The Radical Class Consciousness of Queer Regency Romance

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With splashy Jane Austen adaptions and Netflix’s Bridgerton hitting screens, Regency fever is more prevalent than ever. The Regency Era, a period of British history roughly spanning 1795–1837, has long enjoyed an outsized place in the contemporary imagination. Its empire-waist gowns, sprawling manor estates, and deliciously repressed sexualities make for some of the most iconic backdrops for romantic plots. These plots often follow a Cinderella-like arc: not only does the scrappy heroine win her hero in the end, but she marries up, finding economic security for herself and her family through her new role as Duchess or Viscountess. The typical Regency story imagines perfect continuity between emotional and financial needs. Property is transferred and wealth consolidated with a kiss.

But a new subgenre of queer Regency-era romance are turning the manor-house love story on its head. For the protagonists of recent novels by Joanna Chambers, KJ Charles, Alexis Hall, Cat Sebastian, and Olivia Waite, falling in love inevitably leads to economic ruin, and so much for the better. Like Jane Austen and her successors, these writers never pretend that love and money can be separated. But they suggest that queer love may contribute to the erosion of wealth and the strict nuclear family inheritance structures that protect it. It unravels the social fabric, rather than weaving spunky heroines into its cloth.

This emergent genre has become especially resonant as of late, when gay rights feel alarmingly fragile once again. For more than a decade, the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States has made gay love a private matter for those who could afford middle-class respectability, an act that transgresses no laws and presumes no political allegiance. That privacy is now under siege from a Supreme Court abetting minoritarian rule, having articulated its interest in overthrowing Obergefell v. Hodges alongside Roe v. Wade. Within this context, queer intimacy feels more political again, even for middle-class LGBTQ people who don’t concern themselves too much with labor and anti-racist organizing. Since Regency-era romances feature gay love in an era where sodomy was criminalied, they necessarily align the lovers with the most marginalized in society. In consequence, these novels imagine queer love and sex as always political. Rather than repeating the Cinderella dream of marrying up, they invent a new one, no less fantastic: romantic love as a conduit to solidarity.

The woman who popularized the Regency fantasy is not well-known outside of romance circles, but her fingerprints are all over the ongoing obsession with the period. Georgette Heyer helped to invent the historical romance novel during her prolific career; from 1921 to 1974, she penned 32 romances and 22 books of other genres. Heyer was a devotee of Austen and a passionate researcher of the Regency era, filling her books with period details. She was also a terrific snob. Her novels almost exclusively concerned the upper classes and the social machinations of the London ton, or seasonal parade of nobility. When a member of the landed gentry fell for an unworthy ingenue in a Heyer romance, she was often revealed to be of surprise noble birth. Far more troubling than Heyer’s obsession with status is her racism and anti-Semitism; she traded in offensive stereotypes as a matter of course. But her influence on the genre cannot be overstated. When today’s queer romance writers embrace the loss of social prestige, they are writing back to Heyer, with affection and rebuke on every page.

Heyer’s assumptions about what made for a good romance have become embedded in the structure of the genre, defining its rhythms in tandem with its politics. Her heroines often express twentieth century sensibilities and are rebuked by their more conventional associates. Nevertheless, her endings are always conservative. A modern attachment to romantic love never gets in the way of reproducing class hierarchies. As romance scholar Pamela Regis puts it, “The marriage is companionate. It also satisfies dynastic conditions. In this, Heyer has it both ways.” This means that the historical romance novel, like the Shakespearean comedy before it, ends in closure—namely, with a betrothal. The line of inheritance is preserved; the estate is safe. Lively, headstrong young women are incorporated into the ancestral home, rather than disrupting it. This ending still pays dividends in period pieces—take the central romance of PBS’s Downton Abbey (2010-2015), which has a twentieth century setting but what we might call a Regency structure. A Regency romance could describe any narrative in which romantic love preserves and consolidates the existing social hierarchy, with minor additions for spice. In Downton Abbey’s case, heroine Mary falls in genuine love with the one and only person who will inherit her father’s estate, ensuring that it remains in the family. As usual, a traditional ending is awfully convenient.

This genre has continued into the present in heterosexual romance, with meaningful updates. Regency romances of today often challenge the legitimacy of the aristocracy, acknowledging the pernicious, previously silent presence of slavery and colonialism in propping up characters’ wealth. They may also incorporate feminist heroines with their own career aspirations, not to mention elements of kink, such as Scarlett Peckham’s excellent Secrets of Charlotte Street series, albeit in a slightly earlier eighteenth-century setting. However, the educated, kinky heroine of today often still gets her duke or viscount in the end. I have no problem with this; romance is an escapist genre, one that has both embraced and grappled with the problematic angles of desire for many decades. But the recent emergence of the queer Regency romance is attempting something completely new with the genre, something that preserves its pleasures while upending its conservative structure.

Take, for instance, Cat Sebastian’s first novel, The Soldier’s Scoundrel (2017). The relationship between aristocratic Oliver and working-class Jack goes sour when Jack decides their class differences are insurmountable. “No matter what you do,” he tells Oliver, “I’ll be the sordid part of your life.” Ever more determined, Oliver sets off in hot pursuit of disgrace. He learns how to cheat at cards and hires two brothel workers to sit in a private room and play games with him. Eventually this campaign of self-sabotage has its intended effect; Jack comes to retrieve him. The dissipated Oliver tells him, “No matter how often I told you that I want you more than decency or honor or rules, it wouldn’t get through your thick skull. So I decided to show you.” The two men take up suitably shabby lodgings together and resolve to be happy all their days. As it turns out, there is no grander gesture than giving up one’s decency.

In effect, this novel imagines disgrace as the fall from both economic and social status at the same time. Giving up one’s decency, or moral good name, has inescapable financial consequences. To live in the truth outside of heterosexist morality means living in light squalor. The stakes for this kind of disgrace are relatively high; embracing it, as Oliver does, makes for a rather affecting commitment to one’s beloved scoundrel. Unlike the traditional Regency novel, these texts perceive love as primarily inconvenient, disruptive rather than coherent, and worth it all the same.

In a recent interview with romance blogger Sam Hirst, Sebastian described her plotting philosophy. “I couldn’t just do the same set pieces, the same tropes,” she said. “Romance, as we’re used to it, it restores order.” Sebastian builds here on fellow romance author Racheline Maltese’s observation that the romance genre at present has a “compliance wing” and a “liberation wing,” in which the protagonist must either “bend themselves” or “bend the world” to find their joy. Sebastian’s work necessarily belongs to the liberation wing. Since the relationships she writes about are illegal, the lovers have to “challenge the order of things. I can’t have them be like, happy and rich at the end.” As Sebastian describes it, queer desire threatens the logic of all forms of social hierarchy.

In Sebastian’s 2018 novel, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, the protagonist begins the story clinging to his precarious position in London’s polite society. Through his love affair with a free Black man who operates a working-class pub, he gives up his ambivalent and shame-tinged affiliation with aristocracy, befriends his servants, lies to the police, liquidates his wealth to repair the collapsed pub, and takes up rooms above it with his lover, his former servants, and their illegitimate child. In this novel, love and sex are the routes out of respectability and into community.

By rejecting the ominous threat of losing social capital, these novels dismantle the primary narrative tension that has historically propelled the genre. The risk of a property becoming entailed, or of losing one’s creature comforts, is deflated when disgrace becomes a real and appealing option. Alexis Hall depicts this option with comedic aplomb in Something Fabulous (2022), which gives up Heyer’s pretense to realism in favor of a silly, universally queer, and genre-savvy romp through the countryside. The protagonist Valentine, a duke who has a sudden and disorienting sexual awakening, jilts his new lover when he claims he has to put the dukedom first. Everyone else in the novel finds this noble gesture preposterous. When he confesses all to his mother, she calls him ridiculous. “I have to marry,” he protests, repeating the party line, “to secure the line of succession.” “Darling,” his mother replies, “what’s-his-name can inherit. Your uncle William’s son.” She snaps her fingers. “Ernest. That’s it.” In a single blow, Valentine’s mother rejects the menace of Austen’s Mr. Collins and a hundred other inheriting cousins besides. She also advises him to forgive his tenants’ debts and settle money on the young lady he originally intended to marry. Rather than transferring wealth through the closed intimacy of a marriage, the novel implies, an estate can be diffused through a network of social responsibility and affection.

Of course, this reimagined Regency ending is still a fantasy of its own kind. These writers imagine long-term romantic intimacy as inherently compatible with social justice. Giving up respectability never seems to threaten the basic sustenance and happiness of the primary characters. In Joanna Chambers’s Enlightened (2014), love interest Lord Balfour deliberately disgraces himself in a gentleman’s club, an act that, for complicated plot reasons, simultaneously frees him from an unwanted engagement and rescues a friend from her abusive marriage to another Lord. This, too, is a powerful fantasy of convenience. He enjoys his degraded status in domestic bliss with protagonist David, exiled from London but nevertheless cozied up in his quiet Scottish estate. Taking a stand has never been so relaxing.

I note the impossible happy closure of these novels by no means as a critique. Romance is, again, a pleasure genre, one never primarily attuned to verisimilitude. And those of the genre that do devote themselves to collective action above tortured desire and swoony sex scenes can come to feel like eating one’s literary vegetables, which is not romance’s purpose. The best of the genre manages to make class traitorism an essential component of the pleasurable romantic plot. What, after all, is more appealing than a distinguished gentleman in breeches ready to throw over all his privilege for love of you? This emerging subgenre can teach us a great deal about how queer and queer-supporting readers fantasize. Love is no longer a realm beyond politics. On the contrary, we want to imagine a world in which the delicious quickening of queer desire leads us to reconceptualize social hierarchies—and in which that undertaking is successful, with lots of filthy sex and quiet Sundays in the bargain.

As we face an uncertain future for LGBTQ rights, we might learn from these books how to reconfigure our fantasies. In these novels, the success of love consummated and communities reunited always means economic sacrifice, if not outright poverty. A happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean permanent safety or wealth. The queer theorist Jack Halberstam once called this idea the queer art of failure. Sebastian goes a step further. She too advocates for queer precarity, but paints it with such lush detail that it feels like an escapist fantasy, a place we might want to dwell. Along with her contemporaries, she wields underappreciated literary skill to depict fantasy material in the context of precarity and loss. The fact that these books manage to find pleasure—social, carnal, and literary—in such a scene is nothing short of a miracle. We may find them both inspiring and comforting in the fight to come.

Jackie Johnson, Deborah Thurman, and Laura Vivanco contributed many helpful insights to this essay; the author is very grateful. 

Shelf Life: On the Stories Our Books Tell About Us

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For the last two years I’ve worked almost solely from home, meaning I spend most of my days on  video calls. The setup of my apartment is such that there are few good places to Zoom. I take most meetings from the hallway near my bedroom, an interior passage where, over a decade ago, my dad and I built shelves for all my books.

Are you in a library? a co-worker once asked me. No, I laughed. Although it does feel like it here sometimes. I’ve also been asked: Is that a fake background? And, perhaps the most common question: How many of those books have you read?

I probably should know the rough ratio of the books I’ve read to the number of books I own. But I don’t. I’ve added and subtracted too many titles over the years. Besides, when it comes to the books a person puts on display, sometimes the actual books themselves are beside the point.

The first proper bookshelf that I ever owned was in a shabby Chicagoland walk-up during my last year of college. The place had bad water and clanky radiators, but I loved it because the mantle of the broken fireplace in my bedroom was perfect for the little cache of novels I had begun to assemble. At that stage in my life the books I owned were signals to be sent as much as texts to be read. Looking at them on the mantle, they conjured a future world where I would be an adult who did meaningful things. For the young and ambitious, it’s almost instinctual to surround yourself with books that prefigure who you intend to be.

I still own many of the big books from that first line-up: Joyce’s Ulysses, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Despite parading them on my shelf, I knew almost nothing about these novels—I had not read them. But my professors and peers I admired spoke of them with reverence, and like a good apprentice I did as I was told when it came to book buying.

A confession that will surprise no one: the books on that first bookshelf were not there for purely intellectual pursuits. I was 20 years old, after all. I flirted with more than one girl by showing off the books in my keep. Why yes, that’s a hardcover copy of The Satanic Verses. Yeah, I’ve read it. It’s actually pretty good. So tell me, what kind of books do you like?

Skip ahead a few years to a fifth floor walk-up in Brooklyn Heights. By then I had a full-time job and I owned enough (cheap) furniture that I needed help moving into my new place. I paid two burly Eastern European guys to haul my stuff up five flights. They didn’t speak much English, and I don’t remember them saying much except: You have too many books.

For that Brooklyn apartment I bought two freestanding bookcases for the vestibule,making my books the first thing visitors saw upon entering. I was showy with those bookcases, performative. But that was the stage of life that I was in. I was still collecting anything that looked like it would fit on the shelves of my life, and I was still overeager to show off my learnedness–or more precisely, my hunger for learnedness–to anyone that stopped by. On weekends I’d prowl used bookstores for new additions to my collection. One day I’d bring home something old, like a Brontë. Another day, something borrowed from a friend, like Beloved. Or something blue, like Breakfast of Champions.

I worked in the Financial District and often returned home quite late, sometimes because I was at the office toiling away, but usually because I was out with coworkers or friends or both. Stayed out till three or four in the morning. Tired, eyes raw, tipsy, at the far end of a night I’d hike up the stairs, one, two, three, four, five stories and turn the key in the apartment door and there they were, waiting, silent, judgy: my books. Right where I’d left them.

