Inter Alia

Inter Alia #9: The Aquarian Age is All the Rage

A few weeks back, in a review of Christopher Sorrentino's Trance, I remarked upon the recent proliferation of novels about the counterculture of the 1960s and about its turn toward violence. The book reviews in this week's New Yorker would seem to confirm the trend. The lead item in the "Briefly Noted" column concerns Susan Choi's A Person of Interest, which takes as its point of departure a fictional version of the Unabomber case. Meanwhile, in an essay generous in both length and tone, James Wood reviews Peter Carey's His Illegal Self (about the child of SDS radicals) and Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions (about "swinging London's" revolutionary underground.)Wood suggests, with characteristic perspicuity, that the Age of Aquarius offers novelists room to explore "ideological radicalism" without having to address September 11 and political Islam. To which I say: Right on! As we at The Millions have noted before, the world-historical developments of the last decade seem to demand novelistic attention; at the same time, they've become so freighted with symbolic and ideological meaning as to seem inhospitable to levity, or irony. DeLillo's Falling Man, to name one September 11 title, was hobbled by its temporal and emotional proximity to the events it considered. The farther it drifted from these events, the more alive its characters seemed.It's worth noting, however, that the historical attraction of the Age of Aquarius predates the explosion of "ideological radicalism" into the public consciousness, circa 2001. Sorrentino, Choi, and (I'm guessing) Dana Spiotta began writing about the radical underground way back in the Clinton era, which marked, we were told, "the end of history." Which points to another, related reason why contemporary novelists may find the '60s so fertile. That was a time, it seems, when a classless society actually seemed like an achievable goal... when it was possible to argue, with a straight face, that "All you need is love." For a writer concerned to dramatize ideas, this sort of political ardor is hard to resist. (Think, e.g., of Dostoevsky.) Nowadays, as Hari Kunzru's narrator remarks, "Ideology's dead.... Everyone pretty much agrees on how to run things."
Inter Alia

Inter Alia #8: Whither the Short Story?

