My wife carries the distinction of being, among many other things, the world’s most ardent fan of the southern California folk-rock band Dawes. If they’re playing a show within 100 miles of our home, she will unquestionably be there; when they announce the release of a new recording, she pre-orders it as soon as she can. And if they offer a book club — in which, every other month, a member of Dawes sends out a paperback, along with an explanation of why he chose that book — she will become a member, excessive cost be damned. Since she joined in August, we’ve received three Dawes-approved titles: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, and, most recently, Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. “[Miller] leans heavily on some of the pre-existing tenets of eastern religion,” drummer Griffin Goldsmith writes in his “Dawes Book Report,” “particularly the idea that an individual’s happiness is not only contingent upon where they are in the world, but also upon a confluence of internal emotions.”
To put it mildly, such knottiness is not what my wife expected from her fluffy-haired purveyors of golden-hued singalongs. (And I can’t really blame her; in college, I abandoned Sometimes a Great Notion after 15 flummoxing, headache-inducing pages.) All I can do is clear out shelf space for her new and difficult books — and suggest, politely, that she join one of the following competing rock ‘n’ roll reading clubs, which, of course, include their own book reports.
Ozzy Osbourne: Of Mice and Men
So, Of Mice and Men, it’s got this big dumb wanker, Christ, I can’t remember his name — wait, wait, it’s Denny, no, Lenny, that’s it — and his mate, this teensy little shitter, George. This George fellow is like the Oates to Lenny’s Hall, if that makes any sense. I don’t think it does. Fucking “Maneater,” innit. Anyway, they’re all kinda walking around and what, like, camping? And the big one, he’s always killing the animals ‘cos he’s so fucking big. Like, you ever see that guy, whatsit, Joey Ramone? I met him once in Boston, or like Tokyo? He was fuckin’ huge, and that’s who I kept thinking of when I was reading this book. At the end of the book, the guy from the Ramones kills this kind of hooker-type bird in a barn, and that was pretty much that. Christ, I don’t know what this book was on about.
Bob Dylan: Twilight
Twilight is a book about a girl who falls in love with a boy who, I’ll tell you right now, just happens to be a vampire. Life is funny like that sometimes. But this girl, her name is Bella. And she can’t do anything about this love of hers; she just can’t put it through. Some hoodoo about magic powers, is what I’m gathering. Young love is like that, I’ve found — untrustworthy at its heart and cold where it shouldn’t be. The book asks a certain kind of question, one that the wise men have been wrestling since the days of Plato, since the days of Little Richard, banging out his mystic sounds: is true love possible? And if not, how about vampire love? Now, I don’t know if it is or not, since I never was able to finish the book. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it, to be honest on all fronts. It’s really long — longer than the mighty Mississippi, where you can hear that steam whistle blow, far off into the night. Out beyond them sycamore trees standing out in the dark. A sound to scare the vampires, if there are any vampires around to scare.
Jimmy Buffett: American Psycho
Maybe you weren’t expecting Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho to be the first selection of my book club. Jimmy, I hear you plead, you’re the bard of the beachfront, the Wordsworth of the waves. You once released an album called License to Chill; you write songs about delicious cheeseburgers. Why kick things off with a harrowing, full-bore descent into the savage, blood-spattered heart of our long-dead modern dream? Why confront us with this jagged, debauched journey into a pornographic, torturous vision? Why not give us something easy, something by Carl Hiaasen or, you know, Dave Barry — or better yet, one of your own books, like the lounge-chair-ready A Salty Piece of Land or Where is Joe Merchant?
My response is this, my faithful Parrotheads: beneath every placid exterior lies a festering, maggot-ridden core, a hellish pit of snakes and raw-boned, scalding pain. Stare into those waves lapping gently against the shore long enough, and soon enough you’ll see the nihilism in their relentless pounding; that water at your sunburned feet should remind us all of the steady encroachment of death.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes — I hope you dig the book! Up next after this one: The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly!
Adam Levine: Ulysses
Hey, Maroon 5 Book Clubbers! This month’s super-cool novel is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hugely important to me, and not just because it’s the most prominent landmark in modernist literature — or that in 1998 the Modern Library named it the best English-language novel of the 20th Century! I chose Ulysses because it’s a work in which life’s complexities are depicted with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity. (Seriously, guys, it is!) But that’s not all: in its characters we see, according to some lex eterna, an ineluctable condition of their very existence! Isn’t that rad? All right now, Fivers, get to it — I hope you love it as much as I did! ‘Cause I totally read it — and other books, too! I didn’t just have my assistant cut and paste lines from Wikipedia to make it seem like I had read Joyce’s sublime masterpiece, which, I have to say, depicts life’s complexities with unprecedented, and unequalled, linguistic and stylistic virtuosity!
Image Credit: Wikipedia/jon rubin.
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.
Among its many other splendors, the Web has created a market for a strain of ancillary fiction that takes the characters and themes of an existing story – George Lucas’s Star Wars, say, or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – and creates a new story designed to shed light on the existing one. Fan fiction, it’s called. So far, fan fiction has focused mostly on genre stories, especially sci-fi and fantasy, but there’s no reason literary fiction can’t have its own fan fiction – and perhaps the quickest way to kick off the trend would be for literary authors to write a little fanfic of their own.
