In 2018, the phenomenon of the magazine “agony aunt” might strike as an outdated relic. Within a climate where reactions and opinions to our most prosaic problems can be conjugated instantly via a parade of always-on messaging apps, “writing in” to a sagacious stranger to solicit thoughts seems quaint; a symptom of a more considered time where distance and perspective were esteemed above the restless tumult of the now.
Heather Havrilesky—the long-standing respondent of The Cut’s popular “Dear Polly” column—accounts for this moment of insatiable communication at the cost of actual connection in her third book, What if This Were Enough? She updates the columnist’s stock Q&A format with a collection of more roving, labile essays. Not quite venturing “advice” per se, but brimming with the author’s warmly diagnostic and incisive voice, the pieces crystallize as potent blends of cultural critique, memoir, and anecdote, which take a scalpel to the inured surface of modern American life.
Havrilesky’s second book, How to Be a Person in the World, which anthologized a selection of her column’s most insightful questions and responses, was conspicuously more sure-footed in tracing a path for how to navigate the strains of self-actualization. As its title signals, What if This Were Enough? is more hesitant and querulous in tone: less eager to lure readers, in this turbulent administration, with packaged certainties or digestible truths. At the same time, the book doesn’t shirk from the fact that in a late capitalist context, “There’s not much understanding in store for those who hesitate, change their minds, falter.” “Success” is found instead in strict, unwavering fidelity to a “chosen path”; or what the author laments as the dubious, anxiety-infected temples of your “best life” or “your truth.”
Always briskly observant, and often mordantly funny, the topics of these 19 chiseled pieces range from an excavation of the blunt hypocrisies of Disney World, “a carefully honed feat of interactive advertising”; to the “callow” premise of the Fifty Shades trilogy, “late capitalist fairy tales that double as sexual daydreams”; to a meditation on the fragile state of the modern girl, “a delicate glass vase, waiting to be broken.” An essay wryly titled “Delusion at the Gastropub” unapologetically eviscerates the polarized and class-segmented food culture in America, which reifies “rabbit larb and Japanese uni” at one end of the spectrum yet feeds the masses on “a wasteland of over processed, cheap and empty grub” at the other, making neurotic, conspicuous consumers of us all.
In addition to these flinty shards of cultural critique, autobiographical vignettes peer into Havrilesky’s family and marriage, which allow the author to expand her voice beyond her Polly avatar (“Playing House,” “Stuffed,” “True Romance”). More universal manifestos for women and their sense of worthiness and self-esteem more broadly also feature (“Bravado” effortlessly trumps the fatigued tropes of most Ted Talk scripts). Perhaps Havrilesky’s greatest strength of all, however, is her talent in distilling the specific grain of “the contemporary.” Much of the pleasure in reading her is derived from shivers of abrupt recognition: that Crossfit is kind of bullshit, actually; or that the dutiful quotidian imbibing of probiotics or “decaf coffee drinks” won’t “whisk away” the absence of an inner life (or what Joan Didion, in an essay in the volume Slouching Towards Bethlehem, famously defined as “self-respect”).
With a view toward interior integrity—what her first book called “all the magic inside of ourselves”—one of What if This Were Enough’s key messages is that in these over-stimulated times, we must carve out space to “step back” and observe what isn’t good for us, or to claim time for “quiet wandering” out of the exhausting frame of “events and sounds and messages that have nothing to do with where you are.” This is most successfully exhorted in an essay called “Lost Treasure,” which recounts an old childhood friend of the author’s mother taking frequent three-hour walks to amass “aimless junk,” which she would later fashion into crafted artifacts, proudly displayed in her eccentric home. Though spliced with Havrilesky’s typical irreverent admissions—“When I go on walks these days, I listen to podcasts and answer texts and make phone calls and listen to Kendrick Lamar”—the serene state that “Lost Treasure” ultimately ends up counseling feels a little too abstracted, idealistic. Disconnecting and “tuning in on what’s around you” depends on certain material bolsters and secure coordinates, i.e., a baseline sense of privilege.
The acknowledgment, in a later essay called “The Popularity Context,” of Havrilesky’s moderate and vaguely out-of-character Twitter addiction—that she likes to “look at her numbers” and attend to the “illusion of a waiting audience”—is therefore gratefully received. It is more in line with the book at large’s ode to “the miracle of the mundane” and the “off-kilter,” chaotic, often contradictory experience of being human. Obsessive shuttling toward being better, more “authentic,” or more abundant, Harvilesky warns, overwrites the stilling peace that can be found in straightforward acceptance: that one may indeed have spent an hour lost in a social media vortex, and, so long as such an act is generative as opposed to “numbing,” then that is, imperfectly, OK.
In a short story simply titled “How,” from her 1985 collection, Self Help, Lorrie Moore writes, of the quietly spreading malaise that typifies contemporary adult life, “It hits you more insistently. A restlessness. A virus of discontent.”
Today, that virus has spread so capaciously that to “go viral,” or to have your online life eclipse the imprint of your existence IRL is often held up as a way of being ultimately present, more connected and more alive. In What if This Were Enough? Havrilesky’s “answer” (for she retains some sketches of the columnist) to the problem of the now is the intentional “savoring” of the present (whether it be currently experienced online or in a forest, culling twigs) or the mantra that “This is exactly how it should be,” despite the pressures of the perfect, winningly on-brand people in our heads. It is glued together with the awkward bonds of everyday life, or with the rote “rhythms of survival”—attending children’s birthday parties, getting car checkups, watching reality TV—which hopefully encompass other people but sometimes don’t. The most visceral question, in the end, is whether we can sit down with ourselves amidst all the clutter. Yet instead of telling us to “streamline our message” or to excise everything in life that does not unilaterally “spark joy,” Havrilesky’s most resonant piece of advice is also her most simple: Let it all in.
With the news of Simon & Schuster’s conservative Threshold imprint acquiring — via $250,000 advance — a memoir by “that person” (whom I’m declining to name, or even describe, because why give him more free publicity?), the outcry was swift, accusing Simon & Schuster of cynically capitalizing on and rewarding hate speech and normalizing white supremacy.
I don’t disagree with those sentiments, but I didn’t jump into the fray because, quite honestly, I didn’t know how I felt. There are a lot of issues at play: hate, misogyny, capitalism (i.e., publishing as a business), coexisting with my reality as a writer fortunate enough to have a supportive publisher. And that publisher is Simon & Schuster.
I had an 800-page manuscript that I had taken 10 years to finish; literary fiction is never a clear moneymaker, long novels are problematic from, if anything, a production point of view (all that paper, all that ink, the increased shipping costs), and yet my editor took me on for a nice five, not six-figure, advance. Even better, she had also just taken on a prizewinning Korean American author whom I admired, whose first book had also come out with an independent press. My editing process at Beacon Press was fairly straightforward because the novel was ready to go. With the current novel, there are structural issues, and a team of editors have rolled up their sleeves, put the tome on a metaphorical lift, and gotten just as sweaty and dirty tinkering with its guts as I have. I’m relieved that, even as the years slide by, they talk only about getting the book right, rather than pushing out “product.” In short, I’m living a dream I’d had as a child banging out stories on my hand-me-down typewriter and selling them — to my parents.
Like many, I was horrified that a person who Twitter had deemed so odious/dangerous it banned him from the platform was being given another platform, a paid one, in short order.
Protest is often the only way to get a company’s attention. And it can have results. But it’s not always the results that were intended, or wanted. For instance, after the outcry over the “sadistic contents” of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, three months before the book’s publication, it was dropped by the publishing house….Simon & Schuster. CEO Richard Snyder explained, “It was an error of judgment to put our name on a book of such questionable taste.”
But the book was just as quickly picked up by esteemed editor Sonny Mehta and published by Random House’s prestigious Vintage imprint.
Irrespective of the nature and quality of these two books, it’s instructive to examine these unintended consequences. Books are indeed published by corporations, which need to sell to stay in business. But as much was we like to treat books as “widgets,” they aren’t interchangeable goods or services. Each one is written by an author or co-author.
In an overcrowded publishing market, bad attention can be just as valuable, perhaps more so, as good attention. The brouhaha over American Psycho certainly branded it into America’s cultural consciousness; the book is still robustly with us, it recently turned 25 and just appeared on Broadway as a musical (!), i.e., trying to kill it with bad publicity may have done exactly the opposite.
The second thing to consider is unintended collateral damage. Many people objected to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey, but it not only helped keep Random House (now Penguin Random House) in the black, it brought in so much revenue that every employee, from “top editors to warehouse workers,” received a $5,000 bonus.
So what’s the opposite of a rising tide?
When I heard the calls to boycott Simon & Schuster, that reviewers were going to refuse to review, authors were vowing not to blurb S&S authors’ books, a bookstore tweeted that it wasn’t even going to stock any S&S books, I felt a bit of a chill. I had no urge to write my editors, because they had zero to do with the decision to acquire that book. Publishing firms are “houses” with huge family trees, divided into specialized groups called imprints. While imprints are not wholly autonomous, they each have their own eco-systems. I write literary fiction and publish with the Simon & Schuster imprint. Simon & Schuster also has several other general interest imprints, specialized imprints, and several children’s book imprints, as well as Howard Books, which publishes for the Christian marketplace. Should its Folger Shakespeare Library imprint be penalized for an acquisition by Threshold Editions, a conservative writers’ imprint (that has also published Donald Trump and bona fide war criminal Dick Cheney — with no outcry)?
The calls to boycott are continuing after Simon & Schuster (the company) has stated it intends to go ahead and publish the book in question. So what, then, is the endgame?
Professor Matthew Garcia, who wrote From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement and who has studied boycotts for years told me that “The boycott of S&S will be tricky. It requires a campaign and a set of goals. First, is there an organization willing to put the time in to organize and pursue the campaign the way the United Farm Workers did?”
Good question. I personally feel that protecting healthcare, especially Medicaid and Medicare, is one of the most important things we need to do right now.
“Second, that organization needs to do what UFW did with grapes — identify what percentage of the product’s delivery to market they need to effect in order to have S&S respond,” Garcia said. “In the UFW case, they did not hit all sellers of grapes equally. They targeted the biggest sellers, and set as their goal to reduce sales by 10 percent in 10 of the top markets. They did that by knowing what amount would hurt their bottom line, and produce the biggest seller’s capitulation. I imagine the organization that pursues a boycott of S&S would have to identify the same profit margins for the company and what it would take to tip them in order to identify effective goals.”
Books, though, aren’t an undifferentiated product like grapes. There’s a lot of untethered anger that’s much more than about one guy, one book deal, one company. People are mad as hell (rightly so) about the rise of the so-called “alt-right” (a.k.a. white supremacists). But how do we try to harness this anger productively? Successfully boycotting S&S is not going achieve what many of us really want — which is to boycott 2016.
But if we’re going to try to get Simon & Schuster (and CBS, its parent company) to listen, what books should boycotters target to get to the United Farmworkers’ 10 percent threshold? Probably the big ones like…the Bruce Springsteen memoir. Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Maybe Shonda Rhimes’s bestselling memoir, Stephen King’s latest? How about Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything — cited as one of the “Seven Books You Need to Understand (and Fight) the Age of Trump“?
Even if such a boycott was successful in harming the bottom line of a publisher, how do we know in a capitalist society that the publisher wouldn’t then make up the difference by publishing even worse things or being less inclined to take risks? S&S started Salaam Reads, a imprint for Muslim-themed children’s books. Why not starve “that person’s book” financially and publicity-wise, and instead buy two books from Salaam Reads?
