Essays

The Great Escape: Journey from the Center of the Earth

Bob Seger, rock 'n roll troubadour, once announced that he's going to Katmandu - if, that is, he ever gets outta here.I used to listen to that song quite a lot. I liked Seger's escape fantasy, sung-shouted in a voice like a gravel crusher, the voice of a guy who'd had enough of being a lonely road warrior crisscrossing the U.S.A. Katmandu is about as far from New York, the "friendly old ghost" of a city that Seger seems to "pass right through," as you can get.America is the Rome of the modern world to which all roads lead, a confluence of cultures. People from all over are drawn to the waters of this glorious riverhead, from which springs a cultural empire unrivaled in history. But the waters here are turbulent, and individuals are so easily swept under. It is a peculiar hallmark of American life that our freedom so often comes at the price of our sanity. Katmandu, by contrast, is a place of satisfying enigma, ineffable and remote - at least in my mind - and this makes it a good place to escape to. The world is shrinking, warming, warring, trading, and in many corners slouching towards cultural homogeneity (witness the E.U., capitalist China, a casino on an Indian Reservation in Connecticut, or the numerous modern resorts in Phuket, Thailand). And so it seems that there are fewer and fewer mysterious places to explore, or disappear into.Getting back to the song, the irony is obvious. Seger knows he will never make it to Katmandu, and it's just as well: indulging in the fantasy is more sustaining than actually making the trip, which would be costly, time-consuming and impractical. And anyway, what would Bob Seger do in Katmandu? Meditate? Mister "like a rock" would probably do just as well squeezing water from a stone.A piece of rock in the north Atlantic, a stone's throw from the Arctic Circle, is my personal Katmandu. I don't know how Iceland came to hold such sway in my imagination, but it did, so much so that a friend gave me a copy of Lonely Planet Iceland, a travel guide by Paul Harding and Joe Bindloss, hoping, I believe, that it would lift some of the mystery off the place and so reduce the amount of time spent listening to me prate about going there. Instead, after some exploration of the book, I now bend ears with arcane facts about the rugged volcanic island.Indulge me.First colonized by Norse settlers in the 9th century A.D., Iceland is home to just 288,000 souls, most of whom live in or around the capitol, Reykjavik. This number does not include the unknown population of elves, gnomes, dwarves, and trolls said by some to inhabit the land. Isolation and a paucity of natural resources, with the notable exception of fish, have engendered in Icelanders a strong spirit of independence. In a world of nations ever more dependent upon trade, especially when it comes to energy, Iceland will probably be the least affected when the last drops of oil have been sucked away, and the last trees felled like fiddlesticks, that child's game where the only rule is to make sure a mess is made. They never had trees in Iceland anyway. The country is a model for making use of what's on hand, and so geothermal energy not only heats the pools where people soak away Iceland's dark, frozen winters, but is harnessed for electricity as well.Icelanders may be independent, but they are by no means backward. They speak English, having learned that welcoming foreign tourists to their strange and striking country is another way to sustain their existence upon it. At the same time, they have guarded their own unique language, said to be the most difficult in the world for a non-native speaker to learn. My little guidebook contains a long, complicated key for parsing out pronunciation of the various Germano-Norse letters and accents that appear in Icelandic. Even with its help, most words are pleasantly impenetrable. However, when spoken correctly Icelandic, like its Scandinavian counterparts, possesses a natural cadence very similar to that of English. Iceland's linguistic and cultural history is encapsulated in its epic sagas, which date to the 12th and 13th centuries, and celebrate a traditional, if increasingly archaic, way of life.Today, a new generation of Icelanders are driving something of a pop-culture explosion there. Though unabashedly inspired by Hollywood and Rock 'n Roll, Iceland's burgeoning film and music scenes remain distinctly Icelandic in tone. For the celluloid savvy, see Children of Nature from director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, and Robert I Douglas's Icelandic Dream. For the melody minded, start with the oddly spiritual, pleasingly esoteric band Sigur Ros, and, of course, everyone's favorite citizen of the world, the incomparable Bjork. As for writers, Nobel Laureate Halldor Laxness, Iceland's most celebrated author, carries the torch. More recently, the novels 101 Reykjavik, by Hallgrimur Helgason and Angels of the Universe by Einar Mar Gudmundsson have received the most attention.I hope that reading from Lonely Planet and maybe picking up one of the above titles is not the closest I ever get to Iceland. Iceland now rivals more popular destinations such as London when it comes to monetary expense, and that fact alone is prohibitive for me.But like Seger's Katmandu, Iceland is the nominal destination in my personal escape fantasy, which has perhaps served its purpose even if I never actually get outta here and head north. It would be a strange reverse commute for me, having a bit of ancestral Norwegian blood. Recall that Eric the Red left Iceland for Greenland in 987, from whence his son, Leif, became the first person of European descent to set eyes on mainland North America. Gazing upon such inviting shores must have been a powerful experience for him. Those shores were a far cry from the spartan landscape that Iceland still presents to the world. Isolated, insulated, it is a place possessed of a primordial indifference to the urgency of progress. Though its people have adapted to the demands of the land, and so thrive in a most inhospitable place, Iceland will continue to be a place where progress as it stands is measured not in Gross National Product, Olympic Medals, or 1,776 foot skyscrapers, but in the slow and inexorable march of its volcanic geology, truly growth from within.