To a certain degree, this appears to be what has happened with the publication of Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s,” a Kindle Single timed for the paperback release of her 2013 breakout novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. “New Year’s” is a fully rendered work of literary fiction, just short of novella length, but the story, helpfully subtitled, “Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of his Friend Aurit,” almost certainly wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form, were it not for the paperback release of Nathaniel P. Genre writers have been releasing these add-on stories for some time now, but this is among the first I have seen from a literary author, and it’s illuminating, both in terms of the risks a talented writer takes in rushing out a story to meet an artificial deadline, and more broadly, as an object lesson in the risks writers face when the traditional obstacles to publishing a work of fiction fall away.
I am, for the record, an admirer of Waldman’s writing and of Nathaniel P., though I recognize it isn’t for everybody. Waldman’s characters live in certain self-consciously liberal neighborhoods in Brooklyn and are nearly all upper-middle-class, attractive, well-educated, and to some degree freakishly successful in the arts. There are people out there, one is given to understand, who are not quite so lucky in their intellectual capacities or their socio-economic circumstances – a phenomenon Waldman’s characters respond to by writing sympathetic essays, which they hope will land in prestigious magazines and further their careers.
Waldman’s fictive universe is, in short, a bit hard to take. But she possesses a rare gift for dramatizing psychological insight, and in Nathaniel P., her first novel, she focuses on Nate Piven, a thirty-year-old novelist, who like so many young Brooklyn artists, lives in mortal terror of having to one day grow up. In Nate’s case, this terror takes the form of an abiding fear of commitment in romantic relationships – which, after all, lead inevitably to marriage and children – and in the pages of the book, we watch Nate skillfully manipulate a girlfriend into breaking up with him.
It’s riveting in its way, especially since Waldman is so good at exploring the ways intelligent people can be so blind to their own monstrousness. In “New Year’s,” Waldman’s emotional radar remains quiveringly intact, but the story itself is as slack and shapeless as a Sunday morning at a Brooklyn coffee house. The plot, such as it is, turns on whether Nate and Aurit, an Israeli-born writer who was a minor character in the original novel, will become a couple. But Waldman seems only intermittently interested in this central narrative, and instead fills page after page with backstory about Aurit’s school years, which too often reads like one of those background histories actors write for themselves to help them get into character.
We learn, in excruciating detail, how after her family’s immigration from Israel, Aurit was desperate to fit in with the crowd at her suburban Boston middle school, but clueless about fashion and American pop culture, found herself passed over by her classmates who saw her as hopelessly “bespectacled, bookish, [and] brown-skinned.” Later, thanks to some savvy clothing and hair choices, Aurit pulls off a “punk-inspired asexual, alternative look,” and following a pre-college weight loss, she acquires an actual boyfriend. None of this is unconvincing as social detail, nor does it make Aurit seem less worthy a subject for fictional treatment, but it does make one hanker for the, um, story to begin.
When it finally does, it’s over before the reader has a chance to savor it. While hanging out together after a New Year’s party, Nate tells Aurit, “You give me feedback I don’t get anywhere else.” This is as close as a man like Nate comes to a statement of undying love, and it gives Aurit reason to think they might become more than friends. Then, all too quickly he returns to form, an overgrown man-child incapable of a mature relationship with a woman – and we’re done.
What’s most maddening about this is that, setting aside that long dry spell about Aurit’s teen angst, there is a kernel of a great story here about the difference between romantic love and the platonic kind. Everyone has had a close relationship that works better as a friendship than as a romance, and at some half-drunken moment of intimacy, everyone has wondered why. “New Year’s” seems a story poised to answer this very human question, and then, for some reason, it simply doesn’t.
Writing great fiction is a little like hitting Major League pitching – even the best in the game fail to get a hit seven times out of ten. But here one can’t help wondering if the ease of its publication may not have also played a role in the story’s failure to fully engage. In an analog world, Waldman might well have wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a minor character that provided insight into the protagonist of her recently published novel – to write a bit of self-initiated fan fiction, as it were – but she would have faced some thorny logistical problems.
For one thing, virtually no one publishes stand-alone novellas in print. Perhaps Waldman could have trimmed it to a more standard story length – pruned some of that backstory about Aurit’s formative years, say. But even then she would have had to find a literary journal willing to take the story on its own terms, not merely as an online add-on to a paperback release, or she would have had to wait until she had enough other publishable stories to make a full collection.
It is unwise, of course, to make too much of one misbegotten story. We are still in the experimentation phase with Web-only publication, and the point of experiments is that they don’t always work. One can only imagine what a restless mind like William Faulkner’s would make of a world in which an author wishing to fill in extra detail about an existing literary world need only write up the story, slap a title on it, and post it to the web.
At the same time, though, when it comes to literary fiction, perhaps we should be mindful of the special demands of print. The cost of printing and distributing physical books has never stopped bad books from being published, but it does raise the barrier to entry. It creates an intermediary rank of editors, agents, and publishers whose job it is to be rigorous with authors, forcing them to make their work as strong as it can possibly be. If the Web is the future of fiction – and how can it not be? – we don’t want to stifle innovation. Still, it’s a mistake to make it too easy for writers to reach readers, because part of what makes a story good is how many hurdles it has had to jump before it finds its way to a reader’s hands.
At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
In a previous essay, I interviewed four self-published authors I admire, and I examined some of the benefits of that career path. Midway through writing the piece, I realized I’d have to continue the discussion in a second essay in order to fully explore my feelings (complicated) on the topic (multifaceted). You see, Reader, I still don’t plan on self-publishing my first novel, though I don’t deny the positive aspects of that choice.
