The stories of Elle Nash’s second book, Nudes—following the deliciously titled debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other—emerge from the dark side of life, as though they have been written by a femme fatale turned narrator, in the way that echoes how vampires have slowly evolved from villains to protagonists. Nash has an impeccable eye, and the language to capture the perfect simile.
It’s been suggested that our literary era is an anodyne one. Elle Nash is anything but anodyne. I was introduced to her through a friend, read her novel, and—halfway through this new, notably diverse collection of pieces that I’ll agree to call “stories” simply because there’s no better term for them—wrote her a one-line email: “Your book is a wild fucking ride.” Admittedly, wine may have had something to do with that. But the sentiment was true.
I was thinking of the subject matter—about which I intended to pose a question or two—but more important is that Nash’s stories often hinge on a moment of crystalline reflection. In a sense, they are like Joyce stories, without the epiphanies. These are people for whom epiphanies are part of another world, one in which they appear to have little interest.
The Millions: So I want to start with a question that was once asked of me in an interview—albeit under slightly different circumstances. Nudes has a lot of suicide, bulimia, hospital stays, borderline disorder, Satanism, thigh gap, guns, snuff films, pregnancy, drugs, a lot of alcohol, anal beads, and porn. My question is this—are you okay?
Elle Nash: I mean, are any of us okay ever? Life is hard. This past year has been especially brutal. I enjoy that you describe Nudes has having a lot of thigh gap.
TM: That’s almost exactly the answer I gave! Well, mostly. Could I ask you to unpack the first part, a bit? Is it literature’s job, do you think, to give us a place to explore our okayness, or lack thereof, as it were?
EN: Oh god—that word, unpack! Of course, I say it with my students all the time. That is a good question, though. I don’t know if literature really has a job overall. I couldn’t assume that it even serves a specific purpose. I’m sure some would say it does…like preserving canon or whatever. But it’s like the big overarching question about art: Why art? Why write? I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is when I read a novel and feel completely entrenched in the story, it fills me with something, and I enjoy that. I enjoy the escape, I enjoy experiencing the pain and pleasure of another life, even if it’s a made up one. There’s not ever another time, for example, I’d be transported to early 2000s Paris to be an actress, explore new edges of the heart, or to, for example, process pain in a way that feels poetic rather than miserable, or to experience birth and death. It’s like a song…words can pull at you, the way an arrangement of sounds make a melody. I don’t know why it does, but it does, so I go to books, searching for work like that.
TM: Close to the end of the first story, “Ideation,” the main character thinks, “Death was a reminder that choice was a luxury.” It feels like this could have been the prompt for the whole story. And there is a lot of this kind of thing in the book. Sometimes, it seems like entire stories have grown out of axioms that appear late in them, usually at the climactic moment. That’s probably not what happened at all, but can you talk a little about the genesis of a story for you?
EN: It’s funny you say that, because it was actually the last line I added to the story. In fact, I had written it, finished it, or thought I finished it, and then when I was about to perform it at a reading, I felt the pacing wasn’t quite right at the end. It was just missing something. I have this document in my Notes app just filled with random one-off lines I think of, things I might save, as you said, for building stories around. This line had been there for a while, I wasn’t sure where to put it. So I took it and fit it into the story. Sometimes, though, stories do grow from these one-off lines. Most of the time a story for me starts with a series of images that run through my head, that I end up copying down and expanding on, trying to turn them into scenes, and then into narratives.
TM: You’re a little like Henry James in that you seem wholly uninterested in creating a sense of place, a sense of atmosphere. It’s all about the interiority—we listen in on characters’ lives rather than really participating with them. Is this intentional? Are you as suspicious of plot at James was? If not, what do you think really drives your work?
EN: Fascinating you mention this—I feel like interiority is my atmosphere. Maybe that’s because I spend so much time living inside my head. It is intentional that I want readers to observe. A lot of times I work to remove judgment from my narrators, or from third person narrators. I want the moments to stand on their own, for readers to come to their own conclusions about how to feel about something. In that way, I think it invites deeper emotional connection.
I am not necessarily suspicious of plot. Quite the opposite—I actually think even in plotless work, plot exists. Which I think the plotless crowd would hate to hear me say. Plot is simply the collection of moments strung together. Humans naturally attempt to derive pattern from events in order to create meaning. I don’t know why we do that—maybe pattern recognition was how we began to form memory and learn to trust and form communities, or something. Plot is just pattern, I think. But I do think heavy plot-driven works, which focus more on events than the observation of character, kind of lose something—they feel more like they’re written for entertainment, in a way. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. I just like to learn and be more involved with characters in a work.
TM: Some stories more like prose poems, some actually play around typographically on the page. Some stories are suspiciously essay-like, and some are more like vignettes or fragments. What constitutes a “story” for you? Or do you even care?
EN: Interesting question…I mean, a story really can be any arrangement of words on a page. It can be a long sentence, even. I guess I just think: is there movement? Does something reveal itself to me? Is it going to encourage me to reflect? A story is how we share, and how we go other places we might not otherwise go. If it does that, then it’s a story.
TM: Can I push back a bit? Because I can imagine the head of a poet or essayist exploding at the suggestion that only stories move, reveal, share, or go other places. I know it’s an impossible task to define story, but I think it can be useful to at least attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. So, again, what is a story? Or is such a definition only useful for libraries and bookstores?
EN: Why would they explode? Stories are basically how we share, and humans are driven to share because we are social; our brains are wired to find pattern and contract meaning out of it. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles says, “As long as man keeps hearing words / He’s sure that there’s a meaning somewhere.” So in terms of what it is…A story is just a means by which we pass information, whether it’s real, made-up, emotional, terrifying, euphoric, or banal. It’s evidence of our desire to connect.
TM: Sometimes it feels like the world of traditional values and concerns lingers in the background of your work—as something the characters sometimes want, but for some reason can’t get, or live by. How do you see your stories addressing values or morality, because it doesn’t seem like it’s just nihilism to me.
