If Only We’d Fucking Listen to Helen DeWitt

November 21, 2018 | 6 books mentioned 4 11 min read

Writers toil for years to squeeze even an ounce of their soul into their work, but when it comes to the acknowledgements page, they happily bow before convention. It’s rare to find an author’s note that isn’t a list of names paired with phrases of gratitude, each paragraph rising in pitch as if announcing the next rank in a hierarchy of angels, rarer still to find one that quietly captures the full agony and ecstasy of its author’s being. On the final page of Some Trick, her first collection of short stories, Helen DeWitt writes:

Over the years visitors to my blog (paperpools.blogspot.de) have generously helped me live to fight another day. While The Last Samurai was out of print buyers of secondhand copies would send donations to the beleaguered author. More recently two dedicated readers have been thinking of ways to approach the challenge in a less haphazard manner; anyone who would like to be involved should contact me at [email protected] to be put in touch.

covercovercoverSome context: In 2000, when DeWitt was 43, her acclaimed debut The Last Samurai came out with Miramax Books. It was a victory after years of setbacks and menial jobs, but also the lone highlight in what became her long praying mantis courtship with the publishing industry, which began with a war over the novel’s typesetting and led to two suicide attempts. After Miramax Books went bankrupt, The Last Samurai fell into contractual purgatory, and DeWitt’s subsequent novels were either delayed for a decade (Lightning Rods), pulled due to technical challenges (Your Name Here) or deemed unpublishable. The familiar ivy of poverty re-encircled her life, even as critical appreciation for both Lightning Rods and The Last Samurai continued to grow; the latter was recently a broad consensus pick for the 21st century’s most canonical novel.

And so here is one our foremost authors, poor but nonetheless foremost, inviting her readers not just to send her a few bucks (which she does later in the note), but to get involved in a project that is, presumably then, more elaborate than direct donation, that involves joining a dedicated network of DeWitt supporters, and to do so by writing said foremost author at her personal email account. Can you imagine any of the Didions, Franzens, Ferrantes or Bolaños whom she beat out in the canon rankings extending that request to the world? Even less rarified authors would be warned off by an inkling that this was a thing one simply does not do.

DeWitt can ignore that inkling in part because she’s made a public persona out of questioning its merits, especially when it comes to what she calls “normative publishing.” In her interviews, wielding the sort of rationalism more commonly associated with economists, tech entrepreneurs and utilitarians, she picks apart the industry’s conventions, like the puritanical separation of authors and type-setters, the unwillingness to experiment with new revenue models, especially ones perfected by the art world, and even the norm of meetings editors in cafés, where table space is too limited for spreading out one’s papers. My favorite of her frustrations is how when she met with prospective agents she couldn’t get them to agree to squeeze as much marketing juice as possible from any future suicides she attempted. “If I could have sold off a suicide attempt,” she said in a 2008 interview, “I would have had more time for reading Spinoza.” Duh.

It’s not surprising, then, that she might try out unusual methods of financing. I can imagine her calculating out Spinoza time wasted from extraneous emails vs. Spinoza time gained from projected extra income (naturally I’d like to message her and ask what the scheme is all about, except then I remember my own income and have to admit that I’d be tipping the scales toward time wasted). But even a positive net expected value wouldn’t account for the note. To put such an entreaty out in the world requires something rarer than strict rationality; it requires, in large amounts and in equal measure, optimism and desperation. If DeWitt were merely desperate, she wouldn’t be the sort of person who burned bridges over type-setting; she’d write The Last Samurai derivatives and own a brownstone in Brooklyn. If she were merely an optimist, she would have accepted her lot and put her faith in posterity. Put the two together and you get one of our best writers leveraging her stature and her inbox for what is in all likelihood a moonshot of a fundraising scheme.

You also get what defines her fiction, even more so than the two themes most often used to describe it, genius and making ends meet. True, The Last Samurai begins with Sibylla, a single mother, earning scraps as a freelancer while teaching her son Ludo to speak a dozen languages and do advanced math, but what gives the novel its wheels is Ludo growing up to have the same need and daring as his creator. At 11 years old, he disobeys his mother and sets out to identify and meet his biological father, a travel writer named Val Peters. When he figures out that Peters is a mediocrity, Ludo is disappointed, but he doesn’t despair. He simply reasons that he should let Peters down easy and find someone better, and begins showing up at the doors of various impressive men, armed with a con man’s set of ruses and an appraising eye.