Below I’ve outlined a few reasons behind my decision, informed by our contemporary moment. I can’t predict the future, though I’m sure I’ll remain comfortable with my opinions for at least another thirteen months. It’s in a list format, the pet genre of the blogosphere. How else was I to keep my head from imploding?
1. I Guess I’m Not a Hater
People love to talk about how traditional publishing is dying, but is that actually true? According to The New York Times, the industry has seen a 5.8% increase in net revenue since 2008. E-books are “another bright spot” in the industry, and the revenue of adult fiction grew by 8.8% in three years. (Take that, Twilight!)
Of course, the industry has troubles. The slim profit margins of books; the problems of bookstore returns; the quandary of Borders closing and Amazon forever selling books as a loss-leader; how to make people actually pay for content, and so on. Furthermore, the gamble of the large advance strikes me as ridiculous — and reckless, considering that editors and marketing teams have no real clue which books will be hits and which ones won’t. (Still, what writer is going to kick half-a-million out of bed?) And there’s the always-chilling question: With mounting pressure to turn a profit, how do editors justify publishing an amazing book that might not speak to a large audience? Talented authors — new and mid-list — are bound to get lost in this system.
And yet. And yet. I read good books by large publishing houses all the time, books that take my breath away, make me laugh and cry and wonder at the brilliance of humanity. I trust publishers. They don’t always get it right, but more often than not, they do. As I said in the piece that started me off on this whole investigation: “I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.”
2. I Write Literary Fiction
Before you get your talons out, let me clarify: I don’t consider literary fiction superior to other kinds of fiction, just different; to me, it’s simply another genre, subject-wise and/or marketing-wise. Many of the writers who have found success in self-publishing are writers of straightforward genre fiction. Amanda Hocking writes young adult fantasy, dwarfs and all. Valerie Forster, who published traditionally before setting out on her own, writes legal thrillers. Romance, too, often does just fine without a publisher. Aside from Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann, I can’t think of another literary novel that enjoyed critical praise and healthy sales when self-published. That’s not to say that it can’t — and shouldn’t — happen, it’s only to point out that it’s a tougher road for writers of certain sorts of stories. Readers like me aren’t seeking out self-published books. Why not? That’s for another essay. (Please, can someone else write that one?) Until the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides and Alice Munro begin publishing their work via CreateSpace, I don’t see the landscape for literary fiction changing anytime soon.
3. I’d Prefer a Small Press to a Vanity Press
The conversation about self-publishing too often ignores the role of independent publishing houses in this shifting reading landscape. Whether it be larger independents like Algonquin and Graywolf, or small gems like Featherproof and Two Dollar Radio, or university presses like Lookout Books, the imprint at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, which recently published Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (nominated for this year’s National Book Award), independent presses offer diversity to readers, and provide yet another professional option for authors. These presses are run and curated by well-read, talented people, and they provide readers with the same services that a large press provides: namely, a vote of confidence in a writer the public might have never heard of. Smaller presses, too, enjoy a specificity of brand and identity that too often eludes a larger house.
In this terrific interview, publisher Fred Ramey of Unbridled Books puts it this way:
I believe that the iron grip that large publishers and their marketing partners have had on readers’ attention since the 1990s has slipped quite a bit with the arrival of online retailers and opinion-makers. Obviously patrons of online booksellers can see the breadth of reading options – “Others who bought this item also bought….” Patrons of independent bookstores know of those options, too, and depend on the recommendations of their booksellers. The few “designated” titles from the big house are still dominant, of course, even in independent stores. But if you are an author in one of those corporations whose book has not been “designated” your reality can become pretty stark.
Independent presses can offer a real chance to a talented writer who might not fit the formulas of the big house. Yes, I know that each conglomerate has a few imprints and a good many editors dedicated to the best of books — to maintaining the course of American letters. Those are the prestigious imprints that aren’t always required to pretend the sales of a prior book predict the performance of the next book. (I’m often astounded at how willing the industry is to act as though it believes that. We all know it isn’t true.) But independent presses are all dedicated to finding and presenting the best of books, dedicated to the books in and of themselves and to the promise of the authors.
A year ago, I published my novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with a tiny press called Flatmancrooked, and I consider it the highlight of my career so far. Not only did I get to work with a sharp and talented editor, Deena Drewis, and have my book designed by the press’s risk-taking founder Elijah Jenkins, I also had so much fun participating in the press’s LAUNCH program, where the limited first-edition went on pre-order for just a week. My book sold out in three days, and getting that first paycheck was exhilarating. My tiny book got me on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few awesome readings, and it even found its way to two different editors at larger houses. It became my literary calling card. When readers received my book in the mail, it was signed and numbered by me. It also came with a condom.
Flatmancrooked, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year, but Drewis has continued the LAUNCH program with her new press, Nouvella. The success of Flatmancrooked showed me that small can mean flexible and daring in its editorial and marketing choices. Small presses try things that large, established houses are too huge, and possibly too chickenshit, to even consider. The fact that Flatmancrooked is now defunct showed me that a labor of love is still a labor (especially when its laborers have other full-time jobs to go to), and that instability is unavoidable in the small press (or the small, small, small press) game.
Some writers are forever wed to the small press landscape. Others, like Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Benjamin Percy, and Emma Straub first published with smaller outfits and have since moved onto larger houses. Perhaps the small press world is becoming the real proving ground for literary writers.