If the books on my first bookshelf were once signals for who I wanted to be, then the books on those Brooklyn shelves were reminders of what I still needed to do. There was in the solemnity of their silence something that made me feel more than a little chastened. I was 26 by then. Had I made any headway on the books I’d intended to read? Had I forgotten all the ambitions I had, in both literature and life? The rows of books were long lines of dares, double dares, triple dares. Get to it, boy, their spines all read.

My Brooklyn roommate had an actress girlfriend who sometimes spent weekdays at our place while my roommate and I were at work. She embarked on a project to read through every book of interest in the vestibule. I said she could read whatever she liked. I admired her determination, but envied how much time she spent with the books I had not gotten around to reading. I moved out before she got through everything.

Not long after I moved out of the Brooklyn apartment, I visited my brother in Austin. All I remember now about his place are the milk crates where he kept his books. He had lots of books—some of them gifts from me—but he didn’t like owning books. It costs more to keep a book, he said, than to buy a new copy every time you want to re-read it. Because how often do you reread most books? I presume he was right about the math, seeing as he’s an engineer. But I didn’t really believe what he was telling me. His equation left out something that can’t be counted. Yet it did do one important thing: it forced me to accept that the books you keep aren’t kept just for reading or rereading.

Two months after our son was born, my wife Raina and I moved into our current apartment in upper Manhattan. Walking with Raina through our new, empty rooms, we asked that age-old question: where to put all our stuff?

For me, the ideal place for the books was a wall near the master bedroom. It was an out of the way spot where guests were unlikely to see the books. The opposite of the primo placement I had wanted for bookcases in apartments past. But I was after something else. In this space, I’d see the bookshelves every day when I went to bed and first thing in the morning when I got up. That was more than enough for me now.

It was a challenge to fit all the books into the narrow passage. Shelving units would crowd the space. Luckily, my dad offered to build custom shelves. When I was a kid, he built the bookshelves in our living room, which was where we stored the full set of encyclopedias that my mom bought, one volume at a time, from the supermarket near our home. For weeks he and I traded emails about the design, placement, and materials. For the first time in  at least a decade I had to count how many books I had in order to figure out how many shelves we needed. The final number made me sheepish. That’s all right, he said, when I told him we needed far more shelf space than I originally estimated.

As a kid, I remember my dad lounging on the beach reading mass-market paperbacks—Cussler, Clancy, Grisham. He didn’t pick books to impress people, not that I could tell. He wasn’t the kind of person to cultivate a pretentious bookshelf. He just built them. You read books for yourself; you built shelves to hold things. It didn’t have to be more complicated than that.

To put the new bookshelves together, my dad stayed in our New York apartment for a long weekend. The two of us worked for two long days installing and then pulling out and reinstalling materials. I say we, but really, I just held things; he made measurements, drilled, hammered, and fixed anchors in drywall. If a shelf was wiggly, he’d mutter to himself, Nope. It’s fine, I’d say. He shook his head. You’ve got that little baby, he said. He’s going to climb these shelves when you’re not looking. These have to be strong enough to hold the books and his weight, too.

The end result was, is, beautiful. Six white shelves, each about nine feet long. The first is a foot off the floor and the last is less than two feet from the ceiling. My son is 10 now and the shelves likely wouldn’t hold his weight, but he’s past the age where I worry. I’m not sure what the absolute upper limit is for the number of books the shelves can hold, but I can tell you that it is more than enough for my purposes now.

Thanks to the pandemic, more people see these bookshelves than any other setup I have, now that I work in front of the books on a daily basis. An ironic twist, I suppose, in the long history of all the books I’ve set in a line over my life.

A month ago I culled 52 books from the shelves. Books that I still have not read, or that I read and don’t care to keep. I like the look of the shelves without those books: the revised line of spines now more closely follows the line of my life as it has been lived—what I show on a bookshelf these days is less and less about an imaginary self that I wish I could or should be. I’m not trying to show off what I am reading, not trying to impress anyone. Now my bookshelves remind me of where I’ve been, who I am, and what it’s taken to get here.

The Literary Afterlife of F.O. Matthiessen

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Even if you’ve never heard the name F. O. Matthiessen, you’ve felt his influence if you’ve read Walden, The House of Seven Gables, or Moby-Dick, or any number of American literary classics. As a Harvard professor from 1929 to 1950, Matthiessen helped solidify the stature of American writing at a time when “literature” often meant English literature. His most enduring legacy is as one of the founders of American Studies, an interdisciplinary field that draws from multiple areas of study, but especially history and literature.

Francis Otto Matthiessen was born February 2, 1902 in Pasadena, California. His father, Frederick William Matthiessen, Jr., was heir to the company fortune of Westclox, makers of the well-known Big Ben alarm clock. Matthiessen attended Yale College, graduating in 1923. Yale blossomed into a Rhodes Scholarship with two years at Oxford, followed by graduate study at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1927.

As a scholar and author, Matthiessen was especially attuned to writers who were as yet unknown or outside the boundaries of accepted literary tastes. His first book Sarah Orne Jewett was the first literary biography of the 19th century author, now considered a foundational figure in American literary regionalism. Some of his subjects were canonical insiders-in-the-making: At the time Matthiessen published his books, The Achievement of T.S Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry (1935) and Henry James: The Major Phase (1944), neither writer enjoyed the stature they do today.

American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman remains Matthiessen’s best-known work. Published in 1941, it surveys the writing of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman, who published many of their seminal works in the window of 1850 to 1855, in the run-up to the Civil War. The book contributed to the birth of American Studies and secured Matthiessen’s reputation as one of the leading critics of his day. But since the peak of Matthiessen’s popularity in the early-to-mid 20th century, literary scholarship and studies has largely moved on. Matthiessen’s understanding of canonical literature skewed white and male, whereas most critics and writers today debate the relevancy of a canon in the first place, much less who gets into it. Despite some of its outdated views, the book undeniably helped shape a new discipline—a rare feat, especially in the humanities—so Matthiessen has remained a force to contend with in scholarly debate, even if only to react against his ideas and literary judgments.

Despite Matthiessen’s wealthy family and his privileged path to the ivory tower of academia, he was an ardent socialist activist and champion of economic equality. A great friend to organized labor, Matthiessen believed that civil and political freedom meant comparably little if not accompanied by economic opportunity and security. He helped found the Harvard Teachers’ Union, which tried to build bridges to other segments of the labor movement; vocally supported the 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidate, Henry Wallace; and was associated with at least eight groups deemed “subversive” by the U.S. Attorney General in the late 1940s.

Matthiessen spoke out on just about any topic connected to progressive politics, except the one that touched his own life most directly: homosexuality. Matthiessen was a gay man involved in a relationship—effectively, in all but name and legal rights, a marriage—with the painter Russell Cheney. Matthiessen himself used the word “marriage” to describe their relationship: “Marriage! What a strange word to be applied to two men! Can’t you hear the hell-hounds of society baying full pursuit behind us?” Cheney was 20 years Matthiessen’s senior, but they had much in common: they both came from wealthy families, were educated at Yale, and were members of the college’s elite senior society, Skull and Bones. The two men met on the ocean liner Paris in 1924, and up until Cheney’s death in 1945, they remained a couple, establishing their home base in Kittery, Maine. Matthiessen had long struggled with depression, but it was compounded by unspeakable grief after Cheney died. On the night of March 31, 1950, Matthiessen checked himself into the Manger Hotel, which stood near North Station in Boston, and jumped from a twelfth story window.

Since Matthiessen’s death, there have been three scholarly books published about his legacy, as well as many articles examining everything from his criticism to his politics to his homosexuality. But surprisingly, Matthiessen has enjoyed a curious literary afterlife thanks to the work not of scholars but of novelists.

In 1952, just after Matthiessen’s death, Truman Nelson’s novel The Sin of the Prophet was published. Nelson was a self-educated, working-class writer, who made his living at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. Nelson had once heard Matthiessen speak at an organized labor meeting, and recalled his words that the person who meets “the ultimate challenge of life is the one who can be with the oppressed against the oppressor.” Afterward, Nelson wrote a letter to Matthiessen, and they started meeting regularly on Sundays, Nelson’s only day off. The Sin of the Prophet, which Nelson dedicated to Matthiessen, is a historical novel that opens a window into pre-Civil War Boston, dramatizing Unitarian minister Theodore Parker’s attempts to defy the Fugitive Slave Act and secure freedom for Anthony Burns, an escaped slave. Like Matthiessen, Nelson was indebted to 19th century American authors, especially Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville. Whereas Matthiessen read these authors to envision greater socioeconomic equality, Nelson read the same authors, along with Matthiessen’s analysis of their work, to agitate for greater racial equality.

The Sin of the Prophet was followed by May Sarton’s 1955 novel Faithful Are the Wounds, an uneven book that tells the story of Harvard Professor Edward Cavan, who dies by suicide, purportedly over his failed progressive political activism. Sarton makes ample use of the facts of Matthiessen’s life, such as his support for Henry Wallace’s Presidential campaign and the legal battle over Matthiessen’s bequests to “subversive” organizations. But Sarton never captures in a believable way Cavan’s motivation for taking his own life: a parallel storyline to Matthiessen’s heartbreak over the loss of Cheney, the most important relationship of his adult life, is absent from the novel. Sarton, herself a lesbian who settled in York, Maine, not far from where Matthiessen and Cheney made their home, drops beads about Cavan’s homosexuality, describing him as “not the marrying kind,” but goes no further. This was not an unreasonable calculation to make. In the mid-1950s, Sarton could not write about an openly gay character, at least if she wanted to see her book in print by a national mainstream publisher.

Perhaps the most richly imagined novel inspired by Matthiessen came from Mark Merlis in 1994. Merlis worked principally as a health policy analyst in philanthropy and government, but he also wrote four well-received novels. His first, American Studies, toggles back and forth between the present story of Reeve, a former student of the Matthiessen-like character Tom Slater, and Slater’s past story of sexual entanglement with a male student, his entrapment by Harvard, and his ultimate suicide. Merlis’s book embroiders the facts of Matthiessen’s story more than Sarton did: Slater dies by putting a gun in his mouth, rather than jumping from a hotel window. Nor was Matthiessen ever accused of or suspected of molesting any of his students. But Merlis captured and expressed the practical and emotional uncertainties that LGBTQ people experienced in pre-Stonewall America.

Louis Hyde, Matthiessen’s Skull and Bones brother from Yale, also contributed to the scholar’s curious literary afterlife by editing a collection of Matthiessen and Cheney’s love letters, Rat & the Devil: Journal Letters of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney, in 1978. (“Rat” and “Devil” were Cheney and Matthiessen’s respective Skull and Bones nicknames.) On his death, Matthiessen left his house in Kittery to Hyde, as well as roughly 3,100 letters that he and Cheney had exchanged in their lifetimes. A heterosexual investment manager, Hyde was an unlikely editor of a collection of gay love letters. Yet something about Matthiessen and Cheney’s love story captured Hyde’s imagination.

Matthiessen’s homosexuality often made him feel like an outsider, or at least an outsider trapped in an insider’s body and life, so he was frequently sensitive to the role of outsiders in capturing truths about life in America. It may seem surprising that a gay, politically progressive, socialist opponent of economic inequality should be such an astute interpreter of American life and in America and its native literature. But then again writers like Matthiessen are often the ones who most clearly see the divergence between America’s professed ideals and its reality, and who identify those aspects of America society that the self-appointed “defenders” are usually unwilling to acknowledge. As he wrote in the early 1930s: “Our most powerful individuals have again and again been dangerously isolated from or opposed to society as a whole.” Matthiessen recognized the power of this perspective, and Nelson, Sarton, Merlis, and Hyde have in turn recognized Matthiessen’s work and life as expressing something essential about American life, too.

How Being a Ghostwriter Has Shaped My Fiction

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Like most writers, I’m surrounded by characters. But unlike most writers, my characters are real. My characters have won Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys. They’ve won Super Bowls, World Series, and Olympic gold medals—a Presidential primary, even. They’ve explored the depths of the oceans, the bowels of our criminal justice system, and the halls of Congress.
I make my principal living as a ghostwriter. I write books for actors, athletes, politicians, entrepreneurs, game-changers—people you’ve heard of, and people you’ve never met until their books start to make noise. I help them to give voice to their experiences, and to speak into their lives in a meaningful way.
That’s the idea, anyway, and somewhere in there I suppose I also find a way to shed a shaft of fractured light on the human condition. Some of that light makes its way into my own books, which I guess is inevitable, because what you discover in one aspect of your work is bound to follow you into another.
Taken together, these collaborative efforts have helped me see what it takes to succeed at the very highest level—or, at least, they’ve left me thinking about it. Also: what it means to stumble, how to hold a dream out in front of you and find a way to reach for it, when to bet big on yourself and when to play it safe.