Ludo is, to quote another of DeWitt’s stories, a “go-getter … that quintessential American thing to be,” an archetype that reappears throughout her fiction. DeWitt’s characters don’t suffer from boredom, midlife crises, existential dread or a surplus of time. They engage with the world, and, like DeWitt, they do so with unusual requests and ingenious proposals. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a highly successful fiction writer, wants to work with a mathematically literate editor for his next book, and he worries that his agent, Jim, won’t find one through the usual auction process. Struggling to convince Jim why this matters so much, Peter makes an unheard of but seemingly foolproof proposal: He offers an 85 percent commission, or roughly half a million dollars, in exchange for Jim finding him the right editor. “As ours is a business relationship,” he explains, “… it is entirely reasonable for me to determine my own ends and offer financial compensation to you for the inconvenience of promoting them.” Jim, though, brushes him off, making “a number of friendly American remarks” about being happy with the standard commission, friendly yet in a way that implies he has taken offense.

In her fiction DeWitt gets to be clear-sighted about how and why ingenious proposals fail, not without some irony: “Climbers” explores the pitfalls of dedicated readers trying to help an author they love. Peter Dijkstra, a reclusive Dutch writer, receives a series of emails from American literary types, utterly out of the blue, suggesting that a famous American writer is willing to give Dijkstra his apartment and all his things, out of respect for the European’s genius. It’s a strange and sudden altruism, born out of a New York loft-party conversation, but one that Dijkstra, pondering his debts, wants to talk advantage of, if only he can figure out how: “The fact that a fame-kissed young American would happily hand over all his worldly goods did not make it socially straightforward to write asking for a gift of 20,000 euros.” He doesn’t know how to survey, at a distance, the terrain of his admirers’ enthusiasm. Can he ask for a lifetime supply of cigarettes? Too shocking. A subscription to the Vienna Philharmonic? “An American … would see [such a gift] as too finely tuned.” Just how fully would the American writer move out of his apartment? “He could not think of any sentences that would ascertain the position in a socially acceptable fashion.”

The difficulty of ascertaining other people’s positions, and of conveying one’s own, is where many of these ingenious proposals run into trouble. DeWitt describes the problem more explicitly in “Sexual Codes of the Europeans,” a story that opens with a guidebook of systems developed in five cities for indicating certain sexual preferences. In Bilbao, for instance, people set out items on café tables to indicate the material in or upon which they wish to make love, whether sand or milk or acacia blossom honey. In Stuttgart, people leave out plastic figurines indicating a preference for a uniformed stranger, whether a Canadian Mountie or an Air Singapore stewardess. The practice is explained as arising from a scarcity of language:

The words for sexual practices and preferences are not included in a book for travelers, nor are the words that would accompany the speech acts of requesting a practice, expressing a preference. Perhaps you think: yes, but the words and speech acts must be known to the natives! If you buy a book in your own country you will find words for practices. You will not find an account of the speech acts in which the words may be deployed. The scarcity, it seems, is not one of vocabulary but one of speech acts.

More specifically, there is a scarcity of socially acceptable speech acts, or speech acts that carry only the precise information that one wishes to convey, with no surplus or remainder. When Peter offers 85 percent of the sale of his book in exchange for the right editor, what a robot or an economist might hear as a simple exchange sounds to Jim like a purely figurative hyperbole that politely says, “I’m worried you’re not going to do a good job.” Naturally, Jim is offended, as would be the airline employees who saw you walking around in your “I Prefer Sex With Air Singapore Stewardesses” T-shirt. As would be most literary agents when they realize you see them as the kind of person who would peddle their client’s suicide. To have a preference or proposal, even one justified by reason, is not enough. If the proposal is at all strange, one must also invent a sufficiently dexterous speech act, capable of slipping past the alarm system of prejudice, taboo and convention that protects us.

Perhaps it’s this idea that led DeWitt to write “The Wrong Stuff,” the essay she published in the LARB to accompany Some Trick. If her author’s note is the strangest example of its genre, “The Wrong Stuff” holds the crown among those now equally ubiquitous things, half artist statement and half college essay, used to publicize new fiction releases. It begins with a question Hans Ulrich Obrist, the renowned artistic director for Serpentine Galleries, posed to Zadie Smith, about whether she has any unrealized literary projects. DeWitt envies the question:

I could have explained that I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction. Projects that were not even books, so no agent or editor would know what to do with them. I would need a week to set out materials on tables, tack papers to walls, and talk nonstop.