4. Self-Publishing is Better for the Already-Published
Perhaps the smarter, and far more seductive, path is the one where the writer begins his career with a traditional publisher, and then, once he’s built a base of loyal readers, sets off on his own. The man who loves to talk smack about the publishing industry, J.A. Konrath, already had an audience from his traditionally-published books by the time he decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s much harder to create a readership out of nothing.
I’m interested to see how Neal Pollack’s latest novel, Jewball, does as a self-published book. Short story writer Tod Goldberg is also trying this approach with his new mini-collection, Where You Lived, self-published as an e-book. I don’t need an intermediary to tell me about these writers because their previously published books speak for them.
5. I Value the Publishing Community
I decided to ask the most famous writer I know, Peter Straub, if he’s ever considered leaving the world of big publishing and putting out a book all by his lonesome. After all, he’s a bestselling author and editor of more than 25 books (18 novels alone!), and he’s a horror writer beloved by genre geeks and snobby literary types alike. A few of his fans probably sport tattoos of his bespectacled face on their pecs. (Or: Peter Straub tramp stamps! Yes!) In an email response, Straub acknowledged how quickly the publishing world and our reading habits are changing, and he said he just might experiment with self-publishing short fiction in the coming years. He told me:
True self-publication means writers upload content themselves, and plenty already do it. I’m not quite sure how you then publicize the work in question, or get it reviewed, but that I am unsure about these elements is part of the reason I seek always, at least for the present, to have my work published in book form by an old-style trade publisher. The trade publisher, which has contracted for the right to do so, then brings the book out in e-form and as an audiobook, so I am not ignoring that audience.
What he went on to say gave me a special kind of hope:
Most of the editors I have worked with over the past thirty-five years have made crucial contributions to the books entrusted to them, and the copy-editors have always, in every case, done exactly the same. They have enriched the books that came into their hands. Can you have good, thoughtful, creative editing and precise, accurate, immaculate copy-editing if you self-publish? And if you can’t, what is being said about the status or role of selflessness before the final form of the fiction as accepted by the audience, I mean the willingness of the author to submerge his ego to produce the novel that is truest to itself?
This — this! — I get. Even though my first novel was rejected by traditional publishers, one assistant editor’s notes on it — notes that were thorough, thoughtful, challenging, and compassionate — were enough to show me that these professionals are valuable to the process of book-making. I know you can hire experienced editors and copy-editors, but how is that role affected when the person paying is the writer himself? What if the hired editor told you not to publish? Would that even happen?
6. The E-Reading Conundrum; or, I don’t want to be Amazon’s Bitch
Many self-published authors have gone totally electronic, eschewing print versions of their work altogether. I can’t see myself taking that route, however, because I don’t own an e-reader, and I don’t have plans to buy one (not yet, anyway… I read a lot in the bath, etc., etc.). It seems odd that I wouldn’t be able to buy my own book — I mean, shouldn’t I be my own ideal reader? I also prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and in fact, I pay full price for my books all the time. The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6” for “The Big 1.”
7. Is it Best for Readers?
In September, when my brother-in-law learned that my book still hadn’t sold, he said, “Please don’t self-publish!” He was actually wincing. If I did self-publish, he said, he’d buy it because we were family, but otherwise, he’d happily ignore my novel in search of something he’d read about on The Millions, or heard about on NPR, or had a friend recommend. There are simply too many books out there as it is.
Our conversation reminded me of Laura Miller’s humorous and perspicacious essay, “When Anyone Can be a Published Author,” in which she reminds us that the people who celebrate self-publishing often overlook what it means for book buyers and readers. She writes:
Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices. So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?
As a member of the reading public, I am not prepared, or willing, to wade through all that unfiltered literature. As a writer, I must put my head back to the grindstone and write a book that more than a handful of readers can fall in love with.
8. I’m Busy. Writing.
Today I wrote two pages of my new novel while my mother took my five-month-old son to the mall. I get twelve hours of childcare a week, and six of those are dedicated to preparing for my classes and running a private writing school. The other six hours I devote to my new novel. The old one, the one that traditional editors didn’t go nuts for, is in the drawer. Some might say I’ve given up; I say, I’m just getting warmed up. I’m still writing, aren’t I? My career isn’t one book, but many. And like every other writer out there, I decide what road I want to travel.
Image credit: purplesmog/Flickr
In the 1990s, a scourge swept across the world of entertainment. It threatened the livelihoods of those in the creative industry and presented a world where the average person, dwelling in obscurity, could be plucked from the masses and made a star. It was equal parts thrilling and horrifying. No, I’m not talking about the internet, I’m talking about its cultural predecessor, reality television. Reality TV was supposed to devour television. It was going to make writers and actors irrelevant, and single-handedly lower the national reading level by two full grades. Reality television became shorthand for stupidity and quickly found a place as a scapegoat for one side or another of the culture war. These shows, with their cameras hidden and seen, were Orwellian nightmares come to life, Jean Beaudrillard essays in pixelated form. They were the beginning of the end of the world. Except that they weren’t. They didn’t really do any of the things they were feared to do. And yet, though their overall presence on the airwaves is a fraction what it was at their peak, their influence remains enormous.