Bookstore owners and buyers, who are the most direct link in all of this, are starting to formulate statements and implementing plans. Kathy Crowley, co-owner of Belmont Books, a Boston-area store set to open this spring, is a writer herself, and she told me that she and her husband have decided “Belmont Books won’t sell this book.” She adds, “Though I do want S&S to feel the heat for this decision, boycotting all S&S authors seems neither fair nor likely to be effective. More likely, the boycott generates lots of publicity for the book, raises the hackles of the anti-PC, pro-[‘that person’], pro-Trump crowd, and, in the end, rewards S&S and [‘that person’].”
On the other coast, Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith, a 40-year-old institution, which is, she said “specifically located in the historic Haight Ashbury” section of San Francisco will skip over “that person’s” book (and anything from the Threshold Editions imprint), cut the number of S&S books, and, of the remainder, donate any profits from S&S books to the ACLU “for the foreseeable future.”
The extremity of what’s coming requires we actually lay out on the table what we stand for. If we stand for a free exchange of ideas, we have to support publishing. Can we instead reject this person’s ideas and collectively stop giving him a platform? If publishing is a business, can we vote with our dollars and our attention (cultural capital)? Store owners can decide whether to stock this title or not, reviewers can review or not. But a blanket boycott of any publisher’s books makes no sense. It’s burning down the house because you saw a spider.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan — “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” — nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find.
What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career.
Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive.
All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace.
This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections.
Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author — the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was — undeniably — inferior to my own work.
But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation — that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.”
Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time.
The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known — if not read — by everyone.)
But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think — and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday.
Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD (“K-Fucked”) is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true.
We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.
When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parks writes in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms — boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes.
In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them.”
In Life and Work, Parks writes about Beckett and 19 other writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Peter Stamm, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, and E.L. James (Parks examining Fifty Shades of Grey is great fun). Here and there in the collection, one occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called “writer’s life,” where writing is both an act of self-abnegation — with all of its consequent anxieties — as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism.
Parks tells us that after Beckett published the novel Molloy at the age of 45 — finally setting the stage for literary renown after years of “retyping…for rejection,” as Beckett put it — he had his then girlfriend (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil write to his publisher. She requested they do not enter Molloy for the prestigious Prix des Critiques, because the prizewinner would have to schmooze and make speeches, and “it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc. etc. And as (Beckett) feels wholly incapable of this sort of behavior, he prefers not to expose himself.” In light of Beckett’s self-diagnosis, it occurs to me that a man who doesn’t exist, a man who isn’t there, can’t be expected to sign books and sip burgundy with a bunch of boring editors and press types.
But this malady isn’t unique to Beckett and his Parisian, mid-century modernist milieu. Julian Barnes had a similar feeling. In his 2008 memoir/treatise on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes writes he has a “grown-up fear of just not existing.” Parks believes Barnes is unable to “find consolation for the eventual extinction of his personality… bereft of a reassuring metaphysics and given the findings of science, life this side of the grave is anyway irretrievably devalued, and individual personality doesn’t in fact exist.” For Barnes, it seems to be a rather simple conclusion: If there is no God, then there must be no “me” as well.
Parks suggests we can think of personality as something that emerges vis-à-vis “one’s negotiations with others,” and he notes this has always proved problematic for the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. In examining Coetzee’s autobiographic trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, Parks wonders what happens when you come-of-age in 1940s South Africa — at a time when tribal identification is everything — yet you don’t identify with any one community. In Boyhood the protagonist attends a new school where he must self-declare as Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. The boy is from an Afrikaner family, but they speak English instead of Afrikaans. He is born in a Christian milieu, but his parents are agnostic. Because his family is “nothing,” he randomly chooses Catholic, but this doesn’t work either, leading only to ostracization and disgrace. I wonder, if one is outside of all recognized models of community — as some writers are, or at least feel themselves to be — is it possible to know you really exist?
It’s unlikely that a gnawing sense of being unborn tops the neuroses of most writers these days, but I’d argue that Beckett’s Jungian insight is more commonly known today as anxiety. In the last century, writers largely handled it by drinking. Beckett’s mentor and friend in Paris, a certain genius named James Joyce, was so fond of the drink he had to forbid himself from starting before six o’ clock—but when dark came, he was as game as Hunter S. Thompson.
I think the daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories — precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget — serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety. Parks mentions that Barnes and Simenon also suffered from panic attacks. Without doing any real research, I can add the names David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck. These are all prose writers, of course. If we begin to add the names of the poets, the list gets real long, real fast.
In his essay on Peter Matthiessen, Parks describes a scene in the novel In Paradise, where “pilgrims” are meditating at Auschwitz in a kind of retreat/holocaust remembrance ritual. Parks writes, “The practice of meditation has the effect of breaking down the ego; in hours of silence, the mind intensely focused on breath and body in the present moment, there is no place for the narrative chatter that feeds the constant construction of the self.” In some ways this is not a bad description of the idealized writing state. I think it would certainly fit a kind of Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Zen-inspired, Esalen Institute vision of creative writing. But whereas Zen meditation is about an empty mind, writing fiction requires a full page, and that means cultivating lots of narrative chatter, ultimately pulling you back into yourself.
But just as writing may induce multifarious forms of anxiety, the right words are also a middle finger to the dying of the light. The God of the Old Testament announced himself to Moses with the startling declaration, “I am who I am.” And writing, at its best, is like that: a declaration of existence, an expression of self-hood and — when we’re not shaking with fear as Moses did — a reminder that heaven is not as far from us as it often seems.
Comrade is a loaded word. Tongzhi, literally “same aspiration,” was the appropriate term of address for an entire generation of Chinese, from influential Party officials and generals to ordinary mothers, street-sweepers, and butchers. Its usage signified membership in a shared, Communist dream of equality and progress. Sometime in the late-’80s, tongzhi took on a secondary meaning for a less public community. It began to mean “gay.”
Unlike many linguistic changes, this shift was deliberate. The new connotation was proposed by Edward Lam, one of the artist-activists who organized the first Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1989. In borrowing and reshaping tongzhi, with its suggestion of unity and shared purpose, they hoped to bring gay Chinese people out of the shadows and into the broader community. That same year, the Tiananmen protests began. Then the Berlin Wall collapsed. Tongzhi took off, but the broader community it once symbolized had fallen apart. You have to wonder if activists had begun to feel uneasy about the term by 1990, and the promises it seemed to make.
Among mainland China’s earliest, best known, and most influential contemporary gay novels, Beijing Comrades (originally called Beijing Story) is also China’s first known e-novel. Its pseudonymous author (here called Bei Tong, nothing more than a contraction of the book’s title, Beijing Tongzhi) published the narrative in segments incorporating the suggestions of online readers; the first installment went live in November of 1998, nearly a decade after Tiananmen. The result was a classic of queer consciousness-raising erotica.
It was also the beginning of a vogue. As the ’90s drew to a close, Internet literature — novels, stories, articles, and essays produced online — took off. While fan fiction and other forms of Internet literature (wangluo wenhua) enjoy popularity around the world, nothing compares to Chinese readers’ passion for the form at its height. By 2012, there were more Chinese reading online literature than doing online shopping.
The popularity of Internet literature was ostensibly driven by the threat of official print censorship. More likely it was the result of expanded Web access for a wide variety of readers and writers, communicating readily, quickly, and cheaply. Users’ efforts to create a peer-to-peer network were not so different from the motives of late-’80s gay activists working to establish a community of equals. As one early Internet writer noted, “The real significance of Internet literature is that it gives literature back to the people.”
Like the Gospels, a cultural touchstone of a different stripe, Beijing Story exists in several radically different versions. Despite its outsize popular influence — Beijing Comrades was also made into a 2001 movie by Stanley Kwan — the book has never been officially published in mainland China, or rendered into English. This translation is based on an expanded version prepared by Bei Tong in hopes of a state-sanctioned (guanfang) publication, although the state’s blessing — necessary for mainland publication — was ultimately withheld.
And like the Gospels, Beijing Comrades has its own apocrypha. “There are those who believe that she is a tongqi,” translator Scott E. Myers writes of the author, “a heterosexual woman with the misfortune of unknowingly marrying a gay man. Others suggest that he is novelist and essayist Wang Xiaobo” — despite the fact that Wang Xiaobo was dead when the novel was written in 1998.
There is also this particularly tantalizing explanation: Bei Tong, author of that enduring vision of gay male affection, may be a straight Chinese woman living overseas. (At minimum, a Chinese someone living overseas; Myers remains somewhat ecumenical.) Bored and aimless as a New York expat, Bei Tong has explained, “I immersed myself in the world of the Internet: playing chess, chatting online, surfing porn sites. When I read all the pornographic stories that were out there, my first thought was: F—! What the hell is this? I knew I could write something better.”
And then she did.
Our lovers don’t meet cute — they meet dismissive. Handong, the narrator, is a self-confessed “brat” making his vague fortune in business. Lan Yu, a Xinjiang kid working his way through college, is at first unimpressive: boyish, underdeveloped, with uncertain Mandarin and a “faint anxiety in his eyes.” “Don’t your parents give you money for school?” Handong asks during one of their first exchanges. The irony of the book’s title, at least in this translation, is soon apparent. Our titular lovers are not comrades at all, with the equality of income, status, and purpose that the term implies. Lan Yu asks for a job, and Handong thinks something could be arranged. In the morning, he leaves Lan Yu 1,000 yuan and a note to forget about working and focus on his studies. Lan Yu takes only half, and as a loan. He intends to make good.
Although the novel, in its earliest iteration, was written at the turn of the century, it is intended as a decade-sweeping period piece, beginning in the mercurial 1980s. Handong rhapsodizes on
the many distractions ushered in by the so-called age of reform, the era of primitive accumulation that had promised to transform China from an impoverished nation into a powerful one…In principle even those without powerful family backgrounds could jockey for successes never before thought possible. All you needed was some guts and determination and entry into the get-rich-quick class was yours for the taking.
The plot of Beijing Comrades is, in part, the story of Lan Yu’s self-making under Handong’s watchful eye. Lan Yu works a string of more or less menial jobs that span the range of his worlds: as a tutor, as a construction worker pulling 12-hour shifts in the summer, much to Handong’s amusement. “‘Five-hundred yuan a month!’ I repeated with a derisive laugh. ‘A motel hooker’s asking price is four times that!…Besides, what the hell kind of job is that?’”) Handong offers him instead a series of easy luxuries and interest-free loans, which Lan Yu virtuously resists.
Erotic fiction is a careful trick to manage: detailed enough to feel fresh and compelling, spare enough to feel — in the reader’s hands — participatory. The characters themselves, particularly Lan Yu, have the blank, Mad Libs quality of much romantic fiction. “He had the clean, soapy smell typical of young men,” Handong considers. “When I looked at his face, I saw not just a handsome young man, but the breathtaking power of youth.” In his afterword, Petrus Liu refers to Lan Yu, perhaps charitably, as a “role model of nonidentity.” Still, this too is the tactic of much romantic fiction, at least since Pamela and Pygmalion: as the audience imagines its personal Lan Yu, Handong shapes one in his own image. Handong’s “nefarious agenda,” as he playfully admits, is “to make [Lan Yu] shake off the cultural and intellectual arrogance of the new world and learn to enjoy the material pleasures of the new one.”
As Lan Yu holds firm, Handong begins to wonder “which emotion was stronger, my affection or my resentment.” Affection wins out, as it must. For Handong, Beijing Comrades is a story of slowly softening and falling in love. Although he initially sees his time with Lan Yu as no more than a sexy hobby — “like horse-racing,” as he explains to his distraught mother — he eventually wises up and sees the error of his ways. He swears devotion, just in time for the Year of the Snake.
As a tribute to the ’80s, the novel is sweetly nostalgic. The Teresa Teng cassette sitting on a dresser will bring back memories for Chinese of a certain age, as will chunky Big Boss cell phones and the ideological preciousness of characters’ names — Handong (defend Mao), Aidong (love Mao), and Jingdong (revere Mao) make for formidable siblings. There are references to West Berlin, and the capital’s beautiful blue skies in the summer, when “[f]or three solid months, there wasn’t a bicycle lot in Beijing that wasn’t jam packed.” By the end, as the millennium approaches, our heroes are stepping out of their “burgundy Cole Haans” and slipping into the boudoir.