For all the successes and adventures my characters have had, they’ve also known hardship and pain. Krystyna Chiger, my co-author on the memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, hid with her family for 14 months in the sewers of Lvov, Poland, now part of Ukraine, during World War II, through the worst of the German occupation. (The title comes from the green sweater knitted by Krstyna’s grandmother, which the then seven-year-old wore during her terrifying confinement. It was later displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and in touring exhibits all over the world.)
Richard Picciotto, an FDNY battalion commander, was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed on September 11. He was in the seventh-floor stairwell when the building came down around him in an avalanche of steel and concrete and glass. When the dust cleared, he thought he’d been buried alive, but by some great confluence of miracle and moment he was able to clamber to safety. I had the privilege of helping him tell the tale in his book Last Man Down. Together, we walked the “pile,” still smoldering, in the weeks following the attack, and I listened as he shared what it was to crawl from darkness to light, to rebuild a life from no life at all.
An Alaskan bush pilot named Ed Hommer survived a small plane crash on Denali during the worst of winter. Two people were killed. A heinous storm kept rescuers from the site for five days, and Ed Hommer lost both legs to frostbite. When his life spiraled out of control in the months following the crash, Ed decided to climb back up that mountain, and after he became the first person to summit North America’s highest peak on prosthetic legs, he recreated those moments for me in interviews for our book The Hill and taught me about the force of an iron will and the measure of resilience.
Each time out, there are lessons to be learned from the stories of my “characters”—lessons that come into play when I sit down to write fiction and look to tap my own voice.
Consider: my latest novel is out this month, and it seems to have something to say about legacy and belonging. In Balloon Dog, about a brazen art heist gone sideways, I ask readers to reflect on the meaning of art—something I find myself doing when I’m breathing the rarified air of some of the celebrated “characters” that are my writing partners. The story turns on the bungled theft of a massive Jeff Koons sculpture, setting in motion a tangle of variously broken characters out to shake some of the disappointment from their lives.
The idea for the book came to me in bits and pieces, in and around the time I was hanging at Aoki’s Playhouse, the spectacular home of DJ Steve Aoki, while we were working on his memoir Blue: The Color of Noise. Steve lives and breathes on the cutting edge of popular culture, is one of our leading tastemakers. The music he plays in clubs and festivals all over the world, sometimes to audiences of more than 100,000 , pulses with the beat of a freight train and sets the tone for the music that finds us on the radio, in our local clubs, in the air around. But it’s not just about music with Steve. He’s also an avid art collector with a keen eye for beauty and color. The walls and surfaces (and nooks and crannies!) of his home on the outskirts of Las Vegas, overlooking the strip, are covered with contemporary art—art that I could never afford or hope to understand. Art that demands your attention. Art that pushes you to reflect on the place you’ve made for yourself in this world, and the body of work you might leave behind.
The centerpiece work in Steve’s living room is a playfully menacing Banksy sculpture of Mickey Mouse being eaten by a snake, from the artist’s legendary “Dismaland” exhibit. The piece made me laugh and think about the subjective nature of art. Who decides what’s good and what’s not-so-good? What are the market forces at play that determine which artists resonate with collectors, or which authors resonate with readers? How do we decide what to embrace and what to ignore? I hadn’t known it just yet, but these questions were very much on my mind as the idea for this book took shape, perhaps because I’d gotten to a place in my career where I was very much in demand as a ghostwriter, and not so much as a novelist. (On my website, I refer to myself as a “widely-underread novelist”—a line that amuses me and eats at me, both.)
Eventually, I got to imagining a story that would leave me room to explore the meaning of art and the disappointment that often comes with a creative life.
In each of my novels, I’ve populated my fictional worlds with characters that have sometimes been inspired by my work as a ghostwriter. In Balloon Dog, for example, certain peripheral characters bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the schemers and dreamers I met while I was hanging around with Daymond John of Shark Tank to co-write his book The Power of Broke. One particular moment in the novel channels the angst and uncertainty of Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, as we shared in her memoir All Things at Once, in which she worries about her ability to be a good and attentive mother while actively pursuing a career as a broadcast journalist.
And between the lines, there’s the uncertainty and out-of-placeness that I came to understand while helping to write the story of a young man named David Good, the son of a Yanomami tribeswomen from the remot corners of the Venezuelan rainforest and an American anthropologist from the wilds of New Jersey. More and more, with David’s story in mind, I found myself thinking about what it means to have a foot in two distinct worlds, to move about the planet both from a place of need and a place of plenty. That tug-and-pull also made its way into Balloon Dog. From the late Gilbert Gottfried, I learned of the disarming power to be found in being outrageous and outspoken—a power that often masks a quiet vulnerability. From Serena Williams, I discovered things I didn’t know I wanted to say about perseverance and the pursuit of greatness. From former First Daughters Maureen Reagan and Ivanka Trump, I learned what it means to look out at the world through a lens distorted by privilege or celebrity, and how the ways we see ourselves and our families don’t always align with how the world looks back in turn. And on and on…
One hand washes the other, but both wash the face. That’s a familiar proverb that goes back over 2,000 years to Seneca the Younger, and stretches all the way to a Kanye West lyric that still feels vibrant and relevant. I offer it here as a reminder that the work we writers do on the one hand can’t help but color the work we do with the other. Fiction, nonfiction, autobiography, memoir—my book or theirs—it all part of the same stew in the end.