I.In the ongoing conversation about the future of literature, novelty is a rare thing. For at least forty years, American novelists and critics have been worrying about the fate of the novel - and of reading itself - and though the finer points of the argument have changed, the basic contours have stayed remarkably constant. Electronic mass media poses a threat - or at least a serious challenge - to literature; the novel functions as a kind of coal miner's canary, a bellwether for the health of the culture at large.I'm sympathetic to the need to assert some kind of narrative control over the technological revolution, but I had assumed the stance of a weary spectator at the "death of the novel" when, in the fall of 2007, a diagnostic shift piqued my interest. Suddenly, it seemed, it was the short story that was ailing. Witness Stephen King's introduction to the Best American Short Stories anthology:[American short fiction,] if not quite dead on the page... [has become] airless, somehow, and self-referring... show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open."Or witness the introduction to the second issue of the literary quarterly Canteen, which took issue with King's assessment. Or witness another excellent lit-mag, One Story, whose "Save the Short Story" direct mailings reached me alongside pleas from Planned Parenthood to save reproductive rights and from the ACLU to save civil liberties.II.Though the hue and cry seems abrupt, the conditions for the short story's endangerment have been developing for a quarter century. Once-reliable "general interest" venues like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post have disappeared from newsstands. The New Yorker long ago ended its practice of running several stories per issue. Esquire has drifted away from the stringent editorial commitments of Gordon Lish. Harper's confines itself, more or less, to a stable of old hands. The Atlantic recently cut its monthly fiction offerings altogether, in favor of a single annual "fiction issue" (part of a series of missteps that included putting Christopher Hitchens on the masthead and spending 30 back-of-the-book editorial pages helping people with too much money figure out how to spend it.) In 2007, fewer than 100 short-stories were published in the traditional general-interest outlets.At the level of the little magazine, the current trend seems to be toward ever-more print outlets with ever-smaller circulations... good for building the C.V.s of aspiring writer-academics, but bad for generating consensus around work of surpassing distinction. And the economics of running a print magazine outside the institutional shelter of the academy are inhospitable to longevity, as we can see from the recent folding of the print editions of Grand Street, Pindeldyboz, Ballyhoo, and numerous others. Websites such as failbetter.com have begun to fill the gaps, but it will be some time before online publication supplants print as a commonly accepted arbiter of the good and the beautiful.Not surprisingly, things get even grimmer when we turn to the publishing houses. I won't claim that my own inability to sell a collection of short stories is attributable to anything other than their own shortcomings, but I will note how many complimentary rejection notices from publishers tend to end with phrases like "...but you know how hard it is to market book of short stories" or "of course, a novel would be more marketable." It is nearly impossible to imagine a word-drunk ephebe moving to New York to become a short-story writer, as so many New Yorker contributors did at mid-century. Given the prospects for remuneration, you'd be better served to move to wherever the cost of living was cheapest - North Dakota or Guatemala.Interestingly, however, the transformation of the literary marketplace has not dampened the supply of short stories. If anything, the opposite. In the aisles of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Book Fair last weekend, I passed literally thousands of aspiring novelists looking to publish their short stories. It became obvious that my preliminary sketch of distribution mechanisms for the short story had failed to account for a technology even more important than the Internet: the photocopier.The photocopier is the single indispensable technology for the rise of the graduate creative writing program - there are now more than 350 - and the graduate creative writing program is without question the single biggest contributor to the boom in short story production. The pedagogical staple of M.F.A. programs is still the workshop, and the workshop requires complete, coherent, and (above all) short bits of fiction that can be photocopied and distributed to eight or 10 classmates. Chapters of novels, shorn of context, are difficult to work with. Stories on the short side - 3,000 to 5,000 words - are best, if one wants to avoid pissing off one's peers. The ideal workshop story can be digested in a week, returned to the writer with comments, and improved. How? Through the application of a certain set of principles of what the short story should be. We call these principles, collectively, "craft." In the fiction workshop, "craft" is king, simply because it's teachable. Thus writing teachers, themselves former M.F.A. students, tend to talk about Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor as if it were their formal balance, rather than their deep strangeness, that brings their stories to life.Think about the numbers: 350 fiction programs. 3,000 new graduates per year. Each taking let's say four workshops, each of which requires three submissions. That's 36,000 short stories for each graduating class of writers, who have worked to convince each other that the top 1% of short stories - those that come closest to generating workshop consensus - may be published in a literary magazine. A literary magazine whose readership may largely comprise writers looking for a place to publish their short stories. "Guarded self-consciousness" starts to look like a mathematical inevitability. Perversely, then, the greatest danger to the short story may be the very institution that's sustaining it.III.Yet, even if the foregoing manages to capture something true, I've neglected all the factors that guarantee that the short story will survive in the 21st century... and even thrive. First, there is the durable insanity of writers, which a proper education channels, rather than cures. To be sure, some workshop students are angling for literary celebrity, and others rightly see graduate school as a comfortable alternative to a desk job. But my own experience suggests that a significant fraction of M.F.A. candidates write short stories because, like Chekhov and O'Connor, they are helpless not to. These are the writers I want to read.Second, there is the competitive pressure on editors to create venues for the short story that stand out in a crowded marketplace. In addition to the upstart publications mentioned above, recent years have seen the advent of such forums as McSweeney's, Zoetrope: All Story, The Oxford American, 9th Letter, A Public Space, Black Clock, and NOON... This is not to mention the continued excellence of Conjunctions, Witness, Callaloo, ZYZZYVA, and The Paris Review, to name a few.Finally, the very shortness of the short story ensures its necessity in our new century. Like the sonnet, it is both a form and a discipline, but the short story also offers its acolytes remarkable freedom. Because the reader absorbs it in a single sitting, it has the capacity, like Seamus Heaney's swans, to "catch the heart off guard and blow it open." And for the writer, there is the possibility that anything may happen on the page, in a way that there isn't, quite, in a novel. I think of my favorite living practitioners of the short story - David Means, Edward P. Jones, Diane Williams, and Deborah Eisenberg (about whom I'll be writing later this week) - and I remember a series of surprises, like colored scarves drawn from the sleeves of magicians. That is, I see cause for celebration.Perhaps "saving" the short story simply means to read it, devotedly, and to write it, when called, and otherwise to let the market sort itself out. We could do worse than to follow the example of Henry James - no short-story slouch himself - who wrote, "We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."
Inter Alia