“The intensity of two men making love can never be matched by straight sex,” Handong proclaims, and Bei Tong makes you believe it. The book falls significantly higher on the erotica spectrum than Fifty Shades of Gray. The lovers’ sexual adventures are compellingly rendered by Myers, who, by marvelous coincidence, was working at a gay bar in Beijing even as Bei Tong was writing her novel in New York. Like the love affair, his translation begins a little stiltedly, but becomes increasingly assured. Slang is a barrier never fully crossed, but Myers makes capable work of “the local vernacular, which was so legendarily vulgar it had its own title: Beijing Bitching.” It’s a plausible summary of the book, from Lan Yu’s perspective.
Once firmly united, the lovers’ romance is strikingly sweet and normative. “He smiled and pushed his nose against mine as if he were a bear rolling its cub…‘I don’t have to come,’ I whispered into his ear. ‘I just want to hold you.’” The novel finds new tension in an implausible series of disasters: tonsillitis, coma, cerebral hemorrhage; suicidal parent, wicked stepmother; seedy prostitutes, sexual assault; criminal investigations, stints in prison; reversals of fortune, sad parting after sad parting after sad parting. Tiananmen features as a plot point, but only as a winsome threat to poor Lan Yu. Ditto the cringe-worthy red herrings about AIDS. (“If you meet someone new,” Handong warns, “you have to be careful. I don’t want to hear through the grapevine that you’ve caught some kind of disease!”)
For all its sad, socially conscious pillow-talk (“Do you think gay people can have everlasting love?” Handong asks), it would be a mistake to view Beijing Comrades as an accurate chronicle of the Deng Xiaoping era, or as a representative document of gay Chinese romance. The novel is, ultimately, the stylized erotic fantasy of a (straight? female?) expat, with considerable help from online readers, produced 20 years after the fact.
But despite the author’s likely inexperience, Beijing Comrades is filled with confident, jaded insider tips — how to treat virgins, what types of women to avoid. Handong speaks with same assurance on these topics as he does on Deng Xiaoping’s China. “There’s no doubt about it,” he declares, “it’s a hell of a lot easier to seduce a man than a woman.” When it comes to women, the novel’s tone is consistently snide. Characters, plagued by needy girlfriends and manipulative spendthrift wives, complain of “the typical flat ass of most Asian girls” and their friends’ “shrill, housewife bitching.” “When a woman has sex with you,” Handong explains, “it’s because of something you have… or because they want to find someone who will let them be a parasite forever.” When Lan Yu feels jealous, Handong orders him to “Stop acting like a woman. Every little thing makes you so damn suspicious.”
It’s a curious structural misogyny, perhaps the result of a misunderstanding on the author’s part, a belief that men love men because they hate women. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the difference between disdain for a conventional mainstream life and hatred for women, who never come off well. Nor do foreigners, for that matter — neither the “damn Japanese” nor the Western “imperialist aggressors.” The solution is a gay socialist utopia built for two.
In one of the novel’s happiest moments, Handong and Lan Yu driving through the hills, goofily singing the March of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army: “’The hope of our people is on our backs, an invincible power are we!… March on! Our troops march toward the sun! To the victory of the revolution, and the entire nation’s liberation!’ We fell into peals of laughter. Never had a song felt so good.”
The cultural order may have fallen with Mao Zedong, but Bei Tong finds that lost feeling of political and social cohesion in an ideal same-sex relationship, placing all the charged meaning of tongzhi, in its traditional sense, in a gay couple. Created on a website, crowd-sourced in serial, Beijing Comrades is the people’s public fantasy of intimacy. Handong wonders “whether two ‘comrades’ could be lifelong partners, loving one another and taking care of each other til the end.” Beijing Comrades is one generation’s best effort.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss characters from literature they’d like to see join the already hilariously crowded Republican 2016 presidential primary. Why stop at 17? Come on! We’re just getting warmed up, y’all!
Discussed in this episode: Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, Gregory Peck, Christian Grey, Grey by E.L. James, Edmund Pevensie, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Rep. Greg Stillson (I-N.H.), The Dead Zone by Stephen King, air pollution, Donald Trump (R-N.Y.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the Frank Bascombe books by Richard Ford, Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, pugs.
Not discussed in this episode: 15 of the 17 Republican candidates actually running for president, including Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.), Rep. John Whiteman (R-Ohio), Sen. Robert “Bobby” Dollar (R-Wash.), and that one governor who yells at people all the time (R-Ohio).
The life of a writer is hard, because money.
There comes a time, usually after you’ve gone four days eating nothing but ramen noodles (and you’ve contemplated selling all of your valuables and subsequently realized that you have none), when you have to literally sober up and assess the facts. With a stack of unpublished short stories and the wreckage of three or four novels somewhere inside my laptop, with a day job as a cook, I was tired of the whole show. Writing, rejection, writing, rejection. Exhaustion, hard drinking, further exhaustion, rejection, the hardest drinking.
How, having worked my entire life writing fiction no one reads, can I make any money with this skill? This one skill I’ve troubled to cultivate? This one skill that I love? This art?
A few weeks ago I turned, pointed by a friend, to the world of Kindle romance/erotica where, I was assured, there was money to be made. Seventy percent of profits from each story sold would be mine, and the price for a single story was set generally at $2.99. This friend who recommended me explained that she made an extra $500 to $700 a month, and others made much more. Some lucky people you’ve heard of have even made millions. Signing up was free and all Amazon required was a little tax information. Following that, all I had to do was be willing to remorselessly pump out paranormal pornography like nobody’s business. Could I accept this challenge?
I read Dostoevsky for pleasure, I read Juvenal, I read Big Billy Shakes: of course, I thought, of course I can write shape-shifter erotica, and I can do it goddamn exceptionally.
I began this life-changing journey with an attempt to define the word erotica, because I’d never read or written anything with that explicit label before. How in depth are we talking? How specific does this genre get? Erotica had always reminded me of the word “pornography” dressed up for a night at the opera. (Though I don’t really mind the word pornography either: the next time you see a porn video, picture James Joyce’s ghost hovering in the background moaning sensually.) I thought I knew what I was dealing with, having heard a lot about 50 Shades of Gray and dinosaur erotica and all that from the zeitgeist and other grotesque corners of the Internet. I thought that erotica could be as explicit as regular pornography, but it also required a more delicate, emotional touch. This turned out not to be true. After doing some important, serious research, I found out that actually erotica could be just regular old smut, and so I was free to ignore romance and focus instead on the repeated use of the phrase “hard as iron” and descriptions of how hot peoples’ breath was.
I first had to choose my hook, my concept. Perusing the available archives on Amazon’s Kindle section, I quickly learned that there were thousands of erotic short stories available written by willing, easily excited amateurs like myself, and I would have to distinguish my work if I wanted any of that sweet, sexy cash. A lot of the stories had a hook, usually involving paranormal creatures, or just regular creatures, creatures that shape-shift into human form and then have amazing sex with other people (that transformation is very important: apparently overt bestiality, or rape, are banned from Kindle short stories, so, you know, there’s a line drawn somewhere). These shape-shifter sex creatures could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales. Moby-Dick joke. Because I had to put in my due diligence, I decided I’d have to read and research some of these stories, to help settle on a concept and structure for my own sex-melee. I ended up investing $2.99 in a shorty story by Olivia J. Rose titled “Dominated by the Dolphins” (I almost couldn’t decide between this one and “Humped by the Humpback“). I read the whole thing and I can honestly tell you that I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. I’ve definitely never read anything like it. But the main takeaway was: who the hell am I to judge if someone wants to get their rocks off, and nobody’s getting hurt? That’s not such a bad thing. You go for it, Olivia Rose. Not every book needs to be Heart of Darkness, and if you’re story is a BBW shape-shifter erotica called “Dominated by the Dolphins,” I’ll have to insist that it has nothing to do whatsoever with King Leopold’s Congo.
Deciding my hook was by far the worst part. I couldn’t decide. Every nook and cranny of paranormal genre junk was already occupied with hundreds of stories filled with passionate creature-based sex: goblins, werewolves, phantoms, steampunk vampires — I wanted to choose a relatively untapped market, but that wound up being impossible. There are no viable untapped markets in Kindle erotica, pretty much like in regular internet porn except in regular internet porn there are no unviable markets. I basically just settled on a bunch of different genre ideas that I then gracelessly mashed together into the uninviting stew that became my first ever explicitly erotic short story. It involved ghosts, it involved dragons, and it involved a secret underground sex club. I wrote it kind of in a trance, but whatever, it doesn’t matter: sometimes you’ve just got to try all available options to pay your rent, and sometimes that entails making compromises.
Tip to win readers over: describe your erotic short story as an uninviting stew.
Before I began writing, though, I knew I had to settle on a pen name. It’s not that I wasn’t inordinately proud of the fact that I was willing to write erotica for hot, iron-hard cash, but I wasn’t exactly interested in advertising it with the name I’d carry for the rest of my life. So I decided to use a pen name, and it would have to be appropriately romantic, because people buy erotic short stories from writers with names like Michelle Cox and Sheena O’Mara, but they definitely don’t buy erotica from writers with names like any male name. There’s a difference between a female and a male writer of erotica, and that difference is porn. So, once again stymied by the brute realities of capitalism, I asked another friend if he had any ideas for a suitable pen name for an author of romantic/erotic fiction. He suggested several: Horatio Mancleever and Orpheus Baccarat being the only I guess printable ones. I tried to ease him into more feminine territory. I can’t tell you what name we eventually settled on, because I don’t want to give away my true identity to my loyal readers, but I will tell you it was a female name and it was slightly less ostentatious than Orpheus Baccarat. A foolproof plot, a totally viable scheme. An extra $500 a month! I was ready. (Meanwhile, it had been almost a year since McSweeney’s received my novella and I’d heard nothing, and the clerk at the corner liquor store now greeted me by name).
The actual writing process was semi-described above. Mainly a fruitless thrusting of words onto the page, a relentlessly sweaty, uncomfortable affair, I wanted to get the whole dumb thing finished as soon as possible. I knew, setting out, that there were a few phrases I definitely wanted to use (“sweltering heat of his animal eyes,” “sturdy as a buffalo,” “a ruined hellscape of exquisite sadness,” etc.) but before writing I had almost nothing in the way of hard beginning-middle-end type stuff. And as soon as I did begin writing the thing, the goddamn thing, I realized that a life spent reading postmodernists and 19th-century Russians had somehow not in the slightest prepared me for the work of generic, workmanlike eroticism. Sure, Gravity’s Rainbow is chock full of weird sex, but to match the right tone, the tone solely focused on sexy time and not acts of eternal recurrence or V-2 mechanics (which needless to say rarely ever come up while I’m, uh…performing sexual functions…I don’t know what language I’m allowed to get away with here) I needed to devolve a little bit, let the writing hang out, forget about descriptions of candlelight or monologues about metaphysics, and instead head straight into the dark heart of bodily fluids and hot breath.
I asked an ex-girlfriend what kind of erotica she’d read if she read erotica and she was confused by the entire scheme, declined eventually to answer. I was on my own, so after an aggressive caffeine binge and a few days spent trying to imagine what this whole thing could possibly mean for my life I bashed out a rough draft of dirty, filthy smut. A couple embarrassing revisions later, and I was done. It was exhausting, but it was also liberating, and not even in a sexual way: if poverty’s a fact, I’m going to game the system any way I can, especially if it’s harmless and entails giving pleasure to other people — in fact, although it was never the kind of pleasure I ever imagined my writing would give people, I felt absolutely terrific, in the end, that I was maybe giving them any kind at all. Weirdly enough a second ambition had twined itself, in stunted form, to the central one of cash: I want to help some people. I want to help some people get off.