We can say this now, from our perch in the shiny new decade. We’ve largely moved on to other fascinations, other distractions. We’re scapegoating Twilight now, and we’re all terrified of the internet. Or we’re terrified of Twilight and scapegoating the internet. Paris Hilton has moved on to Twitter. We’ve all moved on to Twitter. But it wasn’t too long ago when none of this seemed possible. It was a time before Lost, before The Wire, before the end. It was the glory days of reality television, and it all started on a cable network that had hours to fill, and little money with which to fill them.
MTV wanted to make a soap opera. Like all the new cable networks, they had to fill the hours. America, it turned out, had an insatiable appetite for television, and the new cable networks were struggling to keep up. Some of them turned to re-runs of programs that had been modest hits in their original network incarnations — the My Two Dads and Eight Is Enoughs of the world — while others made cut-rate game shows and aired Just One of the Guys four times a day.
MTV had tried a few different things to kill time — most notably, a twenty-year experiment in which they showed music videos in their entirety — but had finally settled on a strategy of appealing to youth culture: the eternal fountain of disposable income. MTV’s dilemma, however, was that, while it recognized that a soap opera would likely be popular and would round out its lineup of oversexed game shows and quasi-journalistic news programs, they lacked the funds to produce such a show. Their solution was brilliant — they’d simply make a show without actors or writers — two of the most expensive parts of any decent soap opera.
The result was The Real World, whose premise was neatly summed up in its introductory statement: “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real.” That I can remember this sentence, awkward though it may be, with greater ease than I can The Pledge of Allegiance is testament to the incredible success of The Real World. Not only is it the longest running program in MTV’s history (the network recently renewed the program for a 26th season), it created an entire category of programming and influenced some of the most successful shows on television today.
The first two seasons of The Real World contain the seeds of all reality television, as well some elements that would find their way into today’s most successful scripted programming. At first glance, the first season of The Real World appears to be a collection of random, diverse twenty-somethings thrown together in Manhattan. A closer look reveals that all of the cast members, from model/actor wannabe Eric Nies to writer/journalist Kevin Powell, aspired to a career in entertainment or the arts. The casting logic of the show was fairly simple: find some young people willing to try this experiment in exchange for some exposure. In this way, the cast member’s situation wasn’t unlike that of today’s bloggers and vloggers — they worked for free in exchange for an audience, presumably with the hope that the experience would translate into a career. For some it did; for others, not so much.
The first season of The Real World relied heavily on the pressures of their various careers for dramatic tension. We saw the characters balancing the time commitments of practice, rehearsal and performance with their newfound quasi-family unit back at the loft, a situation the young audience for the show could begin to appreciate. This balancing act — with help from some racial tension — blew up infamously when Kevin missed a group dinner meeting and was threatened with expulsion from the loft and the show. In the end, Kevin remained, but one could see that this episode, easily the most dramatic of the season, would not be an isolated incident in future iterations of the show.
Season two of The Real World is, arguably, the single most important season of any TV show of the last twenty years. It is one of those watershed moments that happens once or twice a generation. The first season of The Sopranos was such a moment. The third season of Mad Men, one could argue, was another. The second season of The Real World is so important because it revealed the flaws in the show’s premise and, more importantly, several ways to work around those flaws. It provided, in a way, the template for all of the major reality TV shows to follow, though one could be forgiven for not realizing it at the time.
The second season took roughly the same premise as the first and moved it to Los Angeles, where it played up the aspirational angle a little bit more. Again we saw characters who desired fame and success — singer Tami, comedian David, country singer Jon — and again there was a healthy dollop of racial and sexual tension. This volatile mix exploded mid-season when David “assaulted” Tami, pulling a blanket off of her after she repeatedly asked him not to, revealing her in her underwear. For this crime — something kids at camp do every summer — David was forced out of the house and off the show entirely.
Several aspects of the controversy are worth noting. Firstly, the incident initially appeared to be a joke. While the house was somewhat divided over how serious it was (from where I stand, it’s pretty clear that David was trying to be funny and, maybe, a little bit flirty), the general consensus, at first blush, was that it wasn’t a big deal. It was only after the issue was rehashed several times in the confessional that each person seemed to realize it as a moment of great import. One could almost see each cast member realizing that this made great drama as the issue built and built. In the end, the producers cited Tami’s request for safety and removed David.
Secondly, it’s no coincidence that the two characters at the heart of the major strife in seasons one and two were both black men. The Real World aimed to be a microcosm of American society, and at least in this respect, it succeeded. Black men would find themselves vilified and ostracized for much of the show’s run.
While the house may have been split on David’s departure, the audience ate it up. Removing him from the show turned out to be the single most interesting thing to happen that season. This speaks to both how dramatic the confrontation and aftermath were as well as to how boring the rest of the show was. No character signified the stagnation of season two more than country singer Jon, who spent nearly every minute of his screentime watching television and drinking Kool-Aid. The producers’ disgust with Jon must’ve been intense. How does one build an aspirational story arc around someone who refuses to do much of anything?
If season two hinted at the potential that overt conflict might play on the program, season three confirmed it. When the noxious Puck refused to play nice with his fellow cast members, particularly the saintly AIDS patient Pedro Zamora, he found himself voted out of the house by popular decree. Here, long before the phrase “voted off the island” became a popular idiom, we see the template that reality shows would use for years to come. If people tune in to find out if someone might get booted off the show, what if you kicked someone off every episode?