Inter Alia #7: Up, Obama, or Deja Vu in South Carolina

This weekend, as part of a recent David Foster Wallace kick, I decided to revisit "Up, Simba," an 80-page essay on John McCain and postmodern politics. On assignment for Rolling Stone, Wallace spent the final week of the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary embedded in the McCain campaign. McCain ended up losing to George W. Bush, and shortly thereafter withdrew from the race. This year, however, a resurgent McCain looks increasingly plausible as the national GOP nominee. I was hoping that re-reading Wallace's essay (republished in Consider the Lobster) might offer some insight.Well, a funny thing happened on the way to enlightenment. Wallace's sympathetic portrait of McCain the man and conflicted take on McCain the legislator struck me as entirely credible, just as they did eight years ago. "Up Simba's" account of the tactical logic of primary politics, though, now looked positively prophetic... of the 2008 Democratic campaign.See if these phrases, scrubbed of their referents, ring a bell:"Something about [Candidate X] made us feel that the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or dollars, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a smell from childhood or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us hear cliches as more than just cliches.""[Candidate X] drew first-time and never-before voters; he drew Democrats and Independents, Libertarians and soft socialists and college kids and soccer moms.""The grateful press on the Trail transmit - maybe even exaggerate - [Candidate X's] humanity to their huge audience, the electorate, which electorate in turn seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness.... The people are cheering for [Candidate X] not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him.And then there's Candidate Y, who as a member of a presidential dynasty has been the front-runner until some early primary upsets. Whose "campaign advisors... are the best that $70,000,000 and the full faith and credit of the [party] Establishment can buy." Who "charges that [Candidate X] is fuzzy on policy, that he's image over substance." And who, in South Carolina, puzzles Wallace by "going negative." When Wallace asks a shrewd group of network news technicians for their analysis, and they illuminate the "solid, even inspired" logic behind the move:[Y's] attack leaves [X] with two options. If he does not retaliate, some SC voters will credit [him] with keeping the high road. But it could also come off as wimpy...[or as ] "appeasing aggression"... So [X] pretty much has to hit back, the techs agree. But this is extremely dangerous, for by retaliating - which of course... means going Negative himself - [he] looks like just another ambitious, win-at-any-cost politician, when of course so much time and effort and money have already gone into casting him as the exact opposite of that.... [The] race could quickly degenerate into just the sort of boring, depressing, cynical, charge-and-countercharge contest that turns off voters and keeps them away from the polls.Which pretty much captures exactly how I've been feeling lately about the Democrats.It bears saying that, in matters of policy, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are more like each other than they are like McCain or Bush. It also bears saying that the strategic carping of the Clintons doesn't seem to have done them any good in South Carolina. Still, this year's Democratic primary race seems to be unfolding along weirdly familiar narrative lines. "Up, Simba," hamstrung by the Generation-Y affect of its tone, is not one of Wallace's finest pieces of prose. But if you're interested in a shrewd analysis of the presidential horse-race - in which no candidate is above the compromises and conflicts of politics - you might consider putting down the David Brooks and Maureen Dowd and picking up DFW.
Inter Alia