Essays

On the Peculiar Art of Presidential Fiction

As Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon opens on Broadway, I find myself free-associating, as is my habit... in this case, on the subject of presidential fiction.Frank Langella, the actor who portrays Nixon in the play, has spoken in several interviews about the odd empathy he feels for our 37th president, who was by all accounts a psychological mess. The closest I've ever come to feeling empathy for Nixon was reading Robert Coover's The Public Burning. Starring Tricky Dick in his vice-presidential incarnation, this novel about the Rosenberg trial is one of the high-water marks of postmodern fiction. Hell, even JFranz likes it. (I'm joking, Mr. Franzen. Joking.) Aside from its idiom, the book's major achievement is its main character, who grows more ingratiating as he grows more loathsome. Potential libel suits stalled publication, according to the introduction by William H. Gass. We can only be grateful that they did not prevent it.Nixon's belief in history as a pageant starring himself seems crucial to the development of a subgenre I've been calling, pace Matthew Sharpe, "historical fantasia." (See recent works by Mark Binelli, Chris Bachelder, and Lydia Millet, for examples). If The Public Burning is a foundational text, Philip Roth's Nixon novel Our Gang is a minor addition to the canon. Amusing stuff, and interesting as historical artifact, but inessential. Still, it further expanded the range of approaches the contemporary writer may take to historical figures.Straddling the line between fiction and journalism, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 harnessed a Roth-like fury to a more revealing analysis of the mechanisms of power. On celluloid, Oliver Stone's Nixon (IMDb) attempted to get behind the mask, with mixed results. More recently, back in the world of letters, Gerald Reilly's O. Henry Award-winning story "Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree" was said to explore the life of...an actor getting ready to play Nixon. Which brings us full circle to Frost/Nixon.And what of the other presidents? Gore Vidal had some success with Lincoln, David Foster Wallace notched an early triumph with "Lyndon," (in Girl with Curious Hair) and DeLillo achieved a then-career-best with his reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination (Libra). I even recall a lovely A.M. Homes story about The Gipper.But the cast of characters in what is arguably the worst administration since Nixon's strikes me as devoid of literary interest. Practically the only enduring contribution of this crew to America's writers is its patented brand of cant. George Saunders has mastered the idiom. Hart Seely managed to turn Rumsfeld's arrogant evasions into a book of poems. I myself, if you'll forgive the plug, published a monologue called "The Love Song of Ari Fleischer" in 2004. But behind the words lurk people who have, for seven years, refused to grant room for ambiguity, complexity, and doubt - preconditions for the moral universe in which modern literature is possible. Instead, we get a stilted reduction whose protagonists, depending on who's reading, are either simply Good, or simply Wicked. We get Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint. We get "Stuff Happens" and "Guantanamo" - bracing theatrical experiences, but not dramas per se. A mark of the current administration's moral failure, and perhaps of its artistic triumph, is that it has sterilized many of the avenues for protest against itself. It brings out the worst in us, and has, by its relentless aestheticization of every aspect of American life, made the aesthetic feel insufficient. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps some artist or press secretary somewhere is even now working up a giant masterwork that illuminates W as a tragic hero caught on the horns of history. Somehow, though, I'm not convinced such a work would ring true. Anyway, I'm not holding my breath.See Also: HST on the Campaign Trail, Kennedy's favorite fiction, Clinton's favorite books.