Additionally, season three marks one of the last seasons the cast members would be left to their own devices (Season four’s setting in London was interesting enough to generate drama on its own). In subsequent seasons, Real Worlders would be asked to do a variety of tasks, including working with children (a disastrous idea, considering that alcohol was fast becoming a vital component of every RW season) to running a tanning salon (okay, spray tanning salon, but still). The shows may not have lacked for drama, but they needed a scaffolding to hang that drama on, and it would have to come from outside the house.
It is difficult to remember how revolutionary that first season of The Real World felt. Here were people, attractive people, yes, but regular folks (something that would become less and less the case as the seasons wore on) living their lives. The emotion on the show seemed real. When characters fought, the scenes became simultaneously difficult to watch and irresistible. There was an untamed, unpredictable quality to these scenes that made them compelling. Something might happen; this was the “real world” after all. (The producers should be given some credit for simply getting out of the way. One has to imagine the network wasn’t pleased when the season one cast decided to de facto endorse presidential candidate Jerry Brown by painting the number for his donation hotline on the wall of their loft, and yet they allowed it.)
In addition to its unpredictability, the show was a voyeur’s dream. These people were fascinating! Watching them do the most basic things — eat a bowl of cereal or prepare for bed — felt illicit, like we were privileged to something special and unique. Nobody, it turns out, ate a bowl of cereal exactly like you did.
And when they revealed something unique about themselves — such as Heather B.’s infatuation with NBA all star Larry Johnson (“Larry Johnson is so fine!”) — it was revelatory. Reality TV almost certainly created the now ubiquitous straw man argument “Why do I care what you ate for breakfast today?” That this question is raised about so much that happens online is no coincidence. It’s certainly possible that our 90s diet of reality TV validated our own solipsism, which bore fruit during the latter half of the 2000s, when web 2.0 made it possible for us to share our own lives with the world.
Whatever the case, the initial infatuation with “reality” didn’t last. A few things broke the spell. For one thing, The Real World started to seem less and less real. Cast members knew the experiences of previous Real Worlders, lending the entire show a meta quality that it previously lacked. The first episode of every Real World season now consists mostly of people waiting to discover exactly how awesome the house will be. They also know that each season involves a trip to some fun, exotic locale, and they anticipate these trips, discussing where they might go.
This acknowledgment of the conceit is present in any long-running reality show. It can’t be that the women of The Bachelor all came up with the phrase “here for the right reasons” on their own, can it? Rather they learned that phrase through watching previous seasons of the show, just as the girls of America’s Next Top Model learned to scream “Tyra Mail!” every time the show’s producers drop off one of their cryptic missives. In fact, the dialogue of the shows is often so codified as to seem scripted. They may not have employed a writer to produce such gems as “Nobody wants to go home,” and “I’m not here to make friends,” but the result is the same.
For these programs, built around elaborate elimination rituals and repetition of formulas, this self-awareness is both inevitable and even desirable — if someone follows the show enough to know its every twist and turn, to be able to trace the patterns of the show, then the show must have truly reached a place of importance. It’s affirming for the product to be emulated in this manner. And when that emulation includes asserting, repeatedly “This is real, okay?”, all the better.
For other shows, the effect is less desirable. Certainly The Hills struggled to maintain its veneer of “reality.” It was difficult to convince the audience that Lauren Conrad was living anything resembling a normal life, even by the bizarre standards of an affluent LA party girl, when she was simultaneously the Teen Vogue covergirl and an intern at the magazine. It’s no wonder that the show’s “characters” seem to burn out after a few seasons. It can be difficult to keep up the illusion.
At some point, even the people on The Real World began to seem less real. Gone were the mildly overweight, the slightly odd looking. Each cast began more and more to resemble an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The show lost its ties to the artistic world (always tenuous at best) and became primarily about clubbing and hot-tubbing. It ceased to be a mirror into the everyday lives of its characters and became more the document of a long vacation.
The shift in focus from reality to fantasy isn’t unique to The Real World. Reality TV is no longer about reality, not the world that any of us live in, anyway (if it ever was). Most reality TV shows are just game shows containing reality TV elements. Survivor, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model, and The Bachelor are all long game shows in which the contestants play for a prize much larger than anything they might have won on The Price is Right (Indeed, on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, they compete for a spouse). No game show has made more of The Real World’s great revelation than American Idol has: that being real is all well and good, but what people really want is blood (metaphorically speaking). Idol was among the first shows to take the next step of involving the audience in the fate of its cast members, upping the ante just that much in the process. In fact, the show makes entire episodes out of the elimination ceremonies.
The only non-game show reality shows left are about people who were most decidedly unreal. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that we only wanted to watch people do nothing if we’d already watched them do something. Today, the only reality shows that simply follow people around in their daily lives are celebrity-based shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians (Featuring Kim Kardashian, a celebrity famous for appearing in the 2000s version of a reality show, the internet sex tape). The lone exceptions to this rule are what might be called “anthropological shows,” programs that aim to show us a life we will never lead. Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Wherever, The Hills, and the myriad shows about bizarre families are exemplar of this. Equal parts curiosity and incredulity attract viewers to these shows. Reality TV has ceased to try to show us normalcy, perhaps because it no longer needs to.