Inter Alia #6: DeWitt Goes Digital

From anecdotal evidence, Radiohead's In Rainbows experiment - distributing the album via website, on a "suggested donation" basis - seems to have been a success. As it begins to market In Rainbows through more orthodox channels - CD pressings, iTunes - the band remains mum about the total number of downloads and the average donation amount, but most of my friends who downloaded the album seemed to have settled on 5 quid - 10 bucks. Certainly, as a marketing concept, In Rainbows has burnished Radiohead's reputation as The World's Most Interesting Big Band. Now, it seems, the equally interesting novelist Helen DeWitt is trying something similar: releasing short stories subsidized via PayPal donations."Every once in a while," DeWitt writes on her website, The New Yorker's, Harper's asks me to submit some short fiction. I then have an inner debate. I never read the fiction in the New Yorker's or Harper's, and I tend not to submit stories to magazines whose stories I tend not to read. So the question is, what should I do? ...It seems dishonest to write a story I would not want to read, so I send in a story or stories I've written and the New Yorker or Harper's says it's not quite what they're looking for. I thought I'd publish a few stories on my website for the kind of reader who tends not to read the stories in the New Yorker or Harper's.Two stories - "In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16K Having Once Been Young" and "The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto" - are then excerpted; with a $5 PayPal donation, a reader can download them in their entirety as Word documents. "If you'd like to customise the stories with images or your preferred formatting, you can," DeWitt notes puckishly.DeWitt's iconoclastic first novel, The Last Samurai, made my "Year in Reading" list in 2007 - seven years late. Her second book, Your Name Here (written with Ilya Gridneff) has yet to find a publisher. I had mixed feelings about the excerpt in the Winter issue of N+1, but I admire DeWitt's aesthetic gumption, as I admire Radiohead's. And, as DeWitt points out, PayPal's "30 cents + 3% on each transaction" fees compare favorably to the numbers game of traditional publishing.I'm confident some Millions readers out there have some thoughts on the future of DiY distribution (which, it should be noted, dates back to Gutenberg). What, if anything, does DeWitt's PayPal project portend for authors? For readers? As always, your thoughts are welcome below.
Inter Alia

Promoting the Book (Inter Alia #5)

Last week, for the first time, I held in my hands a copy of my first book of fiction, A Field Guide to the North American Family. The experience is often likened to that of holding one's firstborn child, and if the comparison seems hyperbolic in terms of intensity - this was more of a low-boiling excitement than a world-altering epiphany - it seems to capture the peculiarly unmixed nature of the emotion. In the words of Edith Piaf, Non, je ne regrette rien.And now it's time (as you've probably inferred), to promote this puppy, which should be hitting shelves in the early days of October. And what to do? The media industries are so saturated in advertising strategies that not to advertise has itself become an advertising strategy. It's no longer possible to be Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo - at least, unselfconsciously. Jonathan Franzen learned this the hard way. At the other extreme, self-promotion stunts designed to land oneself on the gossip sites seem to rob authors of one of the few things that still separates them from Hollywood - their inherent dignity.A complicating factor in my case is the unusual degree of collaboration involved in making the Field Guide. The book's design is remarkable, and I had very little to do with it. I thus have a warm feeling not only toward the design team (Christopher D Salyers assisted by Eliane Lazzaris), and the press (Mark Batty Publisher) but to independent publishing as a whole. Richard Nash makes some good points about "the sausage factory" in his recent LBC post, but as his publication of Wayne Koestenbaum's Hotel Theory shows, there are certain books that only the existence of the independents makes possible. Books that must be seen to be believed. And though I feel weird saying it, this is one of them.And then there's the photography. Over 100 established and emerging photographers submitted a total of 700 images for consideration to the Field Guide website, of which 63 were chosen to appear in the first edition, alongside the text of the novella. Tema Stauffer, Gus Powell, Brian Ulrich, Grant Willing (who shot the image above)... These photographers gave generously of themselves, free of charge, and they're doing fascinating work independently of this book, in a field whose dynamics resemble those of publishing. I feel a bit like Duke Ellington, or Lyle Lovett with his large band. Or maybe like Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, at whose feet I learned that it's best not to shove, and that reaching an audience on your own terms doesn't have to mean selling out.That is, I want not only to have you read my words, but also to call attention to the community that made it possible. So I think, in the coming weeks, I'll try to use this space to direct your attention to the work of my collaborators, rather than to write too much about my own end of things. I'd like to start with Timothy Briner, a Chicago-based photographer who contributed the image for the chapter "Secret" in the Field Guide, and whose "Boonville, USA" project documents the death and life of America's small towns, to moving effect. Take a gander at www.boonvilleusa.com. And thanks, in advance, for being part of the journey.(image courtesy of Timothy Briner).
Inter Alia