Essays

Niche Bookstores: A Dying Breed

Earlier this week I happened upon a story in the Windy City Times about trouble at a Chicago bookstore called Women & Children First.I had just finished a three-year stint at a terrific independent bookstore in Los Angeles when I first moved to Chicago in 2004, and I was inspired at the time to pen a post about what I was looking for in a bookstore in my adopted city: "one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood."As it turns out, upon landing in Chicago the nearest bookstore, the only one in walking distance, was Women & Children First. Though the store's focus is pretty clear from its name, it was still a surprise to me when I discovered that the store almost exclusively carries books written by women. It could not then be the bookstore I was looking for, one that gave me a comprehensive view of what mattered "at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood," though I did go there on many occasions. Still, it occurs to me that if an independent bookstore cannot satisfy me - pretty much the target consumer for indies - then it will have trouble in a world where few are interested in the unique experience independents have to offer.At the same time, I find niche bookstores fascinating. There were a few in Los Angeles that I knew of, and in London, where bookstores are (or were - I was there several years ago) clustered together on side streets, one can hop from store to store as one might stroll from section to section in a shopping mall Borders.But the lone niche bookstore seems a lot to me like a lone tree after the rest of the forest has been clear cut. They are even more vulnerable than indies with a general focus to the forces that are making it tough for indies to survive. If there had been two or three other bookstores nearby Women & Children First, each peddling books of a particular genre or focus, I would likely have patronized W&CF much more frequently.Sadly, I don't expect we'll see many colonies of niche bookstores cropping up in our cities. I would guess the economics of the book industry don't support it. Still, there are many niche bookstores still around, quite of few of which are virtually unknown even to avid book people. They are worth seeking out as they are the unique and rare oddities within the literary ecology.I'd love to hear about niche bookstores in the comments if anyone wants to tell us about some of their favorites.
Essays

The Road To Baghdad: Remembering Michael Kelly

1.Four years ago today, Michael Kelly became the first journalist to lose his life in Iraq while covering The U.S.A.'s most recent war there. He was young, 46, and remarkably accomplished, having recently been named editor of a reinvigorated Atlantic Monthly. This after he had made a name for himself writing for some of the big boys, the Sun and the Globe, the Times and the Post, the New Yorker, and then editor of the New Republic at an age when many men these days are googling the term 'quarter-life crisis' on their under-used laptops. He was a rare individual, and he left behind a wife and two sons, aged 3 and 6, when he died.Twelve years before he left home for the last time, Michael Kelly, who was raised on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (his parents and mine remain close friends and neighbors), wrote the definitive account of the Gulf War, the first Iraq War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. It was a war that went by many names, America's 1991 military foray into the Persian Gulf. But the book goes by just one: Martyr's Day: Chronicle of a Small War (Random House, 1992). It is based on the revealing, carefully crafted pieces that Kelly, stringing to the Boston Globe, GQ, and the New Republic while bouncing around the Middle East on his borrowed freelancer's scratch, sent over the wire. Often mentioned in the same breath as Michael Herr's searing account of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, Martyr's Day stands among the very best in a decorated tradition of American war correspondence.On April 3, 2003, Michael was no doubt pulsating with his writer's instincts and observations, which surely would have become the follow up to Martyr's Day. Embedded with the Third Infantry Division, U.S. Army, and headed down the road to Baghdad International Airport in a Humvee driven by an army staff sergeant, Michael was, as usual, in the right place at the right time. The city of Baghdad at that moment was being liberated from Baath party control by the Marines. Here, on this very roadway perhaps, was an opportunity for Michael, twelve years removed from covering his first Iraq War, to reflect on the fact that this was the one event that neither he, nor anyone, had witnessed back in 1991: the fall of Saddam's Baghdad. They took mortar fire, the Humvee went off the road, landing upside down in a ditch, and both Michael and the staff sergeant were killed.2.In 1991, Iraq was a nation led by a belligerent, authoritarian dictator, Saddam Hussein, who had ordered Iraq's tanks and battalions into the oil-wealthy and blithely vulnerable neighbor state of Kuwait. The ensuing military conflict pitted a coalition of many nations, with the U.S. in command, against the Iraq army. It was soon apparent to the reporters at the "front" that the Iraq army was composed of men who felt about as much motivation to fight in defense of their tyrannical leader's capriciousness as you might expect from right thinking, sane individuals - none at all. The rout was on.Maybe the most indelible passage in Martyr's Day is Kelly's description of an encounter he had with a ragged band of Iraqi soldiers on the road to Kuwait City. He and another reporter were eager to chronicle the