Is that how pornographers feel? Am I a pornographer? “Who cares?” as J. Joyce would say. If nobody’s getting hurt I’ll write whatever smut’s required of me when the bills need to get paid.
The last step was designing a cover, by which point I was too exhausted to care. Also, stock photos and photoshop are expensive, so I slapped together a piece of generic art provided by Amazon’s design program. Then I threw the thing up there and tried to forget about it, tried instead to dream about piles of weird voluptuous money, wheelbarrows full of it, and people across the country having a grand old time reading what I’d written.
Somehow, everything went terribly wrong.
In terms of monetary gains, I initially checked my Amazon reports every few days, but had to stop after a while. It was just too depressing. By the end of its first month online, my heartbreaking little story had managed to rope in a grand total of three readers. Which, to be fair, is more readers than I’ve ever had for any other piece of fiction I’ve written in my life. Unfortunately or fortunately, they left no reviews. The only mark to know they’d been there at all was the goddamn blue uptick on the Amazon sales graph. (Blue means that the reader is someone with a Kindle Unlimited account, so they can read your story for free, i.e. no royalties.) It came to me that I might have underestimated the fact that the market is so glutted with stories written by half-assed people like me, nobody’s going to plunk down three bucks for the opportunity to even laugh at it. There was too much. I was one more drop of irrelevant smut in an Atlantic of erotica. I’d thought that just publishing this thing with minimal effort would somehow grant me at least hundreds of paying readers, but now, somewhat removed from the fever that afflicted me while I wrote it, that seems literally insane. What kind of lunatic thinks he’s going to make hundreds or thousands of dollars by self-publishing a 20-page story about a dragon sex club? But when you’re desperate for cash, it’s simpler to believe almost anything. How could I not want to hold onto that? It’s practically un-American to not believe that you can get rich quick with minimal effort and erotic know-how.
My dreams faded. I got up and went to work again, every day. Every day there were no readers, there was no excess money coming in. I worked and went home and worried about rent, groceries, like I’d always done. In the immortal words of Henry Hill, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”
That was basically the end of it.
Throughout this great experiment, I’ve realized a few things. Most importantly I know now, despite Dostoevsky and friends, that I don’t have any of the ambition necessary to become a successful erotic writer. It would require me to continually write and publish a bunch of stuff that at the end of the day I find so boring, I’d prefer getting paid to correct automotive textbooks. I don’t have the drive to just pump this stuff out, build a fanbase, because it doesn’t in the slightest matter to me. That’s, I guess, the difference between the hundreds of pages of fiction I’ve written, for no monetary compensation whatsoever, and the 20-page erotic story which totally exhausted me. Even right now the idea of sitting down and churning out another of these things makes me want to take a nap. Once the story was actually finished, and there was no money to be made, all ambition tied to it evaporated, and now I’m left pretty much where I began. Ruthlessly lazy, without much money, and stuck for the foreseeable future at an annoying day job. Like pretty much every other writer in the world, I imagine. Maybe there are no get-rich quick schemes, if you’re not passionate about what you’re writing. And if you’re writing erotica, you’ve got to be passionate, you’ve got to be sturdy as a buffalo.
But just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean the option isn’t out there for others. Other poor, unlucky writers with superhuman ambition: I’m talking to you. Even if I made no money off this whole charade, what can you do with it, you heroic pornographers? Why not give it a go? Lord knows the world could use more smut. But don’t think of it as smut, think of it as sexual healing. After all, who doesn’t need some excess cash? And who doesn’t need to get off? We’re writers, goddammit, but we’re still human beings. Wants and needs abound everywhere, you can’t avoid them. The hardest drinking one day gives way, hopefully, to opportunity, and maybe you can make some people happy. At the very least they might see the title of your story in the Kindle store, your ridiculous, strange little story, and they might laugh before moving on — and that’s good enough, hell. You’re published. You’re the real deal.
Ain’t nothing wrong with getting off.
Image Credit: Flickr/Fadil Elmansour
Leave it to Roxane Gay to come up with a novel format for an essay on the feminist novel. In the new issue of Dissent, she presents eleven theses on the topic, including references to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Sample quote: “Not every novel that concerns itself with the lives of women is a feminist novel. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a feminist novel.” You could also read our own Edan Lepucki on the problem with feminist anthems.
What happens when you grow up reading Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey? At The Morning News, five women discuss what it meant to come of age reading these books. “It’s more socially acceptable for a guy to watch porn than it is for a twentysomething woman to read these books. There is something that bothers me about that,” one women said.
“Shouldn’t we all feel a little embarrassed about the fuss we made over 50 Shades of Grey?” Jessa Crispin writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books about E.L. James’ trilogy and some of the longer responses, including Hard-Core Romance, which we briefly covered a few months ago.
In her new book, Hard-Core Romance, Eva Illouz has published the first serious, book-length academic analysis of the Fifty Shades of Grey. The critically-panned Fifty Shades trilogy, originally a Twilight fan fiction, has sold 32 million copies in the US so far. At The New Republic, William Giraldi seizes the opportunity for a brutal send-up of author E. L. James and the “dreck” she represents. “At least people are reading,” he writes, “You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating.” Pair with The Millions’ essay on literary predecessors in published fan fiction.
why I am enjoying being so invested in this show
because I wouldn’t say it’s making me happy, per se
-my friend L, from a gchat during the 11 days that Sherlock was back on the air
[Don’t worry: there are no concrete spoilers for any of Sherlock series 3 here.]
Last week I published a piece here about the history of Sherlock Holmes, and about how it’s contextualized by the new series of Sherlock — or maybe it’s the other way around. I went through a number of books and scholarly articles and revisited the original stories and put together a measured argument. I had the good fortune to be able to attend the premiere at the British Film Institute with other journalists in December, and I watched all three episodes over the past few weeks with a critical eye, studying the reactions of the British press as each of them was aired. I discussed the essay with writers and editors, working to maintain a cool, judicious distance from the source material. I put together a long, (hopefully!) thoughtful piece that I was proud of, and one that I hoped did Sherlock, and Sherlock Holmes more broadly, some justice.
This, then, is the B-side. “Diary of a Crazed Fangirl.” That’s reductive, though, and perhaps even a bit sexist. “Diary of a Reasonably Intelligent Adult Woman Driven Slightly Insane by a Television Show She’s Grown Attached To.” Maybe I should just lift the best line from my friend L’s inadvertent chat-poem, and call it, “Sherlock: I Wouldn’t Say It’s Making Me Happy, Per Se.”
This is the story of one person in one fandom, but it’s likely got hints of your story, too, if you’ve ever been involved in this sort of thing. I’d hope that it resonates if you’ve ever really loved something that you haven’t created — the I’d-kill-for-you kind of love of a work of art that inspires others to say things like, “Whoa, whoa, slow down, it’s just a book.” I’ve written about fandom, specifically fanfiction, here before — twice, actually. First, to try to debunk the general “anthropologists discover a wild tribe of porn enthusiasts on the Internet” tone that accompanied approximately 90 percent of the Fifty Shades of Grey coverage that mentioned the series’ origin. Second, to try to debunk the idea that Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s commercially-licensed fanfic project, was anything that literally anyone in fan communities actually wanted.
I actively joined the Sherlock fandom only a year ago — and when I say actively, I mean I officially left my previous fandom (it was dying, quickly — the show was over and the smartest voices were moving on — and besides, I only have space for one fandom at a time in my brain and/or heart) and embraced the show full-on, allowing it to colonize my tumblr dash and AO3 bookmarks page and a fair portion of my idle thoughts. In the beginning, it can be a bit like a new relationship — you hope to find a way to slip it into conversation with your friends, and then realize too late that you are bringing it up way too often. (This happens, too, when I work on original fiction; stories are stories, and if the characters get you, you’re done.) I have been joining the fandoms of various books and television shows since the ’90s. I know how this works. And I knew the exact moment I was stepping into something dangerous with this one, because falling for a show with three episodes every two years does terrible things to your mind.
There’s a special kind of desperation that unifies hardcore Sherlock fans, and you can see it in the speed at which memes turn silly — there are only so many times you can go over every scene of a six-episode run with even the finest-toothed comb. You talk yourself in circles; you build wild headcanons based on slivers of hints from the writers — two men who’ve stated outright that they often lie to throw people off the scent. This is all part of the fun — the miserable, miserable fun. The cast and crew appear to be hyper-aware of the obsessive interest — and that’s unsurprising, because after all, Sherlock is helmed by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, a pair of men so obsessed with both the stories and the long century of paper and screen adaptations that their Sherlock Holmes fanfic is the show itself. The BBC capitalize on the “event” culture, in Moffat’s words, that’s grown around the show — there was a wild morning in November when fans were, at the bequest of the show’s creators, scouring the streets of London for…something. (In the end, it was a hearse, an ‘empty hearse,’ with the air date of the premiere spelled out in flowers, driven past key locations from the show. I stopped by one of the waiting points, the North Gower Street stand-in building for 221B Baker Street, on my way to UCL. When I had to leave after 15 minutes, I felt a strange sense that I was betraying something.)
By some stroke of miraculous luck, my professional life and my fan life physically intersected in the final weeks of the year. I managed to get a press invitation to the premiere, and had a mild heart attack as I was checking in and saw Stephen Moffat’s curly head gliding past a long queue of deerstalker hats — fans who’d been waiting for return tickets, some of them, it was rumored, since the night before. At the pre-screening reception, I made a friend, a financial journalist about my age. “I really love this show,” she told me. I nodded vigorously. “But I would never wait all night to get a ticket!” she went on. My vigorous nodding slowed to a gentle bob. Would I? I’d considered it. But I had taken an easier option because that privilege was available to me.
I looked around the room and puzzled at this collection of people. We were journalists; we were fans; perhaps we were that kind of fan, but we weren’t announcing it. This complicated dynamic would carry over into the post-screening Q&A, where Caitlin Moran (whom I generally love, incidentally), engaged in a classic Moran-style fuck-up, forcing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read a passage from a John/Sherlock fanfic. It wasn’t particularly explicit but it was romantic and sexual, to be certain, and it was abundantly clear that neither the actors nor anyone in the audience — including those of us who read this stuff in our spare time — wanted this read aloud onstage. She apologized profusely, but the incident set the tone for the strange interplay that would mark the weeks that followed, between the show’s makers and its fans, from casual to hardcore, and the critics observing and trying to explain what they didn’t fully understand.
The three episodes aired over the span of 11 days here in the U.K., each of them pulling in about a third of the British viewing public and millions more abroad, through legal means or otherwise. Moffat wanted an “event,” and he got it, three times over. It felt like every British person on my Twitter feed had a 140-character review. Public opinion appeared to sway wildly from week to week, and newspapers seemed to be hunting for controversy, publishing positive reviews and then countering them with takedown pieces, highlighting the most polarizing voices and muting more nuanced views. They do that with everything these days, you say. They’re just looking for clicks. Yes: we are in agreement! But there is something to be said for placing so much anticipatory weight on a television show: nothing can be all things to all people, and Sherlock felt smothered by the weight of nine million expectations. Tons of people loved it, and were put off by negative criticism; tons of others threw up their hands and said, “This is not what I signed up for. This is not my show.” Others still urged people to calm down: it’s just a TV show after all. But to say this diminishes the importance of storytelling in our lives, in whatever mode. It’s hard not to get invested in stories, and in characters, that we love. That’s what people do.