EN: Fiction can be a place to change and examine society’s morals and values. It can be a place where we can examine whether or not said values are suffocating, where we can debate what morality actually is, we can play with it, we can break and bend social mores. Literature is a place outside of real life, which makes it a place where we can experiment. Nihilism posits that life has no intrinsic value (this is debatable, though)…or that there are no morals at all because morals differ so much between groups of people…but in a way, that argument is kind of moot. A social construct—an illusion—removes autonomy, causes the self to suffer. I like to examine desire, especially as the root of suffering. I’m really into the idea of how suffering can end, into examining the origination of suffering in the human mind, on an individual level. The place of the self in society constructed via culture, economics, individual will, physics…it’s kind of a miraculous act, all of these systems—tradition—that both benefit and harm the person. It kind of strings the person up in a way, especially the person who struggles to enjoy or benefit from life in said system.
TM: Are you a reboot of Kerouac or Bukowski for millennials? How is our time different?
EN: I don’t know if I would say that. When I was a teen I really loved Bukowski for his crassness, what felt like raw candor I didn’t experience in my high school reading list. It was a snapshot of grit I think at the time I was too young to really “get.” I certainly feel as though millennials are struggling a lot—especially financially—right now, which seems similar to Bukowski’s experience through both the Great Depression and WWII, just with more useless mass-produced decadence. There is a lot less freedom to just get up and go. You can’t just show up somewhere and find a job, for example, without having an ID or a place to live; everything is monitored; healthcare costs are prohibitive as hell and dependent on having a job; mental healthcare, especially in this country, is not accessible at all. It is similar, really—Bukowski wasn’t a boomer, he was older than that. He was working class all his life. On top of the hegemony of the 24-hour news cycle, I think it’s really tough to just be a person today. We’re exposed to so much information, much less insulated. It has its benefits, but burnout is widespread—especially from tragedy. I don’t think anyone would care about what Bukowski had to say if he were to be publishing today—admittedly, it was the same when he was alive, anyway. We see so much suffering, are much more aware of it. I do fear the millennial generation will be the first to have more deaths from suicide and overdose than any other before it—in that way, it’s a little different.
TM: Talk about the organization of the book. A lot of thought goes into story orders, but I actually rarely read them in order. I did yours. What were you trying to achieve in organizing these into subcategories of stories?
EN: Admittedly, I knew I wanted to start with “Ideation” and end with “Room Service”—that was really all I had in mind. For the rest, I created the subcategories as a nod to “nudes” as a concept—an argument about what makes art obscene or pornographic—and tried to fit the stories into them based on their themes. As an example, “Moneyshot” takes the pop shot in porn as metaphor—the whole point of the pop shot scene is that it’s the reason all the money’s been spent, it’s the cinematic climax; the whole point of the characters’ arc in the stories in that section is getting the paycheck, the climax of their struggle.
TM: Last, kind of coming back around to the start, how would you feel about a reader viewing this book as a stand-in for autobiography, rather than a put-yourself-in-their-shoes kind of project?
EN: Readers can take whatever they’d like from my writing, or experience however it feels best. If something feels authentic enough that it’s assumed to be real, then I suppose I’ve done my job. But at the end of the day, it is fiction. If I wanted to write solely about myself, I’d be writing essays.
The stories of Elle Nash’s second book, Nudes—following the deliciously titled debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other—emerge from the dark side of life, as though they have been written by a femme fatale turned narrator, in the way that echoes how vampires have slowly evolved from villains to protagonists. Nash has an impeccable eye, and the language to capture the perfect simile.
We may live in a time when it’s finally okay to acknowledge what most have long known — namely, that book reviewers sometimes know the authors of the books they review. To be sure, book review editors still put up a front of seeking out reviewers who have no acquaintance with an author under consideration, but, as social media has made the world smaller, and as the literary world itself has undergone an unhappy shrinkage, it’s gotten harder and harder to verify that an assigned review won’t wind up being a better reflection of a reviewer’s affection (or animosity) for an author, rather than a true measure of a book’s particular quality. It’s gotten to be a bit like blurbs, hasn’t it? I mean, really — is there anyone out there who still visits bookstores and believes that the downright epileptic spasms of praise on the backs of books indicate true, unsolicited, un-commissioned opinions?
This is nothing knew. Henry James wrote extensively and glowingly about Robert Louis Stevenson even as there was a chair in Stevenson’s house known as the “Henry James chair” for the Master’s use of it during salons and soirees; and H.L. Mencken went after Theodore Dreiser — really lit him up — after having met him a number of times. Neither James’s nor Mencken’s opinions are likely the direct product of these relationships, but how can we know that for sure? The relationships are not acknowledged in the critical essays that we must trust to be assessments that are uncorrupted by non-critical views. And now, 100 years later, in a literary world notably smaller and vastly more interconnected, it still works the same way: friends (and enemies) write about each other’s books, but pretend they are writing about strangers.
All of which is prelude to me saying fie on that. I am reviewing Marc Nieson’s new book, Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape, and I have a more than passing familiarity with both the author and the subject. In fact, I’ve known the latter even longer than the former.
Schoolhouse is a memoir, which basically means it’s about Nieson’s life and the wisdom he’s drawn from it, but first and foremost it uses Nieson’s time living in an old stone schoolhouse during his stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a temporal fulcrum and emblem of transition. My part in this is that I visited the schoolhouse even before Nieson did. He’s older than me, but I attended the Workshop before he did, and the guy who lived in the schoolhouse before Nieson happened to be another Workshop student who was also an auto mechanic who knew how to work on Alfa Romeos. As it happened, I had bought a Spider just after I graduated from college, a joke that almost no one got. Anyway, the joke turned out to be on me: the car cost a fortune in repairs, and I spent a number of days visiting the schoolhouse of Schoolhouse.
I met Nieson, most likely, at a Workshop poker game, and even in the first few pages of his book one taps into the gentle, anger-averse mien that made Nieson something of an odd presence at both those games, and in that creative writing program, each of which often featured conflict. We became friends in a more than casual, yet less than wholly intimate way, such that there is a lot that is new to me in Schoolhouse, but also much that I recognize from those old Iowa days — in particular, Nieson’s description of the diagram that Frank Conroy used to illustrate the co-creation of art, that melding of minds that is the necessary component of any truly literary event. (I myself have since scarified that image onto the brains of probably 1,000 students by now.) Indeed, you might then leap to the conclusion to that in order to review Nieson’s book I wouldn’t really have to do all that much. We were close; I lived those days too. Probably, I could skim it and do just fine.
But that would be completely wrong.