post-liberation conditions in the invaded capitol and were driving their rented pickup truck hard to get there. Their nervousness at seeing Iraqi soldiers on the road gave way to astonishment when the soldiers, unarmed, under-clothed, and numbering around ten, eagerly surrendered to them, two American journalists.Now, said the lieutenant, he and his men were very cold and hungry and they would appreciate it if we would take them prisoner. I am five feet six inches tall and bespectacled and running slightly to poundage. Dan [Fesperman, Baltimore Sun reporter] is taller and doesn't wear glasses, but he is not an overwhelming figure either. I don't think either of us felt that we were the sort of men that take other men prisoner.Instead, they gave the men food and water, and piled them into, and onto, the pickup, driving a ways down the road, where they ran into a Saudi army unit, out doing its part for the coalition, though there was nothing much to do.It is at this point in the narrative, when the reader's laughter at the perfect absurdity of the scene is beginning to subside, that Kelly brings it back to reality, to war, or the sobering specter of it. The Saudis, a bit starved themselves - for combat action - rounded up the Iraqis, now proper prisoners, and began hectoring them, and taking aim with their automatic rifles as though they meant to execute the men then and there.They screamed and shouted and made as if, any moment, they were going to shoot. The Iraqis, stunned and terrified, sat down in the dirt, their hands on their heads still, and their faces to the wind, in a ragged little line. One man clutched his Koran to his chest for protection and rocked, moaning, back and forth on his haunches. Another cried for Allah, and wept, and clutched at his crotch and hair in little paroxysms of terror. I watched them weeping and begging for their lives, and I had to turn aside so they wouldn't see me crying too.Reading this passage reminded me of the battered canteen, olive green, and with liquid of dubious nature still sealed inside, that Michael gave to me upon his return. It belonged to an Iraqi soldier, he had said. I was fourteen years old. The soldier was probably dead.3.As the subtitle of Kelly's book suggests, the Gulf War was a "small" war. It was a nasty, pathetic affair. It was not World War II, so well chronicled in multiple theaters of battle by Ernie Pyle, whose collection of dispatches, Ernie Pyle's War, remains a benchmark classic of war correspondence journalism. Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper on a Pacific Island, his war so close to its end.What Kelly witnessed in 1991 was a far cry from Ernie's War. And as a consequence, his book was necessarily more than blood-and-guts war journalism. This is not to say that the Gulf War was not a horrible, traumatizing, and often deadly experience for many people. Kelly describes many scenes of suffering. The squalid Kurdish refugee camps come to mind. But there is a bemused puzzlement, indeed, at times an absurdity to many of the proceedings. Kelly's description of wartime Tel Aviv, under constant threat of a Saddam Scud missile attack, is memorable. What emerges is a vision of a modern day London during the Blitz - with kibbutz, and bits of rhinestone fashioned by the ladies to their government-issue gas mask kits to match their eveningwear. The Scud raids were infrequent and ineffective, and on the whole you'd have to say that 1991 Tel Aviv, with its discotheques, its beaches, its conscripted, no-nonsense army, and its irrepressible pro-American fervor, was a safer place than London in '40 and '41.Kelly's engaging, funny, conversational writing, his man-on-the-street (of Baghdad, of Amman, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Dhahran, Kuwait City) perspective, assisted by his broad but honest impressions of some of the maddeningly complex political relationships among Middle Eastern states, regions, and peoples (of which there are a few), these qualities add much to Martyr's Day. In addition to being a book about war, Martyr's Day is history (the opening discussion of the history of Iraq from ancient empire to modern dictatorship comes to mind), and it is also armchair cultural anthropology: "I knew by now that in Arabia [Egypt in this case] office life was patterned after an older rhythm. An official in his government room received visitors in much the same fashion as his grandfather had in his courtyard - casually, endlessly, and with a good deal of overlapping, since no one was ever in any particular hurry. The love of talk and the love of manners dictated against hurrying into any matter at hand." The book can sometimes sound like a very amusing travel guide to the Middle East, such as when Kelly describes the grand farce that is traveling into and out of Israel, for which he needed to carry two passports, one of which would never show a mark of having been to Judea, in order to appease the firm policy of non-recognition adhered to by Israel's neighboring Palestinian nation states.There is one final important tonal element to Martyr's Day, and it emerges early on, as Kelly describes the culture of Baghdad, where he spent a good deal of time in the days leading up to January 17, 1991, when American bombs began to fall on the city. This final element is a mixture of pride and disgust. The disgust is evident in his appraisal of the Saddam Hussein regime, its moral bankruptcy, its physical and ideological feebleness, and the mostly closeted dissatisfaction of an Iraqi populace that had been too long under the thumb of a tyrant, but had not the first clue of how to live in any other way. The pride is that of a patriot: being on the right side of things was important to