Inter Alia #3: Master Blaster

Piqued by Leon Wieseltier's huffy take on James Wood's exodus to The New Yorker, many commentators seemed to overlook the paper of record's tacit endorsement of the proposition that Wood is "brutal," blasting away at our frail eminences. Isn't he that vicious British critic? an English professor recently asked me. In fact, Wood is anything but.In September, The Quarterly Conversation will be publishing a long essay in which I try to illuminate Wood's shortcomings as a critic of contemporary American fiction, but it feels important to me now to note that these shortcomings arise from Wood's fundamental virtues as a critic, namely his passion for, and faith in, literature... just as Faulkner's excesses are inseparable from his gifts. Wood himself may not assent to E.L. Doctorow's axiom that "excess in literature is its own justification," but he is its exemplar.Wood incites passionate disagreement - making him a rare nut in the tepid oatmeal of our media culture - and is hard on writers who leave him wanting. Quite often, he is wrong about them. But Wood does not hate books, or even novelty. He presents a pretty persuasive platform for his criticism in his 2005 essay "A Reply to the Editors," directed at N+1. It is, along with his conflicted review of DeLillo's Falling Man, one of the best things he's published recently. For as long as he's at The New Yorker, I'll enjoy reading James Wood, and rising (I hope) to his provocations.Isn't this what citizenship in the republic of letters is supposed to mean? [Click to read Inter Alia #1 and #2.]
Inter Alia

Inter Alia #2: George Packer and the Fetishization of Politics

Generally, the appearance of a new in-house blog at one of the country's major media organs arouses in me roughly the same degree of enthusiasm I feel when the Yankees sign yet another star free agent. Granted, there are some fine journalists doing casual posts for The Atlantic and The New York Times (and presumably for less money than Matsui). But with various parent corporations already feeding me much of what I read in print or see on the tube, I'm content to reserve my time online for voices from outside The Glittering Heart Of It All. That said, I was pleased last week to see that The New Yorker's George Packer has launched a blog.You see, I'm one of the "predictable" yahoos who happens to feel that Packer's coverage of the Iraq War and its discontents has been more incisive, forthright, and morally engaged - more, in a word, serious - than almost anything else in the major- or minor-league media.It is true that Packer has declined to flagellate himself publicly for his initial support for the war. Nor has he attempted to dissemble. His "ambivalent," liberal-interventionist stance is announced early (and without undue pride) in his book, The Assassin's Gate, whereas the paragraph that summarizes every last damned wrong thing about the war is held until well after page 400. Indeed, it is part of the structural and ethical intelligence of The Assassin's Gate that most of what comes in between focuses on the people Packer interviews and the things he sees. As Lawrence Weschler might put it, Packer "reports the s--t" out of this story, without trumpeting the risks he runs to do so.That The Assassin's Gate emphasizes the tactical as well as moral folly of the war may suggest to ideologues of a different stripe that Packer still sees the war's goals as "noble." A considerably more nuanced reading of the book suggests that Packer hopes to illuminate anew how hell is reached through good intentions as well as bad. Which is crucial in an age that has, in Frederic Jameson's formulation, forgotten how "to think the present historically" - that is still shucking and jiving about what went on five years ago. In struggling to correct for ideological bias through the careful accumulation of evidence, Packer managed to convince me (who marched against the war) that the harm of our continued presence outweighs our responsibility to buy what we broke. His subsequent reporting has strengthened, not softened, this conviction.Though I recognize that aiming for the Ideal may be the surest way to change the Real, I'm not certain that the ideological purity tests rampant among my fellow leftists haven't contributed to a political muddle that continues to permit this war. Indeed, they sometimes strike me as a form of blindness. In declaring his own politics as such and then reporting facts that expose them as misbegotten, George Packer has been, it seems to me, precisely and honorably opposed to Christopher Hitchens. And for that matter, George Bush. Moreover, though a pageant of public contrition may be something we've come to expect from our presidents, of our reporters we should merely ask them to report. On the evidence of his first few postings to "Interesting Times," George Packer continues to do just that.(Click here to read "Inter Alia #1: Notes Toward a Sporadic Column.")
Inter Alia