There are a few things you can say with certainty about Schoolhouse. It’s a love story that is also a book about a kind of emotional sustainability — how to do right by both your soul and your surrounding — and it’s the tale of a rootless man coming to grow a few. The book globetrots from Iowa to New York to Italy, but thematically it never strays far from the old stone building, since demolished, that stands to this day as a symbol of Nieson’s education, the retelling of which might just teach us a few things too. It’s a kind and quiet book about a world that often isn’t either, and it’s told in a spare language that serves an inverted measure of the volume’s difficult-to-plumb sophistication.
But hold on right there. Because that kind of description, i.e., the usual descriptions of book reviews, doesn’t really describe my experience of Schoolhouse at all. If I’m to be honest, then I must allow that my experience of my friend’s book was based almost entirely on the difference between the man I found in these pages and the one that I thought I knew.
When you read books by strangers — as Gertrude Stein would have us do (“I write for myself and strangers,” she wrote, though she had plenty of writer buddies) — you don’t get to experience that at all. Of course you recognize that you have a particular kind of intimacy with people in books, and with people through books, which everyday relationships lack, but if you never read a book that was written by someone you know, then you never come truly face to face with the sad inadequacy of real life, which is the reason books exist in the first place. When I read Schoolhouse, I realized there was more pain and past in Nieson’s life than I had ever known or suspected might have lurked there. My impulse was to dig into my own past and project this new Nieson onto my fragmented memories of him, as though I could I heal the gaps in my past that suddenly felt like wounds.
Which was kind of stupid, but which, as it happens, is sort of what Schoolhouse is about. There’s a wonderful story here, but I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Rather, I will tell you that Schoolhouse is about those times when “you can hardly tell whether you’re hiding out from the past, or in it.” The book, then, is not about the past, it’s about memory, and the inadequacy of memory is what ensures that “there are all kinds of amputations and oversights in this world.”
Amputations and oversights…That pretty well describes the emotion I was left with at the end of this simple, powerful book, written by a guy I once knew fairly well. Or so I thought. A good book, by its goodness, proves the inadequacy of the world to which it is addressed. And I now know Marc Nieson all over again, as you might — as a vague, perfect, intimate stranger.
Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl. For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling.
When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre. Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition. First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls. Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me — I’m a writer.” And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know. Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century.
There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits. The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.”
The second kind of story collection — the so-called “connected” stories — may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme. It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea. Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried — sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling).
Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Of course that was the goal all along. The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits. In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture.
For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it). As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG. Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness.
These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola! Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship. This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice — which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold — is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty. The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls.
Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over. It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted. Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be. So is the crisis averted, then? No. Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant. One monster replaces another.
And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that. This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat:
You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee. The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room. There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse. The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens.
There is no character here, no story at all. Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales. Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy — it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill — stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.
A short time after I finished writing B & Me, a book about Nicholson Baker told in the spirit of Baker’s seminal book-length essay about John Updike, U and I, I was asked to give a reading about Baker’s phone sex novel, Vox, the hitch being that whatever I read aloud needed to be original work, not just something from my book. That was fine with me. Of course it meant that I had to read Vox again, no complaints there, and what I decided to do was read it this time — my fourth time, I think — by listening to it as audiobook, which is the phrase we’ve come to use of late for recordings of authors or actors reading books out loud.
This made sense for a couple reasons, the first being that I myself would be reading something out loud. That was perfect, because when books were, once upon a time, a much rarer commodity, so rare that not many people owned them, in fact, most people had access to the contents of books only through scheduled public readings, and so going to readings was really what reading was because most people couldn’t afford to sit and read a book in the quiet way that we now think of reading. So reading Vox as an audiobook and reading aloud an essay about doing so was possibly a way of bringing literature full circle and asking what this new audiobook phenomenon, if it’s fair to say there is one, is really about.
And the second reason this made sense was that Vox, as an all-dialogue, or almost all-dialogue book, would seem to be pretty perfectly suited to the audiobook format, just add another actor for the second voice of the exchange, and I’d already had the thought, while initially reading the book, that Vox would make a pretty good stage play, something on the order of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, though of course Vox is much racier and not nearly as mediocre as Love Letters, though it’s snooty of me to say that because I haven’t read Love Letters, or heard it, or seen it. But still.
And so, anyway, not only did I decide to, so to speak, audially re-read Vox, I decided to do this in public, because the audiobook phenomenon, and this may be my hypothesis here, may not actually be helping the world of books because people don’t just sit and audially read books, the way people used to — no, they listen to books while they vacuum, or drive, or exercise, which means that books are more and more coming to play a background role in peoples’ lives, like mood music, and one might reasonably ask whether audiobook reading is really reading at all, in any sense of the word. But that’s not what I would do. And what I did do, audially listen to Vox at a coffee shop over two protracted listening sessions, led to the slightly bizarre but revealing thing that happened because as soon as you introduce technology to the reading equation you introduce, as well, the possibility of “technical difficulties.”
And so what happened was, I didn’t, at the start of my second listening session, jam my headphone plug into my handheld electronic device nearly as far as I needed to for it to engage. Hence, when I turned the book back on, it picked up from where I’d left off the day before, and of course I still had the volume turned quite loud, and of course the coffee shop was crowded with quiet studiers, and, what happened was, the following line, really just a fragment, spoken by veteran stage, film, and audiobook actor Mark Boyett, playing Jim, suddenly burst into the room:
hundreds of female orgasms could be inferred from the books themselves — you didn’t need to harass any particular woman, you didn’t need to invade anybody’s privacy…
Boyett delivered these lines with exactly the kind of hurried, panting enthusiasm that comes from Jim’s words even when you read them just to yourself, and after this short, incomplete phrase, I managed to hit pause. But what was truly remarkable about the moment that followed was that none of the quiet studiers took any note of the voice at all.
This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, I was teaching in a small conservative college, and, one afternoon, I was seated in a booth in the school’s small, on-campus restaurant, and I was having a quiet lunch, and I was once again surrounded by quiet studiers, mostly students this time. But there were several televisions in the room, all tuned to the same daytime talk show, which no one was watching. I wasn’t watching either, I was grading papers, but my ears piqued when suddenly the panel of talking head hosts began discussing female ejaculation. Now I wouldn’t say that I have any particular interest in female ejaculation. I’m not preoccupied with it, and it’s not something that my mind drifts to all on its own. That said, I’m not averse to the idea of female ejaculation, and so when I heard female ejaculation mentioned quite loudly in an otherwise quiet room I looked up with the sort of expression that probably said something like, “Why, sure, I have a healthy curiosity about female ejaculation, so please, by all means, if you have something new to share on the subject, proceed!” The thing was, I was the only one. I was the only one in a room filled with mostly bored college students. Female ejaculation turned exactly one head in that room — mine.