On War and Literature

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While it is not the most wicked injustice of war, it is still a barbarity that so much of our attention is on the murderers and not the murdered. An argument can be made—good, valid, and true—that the names of those who start wars must stay on our lips as a curse, but let others do that, because I don’t want to do it now. To focus only on the monsters it is to reduce the innocent dead to corpses. Piles of rubble, of shoes and books and toys, of twisted bodies. We imperil our own conscience if we forget such evidence of life. Which is why I will not tell you the names of the two officers in the Japanese Imperial Army who, according to the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun engaged in a contest to see who could first kill a hundred Chinese civilians during the invasion of Nanjing. According to the paper, one man had killed 106 innocent humans and the other 105, with both lieutenants “going into extra innings.” I will not tell you the name of those two officers because I do not know the names of the 211 women, children, and men whom they murdered. I will not tell you the names of these lieutenants because I don’t know the names of the 150 additional people they killed the following day. Such atrocities “did not penetrate the world consciousness,” writes historian Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, “because the victims themselves had remained silent,” and so I will not say the perpetrators names, for they had their own opportunity to speak at their trials.
During the six weeks of invasion that started in December of 1937, and 200,000 Chinese civilians were murdered, with at least 20,000 incidences of rape (both numbers are likely lower than what really happened). Robert O. Wilson, an American physician in Nanjing, recorded in his diary that the “slaughter of civilians is appalling. I could go on for pages telling of cases of rape and brutality almost beyond belief,” and he does. The doctor would testify at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after the war’s end; in 1948 that same commission executed the two who were involved in that horrific contest. Whether or not it’s good and righteous and just to execute those who commit such crimes, I do not know. As to if it’s true or not that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, I have no real opinion. To take any human life makes me uneasy, but I will tell you that deep in my heart, I do not mourn for those two officers on the gallows, nor does the thought of them in Hell bother me, and whatever that says about me is something that I probably should have more concern about. I know that atrocities are committed by normal people, that those two may have grown up in loving families, that they may have delighted in their wives and children. I know that these soldiers were not demons, but that they were humans, and that that is all the more terrifying.
“Almost all people have this potential for evil, which would be unleashed only under certain dangerous social circumstances,” Chang writes. Also, important to remember that if everybody is capable of atrocity, only a small percentage of humans actually do so, lest we obscure evil in the gauzy miasma of moral universalism. Yet the question of what drives men to such wickedness is forever unanswerable. Why are some Adolph Eichmann and Josef Mengele and by contrast others are Mahatma Gandhi or Oscar Romero? Chang’s research involved discovering the involvement of German businessman John Rabe who established the Nanking Safety Zone, where through diplomatic immunity he was able to protect civilians and saved 200,000 people. Rabe was also a dedicated member of the Nazi Party. The only thing more mysterious than human beings is grace, whatever the origin of that grace might be. Separate from historical scholarship, intelligence reports, and national security briefings, war literature exists to comprehend the arbitrary nature of grace and damnation. If war literature is written to impart meaning, then all war literature is failure. Nothing is so incomprehensible as war; not logistics, or strategy, battles for land, glory, riches, or liberation, all of which can be perfectly logical, but the actual act of war, of waking up knowing that your life could be taken or that you must take a life. We’re told this is our animal nature, but the organized barbarity at Andersonville, or Dachau, or Nanjing has no corollary in the natural world. War literature exists not to impart meaning, but the appearance of it, so to gesture at something beyond this veil of shadows. Something unutterable, and ineffable, and silent, and strange. War literature, at its best, exists not as scripture but as liturgy, not to explain but to remember. Chang writes that “to forget a Holocaust is to kill twice,” and such writing ensures that we don’t become complicit.
Literature replaces the aridness of numbers with the texture of humanity, while somehow grappling with the full scope of an atrocity. When Joseph Stalin was Commissar of Munitions during the enforced famine known as the Holodomor, which killed almost four million Ukrainians in the mid-30s, he told a group of his colleagues that “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” What is grotesque is that this ruthless theorist of the human abyss was correct. When death tolls mount from the hundreds, to the thousands, to the millions, the brain is only capable of processing so much. But the person that is forgotten is Myshko Cherkasy, who when he died and was to be buried his mother discovered that his grave was already occupied by another child; Michael Kovrak who starved to death in front of his young brother; Olya Sturko forced to give birth upon the wheat fields at a collective farm, who died from after a small amount of food eaten after weeks of starving. Journalist Petro Shovkovytsia wrote in 1933 how for the Soviets, “These were not people, but rather shadows of people. Cut them with the dullest of knives, and you will not get blood to flow from them: beaten, tortured, exhausted.” The task of war literature is to transform shadows into pictures, to put flesh upon the bones of mere statistics. To square individual tragedy with the horror of mass atrocity, to mathematically transform the number one into an infinity. Ethically, the writer and their reader must attempt to comprehend that each singular murder is but one of four million. With one or two or three deaths in mind we must try and imagine all of the deaths. Holding to particularity, we must mourn for the multiplicity. That this is by definition impossible does not occlude our responsibility; if anything, it’s all the more imperative. What is asked of us is something theological, to grasp towards the enormity of all that which we are incapable of understanding.
Every human is a universe; each individual in victory and defeat, love and hatred, desire and revulsion, is more complicated than all great literature, more beautiful than every painting, more true than all of the axioms of philosophy. The human soul is inviolate, and in its own flawed way, a species of perfection. Which is why murder is a sin, and to take millions of lives is a crime against humanity. Arguing that every human is valuable, that we’re all equal, that all deserve dignity, security, safety, happiness, love. Rank schmaltz, right? Sentimental affectation, correct? Cliché. Ah, but here’s the thing with genuine war literature—the ethical imperative is to understand that cliché is not the antithesis of truth. Another cliché—it might be hackneyed to say that it’s impossible to explain war to a child, but that’s only because it’s impossible to explain war. “The violence of war is random,” writes journalist Chris Hedges in War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. “It does not make sense. And many of those who struggle with loss also struggle with the knowledge that the loss was futile and unnecessary.”
War literature which does something as sacrilegious as to make sense scarcely deserves to be called literature. Reduced to its basest formulation, war is the practice of resolving disagreements, or acquiring land, or erasing humans whom you hate by organizing men with weapons who then kill people until everyone is tired of all the killing, or everyone’s dead. That is irrational, stupid, inexplicable, there is no making sense of that and so any honest war literature doesn’t concern itself with such theodicies. “When meaning is drawn from killing,” notes historian Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, “the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning.”
A risk in reducing gun and wound to axiom and postulate, bullet to arid argument. You can’t summarize a null point of meaning with anything as quotidian as a syllogism. That shining and polished black-jack-booted Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz claimed in On War that war is “a continuation of politics by other means.” Perhaps, though often the opposite is just as true. I wouldn’t deign to impugn von Clausewitz’s instilling of bravery, loyalty, and respect within his troops, of inspecting ammunition, and armories, of evaluating the Cannae model of troop formation in imitation of Hannibal’s victory during the Second Punic War, but give me rather that grizzled frontiersman General William Tecumseh Sherman’s opinion as he marched all the way to Savannah that “War is hell.” Those three words seem at least truthful. War isn’t just hell, of course. War is also strategy, war is distraction, war is horror, war is entertainment, war is propaganda, war is spontaneous, war is planned, war is boring, war is exciting, war is oppressive, war is liberatory, war is wasteful, war is necessary, but most of all war is meaningless. At least the actual pulling of the trigger is. Being able to kill a man, the unawareness of if you’ll return, the knowledge you may never see your family again, the reality that somebody else might never see theirs again because of you—all of that can’t quite be circumscribed by logic or poetry. All war literature must be failed literature because it gestures to where words themselves fail. Such writing tries to express the inexpressible, for the moment that a human takes the life of another language has already broken down. I’m not saying that historians shouldn’t investigate the causes of wars, of course not, for the better to prevent them. But the actual act of taking a rifle and from a distance shooting a stranger in the head—that is madness. If logic comes out of war, then war itself is built upon a million illogical acts.
All honest war literature is fundamentally anti-war. That’s not the same as saying that all war literature must be pacifistic. Kurt Vonnegut’s autofiction/science fiction account of the Allied firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, Norman Mailer’s indulgent but trenchant The Naked and the Dead, Joseph Heller’s hilarious and terrifying Catch-22, Dalton Trumbo’s disturbing account of being caged within one’s own destroyed body in Johnny Got His Gun, the German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s exquisite account of World War I trench fighting in All Quiet on the Western Front, each and everyone exemplars, each and every one anti-war, each and every one pacifistic, and tellingly each and every one by a veteran. Remarque explained that his book was to be “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.” But great war literature need not be pacifistic, only anti-war, which is to say that it comprehends barbarity. Two of the most poignant, brutal, and under heralded war novels of mid-century are Martin Booth’s horrific Hiroshima Joe and John Horne Burns’s The Gallery. Both books concern the ostensible “Good War” against the Axis Powers, with Booth focusing on the war against Japan, and Burns’s writing about the occupation of Naples by the Americans. And both, while not arguing against the reasons for the war, focus on brutality enacted against “enemy” civilians, how innocence is never a quality of those who fight, regardless of their side’s righteousness.
The titular character of Hiroshima Joe is Captain John Sandingham, a British POW captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong and witness to the unspeakable horror of the atom bomb. Sandingham observes the incineration of whole city blocks, women and men turned to ash, shadows burnt into sidewalks, and children with skin hanging from their bodies. He sees “what no man should be made to see; he died fearing what we all must fear,” a world where there is no distinction between soldier and civilian, where peace itself is conquered. The Gallery also disavows Manichean platitudes in fictionalized vignettes based on the American occupation of his beloved Naples, where the ostensible good guys were involved in extortion, racketeering, rape, murder. Burns’s novel is a warning at the dawn of the true American century, that “unless we made some attempt to realize that everyone in the world isn’t American, and that not everything American is good, we’ll all perish together.” It is ironic that  some of the greatest anti-war literature comes from the Second World War, arguably the most morally unassailable battle in human history. A generation after the Great War, and the “combatants were unillusioned from the start,” writes editor Sebastian Faulks in the introduction to The Vintage Book of War Fiction. “They knew how gruesome war would be, they knew that they had been dropped into it by inept politicians, but in place of innocent patriotism of their fathers they had a proper moral cause to fight for.” If war is necessary, there’s still nothing glorious about it. Between country or what’s right, at the very least there’s something to be said for fighting on behalf of the latter. As for myself, having never been anywhere near a frontline, a trench, or an active battlefield, I’m not a pacifist—merely a coward. There’s a difference there as well.
In a war of defense or liberation there can be many things—loyalty and courage, honor and fraternity. Glory, however, is invented by poets. War is blood congealing on the dead grass at Flanders Field and brains sprayed across Omaha Beach, it’s a gangrenous foot being sawed off at Manassas and bits of flesh dotting Hill 488. “I sing of arms,” as Virgil begins The Aeneid, a topic of utmost seriousness since a man first struck another man, our story of creation not in Eden but when Cain slew Abel. Triumph of kings and victory of the nation, glory of soldiers and the shame of the vanquished. Virgil’s epic is great poetry, but it’s also propaganda, albeit with its own anti-war moments studded like land mines within. The most antique of war literature, even when written to valorize, still has within it the seeds of truth. The Iliad of Homer, whether or not he had experienced war himself, is the great martial epic of valor, and yet within its opening lines there is the honesty which compels him to describe war as “Black and murderous… Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls… bodies to rot as feasts/For dogs and birds.” Achilles and Jason, Aeneas and Pallas, may fight with shields and spears, swords and helmets, while today soldiers wear Flak Jacket and brandish M4s, but the same absurd goal is at play—kill the other guy before you get killed. Despite the social Darwinian fallacy that understands people as living in a barely contained state of nature, just three days’ worth of good meals away from total anarchy, and to kill a man is a supremely unnatural thing, especially a stranger, particularly one who’s done nothing to you.
When humanists extol the canon’s universalism, they reduce and flatten our differences with the past, and the reality is that we neither love, pray, live, or work like our ancestors in Rome, or Greece, or Babylon, but the score of being made to kill a man—and the resulting wounds —remains similar. That’s the principle behind artistic director Bryan Doerries’s Theater of War Productions, which stages readings of Greek tragedies like Sophocles’s Ajax and Philoctetes for audiences of veterans as a way of coping with trauma. According to Doerries in The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, he has discovered that “people who have come into contact with death, who have faced the darkest aspects of our humanity, who have loved and lost, and who know the meaning of sacrifice, seem to have little trouble relating to these ancient plays. These tragedies are their stories.”
English professor Elizabeth D. Samet has explored something similar in her teaching U.S. Army cadets among the bucolic red, orange, and brown trees of autumnal West Point. Reading Homer and Virgil, not to mention Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, in a graduate seminar is one thing; teaching it to young women and men who are destined to one day experience such violence requires a different perspective. In her memoir Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Samet writes that “We surrendered rather easily to yet another romantic notion: that meaning is to be found only in misery.” Surprisingly neither Doerries nor Samet read or teach war literature as involving spangled glory; the former emphasizes that playwrights such as Sophocles were not authors of morale-boosting propaganda, while the former’s contention makes the radical claim that suffering isn’t about meaning, that to the contrary it can often be about nothing. And yet suffering must still be endured, and so literature acts not to explain the inexplicable but rather to soothe, to say “You are not alone, this has happened before, this will happen again, not everybody survives but some people do.” 
“‘Forward, the Light Brigade! /Charge for the guns!’ he said: /Into the valley of Death /Rode the six hundred,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1854, mere days after the routing of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and 8th and 11th Hussars during the Crimean War. Few poets seem stuffier than Tennyson; patriotic, formal, traditional, and conservative, his verse ponderously Victorian while across the Atlantic Walt Whitman was breaking meter and Emily Dickinson was reinventing metaphor. All of those exclamation points, that equestrian rhythm, that sickly celebration of valor. Yet even Tennyson drew a distinction between the incompetent men who sent boys to their death, and the boys themselves who “Storm’d at with shot and shell, /Boldly they rode and well, /Into the jaws of Death, /Into the mouth of Hell.” This, it could be observed, is still mythological language, Tennyson describing the campaign in the language of harrowing. He chose the wrong genre, for war literature isn’t myth, it’s horror. What’s lacking in Tennyson is the physical experience of war; he describes “Cannon to right of them, /Cannon to left of them, /Cannon behind them… While horse and hero fell, /They that had fought so well.” This is basically a boy’s fantasy of war. Tennyson might as well be describing soccer. The Poet Laureate wasn’t a veteran, and it shows; it’s what allows him to ask “When can their glory fade? /O the wild charge they made! /All the world wonder’d. /Honor the charge they made! /Honor the Light Brigade!” Now all that’s remembered is a poem more pablum than Parnassus, each of those dead soldiers now forgotten other than for some cenotaphs and memorials in England. What’s missing is blood—gouged eyes—protruding bones—first-degree burns—festering bullet wounds—severed hands and crushed bodies. What’s missing is the sense that death isn’t metaphor or simile or allegory, but that death is just death, a violent one all the more so.
Compare Tennyson’s verse to Whitman’s “The Wound-dresser” from his collection of Civil War lyrics Drum-Taps. Of Quaker pacifist stock, though a vociferous supporter of the Union, Whitman left Brooklyn for Washington DC after hearing of his brother’s wounding at Antietam, deciding to stay in the capital where he worked as a nurse in war hospitals. The good, grey poet would tenderly minister to the beautiful boys of American death, wrapping their burns and cuts, setting their broken legs, distributing sweets and occasionally reading his verse to men who undoubtedly had no idea that he was the greatest of American poets. “Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, /Straight and swift to my wounded I go, /Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, /Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground.” Whitman is an abolitionist who comprehends that the Confederacy is defeated at Gettysburg and Antietam and nowhere else, but he is not delusional about the cost. Tennyson’s Dragoons, Lancets, and Hussars are heroes, whereas Whitman asks in a parenthetical “(was one side so brave? the other was equally brave).” The British poem lacks blood, it lacks corpses, it lacks bodies, replacing them with abstractions. In “The Wound-dresser,” Whitman describes “stump of the arm, the amputated hand… the clotted lint… the matter and blood.” Whether or not a war is just, or justified, or righteous, or right, Whitman understands that it results in men like the soldier whose “eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, /And has not yet look’d on it.” The difference between the poems is that Tennyson described war in terms of glory, and Whitman knows that it’s about “clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.” One poem works because it tells the truth and the other one doesn’t work because it lies. As Remarque writes in the following century, “A hospital alone shows what war is.”
Besides, meter, rhythm, and rhyme can be useful, for what war lyrics are more successful than that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose accounts of trench warfare written in the midst of the Great War itself? Owen was a working-class Shropshire lad tutored on Keats, Shelley, and Yeats; Sassoon was from a wealthy Baghdadi Jewish family and was educated at Cambridge. The two read and admired each other, and served at the same time along the crooked, burning gash of the Western Front. As inheritors of a classical English education, both men wrote in a cadence that owes more to the measured traditionalism of Tennyson than the barbaric yawp of Whitman, and yet when war’s madness can be barely constrained by formalism, its horrors are all the more pronounced. “Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,” wrote Sassoon in Counter-Attack and Other Poems, “Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.” Almost oracular, but the eloquence of Sassoon’s rhetoric belies the horror it describes. From Owen’s most famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” written in the trenches themselves, he describes watching the burning, disintegrating, acrid death that results when a soldier is hit with mustard gas, for “someone still was yelling out and stumbling, /And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…/Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, /As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
The Great War surprised the great powers, doddering men who’d amassed massive armies and let their technology outstrip their empathy. A war fought between the first cousins who ruled Britain, Germany, and Russia, offering up as sacrifice millions of young men cooked in mustard and shot at by gatling gun on the barbed wire of broken Europe. Critic Paul Fussell, himself a veteran of World War II, notes in The Great War and Modern Memory that “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,” and the impact of Sassoon and especially Owen’s verse is that it exists between the grandiosity of Victorian youth trained on myths of the Light Brigade when compared to the reality of Verdun, Somme, and Gallipoli. When Owen describes the dying man’s “every jolt, the blood… gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud /Of vile, incurable soles on innocent tongues,” he writes in an idiom where at the literal level of sounds is beautiful. Go ahead, read that bit out loud to yourself, listen to the cadence, the relationship of syllables to each other, the meter, the unforced rhyming, and admit that Owen has used beautiful language to describe an atrocity. And in that ironic gap, valor is erased by degradation. Owen expresses more about battle than propagandists ever could. He would die in 1918 while crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal. His mother received the telegram on Armistice Day, when bells were ringing in celebration throughout Shrewsbury. “The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est/Pro Patria mori.” Who knows what poems have been interrupted by a bullet, what novels disrupted by mortar attack?
Some of the surviving lyrics are assembled in Lorrie Goldensohn’s remarkable American War Poetry, the first collection of its kind, including verse from colonial wars through Afghanistan, with sections dedicated to overlooked conflicts including the Spanish American War, the Indian Wars, and even the Spanish Civil War. Goldensohn writes that poetry is a way of conveying “battlefield advance and retreat, the daring and courage of leaders and men, as well as the despoliation of territory, the experience of prison camp and the making of refugees, the annihilation and wounding of human flesh, the grieving aftermath.” Every emotion is expressed in such verse, from cruel jingoism to fear, from patriotic loyalty to absurdity. Sarah Teasdale considers not the artillery of the Great War, but the silence which follows, for “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground… And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn, /Would scarcely know that we were gone.” James Dickey, American Poet Laureate and a veteran of World War II, meditates in incendiary and gasoline, writing of how “All families lie together, though some are burned alive.” Rolando Hinojosa recalls American atrocities during the Korean War, how “I don’t want to look at the Chinese dead. /There are hundreds of them out there. They died in the city, /They died in the fields and in the hillsides. /They died everywhere.” Yusef Komunyakaa presents the haunting experience of searching for the names of dead friends on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where “My black face fades, /hiding inside the black granite.”  For sheer, methodical, scientific accuracy, however, and Iraq War veteran Brian Turner’s masterpiece from Here, Bullet provides both autopsy report and psychological evaluation. “If a body is what you want, /then here is bone and gristle and flesh.” That is what war poetry must be about, “where the world ends, every time.”
If war requires any genre, it’s not drama, or novel, or poetry, but journalism, the bearing witness as to what actually happens when troops cross a border or bullet pierces flesh. Studs Terkel’s interviews in The Good War, Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families about Rwanda, Aleksander Hemon’s evocation of a Sarajevo youth before the wars in The Book of My Lives. Anthony Swofford expresses dark truths in Jarhead, his account of the Marine Corp during the Persian Gulf Invasion, and the fact that “as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.” Waiting for the invasion to begin, and the bored Marines sit in the Kuwaiti desert and watch movies about an earlier confrontation. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Swofford is blunt—all of those movies might ostensibly be anti-war, but for the grunts trying to psyche themselves up listening to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as U.S. helicopters drop napalm doesn’t engender pacifism so much as adrenaline. Which is the corollary to all war literature being anti-war, and that’s that war literature can’t help but be prurient, exploitative, exhibitionistic, pornographic. The moment editing and revision happen, then you’ve made literature, a polite way of saying something with an agenda, and anything with an agenda is incapable of examining the unvarnished totality of something, especially a black hole like war. A true literature of war has never been written. It might not even be possible.
There’s been some elision between violence and war in this essay. A sloppiness in that, because all war might be murder, but not all murder is war. Cain killed Abel, by himself. No general directed him. Violence might be natural (though so is cholera), but war is strange. “If wars were fought only by the men on the ground, the men facing one another in real battle, most wars would end quickly and sensibly,” notes Swofford. “Men are smart and men are animals, in that they don’t want to die so simply for so little.” Often war is presented as a bestial return to a state of nature, but it’s the exact opposite. With few exceptions, animals don’t engage in war, though they kill each other all the time. War is not the daughter of nature, but rather the son of civilization. War is fought by men, but it’s demanded by chiefs and priests, Caesars and kings, czars and dictators, generals and presidents. Like many of you, the last few months have had me thinking about W.H. Auden, but not the poem which you’re thinking of, but a lesser known verse. Only six short lines constitute “Epitaph from a Tyrant” published in 1940, a year after the invasion of Poland, appearing in Auden’s Another Time

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;He knew human folly like the back of his hand,And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

No human has ever been so physically powerful as to exert the authority which even the smallest war demands, so that the history of war is the history of tyrants somehow compelling men to violence. The Hitlers and Stalins, the Napoleons and Khans. Pharaoh Thutmose III. The earliest written record of war, when the Egyptians crushed the Canaanites 1,457 years before the Common Era. Recorded on a stele are the details of this supposed “campaign of victory which his majesty made to extend the frontiers of Egypt, in valor, in victory, in power, and in justification.” We are given laborious, self-satisfied, and grandiose detailing about Thutmose’s forces, so that “everything which his majesty did to this town and to that wretched enemy and his wretched army is set down by the individual day and by the individual expedition and by the individual troop commanders.” Over eight thousand Canaanites killed, half that many enslaved in the first recorded war. When shall be the last, and under what circumstances? Shall swords be beaten into plowshares or melted into radioactive dust? By a coincidence, Thutmose’s army laid siege to the Canaanite garrison at Megiddo, which for separate reasons is today far more known by its Greek name: Armageddon.