As a critic and as a person who wants to see this show continue to be made, I felt I had a vested interest in the critical and public reactions, respectively. But at my core, I am a fangirl. I read and write fanfiction (never published; I hate WIPs), and I obsess. I’ve always obsessed. A lot of fan activity these days happens on Tumblr, and the Sherlock community there fractured around divided opinions, too — though they somehow never managed to align with those of the rest of the world. We all want different things from the things we love; we’re all inevitably disappointed in some way. Mixed reactions in fan communities are par for the course — transmedia scholar Henry Jenkins pinpointed something key when he wrote that “fan fiction emerges from a balance between fascination and frustration.” One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Sherlock’s writers this time around was an accusation of “fan service” — that the fourth wall was being pecked away at, sometimes outright shattered, and elements were added with a knowing eye focused on fans, particularly the “vocal” group that the show has attracted. Within the fandom, some fans agreed and took this accusation to heart, while others felt they weren’t being serviced enough, or at all. Emotions ran high, and vitriol sprung up; I spent 11 days feeling far more tense than I should have. I took long walks along the Thames, and even went to church a few times to clear my head.
(It’s worth noting here that a lot of fan communities are most vocally female, and I don’t think that the Sherlock fan community is any exception. It felt like there was a special criticism being leveled at female fans of Sherlock, “silly fangirls,” that sort of thing, dismissed as a group of people who like watching Benedict Cumberbatch ruffle his hair (c’mon guys, this is clearly all humans, ever) or people who welcomed the fair amount of screen time being devoted to character development in these three episodes. Somehow these were female desires being imposed, despite the three men writing the scripts. There’s an analogy in here to modern fiction, in men refusing to read books marked as feminine in some way, that sort of thing, but I can hold onto that one for another day.)
I’ve always been a lurker — eager to consume fan works and conversations but hesitant to join in. This time around, I was joined by two fellow lurkers, “R” and “L,” friends from college who love the show but have mostly kept their spiraling meta-analyses inside their heads. We let it all out, the kind of avalanche of analysis and reaction a lot of us have after reading a book or seeing a movie with friends, but for days on end. We had a lot to say: thousands of words across nearly a hundred emails. We all process stories by talking them through, trying to balance rationality with emotional response. We scrutinize; we flail and squee. And in our little group of three, we split. R, the one who’s been with the show the longest, wavered, hating most of the first two episodes but finding more to like about the third. In the end, she walked away wholly disheartened with the show. “There were absolutely lots of great scenes in this series but to me they don’t fit together,” she wrote in one of her final emails. “And though I’m inclined to try and rationalize I don’t know if there’s a point because the heart of it is that I just don’t trust the showrunners anymore.”
L and I wound up on mostly the same page: largely happy with the show but fairly unhappy with all the dissatisfaction and the unending dissections. The normal pains of absorbing new material were amplified by the speed at which the series aired, and the length of the episodes themselves. It was tiring: I wrote, on the eve of the finale, “Oh God I just want tomorrow to be over so I can stop having a mild heart attack and we can get back to fanfiction.” I was looking for someone to make sense of it all, and had the good fortune to come across Anne Jamison shortly after the first episode aired, via some very smart women who write some very smart fanfiction, and, I learned and shouldn’t have been at all surprised to see, some very smart critiques (aka meta) of the show.
Jamison is an academic who participates in the Sherlock fandom, amongst others; her latest book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World came out late last year. I got my hands a copy and promptly devoured it. It should be noted that, post-Christmas 2013, this is the first book I’ve actually fully read in electronic form; is it that experience, or something in way it is written and pieced together (guest contributions interwoven with a strong, linear narrative from Jamison herself) that makes it feel very new? I’m liable to say it’s the latter — she writes in the introduction: “The desire to host this conversation leaves Fic somewhere between monograph and edited collection. It might help to think of it as a tour through a curated exhibit that I’ve arranged and guided and shaped.” It’s also likely that the subject matter has a hand in this: Jamison writes of fanfiction working in many directions, from the traditional author/reader relationship to more lateral connections, fanfic writers and readers working across genres and preferences and even source material to create webs based, above all, on taste: what we want to read, and love reading, a vast network of influences and references and experimentation and quick, constructive feedback. A utopia — sometimes. At the very least, a way of sharing stories that feels refreshingly organic, and one that continues to evolve — in fascinating ways — with technological shifts in communication.
The resulting portrait of the long and varied history of fandom — with a specific emphasis on fic, and, oh, what a delight to see some fanfic I’ve read and loved analyzed like any other good work of literature — is a picture of the wide-open spaces in between. Books and television shows and movies inherently leave gaps; whether we choose to linger over them, to explain them away, or to work fill them in, is our right as consumers of art, and as fans. But it’s easier to see what fans get from the creators of art than what they really deserve. I wrote to Jamison and asked if she could help me puzzle out what had happened with Sherlock series 3: why was it so divisive, and what about the fans in all of this? What did she think of the ideas about challenges to the fourth wall?
“From my perspective — viewing Sherlock as a very high quality, very clever, very well-written fan work — this show has always challenged the fourth wall,” she wrote in response. “Their mission statement is to mess with canon and to redefine it as inclusive — if they feel like it. They are not writing the kind of reverent, in-universe missing case or missing scene pastiche that has long been popular with Sherlockians.” Throughout the episode-run, there was so much talk about how the show had changed — and those who didn’t like those changes insisted it was for the worse. Jamison draws up what I think is a great analogy: “If you *loved* the early Beatles, there’s no guarantee you’re going to love Abbey Road, because the band had gotten to a very, very different place musically and personally. I don’t think it’s unreasonable of people to want more of what they love, and not to have it change…But obviously, there were more Beatles fans who were happy to see the band grow and go in new directions, even if they preferred some over others. And that’s exactly what happened with Sherlock.” She continues:
I think Sherlock *is* fanservice but I think that the creators themselves are the fans they are servicing. They couldn’t make this show if they weren’t incredible Sherlock Holmes fans. Sherlock is in the enviable position of being event television that people will tune in for. They can afford not to play it safe. By going over familiar ground — with Sherlock Holmes — and by doing so few episodes, they buy the opportunity to do very new things in television. Just like fanfiction writers always do — people will tune in for the characters and read something more experimental than they might otherwise because there’s enough there to make them feel at home.
Jamison helped me sort out some of the thorniest bits that lie at the heart of the show’s specific problems in relation to its fans — there are gendered issues at work here, for one, questions of representation, perhaps reasons why the broader universe is ripe for those coming from, and looking for, the spaces in between. (“I think your sense of gender discrimination, though, and gendered storytelling, is spot-on,” she wrote. “Part of the problem is that somehow narratives about feeling have become coded as feminine. That wasn’t the case in [Arthur Conan Doyle]’s day.”) We’ve put the full (long) conversation up over on her tumblr if you’re interested. Funnily enough, while we were exchanging e-mails, an incident similar to the Moran fanfic fiasco cropped up, this one concerning Amanda Abbington, the cast’s newest regular, and her objection to fan art depicting her partner, Martin Freeman. Jamison has smart things to say on that, too.
The Hiatus has begun again, and the British public has moved on with their lives. Hell, they probably moved on the Monday after the finale aired, perhaps after a chat at the proverbial (or literal? Is that still a thing?) water cooler. (The Daily Mail wrote an amazing blustery article that morning saying Sherlock was full of liberal bias, and we all had a much-needed laugh.) It’s been a few weeks now, and the fans remain, because fans always remain, and will continue to turn over the text in new and surprising ways. Some people have abandoned the show, I’m sure, but new fans are probably tentatively stepping through door as I write this. People will try to explain away their confusion, and if they can’t rationalize it, well, they can fix it, too. The fanfiction has begun. I feel less of a need for long, drizzly walks along the Thames — at least not for this stuff, anyway — though I am slightly wary about going through another round of “event” television again. On the other hand, I really cannot wait to see what’s coming next. I certainly cannot wait another two years. Please, please, for the love of God, not another two years.
About a week ago, my friend L sent a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the show in her own life, which, after all of this, she still loved — with reservations, of course.
Spending time thinking and writing about Sherlock is on one level a form of escapism. It’s a place where I can let my mind do some gymnastics while I’m waiting in line at the bank or washing the same cup for the hundredth time at work. But it’s not just any place where I’m mentally doing just anything. In the tradition of the science fiction and fantasy novels that I love best, Sherlock deals with a lot of ideas and issues in a manner that is indirect enough that it is not obvious and preachy, yet they are still realized in a compelling way…Certain lines or plot points act like catalysts for things that are already going on in my head. Much of it comes from the magic of these characters, the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson that have endured and been re-imagined and reinvented for over a century. A lot of it comes from the universe created by Moffat and Gatiss, and still more from the combined chemistry and individual performances of Cumberbatch and Freeman. For whatever reason, I find that this environment is a wonderful place to grow the seeds of these big thoughts in the semi-privacy of my own brain.
I get invested in this stuff too, certainly; fictional characters from both high and low culture have always occupied prime seats in my mind (palace). In the end, these are just stories, which is what we’re after most of all, I suppose — a way to contextualize our own stories, the ones we tell ourselves to make sense of things. Anything that’s both beloved and serialized has to deal with the disconnect between the stories that its creators want to tell and the stories that fans, from the casual on up to the obsessive, want to see. For me, I suppose it’s like any addiction — I’m so grateful for everything we get, and then, when the dust settles, I just want to see more.
There is a weirdly fitting coda to all of this: I was working to finish this essay in a coffee shop in Central London a few evenings ago, and my computer’s battery ran out just as I typed the word “showrunners.” I sighed and took off my headphones and shut my laptop. And then I heard a very familiar laugh: I looked around and did a genuine double take, because Mark Gatiss was sitting about 10 feet away, chatting with a friend. I tried not to freak out. I was paralyzed: a devoted fan and the creator of said fan’s interest just a few feet apart in a random café and where the hell was the fourth wall (made of impenetrable brick) that I needed to keep me from rushing over and making a fool of myself? I didn’t, don’t worry. Too shy or too scared, or maybe, to put a more positive spin on it, too considerate of a private individual having a conversation to interrupt. After he left, the man at the next table turned around and said, “Was that Mycroft!?” So much more than that, I wanted to tell him. I nodded instead. There’s a metaphor in all of this, somewhere.
Chances are you know (and chances are you wonder why you know) that 50 Shades of Grey started out as a work of Twilight fanfiction. You probably harbor some deep suspicions about the value of fanfiction as a genre. But what if I were to tell you that the prototypical work of fanfiction is… The Gospels?
For the past year, to the rising horror of publishing-industry insiders, the federal government has been on a campaign to stamp out price fixing in the e-book trade between the last remaining major publishing houses and Apple, which sells e-books for its iPads and other devices. On Wednesday, Denise Cote, a federal judge in Manhattan, ruled that Apple had indeed colluded with publishers to raise prices of e-books — in the process giving aid and comfort to Amazon, the single strongest monopolistic force in the book business.
The case is far from over. Apple is one of the world’s largest corporations, and it is in a knife fight with Amazon and others over the future of digital content, so you can count on it to carry on its appeals as long as it can. But Wednesday’s ruling follows an earlier decision by the major publishers to settle with the government rather than fight the case, so in some ways we are already living in the economic environment Justice Department lawyers believe is best for the book business. It isn’t pretty. Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is on the ropes, and with the recently approved merger of Random House and Penguin Books, the already absurdly conglomerated Big Six publishers have become the Big Five.
As a matter of law, it is altogether possible that the government is right that Apple and publishers conspired to set prices higher than Amazon would charge, which would have forced consumers to pay more for e-books in the short term. But to see this case in this narrowly legalistic light is to completely misunderstand how the book business actually works, and, more dangerously, to undermine its ability to find and publish books people want to read.
The government’s case suggests that it views book publishing as essentially a commodity business. Publishers, this line of reasoning supposes, produce these things called books, consisting of several hundred pages of printed matter and a cover, each of which is more or less interchangeable with any other. A book then is like any other commodity, such as soap or motor oil, and the only legitimate concern for consumers is the unit price of the commodity. Any increase in the unit price beyond the absolute minimum the free market will bear is an injustice to the consumer.