I thought of this, of course, again, in the coffee shop, when I became, for a moment, an accidental broadcaster of the audiobook rendition of Vox. And once I had fumblingly fixed my headphone plug and settled back into my chair to finish my listening I realized that something actually quite important had been illustrated in that moment. That kind of passive, disinterested silence was about as far as you could get from the reception to Vox’s initial broadcast, its 1992 hardcover publication. This reception went both ways. On the one hand, the book was a giddy, trailblazing bestseller, with a healthy first printing of 50,000 copies and reports that the paperback rights — just the paperback rights — sold for more than a $100,000. But on the other hand, critically speaking, Vox was almost uniformly dismissed as a childish work, triggering a kind of critical anti-orgasm, an involuntary spasm of disgusted adjectives and puritanical claims that this sort of thing was simply beneath a writer of Nicholson Baker’s many talents.
Praise of his heavily footnoted first novel The Mezzanine aside, this pretty much characterizes Baker’s early career. He fairly often received middling reviews from peers doomed to obscurity, and, oddly, he also found himself subject to bizarre assaults from far more celebrated authors. Indeed, no lesser a light than Stephen King seeped out from the woodwork to cast churlish judgment on Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and the even lovelier Room Temperature, which I have to point out are pretty distinct from King’s horror genre — I’m tempted to say they’re not “horrible” in the way King’s books are — and you sort of have to wonder what button of King’s Baker had managed to punch to have solicited the evil eye from the reigning puppetmaster of evil eyes. Similarly, Martin Amis, in an essay reprinted in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, lashed out at Vox itself with a blasé and mostly unquotable claim that there wasn’t much there there, so there!
And then there’s Philip Roth. Roth didn’t attack Baker, but he did plagiarize him. Sabbath’s Theatre, published in 1995, includes a long phone sex conversation, a conversation embedded in a very, very Bakerian-style footnote that stretches across 20 pages. Three years after Vox spent a couple months on the bestseller list, and eight years after The Mezzanine reintroduced the footnote to literature, Roth churned out passages like this one, depicting Mickey Sabbath’s fiber-optic seduction of a student:
Oh, I’ll bite on your nipples. Your beautiful pink nipples…Oh, it’s filling up with come now. It’s filling up with hot, thick come. It’s filling up with hot white come. It’s going to shoot out. Want me to come in your mouth?
You might be able to tell where I’m going with this. Because Sabbath’s Theatre was not dismissed as childish or beneath Roth’s many talents. No. It won Roth his second National Book Award and was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. (He lost to Richard Ford’s Independence Day, which, for what it’s worth, also features, briefly, a young female writing student sexually involved with her professor.)
To be fair, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani did lash out at both books. Sabbath’s Theatre, she wrote, was “distasteful and disingenuous,” and Vox was “not particularly revealing or emotionally involving.” But to this I have to say that if a book’s longevity matters at all, if it matters what books people actually keep talking about, or keep reading, or keep audially listening to, then I think it’s fair to say that Kakutani was wrong on both counts. And I’d further say that Vox, though there can be only anecdotal evidence for this, is talked about these days far more often than Sabbath’s Theatre.
But that doesn’t explain why a snippet of the book, or, for that matter, female ejaculation, can fall so flat, these days, when broadcast to the general public. I have a theory about this. What the phenomenon of Vox demonstrates, I think, is a combination of the one old saw about how great books either create a movement or destroy one, and the other old saw about how saints are murdered for the originality of their revelations, and what I want to suggest is that Vox, precisely because it was a good book that left an indelible mark on our world and paved the way for other books that would exceed its celebrity and acclaim — precisely for all this good the book did, for the change it made, it was chided and attacked, and, critically speaking, burned at the stake. The good news is that when you murder a saint you ensure his immortality.
So maybe, now, when we read Vox, we don’t just read the book for its original effects, we read it for its historical value, we read it to remember the world to which it delivered a violent but much-needed chest compression. And perhaps what the exercise of reading an audiobook in public does is recreate that odd life-giving jolt. Because imagine me sitting in my comfy coffee shop chair, nothing in my hands, earbuds in, simply scanning the crowd as Jim and Abby’s voices co-created sexy stories. It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I sometimes projected those strangers into the book, imagined each of them as Jims and Abbys hovering over their laptops and tablets, occupying Internet chat rooms not really so different from Vox’s telephonic bordello. Truth be told, I drew their attention too, because Vox is a funny book, and I sometimes laughed at it, which means that I was a guy sitting in a chair, appearing to be doing nothing but staring at my fellow coffee drinkers, occasionally giggling. One woman began glancing back at me with a slightly-more-than-worried kind of regularity, and sometime into that second listening session I think I became one of those guys that you sort of need to keep surreptitious track of in public. Indeed, for 20 or more of those coffee regulars I was probably added to an internal database of local potential perverts. But that’s unfair! Because not only does Vox lack the kind of criminal trespass that Mickey Sabbath’s phone sex chat in Sabbath’s Theatre depicts, it’s actually just a simple love story. Michiko Kakutani, I’m sorry, but you missed it. The end of Vox is a quite moving exchange, as, after Jim and Abby’s respective climaxes, they make tentative plans to connect again. It’s a heartfelt goodbye, and it’s very “emotionally involving.” And if it seemed odd to you, my fellow coffee drinkers, that I would sit there for several hours, sometimes laughing, sometimes cringing, and finally getting a little teary — well, what I must insist is that you understand that I was not a pervert. I was not weird, or bored, or crazy. No. I was reading.
The debate between writers and critics over authorial intent is literally a life and death struggle. By literally, I mean figuratively. On the one hand, you have critics who have trumpeted “the death of the author” for several decades now, the view that holds that authors can’t be the true masters of their creations, can’t fully grasp the implications of language they pluck, seemingly, from a great assembly line of words and idioms. On the other hand, you have writers like those anthologized in The Story About the Story and The Story About the Story II, who argue, more often than not, that to read is to feel your mind, however fleetingly and incompletely, jacked into the mind of another, a connection that is perhaps more alive than even our relations with those we consider intimates.