Michael. His book of collected writings - essays, dispatches, op-ed pieces and the like, published in 2004, is called Things Worth Fighting For, and the book is a testament to his conviction as a man, a father, husband, citizen, and reporter. The strength of this conviction is evident in his words, the words of someone who believed in America, and freedom, and the inalienable right to drive a pickup truck out into the Arabian desert in order to Get The Story, which for Michael was not so much a right as a need.4.It is hard not to wonder where that need would have taken Michael Kelly if he were living today. It is hard to imagine that his pride in American global authority, so evident in Martyr's Day, when the world really was on our side, would not now be muted, or questioned outright. He would have to confront the divisions in our society and in our government, divisions that have deepened as the state of the U.S.A.'s latest Iraq war has worsened, those heady days that witnessed the fall of Saddam four years ago slowly bleeding into a morass of sectarian violence and a mounting toll of American dead.Sometimes it seems like the needle in our country's collective moral compass has been set spinning, as though in the presence of a malevolent magnetism. While I did not always agree with Michael's opinions, I do believe that he was someone whose compass rarely failed him, and this sure-footed approach, honest, blue collar reporting, is something that is sorely lacking in our current climate of partisan rancor. I may not know exactly what he would write today, but I do know that he would make his voice heard, and do it with his unfailing wit, wisdom, and grace so that, agree or disagree, time spent reading his words would still be, as it always has been for me, time well spent.
Essays

Secret Histories: The Jamestown Colony in Postmodern Fiction

In this week's New Yorker, Jill Lepore offers a bemused consideration (not available online) of the Library of America's new edition of John Smith's works. Collected fact, or collected fiction? she asks. In True Travels alone,Smith [claims] to have defeated armies, outwitted heathens, escaped pirates, hunted treasure, and wooed princesses - and all this on four continents, no less, if you count a little island in North America that this year celebrates its four-hundredth anniversary as the birthplace of the United States.Putting aside, for the time being, questions of veracity (not to mention morality - "outwitted heathens?"), the quadricentennial seems like a good time to touch upon the wonderful (and growing) body of fiction inspired by Captain Smith's exploits.John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor is surely a leading exemplar of the subgenre - as well as being one of the finest novels of the 1960s. Into the hilarious and strangely affecting story of one Ebenezer Cooke, Gentleman, Barth drops passages from Smith's "secret [read: invented] histories." Smith emerges as a liar and braggart of the first rank. But Cooke's intrepid tutor Henry Burlingame, undaunted, seems to model himself on the Captain. In the course of the novel, he "hunts treasure [and] wooes princesses," while bewildered Ebenezer blunders along in his wake. If you want a black comedy of high adventure (or if you want to see where Pynchon got the language for Mason & Dixon) look no further.In the 1990s, William T. Vollmann revisited the Jamestown story with Argall. Here, we get Barth's pastiche of colonial Queen's English filtered through Vollmann's distinctive authorial temperament. Like Barth, Vollmann is fascinated by the violence of the early English colonists and the slaughter endured by the American Indians (a fascination he indulges throughout his unfinished Seven Dreams series). Unlike his metafictionist predecessor, however, Vollmann blurs the lines between fiction and journalism, between fact and legend... Sound familiar?We'll pass over Disney's Pocahontas (IMDb) in silence, but Terence Malick's astonishing movie The New World (IMDb) certainly merits inclusion in the Jamestown canon. Malick takes a characteristically earnest approach to his subject. Even as his colonists descend into evil, Malick unabashedly evokes the romantic pull of the virgin land. He portrays the Powhatan tribe as innocents, much as the settlers did - but without the condescension that enabled so much slaughter. This movie is resolutely un-PC, and for that reason its condemnation of European conquest breaks through the familiar litany of post-colonial pieties. It is devastating, as any account of the origins of the U.S.A. should be.Now Matthew Sharpe, author of The Sleeping Father, has come along to toss his buckler into the ring. His new novel, published by Soft Skull, is called, simply Jamestown. I have not read it, but I can say that I like Sharpe's writing a lot. Here he reimagines the Jamestown colony as a postmodern battleground, pitting settlers who travel by bus against indigenous people unskilled in the use of sunscreen. This appears to be an "ahistorical fantasia," along the lines of Mark Binelli's Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! or Chris Bachelder's U.S.! It's notable that younger American writers are fleeing the good government of the historical novel in an era that has itself started to seem dystopic...that has, as Frederic Jameson puts it, forgotten how "to think the present historically." But Sharpe's choice of setting seems propitious. For as the Vollmann and Barth books show, there's nothing novel about these wild new novels. They're part of a grand tradition of American craziness that, Jill Lepore points out, stretches back to John Smith himself - "Who told his glorious deeds to many, / But never was believ'd of any."