Is It So Wrong to Accessorize with Books?

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While visiting a friend of a friend in Key West many winters ago, I was smitten by the bookshelves in his living room. The built-in shelves wrapped around a window and ran to the ceiling, obviously the work of an expert craftsman. But from across the room it was the books themselves that dazzled my eye—their spines, meticulously arranged by size and color, made the wall look like a gigantic pointillist painting. When I complimented my host on his bookshelves and asked what he liked to read, he looked at me as if I was one very dim bulb. “I bought those books by the yard,” he said. “Then I arranged them in a way that’s pleasing to my eye. I haven’t actually read them.”
A proud philistine, the man saw books as accessories, décor, objects that derived their value not from their contents but from their appearance. And he is hardly alone in thinking so. Recently actress and singer Ashley Tisdale made a similar admission on-camera during a tour of her newly renovated home for Architectural Digest’s “Open Door” series. Motioning toward her colorful bookshelves, Tisdale said, “These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in it a couple of days ago. I had my husband go to a bookstore, and I was like, ‘You need to get 400 books.’ Obviously my husband’s like, ‘We should be collecting books over time and putting them on our shelves.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no. Not when AD comes.’” 
Twitter like lit up with comments: “The richness is just painful for people who can’t even afford new books.” And: “That’s so sad. It took me a few months to fill up my new shelves, all special and important to me. Not magazine worthy but I like it!” And: “Can you imagine being able to buy 400 books at once?”
There was, predictably, outrage over the outrage, including: “Are we mad at Ashley Tisdale for supporting bookstores? In this economy?” And: “The way people are criticizing Ashley Tisdale for…buying books?? Supporting authors and a bookstore??? Like who gives af if she reads them…” Finally Tisdale came to her own defense: “Let’s clear this up. There are some of my books from over the years in there but yea 36 shelves that hold 22 books I did not have and any interior designer would have done the same. They do it all the time, I was just honest about it.”
Nikki Griffiths, writing for independent publisher Melvile House’s book blog MobyLives, tried to bring a little perspective to the squabble. “Is it really so terrible buying hundreds of books from an independent bookshop?” Griffiths asked. “Tisdale clearly did not realize she would unleash the wrath of the bookish community over her shelf confession… Plus let’s be honest, how many of us are jealous because we wish we had the money to splash out on 400 books?”
It turns out there are plenty of people who have that kind of money. Enter library curators, a new crop of professionals who, for a price, will fill clients’ shelves with books that reflect on their status, interests, or character—regardless of whether they’ve actually read them. Books are “a great way for people to accessorize,” Jenna Hipp told the New York Times Style Magazine. Hipp, described as “a 40-year-old mostly retired celebrity nail artist,” works with her husband Josh Spencer putting together libraries for people for a fee that can run to $200,000. Their clients, says Hipp, “care more about how it looks than about the actual books…. Clients will say to us, ‘I want people to think I’m about this. I want people to think I’m about that.’”

The fashion world has also recently adopted this books-as-accessories aesthetic. In the Times article, Nick Haramis explores how fashion houses have begun weaving books into their promotions, from runway shows to panel discussions to podcasts. At Dior’s 2022 fall menswear show, for instance, the runway consisted of a giant replica of the scroll of typing paper on which Jack Kerouac pounded out the original draft of On the Road. Etro recently sent each of its models onto the runway holding a small, nondescript book. Meanwhile, the supermodel Gigi Hadid trooped around Milan Fashion Week clutching a copy of Camus’s The Stranger. “The worlds of literature and fashion have flirted with each other since long before Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot in 1956,” Haramis writes, “but in the past few years, books have become such coveted signifiers of taste and self-expression that the objects themselves are now status symbols.”
The power of books as “signifiers of taste and self-expression” has been inflated by the pandemic. Parsing the background bookshelves of attendees in Zoom events has become a cottage industry, exemplified by the Twitter account @BookcaseCredibility, which collates screenshots of celebrities’ bookshelf backdrops. It has more than 115,000 followers, proof that people have an abiding belief in the power of books to reveal character or an insatiable hunger for the hardware of celebrity. Or maybe a bit of both.
But this kerfuffle is not about the use—or misuse—of books as fashion accessories, home décor, or branding tools. Call me Pollyanna, but I don’t think that Ashley Tisdale and Dior and Gigi Hadid are trivializing books. They’re doing precisely the opposite: they’re reminding us of books’ outsize power to shape our perceptions of their owners. You want to understand someone? Peruse the contents of her medicine chest, her garbage can, and her bookshelf. One’s literary tastes can reveal not just aesthetic preferences but aspects of character. This is because of the investment books require—not only of money, but of time and psychic energy.
Even if Key West Guy or Ashley Tisdale hasn’t read any of the books on their shelves, those books say something about how they want the world to think about them—and that is a big part of who we are. That beautiful wall of unread books in Key West tells us that their owner values appearances over substance, form over content. (This aligns him with Oscar Wilde, a writer he has surely never read: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”) No crime there. At least he had a good sense of color and proportion. And as for the models clutching copies of trendy titles between runway shows, everyone from Oprah to Reese Witherspoon knows that celebrity sells books, and I’m all for anything that sells books. But I’ve got a problem with Gigi Hadid and her copy of The Stranger. I always figured her as more the Sartre type. 

Why My Second Book Took 20 Years to Complete

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2013
I am sitting in Massachusetts General Hospital. My sister has just emerged from surgery for a very rare vulvar sarcoma. I’m due to stay overnight as support. A text arrives from my husband informing me he’s just seen the preview for a movie based on the same subject as my novel-in-progress. The movie, Augustine, is a French film about the young hysteric Augustine Gleizes and her relationship with renowned French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. I’d been praying that no one would tell this incredible but little-known story before I did. I immediately enter a tailspin, exacerbated by the bad timing: my sister’s undergone a successful operation, and here I am, having a meltdown. I can’t pull myself out of the spiral: I’m too late—I’ve missed my chance to produce the first work of art about Augustine and Charcot. My debut collection, Hangings: Three Novellas, was published eight years earlier. Why has it taken me so long to complete this novel? I post on Facebook; friends try to calm me; my sister is incredibly gracious; and I feel guilty for requiring comfort rather than giving it.

It will be another nine years until the novel is finished.
1998
In my undergraduate Women’s History class, I read The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter. The book contains the first pictures I’ve ever seen of Augustine and the first reference to the brilliant source text Invention de l’hysterie, or Invention of Hysteria, by Georges Didi-Huberman. I’m instantly fascinated by the chiaroscuro images of the young woman in the throes of an attack. In one photograph that dates to 1878, she raises her hands in the classic attitude of prayer, but the caption suggests a much more lurid interpretation: “Supplication amoureuse,” amorous supplication. In “Éxtase,” she sits up in bed, crosses one leg over the other, and holds up both hands as if praising a figure whom only she can see manifested in the air above her. There is something infernal in her expression. I find my gaze returning again and again to her face, Augustine.

That year, I experience sudden onsets of breathlessness at least once or twice a day. I’ve started sleeping with a halogen light on to try to soothe the fearful ruminations about death that accompany darkness. When I turn over in bed, shifting the covers, a penny that has become caught in the bedclothes falls onto my bare leg. I have the vivid sensory impression that a dead body is lying next to me, touching my leg. I’ve never experienced such a convincing mental and physical misperception before. I think of Augustine, struck by the realization that I would have been diagnosed as a hysteric had I lived during her era. A connection forms that leads me to imagine her existence more deeply, to viscerally understand how medical beliefs and treatments are distorted by the attitudes of one’s era.

I begin writing fragments, phrases, and images that will later evolve into what I dub “my hysteria novel.”
1999
I am living in Queens and working at a highly dysfunctional used bookstore. A year or so prior, the owner had jumped from a high floor of the Gramercy Hotel. The store is going through turmoil as the intestate estate works its way through the court. The manager is a clinically depressed Vietnam vet whose gout flares up repeatedly from his drinking. He comes to work drunk; he goes to the bar during lunch breaks. His favorite employee is a beautiful anorexic girl with a dented nose; she tells me that she hit herself in the face with a hammer to spite her mother and “ruin her looks.” I am hired to build the store’s first website. I sit in a messy backroom, surrounded by towers of books, the space infested by roaches and mice. One morning a dead mouse is found floating in the toilet bowl. We stop using the water cooler after we learn cockroaches are giving birth in the base. As the store unravels toward its inevitable dissolution, I feel as if I have stepped into some sort of purgatory, or perhaps an asylum.

I order a copy of Didi-Huberman’s book from France since it isn’t available in English. I spend my days-off attempting to translate the text, equipped with barely more than high-school-level French skills and my mother’s tattered old Larousse dictionary. Didi-Huberman is an art historian and a philosophical thinker; his treatise is incredibly dense, circuitous, quirky, and difficult. The book is organized by juxtaposition of symbol and image rather than chronology, something I initially hope to emulate in my hysteria novel.
2000
It is May. I’m seated in a studio built in a barn that once belonged to Edna St. Vincent Millay. The walls are covered with xeroxed photographs of Augustine standing, seizing, stretched rigid across two chairs. The current hysteria manuscript is cut into small strips and taped to large cardboard panels. My writing process involves amassing numerous fragments that are only later arranged in sequence. By now, I have developed a feel for who “my” Charcot and “my” Augustine will be, but the manuscript is still in its infancy.

During the final week of residency, the colonists present their work to one another. I am the youngest there and so shy that I’ve hardly been able to speak up at the dinner table. Since I can’t bring myself to volunteer, I read last, and within a few sentences my voice shakes like a sheep bleating. I barely finish the excerpt, and the papers tremble in my hands. But my writing earns the other colonists’ respect. One of them, a brash painter who always wears  an elaborately beaded Tibetan hat, confides that she didn’t know I was actually talented until now. Someone compares my writing to Flaubert’s Salammbo. I finally feel like I deserve to be in the poet’s house.
2001-2003
I begin graduate school at Syracuse University. During my first semester, my mother is hit by a car while riding her bike and must be hospitalized. The summer before my second year, a horse tramples my sister nearly to death during a riding lesson. She is intubated and placed in a medically induced coma. I return to Massachusetts for the summer, visiting my sister daily as she heals in the hospital. At night, I watch the televised murder-trial of a former high school classmate’s father. In between, I try to work. In the fall, I am scheduled to teach for the first time. I start taking anti-anxiety medication to handle the stress. Toward the end of my third year, my father is diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma and must have his leg amputated.

Somehow I complete my thesis, but I produce very little new material during my MFA. The visiting writer who teaches my third-year workshop admires the hysteria piece but doesn’t believe it can possibly be a novel. I am crushed. I’d been determined to turn the project into a full-length book, but I fear that my teacher is right.

That semester, a piece of my fiction is published in a nationally distributed magazine for the first time. The next year, my collection wins the Starcherone Books Fiction Prize and is accepted for publication in 2005. I hope that the universe is preparing me for a string of good luck.
2004-2005
The summer before graduation, I start dating the man who will become my husband. He applies for a Ph.D. in creative writing. In order to keep my options open, I apply as well. We are both accepted into the fiction program at Denver University. But school has been so stressful and I have been obsessively immersed in academia for so long that I want to take some time to “live the life of a published author” and see what happens). I reason that more academic work might delay my chances to complete the novel (spoiler: it won’t be published for 18 more years), so I forfeit my spot in the program (a decision I still question to this day). My husband accepts his offer, and we relocate to Denver.

For a while, I am happy with my choice. Excerpts from the hysteria novel-in-progress meet with enthusiasm and garner publication. One selection is anthologized in a literary journal’s “best of” collection. I am named twice as a finalist for the George E. Bennet Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy based on selections from the book. I even learn that Hangings has “fans” in Denver. I attend AWP to promote the book and read with fellow Starcherone authors. Perhaps I am pursuing “a writer’s life.”
2007-2010
I spend a lot of time chasing down freelance work to supplement my part-time job, while allowing myriad family dramas to sideline me. My tendency to anticipate and prepare for constant crises has affected my experience of time. The intervals between terrible events seem to collapse, and it becomes incredibly difficult to absorb the progression of years. Any stretch of calm becomes something I am reluctant to disturb by entering the intense and stressful headspace of writing. The life of the hysterics in Charcot’s asylum is hardly light material. And although I typically relish excavating the beauty that can be found in even the darkest subject matter, I now find myself avoidant and wary of exploring the depths. Instead, I consider publishing my translation of Didi-Huberman, only to discover that someone else did so three years earlier.

In 2008, I get married. I make every decoration for the wedding—tissue paper flowers, hanging bird garlands, copperplate calligraphy, a hand-stitched bouquet ribbon—leading me to rediscover my love of crafting and embroidery. I begin to allow the anxiety-reducing activity of needlework to supplant my desire to write. In 2009, I open an Etsy shop, which further sidetracks my creative energy. I enter into a long period of avoidance in which years pass and my confidence as a writer begins to plummet.
2012-2015
In the summer of 2012, Ig Press publishes my husband’s novel, Jonah Man. I accompany him on one leg of his book tour. I notice that I feel self-conscious introducing myself as a writer, and I have the gut-turning realization that seven years have passed since Hangings’ publication. All that lost time seems to accumulate almost instantaneously, leaving me with the vertiginous sense that I have fallen off the proverbial literary map. I have considered myself a writer since childhood. But am I anymore?