Around the time The Real World drifted into the land of fantasy, the internet emerged from its awkward adolescence to become a platform for personal expression that made anyone who so desired into a kind of quasi-reality TV character. One could write an online journal (they called them blogs) or video themselves doing… well, anything. With that kind of capability, reality TV was free to explore the less commonplace aspects of modern existence. Occasionally, the mundane still has the power to amuse — think about the craze created around The Situation’s summertime Jersey Shore regimen of G.T.L. (Gym, Tan, Laundry) — but it’s not like it was. For a few years there, watching people’s lives was all we really wanted to do.
Reality TV still has a massive footprint on television, but all but the biggest hits have moved back to cable, where they help fill the endless hours. That isn’t to say that reality TV’s influence isn’t felt in a variety of programs. The confessional, perhaps The Real World’s most important innovation, plays a key role in a new breed of sitcom. The casts of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and several other shows often sit alone in a room and confess their thoughts to the camera in a direct address. These shows revel in the mundane, appropriating the reality of The Real World and adding to it the perfection of scripted drama. They bring back some of the imperfections of the early days of reality TV.
It’s difficult to say exactly why we retreated from reality television. My own theory is that the watershed moment was the 9/11 terror attacks, a media event that was just a little too real. After we’d seen that, reality was dead, so to speak. We needed something other than ourselves, bigger than ourselves. HBO had already begun the counterrevolution, airing The Sopranos in 1999, and continuing with Six Feet Under before finally reaching its apex with The Wire. These were long-form narratives the likes of which a television audience had never seen. Where television had seemed hopelessly shallow a few years earlier, suddenly it was entering a golden age. Soon the networks were following suit, bringing out a series of expensive, indulgently fantastic dramas, most notably Lost, Heroes and 24.
It might seem like a stretch to call the late surge of “quality” scripted dramas a direct reaction to the glut of reality TV that permeated the networks in the late 90s, but it appears to be the case. Television moves in a somewhat cyclical manner, with each new generation proclaiming the death of the sitcom. Perhaps each subsequent generation will proclaim the death of reality TV.
If they do, they will be wrong, as the reality shows are proving as durable and adaptable as the sitcom, and it’s no surprise that MTV leads the pack in innovation. Just when it looks like The Real World is running on fumes, The Hills emerges from the ashes of Laguna Beach to become a phenomenon. As The Hills wanes and Lauren Conrad decamps the more lucrative world of young adult fiction, Jersey Shore arrives, tanned and fist pumping its way into the zeitgeist. In the world of reality, Ecclesiastes was right: “There is no new thing under the sun.”
[Image credits: MTV]
This was the year in which I read Twilight, in something less than forty-eight fevered hours, and thought: Tantric rape fantasy. And: Wait, is this a Volvo ad? This was also the year in which I read Tender Morsels, a young-adult novel by the Australian writer Margo Lanagan. It was a revelation, a dark, engrossing fairy tale whose intricacies and images are as haunting and impossible and psychologically freighted as a dream.
The opening of Tender Morsels is brutal: thirteen-year-old Liga, whose mother has been dead for several years, is unknowingly pregnant with her father’s child. She has a miscarriage, brought on by the herbs of a local “mud-wife,” added by her father to the fire in their dilapidated cabin at the edge of town. The narration, in the third person at this point in the story, sticks close to Liga’s perspective, betraying how little of what is happening she comprehends. From the confusion—the consequence of her father’s inexplicable aggression and abuse, compounded by her isolation and her ignorance—Liga’s own eccentric voice emerges like a quirky, irresistible melody. It is a voice in love with language and its idiosyncrasies, that has no problem ginning compounds or changing nouns to verbs, that sees the herb smoke “cauliflowering out of the fireplace, fogging the air.” And she has an ear. Her second abortion, this one brought on by bitter tea, takes place on a “blossomy, bosomy, rotting night. . . [b]ut in from that night kept sidling the thin black witch who was the pain.” After her father is trampled by a horse and dies, Liga, pregnant again, stands over his dressed corpse “all mix-feelinged and waiting.”
Soon the novel turns fabulous. Liga, by now fifteen and the mother of two (one her father’s child, one the result of a gang rape by five boys from town), disappears into a world of her own invention, which, the reader comes to understand, is her personal heaven: a snug cabin in the woods where she can do her sewing (repairing, repairing) and her daughters can grow up graceful and unafraid. This is where the magic of Lanagan’s plotting begins to take effect, when the thin membrane separating Liga’s heaven from the real world is punctured.
The novel argues for language and its salvific possibilities, and explores the relationship between trauma and the imagination. In Lanagan’s moral framework, fantasy is the consolation for sex, but fantasy’s seductions are potentially the more dangerous and damaging. It is the best kind of book: a book that makes you want to write, but pins you to your chair and demands that first you finish it.
I like to be delighted and watching Brooklyn duo Matt & Kim (Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino) at the El Rey Theatre in downtown Los Angeles last week, I was. If you enjoy anything half as much as these two enjoy performing, count yourself among the blessed. And their pleasure is infectious: you might well feel, as I did—misanthropic soul that I am—a pleasure hardly less than theirs in watching them. The energy of their music and performance style is infectious too, which you’ll know if you’ve heard “Daylight,” the duo’s best and most popular song (it is, perhaps unfortunately, now featured in a Bacardi commercial). If you haven’t, check out the video:
While there are bands that will impress you more with musical virtuosity and melody, Matt and Kim’s sound—arresting in its beat-driven-ness and bright in its jangly piano and synth-poppiness—has an insistent, invigorating effect. If you watch the music video for “Daylight,” note the scene in which Matt and Kim are sitting in a dumpster, nestled amidst the trash, playing their instruments. A man throws more trash in on top of them and they continue to play. Kim continues smiling her radiant smile (also a little unsettling in its relentlessness), and keeps pounding her drumsticks on the edge of the dumpster. Watching this, listening to it, I feel strangely as if I am in the presence of a euphoric musical reincarnation of Samuel Beckett: “Quand on est dans la merde jusqu’ au cou, il ne rest plus qu’a chanter.” (When you are up to your neck in shit, there’s nothing left to do but sing.)