The debate is preposterous on its surface. Of course the publishing industry, with its book packaging scandals and its ridiculous pseudonym play (I once met a man, an ex-convict, who claimed to have profited three-quarters of a million dollars ghostwriting a series of Little House books for a descendant of Laura Ingalls Wilder), undermines the sense that reading is interaction with another discrete life. But anomalies don’t founder what is intuitively true. When I read, I read for what I think an author wants to be expressing. In this, I’m not alone. Many years ago, Henry James complained – a plaintive cry, really – that critics of his own time were “apt to stand off from the [artist’s] intended sense of things.”
Where does this impulse come from? There are many sources, of course: the new critics and the intentional fallacy, and T.S. Eliot would probably be in this camp, and maybe the surrealists, and perhaps someone like Mallarmé. I don’t claim to be a scholar of all that, and anyway “the death of the author” traces most directly back to Roland Barthes’s 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” a short piece that, pound for pound, may be one of the most influential texts ever produced.
And what did Barthes intend? That’s not entirely clear. “The Death of the Author” begins with a quote from Balzac’s story “Sarrasine,” a musing passage that Barthes reads as neither a character’s free indirect speech, nor the author “acting directly on reality.” From this he declares both the death of the author and the “birth of the reader”: an active interpreter of writers who are no longer authors at all, in the old sense of the word. Proust is Barthes’s best example of this new writer, the “scriptor” whose character is a depiction “of he who is going to write.” This “enunciation is an empty process,” and scriptors merely supply a “tissue of quotations.” “I is nothing other than the instance of saying I,” Barthes writes. It’s only in the mind of the new reader that words and images come to mean anything at all.
The old position of the author, Barthes claims, mistakenly demanded that we think of books as written in code. Hear, hear. Other than that, all Barthes really seems to mean is that reading has become a cooperation of imaginations. What he doesn’t recognize – couldn’t have recognized – is that the same electric jolt that he had used to execute the author would shock to life a correspondingly monstrous critic.
To back up a bit. What’s meant by the “literary canon”? Literally, a canon is any authoritative set of standards, but figuratively the literary canon most closely resembles the processes of Biblical canonization, by which Christian sects debated and decided which ancient scriptures were of divine origin, inspired. In other words, a bunch of folks got together to look at work they knew was written by a person, and they simply decided that whoever wrote it no longer mattered, because God wrote it. Those writers might as well be dead – and that’s sort of what became of Barthes’s essay. Literature is a secular revelation of a more earthly god, human consciousness, and all that was needed was a critic/theologian to interpret it for laypeople, for mere “readers” who would be less encouraged to read for themselves than compelled to listen to interpretations. That pretty much describes both the modern Ph.D. in English and the practice of teaching literature to children as a compulsory subject in the public education system.
But the demotion of writers to figures stumbling blindly through the collective unconscious falls to the same arguments that toppled B.F. Skinner’s, and behaviorism’s, simplistic claim that consciousness doesn’t exist (See Chomsky, Koestler, Carl Rogers, and others). More simply, Samuel Butler once refuted this same species of skepticism – the claim that matter itself was hypothetical – by pounding his foot on a stone and proclaiming “I refute it thus!” To the literary obstetrician Barthes attempting to midwife a new reader, one might feel compelled to proclaim, “It has always been thus!”
Because he wasn’t saying anything new. And I don’t mean new critics or Mallarmé For at least a couple hundred years, writers have understood that their work wouldn’t amount to much without the reader’s imagination percolating away on the other side of the page. It was there in 1837, in “The American Scholar,” when Emerson coined the phrase “creative reading” in the same sentence that gave us “creative writing.” It was there six decades later, when Henry James described The Turn of the Screw as a “process of adumbration,” a sketch the reader colors in with “his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy.” And it was there a couple decades after that, in Barthes’s beloved Proust’s “On Reading”:
And there, indeed, is one of the great and marvelous characters of beautiful books (and one which will make us understand the role, at once essential and limited, that reading can play in our spiritual life) which for the author could be called “Conclusions” and for the reader “Incitements.” We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires. And these desires he can arouse in us only by making us contemplate the supreme beauty which the last effort of his art has permitted him to reach. But by a singular and, moreover, providential law of mental optics (a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves), that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours, so that it is at the moment they have told us all they could tell us, that they create in us the feeling that they have told us nothing yet.
To be fair, Barthes had his regrets. Ten years after “The Death of the Author,” and shortly before he died, he kicked back at his own, “I is nothing other than the instance of saying I.” In its first pages, A Lover’s Discourse insists that “To that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I.”
So how does the struggle end? Perhaps with simple statements, rather than melodramatic metaphors. Critics who have taken up the dead author standard would have us regard creative work as an elaborate Freudian slip: don’t read for what a writer is trying to say, read for what they’ve said in spite of themselves. That’s wrong. Literature (and all the arts, really) is the product of concentrated, intelligent minds to which we are granted intimate, but temporary and incomplete, access. We should embrace and not denounce that opportunity to comingle thought. Art is not an accident.
“On Repetition” was delivered as a craft talk at the 2010 Tin House Writers Workshop.
Not long ago, James Wood wrote a review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that struck me as a bit myopic. It wasn’t what Wood said about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that seemed short-sighted to me – it was what he said about the rest of Dyer’s career. Wood just didn’t get it, he admitted. None of Dyer’s books seemed to fit together – they were all about different things! And they’d all been executed in different ways too, almost as though they weren’t even by the same writer! What’s a critic supposed to do when a writer keeps on trying new things? Read it all? Sheesh! Who’s got time for that? Don’t you people understand deadlines?
I’m picking on James Wood here – and I like James Wood, I think the literary world is vastly richer for James Wood’s voice and presence in it – because he sort of duffed this one. There is a kind of common denominator in Dyer’s work, and tapping into it, I think, is central to coming to an understanding of at least one way to approach the craft of creative nonfiction, and it says something too about the state of literature today.
Also not long ago, Geoff Dyer wrote a review of Don Delillo’s Point Omega that was also myopic. Dyer complained that what Delillo had done in Point Omega had been done before and better, by Delillo himself. This is interesting not just because it’s the exact opposite of Wood’s criticism of Dyer. It’s interesting because it’s a crime – if it’s a crime – of which Geoff Dyer is also guilty. That guy whose books are a problem because they aren’t anything like one another has also made the mistake of saying the same thing over and over. I’m quite sure this accounts for Geoff Dyer’s wide-ranging popularity.