I recommit to the novel. For several weeks that summer, family friends allow my sister and I to use their home as a “writer’s retreat.” Since college, my sister has been indispensable to my writing process: she is my ideal editor. I lug boxes of material to Massachusetts, and we attempt to structure the book, which has now grown to 1200 distinct fragments. We spread hundreds of scraps of paper, some only containing a sentence or a phrase, across a large wooden table. It takes the entire stay to compile the manuscript’s first eleven pages. I reach out to my former SU professor Arthur Flowers for help, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material.

In March 2013, Arthur invites published SU graduates to return to campus and discuss “the writing life” with students enrolled in his course, Literary Success and the Art of Significance. I am the only alum invited who doesn’t teach at a college; I feel like an imposter. But I learn from the event that many of my fellow graduates are also struggling with their writing. While in Syracuse, I meet with Arthur to discuss the manuscript. He nicknames my project “The Hissies,” which instantly makes it feel more manageable and enjoyable. I use the appellation from that day forward.

I spend the next three years trying to flesh out the second half of the book, to determine a novelistic arc (something I’ve never done before), and to streamline the narrative. The decision to work exclusively on the novel leaves me with a dearth of material to publish. The gaps in my resume and publication history grow wider. So much time has elapsed that people around me now know me as an fiber artist rather than as a writer.

In 2015, Starcherone closes its doors and Hangings goes out of print. The loss of the press is heartbreaking, and I begin to feel even more obsolete. I try to channel my frustrations into the character of Charcot—to empathize with the pressure he felt toward the end of his career as he struggled and failed to unravel the mysteries of hysteria. Through him, I explore the nagging fear that every creator likely experiences, regardless of age—that they will die before their project’s completion. And slowly, very slowly, the arc begins to fall into place.
2016-2018
I email Arthur for the first time in three years. I write, “It’s been so long since I’ve published, but I wanted to let you (and myself) know that I haven’t given up or failed to make progress.” 16 months later, I complete a full draft. The novel now has a title, Asylum; it is 53,188 words long. I have passed the novella mark.
2019
Starting in January, I begin to send the manuscript out into the world. First, I try a small cadre of agents—mostly those who work with experimental authors. Although I was unable to secure representation for Hangings, I hope a full-length novel might be a game-changer. I receive two rejections and a bite from a big agent. She passes me along to a reader at the agency who is well-versed in the topic of hysteria. Unfortunately, the reader suggests changes that I feel compromise the intent of the novel. She wants me to add backstory and biographical details that I purposefully omitted. After much deliberating, I decide to decline representation—a choice that is painful and difficult.

I write to the agent: “I started writing experimental fiction because I was drawn to the compression of time/space/character/language and the atmosphere it creates, and because writing traditional versions of characters and plot tended not to be where my passions lay.… As described, I think the manuscript would end up too close to more traditional explorations like Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (which I did enjoy and appreciate, but which is far from the manuscript that I imagine publishing). I hate to turn down such a fantastic opportunity and such a dedicated reader as you have proven to be, but I think I will have to go down the more experimental/smaller press route to keep my vision of the novel intact.”

The agent search takes about six monthsto complete. Soon after, I learn that most of the presses I’m interested in submitting to have closed their reading window for the year. I decide that the vibes for the book aren’t strong, and that I will wait until the new year to submit. In August, Arthur suggests cutting the novel by half, which throws me into new crisis. Then he revises his estimate downward. I respond, “I’m in a place where I don’t want to do a single other thing to the manuscript, because working on it gets me so frustrated and down… But I promise I am turning all of these bits of advice over in my brain and trying to get back to a place where I can get it done.”

In November, I apply for the Dzanc Books Fiction prize. The novel makes the longlist but doesn’t win. Still, the editor’s response is encouraging, and I ask if I might be able to resubmit if I make future edits.
2020
March arrives. The manuscript is out with several presses and contests. I have long planned to submit the novel to a literary press with a particular medical/scientific focus. Their open reading period is about to begin when Covid starts to spread. They indefinitely postpone their submission window. In April, I hear back from a second press whose contest I did not win. They are still considering publishing the manuscript. I am thrilled, but the opportunity doesn’t pan out, leaving me despondent. In October, a friend who runs a small press that I greatly admire turns down the manuscript. Moving forward, the pandemic continues to throw all thoughts of publication into disarray. I fear that many small presses and literary journals will not survive. Thankfully, most do.

I start working on new writing for the first time in ages, starting with flash fiction pieces partly inspired by the pandemic and what feels like the imminent death of the planet. I send a few of the pieces to journals and contests and garner my first new publication in seven years. I resubmit to the Dzanc Fiction contest. In January, I learn that the novel has won first prize. The Hissies will be published. It will find a place out in the world.
2021-2022
The road to publication is more complicated than with my first book, partly because of disruptions caused by the pandemic, partly because of changes in the industry. I agonize over every decision, often to find them taken out of my hands in the end. Supply chain disruptions radically condense the schedule for submitting galleys to the printer. I must scramble to get blurbs, line up reviews, and pursue publicity. Unaware of the suggested six-to nine-month lead time required, I begin these efforts about three months before publication. I am distraught by the idea that the book could slip below the radar, rendering 20 years of work nearly invisible. I fear that I have failed the book before it has even entered the world.

I redouble my efforts, trying to maximize the novel’s chance of success. I gird myself for the daunting prospect of giving readings and interviews. So much time has elapsed since I’ve had to talk coherently about my work that my confidence in my intellectual and verbal acuity has radically decreased. A friend suggests beta blockers, and I get a prescription.

Maud Casey’s City of Incurable Women is released mere months before my publication date. I again curse the years of avoidance while digesting the ironic timing of events. Gradually, I realize that it’s good that our books are appearing in close succession, that we might be able to team up, act as allies. That all of the “missed opportunities” along the way may have helped build an audience interested in the hysterics at the Salpêtrière. It takes a great deal of self-talk and reassurance to reach this conclusion. But I embrace the idea.

I write this essay one month out from publication. I hustle. I fret. And I wait. Nervously. With excitement. With fingers crossed.

Prestige Comics: On the Penguin Classics Marvel Collection

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Really, the trouble began in 2013. That was the year Penguin Classics published Morrissey’s Autobiography, a move that caused a ruckus among both fans of Morrissey and Penguin Classics. While some were glad that this onetime icon of the bookish underground was getting his due from the literary establishment, many balked at the decision to include Morrissey—that clever, keening poet of ostracism and martyrdom—in the same catalog as Montaigne and Murasaki.

Chances are there will be even more handwringing in June of this year, when Penguin Classics will release the first three volumes of their Marvel Collection: Black PantherCaptain America, and The Amazing Spider-Man. Over the past decade or more, the conquest of the cultural landscape by quippy spandexed superheroes has been Napoleonic. The idea that a citadel of bookishness has fallen to this siege of adolescent fantasia could easily take on outsize importance.

Since its founding in 1946, the Penguin Classics catalog has served as the best and most convenient rendering of the modern canon. Binding an author’s work with that stark and distinctive black cover confers a stamp of approval unlike nearly any other in modern publishing. Penguin Classics began by publishing classics in the most literal sense: the series’ inaugural book was E. V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey. Before long, the imprint was pumping out cheap paperbacks of everything from Pascal and Plutarch to Tacitus and Tolstoy. According to Henry Eliot’s The Penguin Classics Book, after the release of sixty titles, editor-in-chief William Emrys Williams asked, “How many more titles in the classical literature of the world are there?” Eliot tut-tuts:
As times have changed, so too has this extraordinary list: the definition of ‘classic’ continues to evolve and expands to embrace new languages, formats and audiences. The titles [in the series] share three key qualities—literary merit, historical significance and an enduring reputation—but within those elastic parameters scholars are adopting new areas of study, translators are broadening their interests and the ‘general reader’ remains hungry for new books, so the list continues to expand.
Even a cursory glance at the line’s expansion in America confirms Elito’s foresight. Every new title—especially those from authors of color, historically excluded from the American literary canon, such as Younghill Kang and Nella Larsen—makes the canon larger and richer. In recent years, Penguin Classics has been marked more by elasticity, expansiveness, and hunger for the new than a desire to fence off high culture from the low. But still—Stan Lee?

This trio of slam-bang anthologies that comprise the Marvel Collection (it’s the rare spread which does not feature a flying fist or face-bound foot) is a surprising selection for Penguin’s first foray into comics. One might have guessed the imprint would gravitate toward titles given more deference in literary circles: Lynd Ward’s 1929 wordless novel God’s Man, made up of captionless woodblock prints; or Osamu Tezuka’s pioneering postwar manga Dororo, published in 1969; Will Eisner’s 1978 A Contract with God, often credited with popularizing the term “graphic novel.” But by teaming with Marvel, Penguin Classics challenges traditional notions of prestige by elevating a collection of work that is crucial to understanding American popular culture as it transitioned from postwar certainties to a time of greyer ambiguities and unresolved conflicts. Mostly drawn from comics originally published between mid-1960s and mid-1970s run, they serve as a core sample from a fecund period in American comics, when the genre was furiously recalibrating and experimenting.

Largely devoid of the ironies, ruminations, and absurdities of less mainstream and traditionally “higher-brow” comics, the three entries in the Marvel Collection revolve around combat and struggle. Together, they comprise more than a thousand pages of exceptionally reproduced color panels whose artistry ranges from the merely competent to the spectacular. At many points, Black Panther, Captain America, and Spider-Man are not unlike Odysseus—tested by an array of villains, undone by their own arrogance, tempted by glory, unsure of their fates.

Those conflicts also reflect postwar America’s knotted overconfidence and anxieties: the formless threats of the Cold War, the uncertainties of Vietnam’s quagmire, and the discovery that immense power does not guarantee victory. It can be hard to glean how explicit the political intentions of comic book authors were: like most comics, the issues in the Marvel Collection were produced on tight deadlines by harried creators meeting the whims of a fickle market, at a time when superheroes looked to be a thing of the past.

From the dawn of the comic book era in the 1930s to the mid-1940s, superheroes were big business. But after the war, the publishing industry moved on. In 1954, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s scaremongering book The Seduction of the Innocent painted comics as a pernicious influence on children. The industry responded to the moral panic with a self-censoring Comics Code, which among other things, forbade “sympathy for the criminal” and “scenes of excessive violence” and encouraged promotion of “good grammar.”

In the wake of new restrictions, comic creators tried to bring back some of the two-dimensional World War II-era “super-powered do-gooders” to placate concerned parents, writes Marvel Collection series editor Ben Saunders. These comics did not sell. Against the backdrop of the Korean War, the early civil rights movement, and McCarthyism, “the moral simplicity of the super hero fantasy looked naïve at best and reactionary at worst,” Saunders writes. “Clearly, if super heroes were going to be revived successfully, they would have to be reinvented.”

DC Comics was first to successfully reinvent itself in the Code era, reviving the Flash in 1956. Three years later came the Justice League of America with its superstar roster: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Martin Goodman, who ran the chaotic constellation of trend-hunting publishing interests that in 1939 became Marvel Comics, tasked hyper-imaginative writer-editor (and his wife’s cousin) Stan Lee with knocking off the Justice League. Lee and artist Jack Kirby met DC’s challenge in 1961 with the Fantastic Four. Two years later, Marvel introduced another super group, the Avengers, made up of Ant-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the Wasp.

Those two alliances of flawed superheroes relaunched Marvel, changed the genre’s paradigm, and set a template for scrappy group dynamics, still evident in the comic interplay of today’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given that, it might seem odd that Marvel didn’t choose one or both of these teams for their first Penguin Classics outing (though more are reportedly in the offing, so they could still be featured).

The single most resilient character in the Marvel catalog remains Spider-Man, who first appeared in August 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, the entirety of his origin story laid out in just 11 jam-packed pages, along with the immortal line, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” Penguin Classics’s Spider-Man anthology is primarily a run of The Amazing Spider-Man from March 1963 to December 1964. For all the economy and tragedy of Parker’s origin story, the selected issues are remarkably repetitive, but valuable nonetheless. Spider-Man faces such memorable villains as Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin in this short stretch of time. Parker’s struggle with keeping his identity secret is visually represented by his half-masked face, in a loose rendering of schizophrenia. And unlike nearly every other super hero, he is constantly—refreshingly—worried about money. But these issues’ main conflicts, particularly Peter’s boss’s blinding hatred for Spider-Man, are thin-sketched and monotonous. This may be due to the speed at which the stories were being churned out. In one issue, Peter is misidentified as “Palmer,” not Parker, an error that suggests a breakneck publication schedule.

Spider-Man was generated during a fertile period when Lee and colleagues were pioneering the “Marvel Method.” Most comics are drafted by a writer who hands off descriptions and dialogue for each page to the artist for illustration. The more free-form Marvel Method had the “writer” (Lee) passing ideas to the “artist” (Steve Ditko), who not only drew the panels but made story decisions. In the 1964 The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, a three-page feature entitled “How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man!” depicts Lee as a giddy self-promoter hurling ideas at a sleep-deprived Ditko, who complains: “I do the drawing while you practice signing your name all over!”

In his chummy and chatty “Bullpen Bulletins,” which appeared in most regular monthly Marvel comic books, Lee created the mythology of Marvel’s stalwart band of brother artists burning the midnight oil to meet deadline. This helped cement Marvel as the smartass alternative to DC’s stolid seriousness, a dynamic that continues today. Unfortunately, none of Lee’s “Bullpen Bulletins” made it into any of the Penguin Classics anthologies.