Having dangled this prize, DeWitt offers the requisite humility: If that’s how the industry works, there could be thousands of authors with stalled century-changing projects. If any of these hypothetical projects were ever realized, she suggests, it will be because their hypothetical creators will have had a chance meeting with a well-financed visionary like, hypothetically, Hans Ulrich Obrist.

But of course, one of those authors is DeWitt and those projects exist in her hard drive and surely a few LARB readers are connected to Obrist. The essay is an elaborate speech act to convey what cannot be said directly: I have art that is too wild and expensive for New Directions, I’m running out of time, someone please give me the resources to make it. From various interviews one can piece together the problem: The projects she dreams of realizing need the help of graphic designers and computer programmers, individuals who need to be paid, but publishers won’t sign a contract until they see an almost fully realized book. Thus the elaborate plea, which, needless to say, our society doesn’t know how to readily parse, not coming from a 61-year-old writer, certainly not a woman. “The Wrong Stuff” sank to the bottom of the internet without a sound, without even inciting some jerk to call out claims which, coming from any other author, would seem outlandish. At least that might have started a conversation.

covercovercoverWhat makes it all the more depressing is that this plea could so easily have been unnecessary. One can imagine The Last Samurai propelling DeWitt into the same liberating echelon that Infinite Jest or Gödel, Escher and Bach (equally long, unorthodox and surprisingly popular works) propelled David Foster Wallace and Douglas Hofstadter, two famously inflexible writers who found forgiving editors in Michael Pietsch and Bill Kessel (who let Hofstadter do his own type-setting). Even Jonathan Safran Foer got to write Tree of Codes. One can imagine DeWitt getting a MacArthur “genius” grant, rather than setting the world record for torturously coy equivocations on a writer’s intellect (“Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius … she may just be one herself …” “If we wanted to call Helen DeWitt a genius …” “She is one of those writers who seems to demand the description genius”). One can imagine how differently her rationalism and casual attitude toward suicide marketing would be coded and received if it came from a Peter DeWitt, rather than a Helen.

Or one can simply imagine a world such that when one of our best writers says she has projects that will change literature immured in her hard drive, we do better than plugging our ears, waiting until she’s dead, and giving our descendants the joy of opening her laptop and asking how we let this happen. If DeWitt wants to give our descendants a hint, she can set her login password to a line of Proust: “So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when anyone speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read and knows already …”

How to convince you that there are new books, new languages, new speech acts, new ways of living or doing business, new textures upon which to make love? This is the true engineering feat of DeWitt’s writing. Its ambition is not merely refilling spent canisters of frisson. Proust speaks of jaded readers as an analogy for his own jaded attitude toward young girls, renewed by a milkmaid, but the analogy seems flawed—youthful beauty, like a party with guest list or a bull market, sells itself. We’re so susceptible to certain easy charms that economists warn investors against ever thinking “this time is different.” This time, beauty won’t come to bore me. This time, the party will be bacchanalia. This time, the bubble won’t burst.

Yet there are moments when this time really is different. Once in a rare while, some new pleasure or pain or art, one that pales doe-eyed youth or owning real estate, reveals life to be richer and more expansive than you knew it to be. These strange gems are not ones you find where you go panning for novelty. By definition, they exist beyond what you know, so your powers of induction cannot guide you to them. The best you can do, the only thing you can do, is sustain the belief that all of life is yet to be amassed within your composite existence.

This might comfort the patient and the lazy, but it’s also the tragic aspect of DeWitt’s work and life. No matter how ingenious their proposals, how elaborate their speech acts, or how airtight their arguments become, her characters struggle to surmount a latent, animal skepticism. And so does she. I’ve read most of DeWitt’s interviews from the past decade or more. Through them I can track all the subtle refinements to her theory of publishing’s failures and possibilities, all the way to “The Wrong Stuff,” succinct and dazzling. But what are all those refinements worth, and who are they for? In the end, it’s all one plea, endlessly repeated to those who, if they don’t already, probably never will: Believe me.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Tweets forthcoming in 2019 at @kbartkus.

4 comments:

  1. Do I have to like The Last Samurai? Because I really don’t want to. I guess I will if I have to though. Just please don’t make me read it again.

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