As I see it, Dyer has two modes as a writer. First he has a kind of rakish mode in which he serves himself up as a leaner, wimpier version of James Bond, that post-Empire Brit superspy who shuttles around the world bedding as many women as he can. Truth be told, Dyer’s travel writing can seem a bit like this at times. But of course while James Bond saves the planet again and again – reminding the rest of the world that, while the Empire might be over, and England has surely seen her best days, the world still needs her (which suggests in turn that James Bond is a kind of Frodo Baggins with a tuxedo and a Beretta) – Dyer, by contrast, in his rakish mode, just seems to limp around and hang out and say funny, foolish things and get girls anyway. But the Dyer/Bond parallel is there. Don’t get me wrong. I like Geoff Dyer, and I even like the rakish mode of Dyer. I like it even though it creates arguments every time my girlfriend and I take turns reading Dyer passages back and forth in the bathtub. But it’s also this Dyer mode that is susceptible to repetition. I’m not going to list examples here (and I guess I’m not surprised that Wood didn’t note them), because that’s not what this essay is trying to do, but suffice it to say that Dyer’s guilt over having hiked back across terrain his work had already mapped enabled him to recognize when Delillo was doing the same thing. One can imagine Dyer’s stream of thought: Ah-ha, Delillo, I see you! I see what you’re doing. I do it myself from time to time, though maybe I don’t recognize it until later, and even though I can acknowledge that there might be good reasons why a writer would repeat himself, I’m not, in a spirit of writerly camaraderie, going to let it pass this time. No! Instead, I will make a big fucking deal about it in the New York Times because that’s what James Fucking Wood just did to me.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I think the literary world is vastly richer for Geoff Dyer’s voice and presence in it.
All of which adds up to a kind of contradictory set of truths about books and publishing in the abstract: don’t repeat yourself, and don’t write books that are too different from one another. Other writers will pillory you for the first, and publishers will be more than happy to pigeonhole you from the moment you achieve anything like success. Blow out your advance? Great. Now write the same exact book again.
Thinking about books and publishing in the abstract was exactly what I was doing around about 1999, when I was a decade out from my degree at Iowa, had a dozen short stories but no collection published, and the pages of a failed novel sat scattered all over my crappy apartment as though to collect the droppings of a huge collection of homing pigeons that never came home. I was working then as a part-time casino dealer in Atlantic City, and though I’d once turned up my nose at nonfiction, I was now at least trying to turn up my nose at a career as a casino dealer in Atlantic City. After a not inconsiderable effort I had managed to sell an idea for a book of nonfiction. I say I’d been thinking in the abstract because it wasn’t really until I’d signed the contract – nonfiction tending to sell by way of book proposal (the writer is a kind of sub-contractor, perhaps like a plumber who shows up only occasionally and always late once he’s so underbid his competitors that he’s barely making enough to feed himself, let alone be on time) – not until then did it really occur to me that I’d actually have to write a book of nonfiction. This realization manifested itself physiologically as panic, a sudden peculiar sensation all across the body: it felt, instantaneously, as though every piece of myself was being worked on by some occult vibration, that every part of me had begun to jiggle with manic energy, and every cell, every nucleus, every mitochondria, seemed on the brink of imploding like a cathode-ray tube or a dwarf star going supernova. In other words, I fucking freaked out.
In a way, it was good that I lived in Atlantic City at this time. I’d had a number of writer friends, of course, from previous stints in graduate school, but after I went to Atlantic City these relationships had tended to fade, as is perhaps only natural. I say this is good because it meant that I had only one writer friend I could call and fucking freak out to. And I did. This friend had written several books by then, and what I did – working on the theory that previous experience writing books gives one insight as to how the process can and should be embarked upon – was call him and ask, well, so, how do you write a book? My friend didn’t know. My friend had no idea how to write a book. It turned out that he had managed to write several books without ever either acquiring the first thing one should know or formulating any general principle about writing books. Our conversation quickly became a discussion of how on earth he was going to figure out how to write his next book. When I hung up, I was left alone with my book contract and my panic in my empty roost in Atlantic City.
So here’s what I did: I invented the idea of the book.
The book was to be about chess – the game, chess. In Atlantic City, I’d gotten to know an African American chess master named Glenn Umstead, a kind of quirky guy with a difficult personality who was nevertheless one of just forty black men in the history of the world to have achieved chess’s master ranking. That’s sounds pretty straightforward, but saying you’re going to write a buddy story/subculture book – which is pretty much what I said in my book proposal – is a whole lot easier than coming up with a way of actually executing it. I’m exaggerating a bit when I say I invented the idea of the book, but that’s how it felt as I was doing it – it felt as though I was inventing literature wholesale. And that moment when I acquired my essential strategy was recorded in the book itself:
…I wanted to write something about the game. But I still didn’t know what it was.
My relationship with Glenn began to change. Now that I was a lay historian, our bond became a version of the classic conflict between player of the game and student of the game… We were an even odder couple now. He was black and I was white, and we were like chessmen opposed on a board that was the game itself.
From there, the book came not easily but possibly – it was possible now. What I’d learned was that the way to write a book was to let the subject matter tell you how it ought to be written about.
And it turns out that’s the common denominator of Geoff Dyer’s other mode as a writer: the mode when he stops trying to lay girls and gets down to the hard work of reading, writing, and thinking. A couple examples. Dyer’s book-length fret over D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, emphasizes on a number of occasions that its method is lifted from its subject: “If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.” And in introducing the partially imagined narratives of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer again lets the subject inspire the form he’ll use to examine it:
These episodes are part of a common repertory of anecdote and information – “standards” in other words, and I do my own versions of them, stating the identifying facts more or less briefly and then improvising around them, departing from them completely in some cases. This may mean being less than faithful to the truth but, once again, it keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form.
There are many examples of this outside of Dyer. One is Andrei Codrescu’s recent The Post Human Dada Guide, which executes a Dadaist encyclopedia of Dada. Another is Jay Kirk’s soon to be released Kingdom Under Glass, which reassambles the facts of the biography of taxidermist Carl Akeley so as to create an Akeley-inspired diorama of his life. But what’s already apparent is that this divining of one’s method from one’s subject is not only a way to make a book seem possible as you approach it, it’s also a way to avoid repetition, to bring to every work the excitement of invention while retaining some essential version of the self: the common denominator of one’s books being not their subject matter, but their organizing intellect, their animating spirit – their author, after all.