Amazing Spider-Man was often stitched together by a skein of self-referential, winking, MAD-magazine-style commentary: Cameos from the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, for instance, are treated like sitcom walk-ons. Both tongue-in-cheek and cornball, the schtick pairs well with Ditko’s hammy newspaper strip visuals and works into the action itself. But Captain America and Black Panther have a more serious sense of themselves. The stakes in both were higher. The Penguin Classics Captain America anthology, an incomplete-feeling collection, provides a limited glance at one of Marvel’s most historically salient superheroes. Writer Joe Simon, who created “Cap” with Jack Kirby in late 1940, saw the semi-comical horror of Hitler himself, with “the ridiculous cowlick” and “his swaggering, goose-stepping minions,” as a kind of challenge: “All that was left to do was devise a long underwear hero to stand up to him,” said Simon.

In the first Captain America from March 1941, Steve Rogers has just been christened that long underwear hero when he jumps into action against the Gestapo agent who kills the scientist who created the serum. Within just a couple frames, Captain America is hunting down Nazi saboteurs with the help of Bucky, his gee-willikers pre-teen sidekick (a constant for pre-Code superheroes).

After that, the Penguin Classics anthology jumps awkwardly to just after Cap’s relaunch in 1964, at the height of the so-called Silver Age of Comics, when the industry was reconstituting itself after the Code period. The intervening years had not been kind to the character. Like many veterans, he was adrift after the Axis defeat. Marvel briefly brought him back in the 1950s for some Commie-fighting, but it didn’t take. He returned again in 1964, when the Avengers thawed him out of the block of ice he’d apparently been frozen in since a plane crash in 1945, which killed Bucky. Wracked with survivors’ guilt, Cap was literally a man out of time.

Kirby’s art takes increasingly impressive leaps of detailed kinetic imagination in the issues collected here before handing the reins to Jim Steranko, who wielded a more noirish, cinematic style. But the storytelling is often at a loss for what to do with Cap. After literally recreating many of his World War II adventures—including against Hitler’s cackling henchman Red Skull—Cap is sent up against a gallery of mostly unremarkable hoods. He ends the 1960s in spy flick territory, battling the made-to-order terror group Hydra. Oddly, given that Cap’s origin was focused on fighting Fifth Columnists on American soil, the later revelation that Bucky was not dead but had become the brainwashed assassin Winter Soldier (another enemy within), is omitted from the anthology.

While Cap struggled to find a cause, Black Panther never had to look past Wakanda. In the fantastical African kingdom, thatched huts exist side-by-side with incredible technologies enabled by the metal vibranium. This is all due to T’Challa, Wakanda’s Bruce-Wayne-like king and engineering genius who also took on the mantle of the avenging Wakandan champion Black Panther. (Like Captain America and many other superheroes of the Silver Age, the real-life identities of superheroes were fairly malleable, with multiple laypeople filling their shoes over time.)

Black Panther represents not just a later period of comics from Captain America and The Amazing Spider-Man, but a different approach to storytelling. Though culturally historic as the first Black super hero in a mainstream comic, Black Panther’s introduction in July 1966 (just three months before Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland) happened in bog-standard fashion as a guest star in a franchise series. In Fantastic Four #52, the titular foursome journey to Wakanda, where they best a series of challenges set by the Black Panther and, as a result, learn his post-colonial origin story.

The bulk of the Black Panther anthology comprises two story arcs published between 1973 and 1976. Compared to the other two anthologies in the collection, and to Black Panther’s introductory issue, it makes for a head-snapping culture shift. Gone is the wisecracking Marvel voice: Under writer Don McGregor, the prose is still studded with exclamation marks, but more florid and orotund than Lee’s snappy text. The art is layered and dense, bordering on claustrophobic. While the other anthologies draw from Archie and Dick Tracy in spirit and story, Black Panther alludes to African mythology, neo-futurism, Wattstax, and blaxploitation films.

Published in the Jungle Comics series—an unfortunate name nodding to the by-then played-out genre of Tarzan knock-offs—the “Panther’s Rage” arc is a bloody dynastic struggle that hurls T’Challa from one meat grinder to another. Having left Wakanda to help out the Avengers, T’Challa returns to find his kingdom in revolt and threatened by the brutal usurper Killmonger. In issue after issue, T’Challa comes within a whisker of death, his body tossed and bloodied by enemies human and animal (despite the series’ Afro-futuristic spirit, retrograde pulp cliches of Africa live on in its menagerie of killer beasts). The stories’ energy and passion are undeniable, even if the emphasis on incessant combat limits the possibilities for Wakandan world-building. The second arc, “The Panther vs. the Klan,” brings T’Challa to Georgia but despite a climactic scene in which he is tied to a burning cross, never lives up to its potential.

Not that any super hero can ever fulfill their promise. If they did, the fight would be over and the audience would move on. These anthologies show seemingly all-powerful characters continually brought low by bad luck, miscalculation, and a world they cannot control. The space between ideals and reality is where drama lies. That is true not just for these long underwear heroes but many other characters scattered throughout the Penguin Classics catalog, all the way back to Odysseus.

Clearly a commercially astute move by Penguin Classics, the Marvel Collection also serves a purpose in the efforts of the imprint to track the ways that literature has zigged and zagged outside the rarified realm of the bestseller lists. Slamming together hundreds of pages of frustratingly messy stories knocked out month after month by sleep-deprived, underpaid, and feverishly committed artists, these comics were never meant to be read back-to-back. Nevertheless, the anthology’s circuitous battles royale, cheeky humor, and aching vulnerability are what powers the MCU films which have, for better or worse, taken over today’s cineplexes. Based on Eliot’s three-part formulation of what a Penguin Classic needs (“literary merit, historical significance and an enduring reputation”), this series easily meets two of those requirements. As for literary merit, the answer lies with the reader. As it always does.

Ovid’s Exilic Imagination

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In the title essay of his book Reflections on Exile, the late Palestinian-American scholar and critic Edward Said describes the terrible costs of banishment. “True exile,” he writes, “is a condition of terminal loss… an unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.” Although much of Western culture is the creation of exiles and refugees, émigrés and expats—categories with meaningful distinctions—to be torn from one’s home, Said tells us, is a condition whose “essential sadness” can never be surmounted, not even by the intellectual and artistic innovations that are sometimes achieved in exile.

Ovid, the ancient Roman poet, might well have agreed. In the year 8 AD, at the height of his powers and the peak of his fame, he was banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus for none-too-clear reasons, and was consigned to spend the rest of the days in the Black Sea town of Tomis, a ramshackle port on the margins of the Roman Empire (now Constanta, a relatively prosperous city in Romania). He was deprived of a trial, his books were banned in public libraries, and he was barred from visits from his wife and daughter. The causes of his exile remain unknown: The Emperor might have objected to the risqué content of Ovid’s satirical poem, The Art of Love; or maybe the well-connected poet was being punished for inadvertently stumbling on a bit of palace intrigue; some scholars have made a persuasive case that Ovid abetted the extramarital affair of the Emperor’s granddaughter, Julia, at a time when adultery was criminalized—both of them were exiled in the same year. Whatever the case, in his letters from Tomis, Ovid never illuminates the cause of his exile, but despairs over its debilitating effect on his creativity. “Fine spun verses come from a tranquil mind,” he writes in Book 1 of his collection of elegiac letters, the Tristia. “My days are clouded by sudden miseries.” The great poet would spend the remaining decade of his life dying a spiritual death on the beach, before finally making his last descent into the Underworld.

It’s a tragic, bizarre, inexplicable story—one that Ovid could’ve written. He’s best known for his magisterial work, the Metamorphoses, an unclassifiable compendium of cosmology, philosophy, quasi-history, and Greco-Roman mythology, all of which are linked by the loose theme of transformation, or metamorphosis. The Metamorphoses’ influence on Western culture can’t be overstated—its lineage can be traced in artists as disparate as Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Richard Powers, and Andrea Lawlor—and it stands as the keystone of Ovid’s extant work. His epic poem is so all-encompassing, and the shadow it casts so vast, that it’s tempting to mistake the facts of the poet’s life for one of the hundreds of myths included in the Metamorphoses. At a distance, the story of his exile resembles his version of the story of Actaeon, a hunter who happened to stumble upon the goddess Diana while she was bathing nude in a creek. The chaste goddess, in her fury at being intruded upon, turns the unwitting Actaeon into a stag. As he flees through the forest, he ends up being chased and eaten alive by the very dogs he brought with him to hunt. Maybe Ovid, like Actaeon, was guilty of nothing except running afoul of power. Maybe he happened to stumble upon the proverbial Emperor, wearing no clothes.

But the work he produced before his banishment tells a more interesting story—one that calls attention to the nature of exile itself, and makes Ovid not a victim but an agent of his own demise. For exile, as Said tells us, is not only a “discontinuous state of being” or a condition of “essential sadness”; it can also be an occasion for cultivating “a scrupulous subjectivity,” predicated on the understanding that in a “secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional” and that “borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons.” Said goes on to suggest that exile can even be grounds for a principled intellectual position. He references Theodor Adorno’s aphorism in Minima Moralia that it is ethical to “not be at home in one’s home”: that in an era in which the logic of capital—an all-mighty power, if there is one—has invaded our private lives and cozied up to our consciousness, language itself turns into a dubious shelter: not a palace, but a trap. The exilic stance, Said suggests, is about standing outside of one’s own home, and empire—so far outside, in fact, that one can find a port of call anywhere, maybe even in a shabby town on the edge of the Black Sea. The exilic stance is about scrutinizing the myths of belonging and interrogating memberships national, ethnic, religious, and personal.

I suggest that Ovid was not simply exiled, but that he also exiled himself. With great intention, he stood far away from Rome through feats of imagination—visions that carried him all the way to Tomis, and which threatened the Augustan state with their subversive wit. His most radical exilic work, the Heroides, was published well before his exile, sometime around 15 BC. Largely forgotten, the Heroides is a poem comprised of a series of imaginary letters, written by the women of Greek and Roman mythology to the lovers who have deserted them, including such storied figures as Ulysses, Hercules, and Aeneas. Through their own words and styles, Ovid imagines the inner lives of a series of women who have been damaged by the exploits of supposedly great men. Longing and desire mix with irony and recrimination. Here’s Dido, the queen of African Carthage—historically, a Roman enemy, the Republic’s adversary in the Punic Wars—addressing Aeneas, one of the founding fathers of Rome:
“You are false. All this talk of your father and the gods, all borne on your shoulders to escape the flames, is still more of your lies. I was not the first nor will I be the last to feel the heavy burden of your deceit…faithless man…it is Dido, swollen with child, whom you abandon with part of you.”
Imagine a fictionalized version of Sally Hemings, addressing a screed to Thomas Jefferson, a letter in which she enumerates every one of his personal flaws—his cruelty, his monstrous hypocrisy, his abandonment of her and their children—along with the depths of her own suffering, and the thwarted person she might have been, and you get a sense of the radicalism of these fictional letters. They were published at a time when the Emperor claimed to be a direct descendant of Aeneas; upon his accession to the throne, he gave himself the name Augustus—“the revered one.” For Ovid to offer up such a critique of the Emperor’s progenitor was itself a kind of treason—and to put this critique in the first-person language of a woman, and an African queen at that, was to call to mind Cleopatra, Augustus’s erstwhile enemy. The letter also shows Ovid’s pronounced difference from Virgil and his Aeneid, a mythopoeic birth of a nation, sponsored by the Emperor himself.

Beyond the de-mythologizing of famous men, the fact that Ovid devotes an entire book to the lives and minds of women is itself radical. Though freeborn Roman women had more independence than their counterparts in Ancient Greece and the Middle East, Augustus curtailed some of their freedoms as a part of a public morality campaign. He made women’s legal independence contingent on bearing at least three children, forced them to sit in the back rows of theaters and gladiatorial arenas, and publicly shamed and exiled both his daughter and his granddaughter for acts of adultery and “debauchery”. He was given the title of pater patriae, the father of the fatherland, and took great pains to present himself as a benign paternal figure: showering the public with regular dispersals of cash, sponsoring military parades and athletic spectacles, and tapping marble quarries in the north of Italy to make Rome into a gleaming, formidable metropolis, more opulent than anything in Ancient Greece. And what says Ovid? “I am not impressed by your wealth, nor am I touched by the thought of your great palace, nor have I the least desire to become one of the many wives of Priam’s sons,” writes Oenone, to Paris, in one of the epistles. “Your position is awkward with shame.” Again and again in these letters, the women express a deep disappointment in powerful men, a bitterness that illuminates depths of suppressed power and intelligence. With withering irony, Penelope writes a letter to her husband, Ulysses, whom she correctly suspects of delaying his journey homeward: “Perhaps it is love that detains you: be sure that I know how fickle men can be. Perhaps you describe me as simple, and fit only for keeping your royal house, but I pray that I am mistaken…”

Ovid’s critique is aimed not simply at a tyrant like Augustus, but at a tyrannical culture of male impunity. Through the language of these discontented women, he is marking his distance from his country, and staking a claim elsewhere, in the realm of the human heart. In a time and a place where women couldn’t vote or hold political power, were deprived of anything beyond a rudimentary education, and were married off by their fathers as early as twelve years of age, it’s remarkable that this son of Sulmo—well-off, well-educated, trained in rhetoric and law—would shrug off the expectations of a public career, and, in one his first works, decide to devote pages not to patriotism or the exploits of great men, but to the eloquent, scornful, soulful, witty, impassioned minds of women. In so doing, Ovid found himself not in Rome but in Tomis: not at home at home, far away from the fatherland and its many fathers. And the Heroides was only the start; Katy Waldman, writing about the Metamorphoses in late 2017, at the dawn of the #MeToo era, observed: “Ovid’s epic poem positions female pain as the beginning or hinge of the story, not the end: victims are transfigured, their suffering made new and strange.” If the letters of this miniaturist masterpiece presage Ovid’s own exile, they also serve as a hinge in an epic story, one still being told to this day. As Medea writes to Jason of the Argonauts in the Heroides: “Listen well…my wrath labors to bear all my threats. I will not hesitate to follow wherever this anger leads…. I only know that my mind conceives of something worthy of myself.”