But books are not bars of soap. When you go online to buy a book, you are not merely paying for a file full of random ones and zeros. You’re buying the original ideas and stories contained within that book, and frankly nobody has any idea how much those ideas are worth until people start reading them.
This is the crucial point the government missed in bringing this lawsuit: book publishing is in essence a vast, bumbling R&D operation — a sort of pharmaceutical company churning out stories rather than mood-stabilizing drugs. Like pharmaceutical companies, publishers are constantly testing out products of unknown efficacy to find the one in a thousand that works, and, like pharmaceutical companies, publishing houses have to charge above-market rates for their successful products to amortize all those failures. If you limit their ability to do this, books will indeed be cheaper, but they also will be lower in quality and variety because publishers will have less ability to finance experimentation.
This was what was at the heart of the publishers’ negotiations with Apple: publishers wanted to be able to set their own prices. Put simply, when it comes to e-books, Amazon sets the price — for a time, the standard unit price was $9.99 — and then pays the publisher a royalty per unit sold. Often, Amazon was actually losing money on its per-unit sales, but that was fine with Amazon, because what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle.
Apple was offering a wholly different deal, called “the agency model,” in which publishers would set the price for an e-book and then Apple would take a cut — usually 30 percent of the list price. In other words, Apple was offering to once again give the publishing industry the freedom to overcharge for all those e-versions of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey flying out the virtual doors to make up for the risks it is taking on thousands of other titles that may have literary merit, but won’t sell nearly as well.
It is easy to see the Apple antitrust suit as merely a clash between multi-billion-dollar corporations, but at heart the case asks a fundamental societal question: what, legally speaking, is art? Is it a thing, a commodity like a bar of soap or a can of motor oil to be bought and sold in an unfettered free market, or is it something else, deserving of special allowances? If you see a work of art, in this case a book, as a commodity, then there is no question that Judge Cote’s ruling is correct. As a society, we long ago decided that when people sell things, the consumer is best served when the government allows the free market to work its magic on cost control.
But the framers of our Constitution recognized that ideas aren’t things and should occupy a special place in our laws. In enumerating the powers of Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, the framers noted how important it is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and thus created copyright protection for authors and inventors. I am not suggesting copyright law has any direct bearing on the Apple case. I am merely saying the framers were onto something. Books and other works of art aren’t widgets, and art does not now nor has it ever flourished in a truly efficient market.
As a matter of law, the Department of Justice might be right that Apple conspired with publishers to raise e-book prices, but as a matter of governance, the DOJ did not have to bring this suit, which everyone understood from the start would hurt publishers and help Amazon. The full effects of Wednesday’s ruling remain to be seen, but this much seems clear: if the government prevails, it may bring down prices of e-books, at least in the short term, but in doing so it will have created a far less genuinely competitive and vibrant book business.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
I learned about the unfathomable amount of cash that Yahoo planned to throw at Tumblr last month, when the news inevitably crept up on my Tumblr dashboard. The reactions were predictably negative, and the general sentiment was clear: “They are going to ruin all of what we’ve built.” For the most part, they echoed the reactions of the press at large, questioning yet another one of these crazy big internet deals, the wisdom of banking so much on users as advertising targets, and the near-universal assertion that you “can’t buy cool.” Was there ever a more stark contrast than between the purple-and-white tabloid jumble of Yahoo’s homepage and the stripped-down malleability of Tumblr? Yahoo went on record promising “not to screw it up,” which was somehow less reassuring than it should have been.
But I lead a double life on Tumblr: I follow bookish people and things, posting my own work there, attached to my real name, but I also lurk around a number of interlocking fandoms — interlocking because one has inevitably led me to the next: as people whose taste I trust migrate towards new obsessions, I sometimes migrate in turn. They have begun to crowd my dash, the weight of a thousand animated gifs slowing the site’s functionality to a crawl — and I love everything about them. There is a vernacular that links these communities, some of it held over from the time when LiveJournal ruled the fannish world, and some of it new and constantly evolving, borne on a blogging platform designed for sharing and speed and expansive warm-heartedness — I spend so much time smiling while scrolling around on Tumblr that it’s kind of alarming. (I browse Twitter stony-faced, occasionally barking out a harsh laugh, which means I’m either doing it wrong or Twitter and I just aren’t meant for each other.)
For the most part, fan communities seem to shy away from any organization that tries to insert itself from the top down. There is a sense that on Tumblr, fandom is planted and cultivated — grown, in a way that feels more palpable than LiveJournal ever did. It’s in your average stack of reblogged posts, fanning out in a sideways pyramid, each subsequent comment riffing on the one before it — and then seeing it days later, the joke or the expression of sympathy of the series of gifs piling up exponentially. You go to “like” it and note, with some surprise, that you already have. You can literally build on an idea, and this is how fandoms blossom and thrive.
It is an organic space, which must be at the heart of what’s made it such an unprofitable space, the sponsored posts unobtrusively tucked over to the far right, simple enough to train your eye away from, and subtle enough to even invite a curious click or two. But how would the intrusion of an organization as heavy-handed as Yahoo affect these communities? Rumors began to spread suggesting that content would soon be censored, and that advertisers would be given much more space within a matter of days. Nothing was confirmed, but a vague sense of foreboding persisted: would they know to leave well enough alone, or would all of this organic community building prove too tempting not to attempt to monetize, to control, to ruin?
The answer, of course, remains to be seen — it’s far too early in the game. We woke up to a blogging platform that looked much the same as the day before; a week later, no discernible change. The site chugs onwards, a million little corners of the internet, perfect little microcosms of the world — or the world as we wish it could be. For now, anyway.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the same week as the Yahoo/Tumblr acquisition, Amazon announced a project entitled “Kindle Worlds.” It feels like more of a broader trend than a coincidence, because the Kindle Worlds endeavor is about an organization inserting itself from the top down. “Worlds,” we learn, are Amazon-ese for fandoms — individual universes constructed by books, movies, television shows, comics, etc. — and the program is a platform for publishing fan fiction — quoting myself here, from a year ago (I’m currently accepting my lot as The Millions’ official fanfic correspondent): “fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely.” Yeah, I apparently used the term “worlds” as well, but at least I didn’t capitalize it.
The Amazon deal was struck with Alloy Entertainment, the YA juggernaut behind Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars, amongst a number of other ubiquitous book-cum-television-show enterprises about teenage girls being cruel and/or sexy. These three are the official launch-point for Kindle Worlds: fanfic writers in these communities (and elsewhere eventually, Amazon promises, with “licenses for more Worlds on the way”) will be able to digitally publish their stuff for Kindle via Amazon, exchanging full rights to their ideas for somewhere between 20-35% of the profits, based on the length of their stories. The first offerings when the store launches in June will be commissioned works, the Worlds homepage filled with cheerful testimonials from these writers beside a dusting of hard facts and figures.
Much has already been written on the financial and legal details of Kindle Worlds, and the interpretations tend to vary based on the source. With a few exceptions, fan fiction is written, disseminated, and consumed entirely for free: obvious legal reasons compel writers to mark each story with very clear disclaimers, crediting their source material, however far an interpretation strays from the original. In the extremely rare instance that a fan work is published for money, it is after the story has been transformed beyond recognition — the Fifty Shades trilogy is the most famous example, evolving from 100 chapters of Twilight fan fiction. To the casual observer, Kindle Worlds might seem like a vast step up for your average fanfic writer, the best of whom are paid in praise alone. There’s actual money here, though, to be fair, not a whole lot of it, accompanied the establishment’s stamp of approval, published by Amazon and sanctioned by the corporation that owns the source material.
The actual money leads to other financial questions, because with Alloy, we’re not talking about borrowing the characters of a single author: these books, and the scripts of the accompanying shows, are written by a slew of work-for-hire writers. Book-industry types far more familiar with media tie-in writing than me have suggested that the Kindle Worlds move might be another Amazon attempt to circumvent traditional publishers and writing models. If this actually catches on, Alloy and other organizations may come out winners, because by publishing on this platform, a fan fiction writer gives up rights to the content of their stories — Alloy and Amazon will have full rights to original characters and ideas. Why hire a team of traditional writers when your fans can generate new ideas for you — at no cost beyond the few cents per Kindle single you’re required to pay them?
The whole venture hints at broader questions that swirl around a lot of Amazon’s recent projects as they attempt to knock traditional publishing models out of whack. If it didn’t feel like such a fundamental and remotely insulting misunderstanding of fan culture, if it didn’t feel like a prime chance for corporations to exploit rather than promote, I might even praise Amazon (praise Amazon, for Christ’s sakes) for trying yet one more thing that deviates from the publishing status quo. If the barriers for entry are lowered, does publishing great fiction becomes a question of talent alone — even as something crucial is given up in the exchange? There are parallels with self-publishing and parallels with the broader Kindle Single platform. Who deserves to be published? Why isn’t it simply the person whom people would most like to read?
Surely every person in the entire realm of fan fiction is tired of the monetization question by now. The simple answer is that it really, really isn’t about the money. But people keep on asking anyway: how can so much time and energy and a sheer dizzying number of words be spent on something for no financial compensation? It’s easy enough to say that the person who asks that question doesn’t understand the idea of fan fiction, or doesn’t fully grasp what it means to be a fan of something in general — but that feels dismissive and unhelpful. There is a disconnect here, though, and it’s one that’s tricky for me to articulate, between Amazon and Alloy and the fan fiction community, or between Tumblr and Yahoo and the people who look at 100,000 reblogs and can only see a missed opportunity for advertising.
Is a person who believes in the ultimate democratizing power of the internet bound to be disappointed sooner or later? That scrappy start-ups inevitably sell out — great ideas get acquired by big companies, then twisted beyond recognition? Of course, those great ideas can come from anywhere, right? Perhaps that’s not enough to stem the disillusionment. So maybe that’s one of the appeals of fan fiction, or of the exchange of images and ideas amongst fandoms on Tumblr and elsewhere: there is absolutely no endgame there, beyond the satisfaction of sharing something you like, obsess over, deeply love with other people who love it just as deeply.
There is an enormously freeing diversity in the world of fan fiction. I don’t mean that the writers are diverse — they are mostly female, and surely there must be socioeconomic implications in the ability to sustain such a hobby. I mean that the whole point of it, beyond all that deep love and celebrating any given fandom, is taking a character or a setting or just the tiniest inkling of an idea and rolling with it. The possibilities spin off into exponentially increasing permutations, spurring weird stuff and beautiful stuff, quite often fiction that’s better written than the source material that inspired it, creating fandoms that are so broad and varied and encompassing that a person can usually find whatever they’re seeking within. If not, well, that person may as well just write it herself. If that’s not the most accurate reflection of the rest of the internet — the organic, cultivated internet, grown from the bottom up, with no contracts, no exchanges of cash — then I don’t know what is.
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that
The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
And I’ve read it maybe five or six times at this point: first as a teenager, then again as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be reading other much less funny things, and then again another couple of times while writing a Masters thesis – a terrific wheeze of a Borges/O’Brien comparative reading. And I’ve just now revisited it afresh, partly to reassure myself before writing this piece that it is just as funny as I remember it being. (It is, albeit with the slight caveat that it’s possibly even funnier.) The first time I read it, I was in school, and I remember being confounded by two facts: 1) That it was originally published in 1941 and 2) That it first appeared in Irish as An Béal Bocht. And if there was one thing that was less funny than anything written before, say, 1975, it was anything that was written in Irish.
