in Omaha, that she slid into a profound depression. Her realization, thousands of miles from her gigantic family and past, was that if she died, it would be a small story on the Creighton Campus, a small story in New Jersey, and ultimately, no one depended on her survival. Then she tells me, her youngest son, what I never thought to ask. “I really tried hard to be the best person I could be. So that if I died it mattered.” She puts a hand on my forearm, and her face scrunches together like it might withhold what she just said. Tears begin to drop from her cheek and gather on the wood. I can see all that I have inherited in this life from work my mother did before she ever knew me; what it means that I am sitting across from her in an empty park watching her cry. I picture my mother again at the hospital with Ben in 1994. I can see how she must have wanted nothing more than to protect him at choir practice, to defend him in study hall, or anywhere else that adolescence proved itself relentless to her 13-year-old son; how all she had to give was the person she had become, how it placed her by his hospital bed: a steadfast witness, a position she would never abandon; how then when he came out of the closet four years later, she knew that he had saved his own life. I can see how much it meant to me to be asked to document the love story of my older brother; to be held, weeping on his couch, in recognition of the life we’ve spent together. Since I was born, I have always assumed I was becoming only my father. I can see how the desire to matter is not a charge that began with my birth, or will culminate with my death. My eyes are open, and I can see, for a moment, who I have become.
● ● ●
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed. I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that. Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility? There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, "chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers." This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the "sad paradox" that "now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench." Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being "a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books," and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity. And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since. You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, "that was monumental." But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it. The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.) And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture. I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a "good" side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in. In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the "Wandering Rocks" episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin: Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves. If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. "Men who receive good when they expect evil," Machiavelli wrote, "commit themselves all the more to their benefactor." When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
● ● ●
In one of my first posts for the Millons, a post on books used for purposes other than reading, I mentioned the British artist Su Blackwell and her book cut sculptures. Blackwell's work is enchanting and I find myself (in week six of a post-dissertation/graduate school illiterate malaise in which I have read nothing, nothing, nothing and now fear I will never read or want to read again - though reading and books have been the defining activity and object of my life until now) drawn again to Blackwell.Blackwell's work recollects the shoebox dioramas of cut paper scenes that children make in grade school, but in Blackwell's sculptures all of the two and three-dimensional figures are cut out of the printed or illustrated pages of books and seem to spring out of the book from which they were cut (a single volume is often the platform on which and out of which her little still-life fairytale scenes spring). Occasionally, she incorporates lights into her sculptures and her scenes are often housed in wooden boxes, but otherwise Blackwell's sole medium is books.While cutting old books apart might seem a bit sacrilegious to a bibliophile, the results are so delicate and beautiful - so suggestive of the other worlds that good books make real - that you'll easily forgive the iconoclasm. In their surprisingly literal way, Blackwel's sculptures remind us of the vistas of imagination that art, particularly literary art, allow us to encounter - worlds that are in some sense, Blackwell reminds us, made from such paltry ingredients: ink and paper. In the throes of my ongoing bout of illiteracy, I find this reminder comforting - an enthralling approximation of the readerly places I can't get to myself just now.
● ● ●