Not long after my book about chess appeared and chalked up a handful of prominent, promising reviews, my editor asked me to come to New York. She bought me lunch, chatted me up. We talked about the future. She wanted me to write another book about chess. “Maybe a chess mystery,” she said, jiggling her shoulders in what was either a fair imitation of a stripper twirling her pasties or a hopeful anticipation of the reaction readers might have to the book she proposed. I actually considered this offer for a moment. There is a true story about a famous chess player being called in to assist with a serial killer investigation. But that moment didn’t last long. I realized almost at once that I would simply be repeating myself.
And the truth is, I don’t want to be a writer like that: a writer so imprisoned by their subject matter – chess writer, food writer, religion writer, etc. – that if they ever depart from it, if their publishers ever let them depart from it, you can be pretty sure that their departures will have only that level of appeal, the appeal of something attempting, straining, struggling and probably failing to branch out. I don’t think that’s the ideal literary life. And yet, to reiterate, this is something writers are more or less forever doing – repeating themselves, writing figurative if not literal sequels, trying to please again and again the same readers they pleased once – and other writers who are guilty of the same thing admonish them for it, again and again.
So I have tried to be a little different. I went on to write a Jamesian biography of William James, and I cringed anew when my (new) editor told me that he wished the book had been a bit more like my first. Whatever, dude. From there, I set out to write a history of utopian thought and literature that would stylistically emulate Thomas More’s original Utopia, which blended a kind of analytical discourse with what scholars called “speaking pictures” – narrative.
There were two basic problems with this. First, I had already written about utopian concepts. I had grown up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community, “Utopia Road” was the title of both my MFA thesis and one of my early short stories, and, to be fully honest, there was palpable utopian fascination in both my chess and James books. In other words, I was repeating myself. No, no – worse than that! I was repeating the shit out of myself! The second problem was that Thomas More had been repeating, too. He was repeating Lucian and Plato and Erasmus and Machiavelli. And soon enough, others were repeating More, repeating Utopia. In fact, others repeated Utopia so often that it became its own genre of literature – a genre so powerful that “utopia” not only became a word, it completed the demigod leap from noun to adjective. You’ll probably better appreciate Thomas More’s Utopia if I tell you not that it’s the most influential novel in the history of mankind, but that it’s the only book whose author is known that has its own index entry in the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s pretty damn impressive – and it’s all a function of repetition. Sort of.
And there’s another problem too – a third problem – because thinking about these two modes of Utopia, discourse and narrative, makes it pretty clear that I’ve been unfair to Geoff Dyer, that his two modes, critic and rake, basically fall under this same description. Indeed, it seems to me now that Dyer’s entire career can be understood as a Utopia-like toggling back and forth – sometimes within a single book, sometimes from book to book – between narrative and analytic modes, and this is what James Wood couldn’t see, couldn’t appreciate, and which I came to appreciate only as a function of the panic that set in when I had to stop thinking about books in the abstract and actually write one.
In 1936, James Agee, two years out from a book of poems and “on loan from the Federal Government,” was assigned to write a series of documentary articles about Alabama tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. One can be pretty sure that Agee’s editor had some ideas about what he wanted to print – his readers had certain expectations based on what they’d read in the magazine before, and Agee’s assignment was to repeat that formula. That’s not what he did. Instead, he produced hundreds of pages of wildly poetic, passionate description of a few families from which he had strived to maintain no objective distance at all. The series of articles was promptly canceled; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was not published until 1941; sales remained dismal until the book was rediscovered in 1960.
What’s relevant about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for us, in this essay, is that right in the middle of it Agee pauses in his narrative and delivers a lengthy discussion of what he’s trying to do. It is the bit of analytical discourse to which he has toggled from his narrative descriptions of tenant farmer life. As a kind of set piece, this section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written long before Truman Capote and John McPhee and Geoff Dyer, serves as almost a post-facto manifesto of “creative nonfiction.” This manifesto insists on a stark distinction between creative prose and journalism, and in discussing an attempt to describe a hypothetical street it distinguishes Agee’s methodology from “naturalism:”
As nearly as possible in words (which, even by grace of genius, would not be very near) you try to give the street in its own terms: that is to say, either in the terms in which you…see it, or in a reduction and depersonalization into terms which will as nearly as possible be the “private,” singular terms of that asphalt, those neon letters, those and all other items combined, in that alternation, that simultaneity, of flat blank tremendously constructed chords and of immensely elaborate counterpoint which is the street itself.
I take Agee to mean that subjects ought to reveal themselves to you, that the writer’s job, the writer’s craft, is to be attentive to that which shall be rendered. A street will reveal to you the terms, the vocabulary, with which it ought to described just as surely as an abstract concept like William James or taxidermy or chess will proffer its proper strategy after some lengthy period of measured, painful, and above all, literary, meditation. Agee goes on to argue that words necessarily fail, and in so doing he echoes – or rather, anticipates – Dyer’s hope for what a creative use of language and form can bring to a consideration of jazz:
Words cannot embody; they can only describe. But a certain kind of artist, whom we will distinguish from others as a poet rather than a prose writer, despises this fact about words or his medium, and continually brings words as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment. In doing so he accepts a falsehood but makes, of a sort in any case, better art.
Ostensibly, this is an essay about the craft of creative nonfiction. But I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that it’s dangerous to say too much too definitively about craft in the abstract. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed by a project – that’s good. If you have absolutely no idea how or where to begin – that’s good too. No matter where one is in one’s career, a writer, it seems to me, ought to feel more or less completely at sea as they begin to approach the question or the subject they hope to address. There are two kinds of repetition. There is the kind we find inside our work, the themes that burble up lava-like from our subconscious again and again, and which we cannot resist and should not, I think, criticize in others. And then there is the repetition that ought to be resisted, that which gives us a program, a strategy that can be applied to any subject. This we should criticize in others. Art should never be the result of habit, it should strive eternally for the fresh and the new even when we work in forms we did not invent. Craft, we should vigilantly remind ourselves, means to make something absolutely new where before there was nothing at all.