Inter Alia #1: Notes Toward a Sporadic Column

I'm still working out my relationship with the blog as a critical organ... I guess, in a way, we all are. My thoughts, as visitors to this site may have noticed, tend equally toward the associative and the forensic. And yet, as a gift to you, the reader, I'd like to carve out a space in which I can share some of my less strenuously worked-out thoughts about the state of the art of fiction, and about culture more generally. (Lucky me, you're probably thinking.)These "ideas," if I can call them that, may turn out on closer inspection to be completely bogus. And yet I'm feeling the need sporadically to turn the power of the blog as an instrument of feedback away from such epiphenomenal questions as, "Doesn't John Colapinto seem weirdly peevish and thin-skinned this week" and toward less sexy developments that may still have some bearing on American culture a year from now... or a decade from now. That is, I propose to engineer a column on literature here at The Millions that advances beyond "link-bait," even as it stays brief, casual, and interactive. I want to invite other writers working online, or stuck in the cubicle farm, to pick up on and respond to my less topical provocations, here or elsewhere, just as they might respond to a public gaffe by a former child star, or a book review in The New Republic.I'd like to call this column "Inter Alia," which is Latin for "among other things." It will appear irregularly, like a meteor shower (or perhaps more likely, an unwanted guest). It will be about the length of what follows.Inter Alia 1: Genre MadnessI'm going to raise a few questions, by way of experiment, about the continued relevance (or irrelevance) of notions of genre. It seems to me that the canonization of Philip K. Dick by the Library of America is a healthy development, and not just because it encourages snobs like me to consider speculative fiction alongside the main body of "realism" in our reading lives. It is also (I think) a manifestation of a long trend, with younger American writers gleefully sinking their teeth into the pop tropes of what was previously dismissed as "genre fiction," and "genre" writers like Dick being hailed for their literary merit. (Let's set aside for the sake of argument the high-low brinksmanship of Modernists like Joyce and Borges, similar in degree but different in kind). Kelly Link's Small Beer Press, e.g., has done a lot to remind us that the postmodern leveling of "high" and "low" culture distinctions is not just political - it can be fun. Simultaneously, "Literary Fiction," as Gerald Howard and others have argued, is moving from being a descriptor to being a genre in and of itself, with its own generic conventions. Call it lit-fic: a label no more a guarantor (or compromiser) of literary value than is "Western," or "Sci Fi."Michael Chabon, it seems to me, is one of several 40-ish writers working toward a unified-field theory that harmonizes the best of lit-fic and its discontents. And yet, notwithstanding the wisdom of John Leonard, who suggested at a panel recently that getting too hung up on a book's genre is a form of stupidity, I find myself struggling with The Yiddish Policemen's Union. On one hand, it's a staggering feat of imagination, and often a great read. On the other, the stylized cliffhanger chapter endings (cribbed from gumshoe novels and children's books and Saturday matinees), the sometimes cartoony dogpile of figurative language, the comic book characterization, and the almost parodically rococo plot seem to me to obscure the promise of a brilliant premise: an alternative postwar history that turns Alaska into a Jewish homeland.This may be nigglingly small-minded, and would be a mere footnote to a longer review. Chabon clearly invested years in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and has taken significant risks, and I think he deserves a wide readership. But I want to be honest about my reading experience. If this were a children's book, like Summerland, or a melancholy lieder, like The Final Solution, I might swallow my resistance. But Chabon wants me to take to heart the adult sufferings of his hero, Meyer Landsman, and this particular book's generic patrimony interferes with my ability to do so. I keep feeling dismissed from the suspension of disbelief, like Adam and Eve booted from the garden. I keep feeling reminded of the book qua book. Am I just hung up in an old-fashioned need to classify, as I once accused Michiko Kakutani of being? Or are there certain compositional principles underlying the successful genre mash-up, the way a mash-up mp3 requires that two songs have affinities of key and tempo? And if so, how do writers put them into practice? How do readers evaluate a genre-straddling book by the standards of one genre without using the other as an alibi? Discuss.