To fully understand this, I think you would probably need to have some first-hand experience of the Irish educational system. This is a country in which every student between the ages of five and eighteen is taught Irish for several hours a week, and yet it is also, mysteriously, a country in which relatively few adults are capable of holding a conversation in the language in anything but the most stilted, self-consciously ironic pidgin. (After almost a decade and a half of daily instruction in the spoken and written forms of what is officially my country’s first language, just about the only complete Irish sentence I myself can now speak translates as follows: “May I please have permission to go to the toilet, Teacher?” I don’t think I’m especially unusual in this regard, although I’m aware my ability to forget things I’ve learned is exceptional.) I don’t want to get into this too deeply here, except to say that part of this has to do with a kind of morbid cultural circularity: the reason so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms is because so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms, and that there would therefore be few people to speak it to if they did. Also, very little literature gets written in Irish, partly because (for the reasons outlined above), relatively few people are capable of writing it, and also because, if they did, the readership for it would be correspondingly small. And so the stuff that gets taught in schools tends to be a combination of (as I remember it) unremarkable contemporary poetry and psychotropically dull peasant memoir.
The great canonical presence in the latter genre is a book called Peig, the autobiography of an outstandingly ancient Blasket island woman named Peig Sayers, which was dictated to a Dublin schoolteacher and published in 1936. Successive generations of Irish students were forced not just to read this exegesis of poverty and misfortune – over and over and over – but to memorize large chunks of it, later to be disgorged and explicated at the intellectual gun-point of state examination. The memoir begins with Peig outlining what a rigorously shitty time she had of it growing up in rural Ireland in the late 19th century, and this unhappy existence is narrated with a signature flatness of tone that is maintained throughout the whole grim exercise:
My people had little property: all the land they possessed was the grass of two cows. They hadn’t much pleasure out of life: there was always some misfortune down on them that kept them low. I had a pair of brothers who lived — Sean and Pádraig; there was also my sister Máire.
As a result of never-ending flailing of misfortune my father and mother moved from the parish of Ventry to Dunquin; for them this proved to be a case of going from bad to worse, for they didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry.
For a teenager, of course, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff is the most inappropriate one, somewhere between stupefaction and manic amusement. As real and as comparatively recent as the history of grinding poverty and oppression in Ireland is, it’s still hard to read this with a straight face – particularly if, as a youth, you had to commit great thick blocks of it to memory. There’s something about the improbable combination of sober causality and delirious wretchedness (“As a result of the never-ending flailing of misfortune”; “a case of going from bad to worse”) that comes on like an outright petition for heartless juvenile ridicule. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell puts it in Beckett’s Endgame. We should take this point seriously, coming as it does from an old woman who has no legs and lives in a dustbin.
Beckett’s contemporary Flann O’Brien understood this, too: unhappiness is the comic goldmine from which he extracts The Poor Mouth’s raw material. He is parodying Irish language books like Peig and, in particular, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s memoir An t-Oileánach (The Islander); but in a broader sense, he’s ridiculing the forces of cultural nationalism that promoted these books as exemplars of an idealized and essentialized form of Irishness: rural, uneducated, poor, priest-fearing, and truly, superbly Gaelic.
O’Brien’s narrator, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is not so much a person as a humanoid suffering-receptacle, a cruel reductio ad absurdium of the “noble savage” ideal of rural Irishness promoted by Yeats and the largely Anglo-Irish and Dublin-based literary revival movement. A lot of the book’s funniness comes from its absurdly stiff language (which reflects an equally stiff original Irish), but that language is a perfect means of conveying a drastically overdetermined determinism – a sort of hysterical stoicism which seems characteristically and paradoxically Irish. The book’s comedic logic is roughly as follows: to be Irish is to be poor and miserable, and so anything but the most extreme poverty and misery falls short of authentic Irish experience. The hardship into which Bonaparte is born, out on the desperate western edge of Europe, is seen as neither more nor less than the regrettable but unavoidable condition of Irishness, an accepted fate of boiled potatoes and perpetual rainfall. “It has,” as he puts it, “always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road and that must be the explanation that when I reached this life there was no good habitation for me but the reverse in all truth.”
Like many of the best comedians of prose, O’Brien is a master of studied repetition. Again and again, unhappy situations are met with total resignation, with a fatalism so extreme that it invariably proceeds directly to its ultimate conclusion: death. Early on, Bonaparte tells us about a seemingly intractable situation whereby his family’s pig Ambrose, with whom they shared their tiny hovel, developed some disease or other that caused him to emit an intolerable stench, while at the same time growing so fat that he couldn’t be got out the door. His mother’s reaction to this situation is simply to accept that they’re all going to die from the stench, and that they therefore might as well get on with it. “If that’s the way it is,” she says, “then ‘tis that way and it is hard to get away from what’s in store for us.”
Individual hardships or injustices are never seen as distinct problems to be considered with a view to their potential solution; they are always aspects of a living damnation, mere epiphenomena of “the fate of the Gaels.” It’s a mindset that’s both profoundly anti-individualist and cosmically submissive. The cause of suffering isn’t British colonialism: it’s destiny. On Bonaparte’s first day of school, his teacher beats him senseless with an oar for not being able to speak English, and to impress upon him the fact that his name is no longer Bonaparte O’Coonnassa, but “Jams O’Donnell” – a generically anglicized title the same schoolmaster gives to every single child under his tutelage. When Bonaparte takes the matter up with his mother later that day, she explains that this is simply the way of things. The justice or injustice of the situation doesn’t come into it:
Don’t you understand that it’s Gaels that live in this side of the country and that they can’t escape from fate? It was always said and written that every Gaelic youngster is hit on his first school day because he doesn’t understand English and the foreign form of his name and that no one has any respect for him because he’s Gaelic to the marrow. There’s no other business going on in school that day but punishment and revenge and the same fooling about Jams O’Donnell. Alas! I don’t think that there’ll ever be any good settlement for the Gaels but only hardship for them always.
The assumption that nothing can be done about it, though, doesn’t mean that ceaseless meditation and talk about the suffering of the Gaels is not absolutely central to the proper business of Gaelicism. True Irishness is to be found in the constant reflection on the condition of Irishness. (This is still very much a characteristic of contemporary Irish culture, by the way, but that’s probably another day’s work.) O’Brien’s characters think and talk about little else. Bonaparte, at one point, recalls an afternoon when he was “reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)” when his grandfather comes in looking even more decrepit and disheveled than usual.
– Welcome, my good man! I said gently, and also may health and longevity be yours! I’ve just been thinking of the pitiable situation of the Gaels at present and also that they’re not all in the same state; I perceive that you yourself are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of Gaelicism. It appears that you’re bereft of vigour?
– I am, said he.
– You’re worried?
– I am.
– And is it the way, said I, that new hardships and new calamities are in store for the Gaels and a new overthrow is destined for the little green country which is the native land of both of us?
O’Brien uses the term “Gael” and its various derivatives so frequently throughout the book that the very idea of “Gaelicism” quickly begins to look like the absurdity it is. This reaches a bizarre culmination in the book’s central comic set-piece, where Bonaparte recalls a Feis (festival of Gaelic language and culture) organized by his grandfather to raise money for an Irish-speaking university. The festival is, naturally, an exhaustively miserable affair, characterized by extremes of hunger and incredibly shit weather. (“The morning of the feis,” Bonaparte recalls, “was cold and stormy without halt or respite from the nocturnal downpour. We had all arisen at cockcrow and had partaken of potatoes before daybreak.”) Some random Gael is elected President of the Feis, and opens the whole wretched observance with a speech of near perfectly insular Gaelicism:
If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language.
This is followed by more speeches of equal or greater Gaelicism, to the point where a number of Gaels “collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly.” From a combination of malnutrition and exhaustion, several more lives are lost in the dancing that follows.
O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist rests largely on the postmodern absurdism of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, with their mind-bending meta-trickery and audacious surrealism. But the essence of his genius was, I think, to be found in his extraordinary mastery of tone, in his skillful manipulation of a kind of uncannily mannered monotony. Repetition and redundancy are absolutely crucial to the comic effect of his prose, and it’s in The Poor Mouth that these effects are most ruthlessly pursued, not least because they are crucial elements of the kind of story he’s parodying here – a life of unswerving and idealized tedium, in which basically the only viable foodstuff is the potato. (Breakfast is memorably referred to as “the time for morning-potatoes.”) There’s a feverish flatness to the narrative tone throughout, a crazed restraint, and a steady accumulation of comic pressure that is like nothing else I’ve ever read. Bonaparte’s recollection of his first experience with alcohol – in the form of poitín, which is of course the potato fermented to the point of near-lethality – is one of the stronger examples of this in the book. It’s also, I think, probably the greatest of O’Brien’s many great comic riffs:
If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life.
The effort to identify the comic operations of any given piece of writing – what its technology consists of, how its moving parts fit together – is essentially a mug’s game. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for just accepting that something is funny because it makes you laugh. But there’s something about the flawlessness of this passage’s mechanism that makes me want to take it apart and lay out its components. Obviously, repetition is the primary engine here – just the sounds of the words “misadventure” and “misfortune” in such close succession is powerfully amusing. And, as with the spookily O’Brien-esque passage above from Peig, there’s the mix of sober causality and delirious wretchedness. Accumulation and enumeration is, as always with this writer, an irresistible comic force. But I think the real stroke of genius here – the element that really elevates it to the level of the sublime – is how he keeps going well past the point where the joke has done its job. The funniest word here, in other words – the word that always tips me over into literal LOLing whenever I read it – is “Then …”
And maybe this is funny precisely for the least funny of reasons: because misery and misadventure rarely stop at the point where their work is done. Even when misfortune – or life, or history – has already made its irrefutable point, there’s never anything to prevent it taking a quick breath and starting a new sentence: “Then …”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
“Fifty Shades of Grey follows this long history of class ascendancy via feminine wiles, but does so cleverly disguised as an edgy modern bodice-ripper,” writes Heather Havrilesky in the latest issue of The Baffler. Throughout the piece, Havrilesky explores the way luxury brand fetishism and conspicuous consumption fueled E.L. James’s “female-friendly” pornography phenomenon
In writing my first novel, Cutting Teeth, when I got to the first scene that demanded dramatized sex — action, sound, smell, taste, the works — I paused. The word that made me lift my fingers from the keyboard was “clitoris.” Was it okay to use this word? What would my fellow literary writers, my former teachers and classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop think of me? I laughed at my insecurity, although part of me loathed my hesitation. Of course it was okay. It’s just a body part, I told myself. I had the same reaction in the other sex scenes I wrote — most involved a man and a woman, one two women. Nipples. Cock. Dick. Balls. Even typing these words now gives me a shiver of fear, as if the literary gods will strike me dead, or brandish me with a scarlet S for writing not only bad sex, but any sex at all.
Today, sex is everywhere — on TV, our computers, even our phones. But in the last two years, since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling paperback of all time, the jaws of literary writers have dropped, their shock over the book’s success, despite its unliterary style, echoing over the Twitter-waves. Part of me wants to say I was one of them — if only to be included in their elite ranks — but I wasn’t that surprised. I haven’t forgotten the lusty attraction of my grandmother’s paperback romances, which, as a pre-teen, I had secreted away to read at night by flashlight.
Long before I thought of myself as a writer, I was a reader. I grew up in a house of few books — my father’s set of encyclopedias in his native Italian and a handful of history books left over from my mother’s college education. My mother has a Masters in Education, but she hasn’t read a book in decades. My father was hungry for knowledge, but struggled to read our middle school science and social studies textbooks, the basic English too much of a challenge.
As a child, books were a magical distraction from my anxiety — what, 20 years later would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. At school, every real-life, real-time decision — who to befriend, who to avoid — carried an infinite possibility of catastrophe, but I was safe when living inside a book. The day came when it seemed as if I’d read every book in our small school library, and the librarian was at a loss for suggestions that were age-appropriate. This was the mid-1980s, years before the YA market exploded. I needed the imagined life books gave me — without them it seemed as if real life lost its luster.