Not long ago my father emailed me a reading suggestion: Ayn Rand. He knew I was completing a book about the history of utopian thought – a project that stemmed from the fact that my father raised me on a street called Utopia Road – and he recognized Rand as falling within the constraints of the genre. He liked her, he said. He’d turned up his nose at her for fifty years, and regretted it. He claimed Rand’s utopian avatar, John Galt, reminded him of me.
I declined the suggestion. My father is an avid reader, but politically we’re nothing alike. He’s been trying to get me to read Ann Coulter and Liberal Fascism for years. I explained that I wasn’t likely to fall for Rand’s philosophy, and if he wanted to read a conservative utopia he should try Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. (Islandia’s “conservatism” dates from a few decades back, when conservatism wasn’t so far from conservation – it’s all about preservation of the local in the face of globalization.)
My father wasn’t quite ready to let it go. When my girlfriend and I visited a short time later, he pulled out a Rand book, and dared me to read just one paragraph – part of a paragraph! As it happens, that one tiny slice of prose demonstrated that Ayn Rand wasn’t utopian at all; she was something much worse.
And all of this matters because we now have a candidate for the senate who is not only a follower of Rand, but named for her.
Here’s the chunk of writing my father asked me to read, from an introduction to an anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged.
Incidentally, a sideline observation: if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing: translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means, (that is, characters, events or situations used before for that same purpose, that same translation) – this is most of the popular trash; translating an old abstraction through new, original fiction means – this is most of the good literature; creating a new, original abstraction, and translating it through new, original means. This, as far as I know, is only me – my kind of fiction writing.
I read this a couple times – you sort of have to; it’s terrible – and then I attacked it. “Incidentally, a sidelong observation:” is redundant, I said. So is “creative fiction writing.” Rand’s “if/then” lacks a “then,” and there’s no opportunity to challenge the premise that fiction makes the abstract concrete. Most would argue the opposite, if they even agreed to think about it in these terms. Ditto the suggestion that a thesis can or should be abstract. Too, the punctuation of the passage is more than bad – it’s actually attempting to beguile the reader. Heavy, complex thinking requires complicated punctuation, Rand wants us to think, so the presence of complicated punctuation must indicate that the meaning here is heavy and complex. Actually, it’s not.
And that’s about as far as I got before my father and I wound up not in a screaming match, exactly – but something more like a hissing match. We hissed because the things we said were so vile no even we wanted to give them full voice.
“You used to be a writer,” my father hissed. “Now you’re just an elitist.”
But, wait – writers are often elitists, aren’t they? Wasn’t he wrong in suggesting that you sacrifice the first in becoming the second? And anyway, wasn’t Ayn Rand being at least a little elitist in claiming that her fiction is the only fiction that says new things in a new way?
More than her redundancies or punctuation, that’s the problem – because her elitism is not earned. She’s not, in fact, saying new things in a new way. Even my father knew this. He thought of her as utopian, which means she was operating within the boundaries of an established tradition. And he liked the book because he recognized the ideas in it – they weren’t new either. Atlas Shrugged is “known” ideas delivered in a “known” way. By Rand’s definition it’s “popular trash,” which pretty well describes the book’s publishing history.
And that’s what throws Ayn Rand into such a peculiar light today, when her philosophy is perhaps closer than it’s ever been to achieving actual power.
It’s fashionable at the moment to conflate Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement, and, now, Rand Paul. What’s not been discussed so far is the wide range of open religious sentiment apparent in all of these. Ayn Rand was a famous atheist. Glenn Beck is a curious and dangerous mélange of talking head and televangelist. And the Tea Party wants to regard the Constitution as sacred document.
There’s a reason they’re all in bed together.
In In Utopia I make the argument that extreme conservative utopias (everything from Theodore Hertzka’s Freeland to a range of twentieth century novels suggesting that the path to peace runs through holocaust) are not really utopias at all. Rather, they are reconciliations to an imperfect world. These “utopias” reject the idea that government or planning of any kind can make the world a better place. Much better is a policy of not planning, small government, the invisible arm of the market, social Darwinism as nature’s intent, and so forth. In short, no plan is a better plan.
Here’s why that’s not utopian: that’s how civilization started. When cities emerged, when people began to live in close quarters and form communities, no one had a plan for how they should proceed. The result was Athens, brimming with disease, filth, and crime. Utopian thought begins with Plato and Aristotle offering up improvements – visions of planned societies.
“It has justly been said,” Martin Buber wrote, “that in a positive sense every planning intellect is utopian.”
So why can’t planning for no plan also be a plan? Well, it sort of is – but it’s a plan that assumes chaos will produce a perfect order. Who emerges from the chaos? The elites. Whether it’s greed repackaged as laissez-faire or racism thinly disguised as exceptionalism, conservative “utopias” rationalize worlds where the better few get the most while the numerous many struggle with little. Anymore, who really believes this makes the world better?
These days, not-planning-as-plan isn’t even earnestly meant. Ayn Rand was recently the subject of a new biography, and what her life reveals is that she has a whole lot more in common with L. Ron Hubbard (her career as a screenwriter matches Hubbard’s as a sci-fi guy) than she does with Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or a host of earnest utopians who used an old literary genre to say some new things that did, in fact, make the world a better place.
It’s Hubbard that links Rand back to Beck and the Tea Party. They’re all fundamentalists of one kind or another, and they are the reason “utopia” is now largely synonymous with “scheme.” Like any false prophet, Rand must convince us that her message is new and true (when it’s old and false), and the fake sophistication of her language is as insidious as Glenn Beck’s alligator tears. These false utopians strive not to inspire action and progress, but to recruit followers. They found one in Ron Paul, and now we’re on to the second generation.
I’ll finish with the end of my own two-generation story.
After my father and I finished hissing at each other, my father, to his credit, agreed to read Islandia. I had to pester him by email a little, but he eventually ordered the book. A month passed before he wrote to say he’d loved it, every word, he ate it up – could I recommend more?
My heart swelled. This is what books – utopias or no – should do.
I’ve not heard back from my father since, but I have high hopes.
Back | 1. Note: Rand Paul himself has denied that he was formally named for Ayn Rand, so I’m taking some liberty here. He has claimed that he was named Randal at birth, went by Randy for much of his life, and his wife started calling him Rand. At the same time, he calls himself a “big fan” of Ayn Rand’s work, and admits that his father met the author. Rand Paul may not have been formally named for Rand, but his embrace of even a nickname amounts to an informal self-naming that is intended as homage – like a monk or a pope.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.