Essays

Love: A Burning Thing

I guess I re-enter the ring of fire at my own peril, but I feel compelled to return to what has become (or so the publish first, ask questions later crowd would have it) "n+1 vs. lit-bloggers." At times, the whole kerfuffle has seemed to confirm some of the liabilities n+1's "Blog Reflex" sought to diagnose in lit-blogs: a tendency toward contempt or wet kisses, an emphasis on performance over analysis, a reduction of big questions into partisan orthodoxies. These are, in fact, the very same liabilities I thought I detected in the n+1 piece. On the other hand, without some very engaging performances, you probably wouldn't be reading this. Despite the extremely high temperature at which tempers seem to be running, or perhaps annealed by the flames, several noteworthy questions seem to have emerged. To wit:Does instant communication encourage combat? If so, why? (Is the media the message?) When does anger work to enrich understanding, and when does it hinder it? Are those even the metrics anymore? How can a medium so bound up with the culture industry manage a critique of that industry? Is the blog-as-antidote-to-ideology itself part of the ideology? Is good writing good for writing? Does mass culture exert a leveling effect? Can highbrow and middlebrow coexist peacefully, and if so under what circumstances? What becomes of critique when words are control x-ed and control v-d and the very idea of context, the context of context, starts to evaporate?I'd like to advance the proposition that we're all engaged in a test-case. To the extent that we can do something productive with these questions (which will likely involve listening as well as talking, reading as well as writing), we support the idea that the blog has some place at the table of cultural criticism. To the extent that we spend time finding ever more inventive ways to give one another the finger, we prove out the idea that, behind the hypnotic flickering on our shiny new screens, nothing of much worth is happening.Here, I find myself rooting for the blog in the way I used to root for the Red Sox - passionately, but cautiously. Weirdly enough, this may be not too far removed from n+1's attitude. The original "Blog Reflex" piece - which I have read, and recommend others do, if only at the bookstore - proceeded from the tacit assumption that the blog isn't by its nature the enemy of "critique." Keith Gessen's and Marco Roth's thoughtful, if controversial, their comments here and at Long Sunday only confirm that they believe that the blog might, at least theoretically, offer some counterweight to an increasingly narcotic media environment... a point with which I think most literary bloggers agree.I took issue with the n+1 polemic because I thought the rhetorical choices - use of the past tense, sweeping generalizations, accusatory tone - tended to prejudge unfairly, and at a very early date, the results of the blog experiment. And to make ad hominem attacks without naming names. Again, I think n+1 editors Gessen and Roth are, if not in agreement with me on this point, then at least open to the criticism. (And in this kind of volatile discussion, it takes courage to come out and offer even a partial recantation, as Mr. Roth did, rather than sticking to the mode of turf-defense.)Moving forward, it might help to clarify what we mean by "lit-blog." (A contraction of a contraction of a contraction is bound to cause some confusion.) In responding to "The Blog Reflex," I took "lit-blog" to mean "blog about books," because I contribute to one. But I've come to see that n+1 meant something closer to "blog that filters contemporary culture through a literary sensibility." I'm happy to accept this more expansive definition. Thus, as Keith Gessen suggests, my very short catalogue of popular blogs that seemed to refute n+1's generalizations should be amended to include not only Maud Newton and Moorishgirl, but also Long Sunday and Crooked Timber and so on. In all candor, Gessen seems to read more blogs than I do... which only makes me wish that "The Blog Reflex" had been more specific in its targets, lest babies and bathwater both end up in the gutter. (To be fair, the "Intellectual Scene" section of n+1 has always been more about the generalities of culture; the specifics are usually covered in the longer essays.)I stand by my plaudits for The Quarterly Conversation, the LBC, and the Pynchon roundtable, as I stand by my own reviews, but that's a matter of taste. What's noteworthy is that each of us seems to be able to come up with a list of exemplary literary blogs. I do resent the imputation that "Keepers of the Flame" name-checked only the blogs of friends or that I prefer blogs that make "noise." I'm not online enough to have known that there was "a little circle," and I mentioned Scott Esposito's blog specifically because I thought he didn't seem like a noisy writer. (I'm open to correction on this point, but check out his photo on the website... he looks so gentle!) I don't know Scott from Adam any more than I know Ed Champion from Bat Segundo. I literally just reached