I stole one of my grandmother’s Danielle Steel novels. I don’t remember the title, only the pearlescent cover’s gold-embossed cursive that promised diamonds, high heels, and Farah Fawcett-hair — a glimpse into a dramatic adult world. What I do remember are the sex scenes. I replaced the book the next week and stole off with another, and so on, until I had read all in my grandmother’s collection. Those books taught me so much — that you could have sex standing up or even underwater in a pool! Along with the sex came emotion. These men and women were brazenly sentimental, confessing passion, hatred, and envy, and that melodrama kept me glued to the page.
Once I entered college, I left my towers of commercial fiction paperbacks behind in my parents’ basement. I declared a major in English and became a convert of the literary readership. I read what my professors assigned, mostly novels by white men written over a century ago, where sex and emotion were abstractly implied in only the most metaphysical sense. When it was my turn to choose my literary electives, I picked Hawthorne, Melville, and Dostoyevsky over the “scribbling women writers” of the 19th century, who, one of my professors explained with more than a hint of disdain, were the equivalent of our modern-day Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins. I remember blushing. Could he tell that I had once feasted on those emotionally hyperbolic and overtly sexual scenes?
By the time I was accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the furthest I’d ventured into American literature was the modernism of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. For the first time, I read short fiction writers known for their “spare” prose style, like Raymond Carver, whose work my classmates praised as “quiet” and “restrained.” Now, emotion (and the rare sex scene) was conveyed delicately through mood and atmosphere. I felt a kind of reader’s depression. Where was the meaning? How far did I have to dig under the surface of the prose? It felt as if there was a hole in my reader’s heart. Not that I would have ever mentioned the “heart” in workshop, the most sentimental of symbols.
After a semester of workshops where we praised writers who wrote in “trim” prose, I was converted to an more refined literary camp, where subtlety trumped all, even emotion. The more subdued my own writing style became the more my classmates appreciated it in workshop. This was especially true of the male writers, who began to imply, through playful teasing, that I wrote “stories about women for women,” and that I was lucky, because, “maybe someday Oprah will pick you for her book club.” This was the same year Jonathan Franzen was touring the country and publicly mocking the Oprah Book Club sticker on book jacket of The Corrections.
I feared my male classmates were right. Was I destined to become a commercial writer who was, gasp, popular? With a misdirected motivation that thrives with youth, fueled by my fear of rejection, I committed myself to toning down the emotion in my writing. My model was Jayne Anne Phillips’s story collection, Black Tickets, published in 1979 soon after Phillips’s own turn as a young woman writer at Iowa. I was determined to make my stories just as tight, lean, and fucked-up. I wrote a few sex scenes — spare in style and violent in content — and the “risks” I took in writing about sex were applauded in class.
Looking back now, re-reading those scenes, I see they are just shadows of real characters feeling vague emotion. Instead a gulf separates the reader from the character’s experience. I confess that I felt very little when I wrote those scenes; I was merely copying the writers I thought I was supposed to admire. I was removed from the characters even when writing semi-autobiographically. They were damaged young girls I used to impress my teachers and classmates. I remember typing the final line of a story — one that would earn me a coveted fellowship — And she will point to her hand, freed from the bandage, and say, Oh this? It’s nothing.
I asked myself, shouldn’t she, the girl in my story, be feeling more? Shouldn’t I be feeling more?
I did, once during my time at Iowa, write a story that risked unrestrained sex and emotion — about a schoolgirl in love with a young priest. The priest reciprocated with flirtation. I was 22 years old. I knew little of the complexities of sex and relationships. I was merely practicing them on the page. The story was told very close to the young girl’s consciousness so that her thoughts and feelings acted as a kind of voice, and when she reacted in scene, the emotion was anything but subtle.
As my aging Irish-Catholic workshop instructor spent the majority of that class deploring the way I had “corrupted the language,” I couldn’t tell if he was more offended by my technique or the blasphemy of a girl in an erotic relationship with a man of the cloth. When my instructor asked the class if my story would have a snowball in hell’s chance of being published in The New Yorker (his gold standard), I knew it was the melodrama that offended him most. I abandoned that story, and it was years before I wrote another scene that was concretely sexual or emotional.
Was I alone in this fear of writing about sex and the emotion of intimacy? I asked my friends and students. Unsurprisingly, those who write fiction marketed as genre, whether historical, women’s fiction, romance, or thrillers, feel more comfortable writing sex. Those published in erotica anthologies revel in their confidently drawn sex scenes. Most of these writers are women and write for a mostly female audience.
When I asked literary writers about their experience writing sex, their responses ranged from, “I am terrified of sex scenes!” to “I fear the reader will think I’m a pervert, or terrifically immature, or both.” Why do so many literary writers fear writing about sex? Why do we add to the collective anxiety by celebrating The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex Award” — the annual public humiliation and literary stoning of one published writer?
In my experience as both a writer and a teacher, this fear of writing about sex is tied to the fear of sentimentality that takes root in a writer’s formative years. Writing instructors chastise writers in class — a setting that can feel quite public — when the writer risks sentiment, which a naïve writer might mistake for emotion. Writers accrue a kind of scar tissue, blocking their ability and their confidence to imply emotion, inevitably leading to a clouding of meaning in their work.
Most of the writers who felt comfortable writing about sex did not attend MFA programs, where “show don’t tell” is a mantra, another way of saying “do not venture into sentimentality.” This is an essential lesson for beginning writers, but I wonder if writing instructors, myself included, preach against sentimentality so often that it creates anxiety in our students. The writer must be the first reader to feel the emotional intention of the story. The heart of the story (there’s that heart again) won’t exist if the writer never takes that leap of faith.
Ask a roomful of literary critics about sex in fiction and they will champion James Salter — a captain of the “spare” style team. The New York Times called Salter’s novel, A Sport and a Pastime, “a tour de force in erotic realism.” The novel is set in 1950s France and the unnamed narrator is an exceptionally passive observer of an affair between Phillip, a bourgeois American, and Anne-Marie, a young French woman:
Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begin to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath — it is almost a sigh — leaves her. Her white throat appears.
I imagine Salter intentionally stripping every hint of emotion from the prose, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality. London’s The Times praised the novel, “Just to read it makes you feel alive.” I felt the very opposite. I felt hollow. There was little that felt alive or realistically erotic about watching Philip and Anne-Marie as if from across a vast ocean. Is writing about sex with such distance less of a risk, when compared to a writer who places him or herself inside the character’s every kiss, stroke, and thrust, acting as the pioneer in whose footsteps the reader will follow?
Intention is one excuse literary readers, including myself, use to defend flaws in our own work and in that of our predecessors, but there is a big difference between what a writer intends the reader to think and feel, and the reader’s actual experience. Salter’s novel was revolutionary for its eroticism when published in 1967, but why are today’s literary writers looking to a novel so dated in its portrayal of sex? Is it because the ambiguous intimacy allows them to further avoid addressing the challenges of writing sex?
Sarah Waters, award-winning and best-selling novelist, is well known in her native England, but I have often wondered why she isn’t more popular among American literary readers. There are several possible factors: she is a woman who often writes historical fiction, she is a lesbian, and most of her characters are women. But there is nothing unliterary about Waters’s technique.
Adrian Van Young, author of the story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, and one of the few male literary writers or readers I know who has read Waters, has this to say: “Waters seldom writes sex that isn’t intrinsically connected to emotion, and together they form an almost elemental force in her fiction.” It is this intrinsic connection between emotion and sex, whether tender, violent, or awkward, that gives Waters’s sex scenes a sense of being earned, necessary to the story.
Waters’s most recent novel, The Little Stranger, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is set in the 1940s in a dilapidated English mansion. The novel is told from the perspective of country doctor Faraday, who forms an unusual friendship with Caroline Ayres, the spinster daughter of the estate. Like Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, the storytelling relies on an unreliable narrator, yet in Waters’s The Little Stranger, the reader is a participant in the erotic mystery, not just a voyeur.
…my thumb slid just beyond the inner edge of (her coat), and met the start of the swell of her breast. I thought she flinched, or shivered, as the thumb moved lightly over her gown. Again I heard the movement of her tongue inside her mouth, the parting of her lips, an indrawn breath.
The writing is subtle in emotion and tone, but Waters builds an empathic bridge between her reader and both the characters through Dr. Faraday’s imagination, particularly in the way that he wonders what Caroline is feeling. In A Sport and a Pastime, Salter intentionally levels that bridge. Is it a coincidence that so many sex scenes written by women for women seem to focus on the characters’ feelings? I think not.
Ten years have passed since I left Iowa, and in that time I wrote a novel that didn’t sell, took a break from writing, and founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. It was the 2,000 Sackett writers who gave me the confidence to return to writing, ultimately resulting in a novel that I am proud of, that has its sexy moments, and is to be published by St. Martin’s Press in the spring of 2014.
I tell MFA-bound students that a graduate program is a great place to learn craft and to live and party among writers, but not always the easiest place to write. It took me years of post-MFA retrospection to sort through the assumptions I’d adopted on what makes writing good or bad. My voice has risen from the ashes and it is no restrained peep, but somewhere between a croon and a ballad. There are the withholders like Salter and Carver, and there are the revealers, my own literary camp. I’ve accepted this after years of resistance. Salter is like that aloof James Dean-esque boy, the one the girls go crazy for because he lives in his own world. He is enigmatic. I desired those boys in my youth, but I’m all grown up now and don’t have the patience for those unreadable types.
With great relief, I’ve discovered that I am pretty good at writing sex. My readers are all (but for my husband) literary women writers and they concur. Even my mother-in-law, reacting to a particularly steamy sex scene in my novel, said, “Well, how about that? That sex scene was something!”
As in most things literary, the solution to writing “good” sex, and protecting yourself (fingers crossed) from The Literary Review’s “award,” is to think of the reader. Just as there is an infinite variety of “good sex” — the factors dependent on those partaking — there are also an infinite variety of writers, each with his or her ideal reader. Me, I want my literary sex real — fluids and all.
Image Credit: Flickr/yaaaay
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table.
With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities.
But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America?
In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans.
During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor’s note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.]
Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia).
Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places – U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia – they might normally never visit.
But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples.
The New Yorker
During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.”
Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe — is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone.
The Soul Mate
Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations?
Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency.
Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris — like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year.
Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating.
According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces… of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry — a sort of win-win, all things considered.
Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.
Image via christine zenino/Flickr
You’ve probably noticed that Amazon, like many sites, employs an “auto-complete” feature on its search box. When you start typing in letters, it suggests things that begin with those letters. It’s probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon’s book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Last time we did this, about a year and half ago, the results were fairly literary and 18 months before that, vampires reigned. This time around, Fifty Shades has ushered in an era of erotic-inflected popular fiction, and diet books and YA lit figure prominently as well. You might consider this exercise, the ABCs of Amazon, to be a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what’s popular in the world of books:
Bared to You (erotic fiction by Sylvia Day)
Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell thanks to the upcoming feature film)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the very popular children’s series by Jeff Kinney)
Eat to Live (a diet book)
Fifty Shades of Grey (The erotica that launched a publishing trend)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster)
Hunger Games (Replacing “Harry Potter” as the top “H” search in YA lit)
ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box)
Kindle (no surprise here)
No Easy Day (The book about the bin Laden raid)
Organic Chemistry (A textbook search)
Psychology (More textbooks)
Quiet (a book about introverts by Susan Cain)
The Hunger Games
Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand)
Wheat Belly (a diet book)
Zoo by James Patterson
(Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)
The much discussed Fifty Shades of Grey arrives as a paperback today, though one wonders if readers will be as willing to read it if they must shed the privacy of the e-reader. Also out is the gorgeous retrospective, The Art of Daniel Clowes. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright and MAN Asian Literary Prize winner Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin are new in paperback.