Ion Theodorescu-Sion (1882–1939), “Ovid in Exile” (1915), oil on cardboard.

Origin Stories: On the Value of Comics

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1.
I was six years old when I pulled a reprint of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 1” from the rack at Michigan News, a rumpled newsstand at the heart of the city where I grew up. I still have the comic, dated April 1982; it’s tattered and almost worthless, but as a talisman it can transport me across time. Suddenly, I’m there. I’m shorter than the counter. The man at the register rings the sale. The world is vast and I’m unsure of how it works, but this comic is mine, and that’s enough.

As a kid I liked Spider-Man’s run-ins with colorful villains like Electro and Doctor Octopus, but the real draw for me was Spidey’s alter ego, the nerdy, scrawny Peter Parker. Every character in the comic thinks Peter is a frail high schooler who needs protecting; but as Spider-Man, he protects everybody. The perfect hero for a six year-old scaredy cat. 

My mom says I was often sick as a baby. Ear infections, fevers, runny noses, the works. By preschool I was better, but in photos I’m all ribs, my arms are beggar-thin, my legs are broomsticks with knobs for knees. Scooby-Doo and Halloween Specials gave me nightmares. Hanging around my big brother and his friends, everyone was always older, smarter, faster, stronger. Naturally, I related to Peter Parker. Nevermind that he had real powers, and I had only the powerful imagination of a lonely kid.

Over time, I discovered comic books were everywhere. At the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers of the area malls. In the periodical aisle at Meijer, the bright, sprawling supermarket where my mom shopped twice a month. At Harding’s, the tiny, five-aisle grocer near home. It was there that I picked up the fourth issue of Secret Wars, a limited series from 1984.

The gist of Secret Wars is this: a cosmic being called the Beyonder has kidnapped the galaxy’s greatest superheroes and villains and brought them to a distant planet to fight. The winners, the Beyonder says, will be granted anything their heart desires. The Beyonder’s godlike power troubles all the heroes, but none more than Thor, the Thunder God. In “Secret Wars No. 4,” Thor and another Asgardian debate their place in the cosmos given this new Beyonder. Who’s the real god here, they wonder, if they are not the mightiest ones?

Their conversation sent me spiraling. My family went to church every Sunday, sometimes twice, which is to say: I worried a lot about personal damnation. Was it blasphemous to own a comic with characters who claimed to be gods? How could it not be? I quickly regretted buying “Secret Wars No. 4.” But I couldn’t return it. I couldn’t give it away. So I ripped it to pieces, every page. Then I threw the scraps into the Where’s the Beef? wastebasket in my bedroom. Problem solved. Sort of.

My mom found the shredded comic book a few days later. Once a week she collected our wastebaskets and burned the paper in a brick-lined fire pit in the woods at the edge of our lawn. Why did you tear up your comic book? she asked, showing me the scraps. She wasn’t angry. She just didn’t understand. What was this boy doing? Why was he buying things just to destroy them? I don’t remember explaining myself. I probably didn’t know how. How does a child explain that pencil and ink drawings of imaginary people made him feel like his soul was in mortal danger?

2.
Some vintage comics are valuable simply because so few exist; say, the inaugural issue of Action Comics from 1939, which was the first comic to ever sell for more than $3 million. But most comics’ value is contingent on how well the physical book has been preserved: a tear, a water stain, a missing staple—all can render a comic virtually worthless. 

I didn’t understand this as a kid. I treated my comics with the same utilitarian attitude that I applied to my friendships. One of my first friendships was built on a shared love of comics. Joel loved Iron Man like I loved Spidey. Together we pored over comic books as if they contained the key to understanding the adult world. I remember bringing a stack of Joel’s Iron Mans to the beach to read. He was sure I’d love them. I didn’t like Tony Stark nearly as much as Peter Parker, but I didn’t tell Joel. 

Joel introduced me to Fanfare, a specialty comics shop located in a shopping center that was also home to the local skating rink. I’d never heard of a comics store before; I didn’t understand.

Like, they just sell comics? I asked. No newspapers?

But we never visited Fanfare together. I wonder if I had seen the shop, if I would have begun to see how old comic books could be objects of value. This was where our friendship began to diverge. One day at Joel’s house, I noticed a few of his Iron Mans were missing. I asked if he’d misplaced or loaned them out. Oh, no, he said. They’re in the freezer.

He had stowed the comics in a freezer below the stairs in his basement. Each of his comics had been lovingly slid into plastic comic book bags, presumably purchased from Fanfare. Joel assured me this was the proper way to store comics.

But how do you actually read them, I asked.

Joel and I got into a tiff after he caught me eating pizza while reading one of his cold storage comics. The grease will ruin the pages, he said. He wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t being careful. I still didn’t get it. If you couldn’t actually touch the comics that you owned, didn’t that defeat the purpose of buying them in the first place? I couldn’t imagine a future where the comics we bought with our quarters would one day be worth anything more than the price printed on the cover.

I would have quit comics as a teenager, except my brother Jeff gifted me an Amazing Spider-Man subscription. I no longer had to hunt for comics—they came to me in the mail in sleeves of plain brown paper. (Later, in college, I’d learn that porn also travels the mail under the cover of brown paper.) Shortly after the Spider-Man subscription began, a new artist named Todd MacFarlane began drawing the artwork. On the cover of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 298,” Spider-Man dodges the fiery fusillade of a villain named Chance. The drawing has an unusual sense of perspective and motion. The pages inside are also different, and not just the drawings. On page ten, Peter decides to surprise his wife Mary Jane by dressing up as a Chippendale dancer. Later, he promises her a “special dessert” in their bedroom.

In the next issue, No. 299, Mary Jane and Peter go dancing in Manhattan. She wears fishnets and a dress with a slit that almost reaches her waist. Her long red hair is permed and vampish, sort of like Elisabeth Shue in Cocktail (a movie I was not allowed to watch). At the end of the night they lie in bed; her head is on Peter’s chest, nothing risque, but there’s an adult undercurrent that even a naive boy could detect.

When I found issue No. 300 in the mailbox, it was heavier than previous issues because it had more pages. The story inside was longer in honor of Spider-Man’s 25th anniversary. And MacFarlane’s artwork? The kid gloves were off, along with other articles of clothing. On page 9, Mary Jane wears a nightie to answer the phone. On page 17, Peter sulks in their new apartment, so Mary Jane takes off her shirt, in what I can only assume is an attempt at consolation. It’s preposterous. And it blew my prepubescent mind. I was pretty sure if my parents read this comic, they’d confiscate it, cancel the subscription, and never let me read Spider-Man again. So I hid No. 300 in my closet—and waited for issue No. 301 to arrive.

MacFarlane drew Spider-Man for more than two years. He added melodrama to every page: flaring capes, wild explosions, frenetic fight scenes. But what I liked most was how he drew Mary Jane. Unfortunately, how she was drawn was pretty much all there was to her character: she was always either a damsel in distress or sexy wallpaper. The hormone-addled part of me was drawn to the peek-a-boo drawings of her; but as time passed, I grew increasingly aware that the writing wasn’t up to snuff. Flat dialogue and soapy storylines prevailed. Peter and MJ lose their lease! Peter goes back to school for his graduate degree! Mary Jane loses her contract as a model!

My Spider-Man subscription ran out when I was in eighth grade. I didn’t renew it. Though I’d spent half my life reading Spider-Man stories, I’d reached the end of the line. I stowed all the comics on a shelf in the closet but kept a poster of Spider-Man, a big and broody MacFarlane affair, on my bedroom door. Sophomore year, on a double date, I stopped by my house with three other people. They met my parents. They met our dog. They saw my room—and that’s when I saw with new eyes the Spider-Man poster on the door. The next time I stopped by the house with a date, the Spider-Man poster was gone.

3.
Growing up is a kind of exponential change. You bump along for ages, each day a lot like the last, same best friend, same favorite superhero, same bedroom at night, and the sameness gathers like a madness that you can’t shake until one day you notice something tiny, like how silly that Spider-Man poster looks, and so you make a change, just a little; and then something else happens, another change, bigger this time, you’re old enough to drive, you’re old enough to vote, then bang, bang, crash, pow, you’re an adult in New York City, you’re married to a woman you met at work, you’ve got two children, you’re in a vintage comics shop and the kids want funny books.

My daughter was ten and my son was six when we first visited Mysterious Time Machine, a tiny specialty shop located below street level on Sixth Avenue. Like most places in Greenwich Village, it was smaller than my childhood living room. My wife Raina helped our daughter locate a box full of Archies under a table. Meanwhile, I helped my son flip through Iron Man comics. When we got to the issues from the eighties, I couldn’t help but think about Joel.

We planned another trip to Mysterious Time Machine for Free Comic Book Day later that year. The kids were thrilled: Free comics! What could be better? Our plans were almost derailed by an email asking if my daughter was free for a playdate with an old pal. In the end, the girl’s dad agreed to meet us at the comics shop. At the shop, the dad was cheery and inquisitive; we chatted while our kids scampered around.

So this is all they sell, he said. Just comics?

Yeah, I said. I joked about looking for a graphic novel of a John Steinbeck classic for him. I joked because I was embarrassed. He was a journalist, a serious one, and I felt like I should have suggested we meet at the Morgan Library or the MOMA. But this was what I knew. This was what I grew up doing. It was a kind of heritage, however lowbrow. I mentioned that I still had some of the comics I collected as a kid.

Are they worth anything? he asked. Your old comics?

A logical question. We were standing in the middle of a comics shop, a place where vintage comics were trafficked. But I couldn’t answer it. I’d never seriously tried to find out. I tried to pass the question off as unknowable. But he was a serious man, and he was taking comics seriously. Why couldn’t I?

Last summer, I finally tried to answer his question. Our family spent three nights in a tricked out Airstream at a campground near Martha’s Vineyard. We cooked breakfast over an open fire and rented bikes, and at the end of the day we all re-watched Thor: Ragnarok, which my kids agree is one of the best Marvel movies.

One of their other favorites is Spider-Man: Far From Home. It’s a good flick, but not one of Marvel’s finest, if I’m honest, perhaps because the Spidey of the movie isn’t the Spidey I grew up with. He’s not nerdy enough; he’s not angry about his outsider status; he has actual friends. Maybe the idea of a stymied weakling who’s actually a superhero doesn’t have novelty anymore. 

On the second day of the trip we drove to town for breakfast. Every cafe and pancake house had a waitlist. Raina reconoittored a nearby boulangerie while I brought the kids to Blast from the Past, a shop with vintage KISS action figures, WWF Pez dispensers, and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman posters. My teenage daughter ogled record players and vinyl album stacks. On our way out, we passed vintage comics in polyethylene bags on a display wall behind the front register. A familiar cover hung just over a clerk’s shoulder. Spider-Man, as drawn by Todd McFarlane; a copy of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 300.”

Hey, I have that comic, I said.

I hope you’re taking care of it, the clerk behind the register said. That’s when I noticed the asking price: $500.

A few days later, I brought down the box in my closet where I kept my old comics. A box I rarely opened. Inside, all the familiar faces were there. The Amazing Spider-Man reprints from 1982 and 1983. The wedding issue where Peter and Mary Jane get hitched. The six-part saga where Kraven the Hunter buries Spidey alive. And my copy of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 300.” I dandled No. 300 in front of Raina and the kids, as if keeping it for 33 years had been my plan all along.

If someone offered you $500, Raina asked, would you sell it?

I made a pained face. Is it crazy if I said no?

Later that August, all of us were in the car as I parallel parked in a space outside Sarge’s Comics in New London, Connecticut. Sarge’s is a large comics specialty shop located near the pier and across the street from the Yankee Peddler pawn shop and a wings ‘n pies restaurant.

Inside, the store was wide and deep. An armada of manga and Funko Pops filled space to the right. My daughter lost herself in a happy maze of imported books from Japan. My son and I wandered the aisles until we encountered a man in a black t-shirt who resembled an employee. He was performing touch-up surgery on a furry monster head, likely something for the display window.

If you found what you want, he said, someone can ring you up over there.

He barely looked up. But when he did, I pointed at my son, who was holding three Spider-Man comics, including No. 300.

These are some of my dad’s old comics, he began. We wanted to know—

Sorry, the clerk said, interrupting. We don’t do appraisals.

My son looked at me, uncertain.

You can still help, I said, careful to sound chipper. We don’t need a formal appraisal. We’re wondering if you think it’s in good enough condition to be worth anything?

The clerk took No. 300, turned it over, frowned, then handed it back. I really couldn’t tell you, he said. The owner’s the one who handles comics. I manage everything else.

I was tempted to ask what this place was for except comics, really? But I didn’t. I thanked him for his time and we went back to browsing. Board games, figurines in glass cases, vintage comics in bankers boxes: before long, my son found something exciting. The world is vast and he has a long way to go before he tires of it. For my part, I also felt lighter, happier. It wasn’t till we were back in the car that I realized why: because I didn’t get an answer. I didn’t have any clearer idea of what these comics were worth. I didn’t have to decide whether to sell or not to sell. Because what was it worth to me? Hard to say. Maybe impossible.

I am now further from that boy in Michigan News than the boy in Michigan News in 1982 was from the very first Amazing Spider-Man comic in 1963. That six year-old boy was wide-eyed for funny books drawn almost 20 years earlier; the man that I am now is 40 years older than the boy I was back then. Twice the distance, and growing every day. How many more decades will the game keep playing out? How long will I carry with me a box of worn comics, of tattered memories? For what price would I ever let go a part of me?