Beckett’s Endgame also comes to mind: Nag and Nell in their ashbins—toothless, legs amputated but still asking for pap. The duo’s other videos—I’m thinking particularly of “Yea Yeah” and “5K“—reveal the world of absurdist comedy and violence to be milieus familiar and comfortable to the Brooklynites. The world may be a nonsensical and painful place, they seem to say, but if we choose to approach it with sufficient energy and humor we might achieve that best of modern states (Beckett again) “I Can’t Go On, I Must Go On.” Matt & Kim’s lyrics have an abstract nonsense quality that evokes e.e. cummings as well—the words might seem not to mean anything but, perhaps, for our time, they mean everything:
I have five clocks in my life
and only one has the time right
I’ll just unplug it for today
I’ll just unplug it for today
Open hydrant rolled down windows
This car might make a good old boat
And float down grand street in daylight
And float down grand street in daylight
This is what our life is: Ordered nonsense that we all accept helplessly (“Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah, Yea Yeah…”), but the horror is lessened if we can approach it with energy, pound the shit out of it with an uncompromising beat. The video for “5K”, banned on American MTV, shares a certain kinship with Daniel Johnston’s song “Devil Town,” best known in its cover versions by Bright Eyes and Tony Lucca. For all of the little and not-so-little girls mooning over the creepily paternalistic and Humbert-Humbert-y Edward from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Matt and Kim’s “5K” video speaks much more intelligently of our culture’s resurgent love of vampires than does the idiotic and thieving Twilight series. (We are all vampires now, even authors of vampire fiction. Twilight is an amalgam of plot elements sucked from the barely dead Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and the still quite alive Sookie Stackhouse novels, with a bit of Shakespeare and Emily Bronte more explicitly snatched and patched in along the way. Only the faults of Stephenie Meyer’s novels are her own–Would that she had imbibed more in the way of character and dialogue from Joss Whedon and Charlaine Harris, or, albeit less probably, from Shakespeare and Bronte.)
No, the happy dismemberment of Matt and Kim’s “5K” video displays a jolly cannibalistic feast that leaves everyone dead at the end (and recalls in its homemade gorefest effects early Peter Jackson movies like Dead-Alive); in this, it shows us the vampires we have become unbeknownst to ourselves. We consume violence in our movies, our food (most of which, as it is currently produced, makes the planet and its creatures suffer), our wars, our dependence on cheap consumer goods whose cheapness is the result of exploitative labor practices. We cannot abstain from vampirism, as Twilight’s Edward does. To be dismayed by the video—man happily dismembering man with eating utensils—is to see our culture plain, a culture that we cannot but participate in. Our inexhaustible appetite for new stuff, our willingness to countenance inhumanity in the name of efficiency and convenience makes us all petty Draculas.
But I digress. Matt and Kim’s bodies proclaim how delighted they are that you are listening to them and it is an experience rare in its authenticity and energy. Whether Kim’s smile, or her biceps, or her sailor’s mouth is more impressive (according to her husband/Matt she has been described as having “the body of a 15-year-old boy and the mouth of a 69-year-old sailor”) is yours to decide. I also note that the show at the El Rey is the only one I have been to where crowd surfing was actively encouraged and participated in by the band, as well as tolerated and managed by the stage security. But don’t trust me. I am a paranoid, delusional melancholic with a tendency to over-read. See for yourself! The band is on tour in the States through October, and then in Europe through December. Worth a look and a listen, in spite of Rolling Stone’s mild dismissiveness.
I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak. Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything. But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs. It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake. It’s that they aren’t enjoyable. They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter. Perhaps I ask too much. And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).
I think it’s the books. Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:
A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say. After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River. It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV. Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me. It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me. Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention. More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference. I did really like the last page. So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages. Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.
London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read. Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel. (Uppers, maybe.) To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore. It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you. You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime. When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov. I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for). It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.
The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing. I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained. Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days. The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining. I found it powerful, but unpleasant.
I really admired what Lessing did in this novel. Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious. It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit. I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus. When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun. What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady! How about that?
Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately. Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites. First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them). When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.” But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion. As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too. Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.
The Skating Rink: Sigh. I was so looking forward to this. I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order. But it was lacklustre. It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student. Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat. If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think. Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty. So does pre-ordering.
Those are my companions in the rut, friends. I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable. First, The Black Book. I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak. The man is married to melancholy. Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central. But it looks heavy (like, heavy). I’m going to the beach next week. Will my location be incompatible with my reading material? I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight. I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions. What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck? Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her? Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington? How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?
I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.
It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.
It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.
We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.
He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.
Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.
Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.
More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.
For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.
Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.
He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.
I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.
He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.
I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list.
I think: what the hell am I doing?
He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)
I think: what the hell am I doing?
The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.
You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.
Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.
I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.
He asks me if I am on Facebook.
I write yes.
Let’s be Facebook friends.
Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)
I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.