for a couple of examples, from among the 10 or 15 blogs I read.I also think "phenomenally ignorant" is unfair, as are the unbanked assertions in some of Mark Sarvas' and Ed Champion's responses to Gessen and Roth's comments; we could debate the value of name-calling, but - again - we'd be debating taste. I'd prefer for the name-callers to spell out what they mean, or to admit that, hey, in the heat of battle, they lashed out... and move on.But Mr. Gessen's momentary lapses in what's generally an intelligent post - like Mr. Roth's admission to getting angry; like Ed's "Je refuse," like my own flirtation in the original post with imputing the worst motives to "The Blog Reflex" - points to a phenomenon the subsequent comment thread bears out. And which bears analysis, should anyone wish to undertake it: there's something about instant communication that encourages high dudgeon. This is not always the enemy of thoughtful "critique," but it does not, in and of itself, constitute critique. "When it comes to hatred, most of us are cowards," as Marco Roth puts it. Hatred can be a cleansing fire, but to hate bravely requires discipline.As I see it, the challenge for literary bloggers - at least those who would admit to the temptation to flame, and who would also admit to feeling like their most combustible writings are not their most intelligent - is to find a way to preserve the agonistic pleasures of the medium while doing important work for the culture. I'm not sure if I agree with Gessen's premise that "bad writing is bad for writing"... that it's an offense against writing (though Milan Kundera thinks so). But I know I don't want to waste time reading bad writing. There's a war on, for Pete's sake.Ultimately, the most useful point of comparison for the blog seems to be the print periodical in all its variations. The blog as a medium seems capacious enough to contain short reviews, 5,000-word essays, war reporting, dumb lists, gossip, "ignorant railing." Anyone has a right to make whatever complaints they want, and - here's the blessing and the curse of the medium - to hear rebuttal or retraction or further discussion in fairly short order. Rather than spending my time telling other people to shut up, or trying to impose a reign of virtue, I'd prefer to try to step up my own game.And anyone who doesn't like that can suck on it.
Essays, Notable Articles

Keepers of the Flame: A Reply to n+1

It's not that I'm biased... or, rather, my biases pull me in two directions. On one hand, I greatly admire the new journal n+1 - its moral seriousness, its elegant writing, its stewardship of the Frankfurt School legacy. On the other hand, I regularly contribute reviews to the blog on which this post is appearing. And so, while part of me wants to sneer along with n+1's backhanded compliment to literary bloggers - that they represent "the avant-garde of 21st Century publicity" - another, better informed part of me rebels. The current issue of n+1 raises many legitimate questions about the transformation of consciousness and culture we are (proximally and for the most part unreflectively) undergoing. I am myself suspicious of the Infotainment Revolution, and it seems peevish to dismiss an entire critique in order to defend a scrap of turf. But when n+1 stoops to the kinds of gross generalizations and straw-man-thrashing we are accustomed to seeing on the covers of the newsweeklies, it threatens to undermine its own mission. A little background...The Winter 2007 issue of n+1 - "The Decivilizing Process" - concerns itself with technology and the culture industry, and if its unsigned, front-of-the-book essays are polemical, they are generally justified in being so. The spirits of Marshall McLuhan and Theodor Adorno hover in the background like a beyond-the-grave odd couple, the former insisting that media are only as good or bad as the uses to which people put them, the latter asserting that those uses are likely to reinforce the worst tendencies of the capitalist world-order that birthed them. Thus one writer points out that silence, a hard-won legacy of literate civilization, has, in the age of "Whenever Minutes" begun to disappear. (No doubt some enterprising corporation will soon be marketing "silence spas" or "silence earmuffs" - selling back to us what we once had for free.)In a short piece called "The Blog Reflex," n+1 extends its critique to the blogosphere, suggesting that reflexive antagonism and an imperative for speed have undercut the much-hyped democratic potential of the blog:Yet criticism as an art didn't survive. People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough. [...] The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction - "The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!" - or displeasure - "I shit on Dante!" So man hands on information to man.Not least among the problems with this premature obituary for the blog is that it is, in many small ways, accurate. Anyone looking for an Ebert-style thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Dante will no doubt find one on the internet. Google will even tell you how long the search took. Blogs both reiterate and catalyze the coarsening of the culture... the dumbing-down, the, uh...whatever. (Tocqueville knew that democracy tends to aim toward a B-minus.) And for reasons too complex to go into here (I'm intentionally trying to illustrate one of n+1's points) the blog as an instrument of kulturkritik may be as compromised as those other artifacts of industrial capitalism - film, the photograph, the short story, jazz, rock n' roll... even (gasp!) the magazine.Yet, depending on one's degree of fatalism about world history, the medium may not doom the message. Some of us on the American left believe that Jean-Luc Godard, Walker Evans, Donald Barthelme, Archie Shepp, and The Clash managed to transcend the limitations of their respective media, to push some kind of shake-up in the system, to preserve a space for free movement in an increasingly die-cut, cast-iron (or, later, iPod-sleek, powered-by-Intel) landscape. If n+1 took Adorno's suspicions about mass culture more seriously, why would its editors seek to penetrate the citadels of Random House and Doubleday? Why would they run ads for HarperCollins? Why would they continue to publish? (Why would they demand 5,000 word critiques of favorite records? (Why, in Adorno's case, did bourgeois high-culture continue to matter?)) Obviously, some accommodation with the system has been reached, and more power to n+1 for continuing to fight the good fight. But to call out others for their own accommodations is to devolve to the level of intellectual pissing match. Or maybe King of the Hill is more apposite.Lit-bloggers "represent a perfection of the outsourcing ethos of contemporary capitalism," we are told.Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits - by their clicks you shall know them - and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses - fillips of contempt, wet kisses - aren't criticism.Just for clarification, dear reader: this isn't a fillip of contempt. It's a fusillade. (Flame on!)Here we must grapple with the anonymous writer's rhetoric: call it the Argument contra Fortiori. He or she proceeds from the premise that "I shit on Dante" is the alpha and omega of lit-blog discourse. But just as the lazy researcher can Google up coprophiliac reductions of il divino poeta, he can also easily find the sorts of long essays n+1 values - the kinds of essays (not incidentally) at which n+1 excels. For example, Scott Esposito's Quarterly Conversation, an extension of his excellent blog, recently ran the most considered critique I've yet read of William H. Gass' The Tunnel... and I've read many of them. The Lit-Blog Co-op, mixing old-fashioned boosterism with serious discussion, helps to bring overlooked novels, many of them progressive and anti-capitalist, to the public's attention. The LBC does it not for the publishers, little enterprises like Minneapolis' Coffee House Press, but for the authors, and for the readers. Ed Champion's recent round-table on Against the Day, meanwhile, offered readers much-needed context for that profoundly leftist novel.Many of us engaged in this work feel that the institutions that might have done it in the past have vanished or sold out (the book club), refined themselves into impotence (the salon), or abdicated their critical instincts in favor of precisely the kind of PR-flackmanship n+1 lays at the feet of the literary blog. I won't make the case that my own writings for The Millions are anything other than superior versions of newspaper-supplement reviews, but I do know that serious literary bloggers see themselves as an antidote to a vertically integrated media sector and a closed-circuit publishing industry.There is merit in n+1's attack on the hyperlink ethos of the blogs. In lieu of critical writing, a list of links can easily decay into an endorsement of an industry's buzz about itself. Does tracking down links count as journalism? An interesting question. But, given that many of the lit-blogs least vulnerable to charges of thoughtlessness link to one another, and given that these blogs are quite popular, it seems to me startling that n+1 didn't manage to stumble across them in its internet divagations. Indeed, I seem to hear the call-note of territorialism sounded beneath n+1's write-off of the literary blog. (Note the way "their clicks" shades into "your posts.") The "aura of indie cred" paired with recognition "from the big houses"... once upon a time this intersection might have been the exclusive province of literary journals. But the best literary blogs, free from the economic vicissitudes of the print journal, have begun to encroach. What can editors who have "only their precarious self-respect" do but fire a warning shot? "So much typing, so little communication..." In this summary dismissal, I learn more about n+1's own anxieties than I do about the potential of the blog as a medium for "the free activity of the mind."But perhaps I'm inferring too much. In any case, n+1 has little to worry about. Its editors are prodigiously gifted, respected, drowning in "indie cred," and despite (or because of) such stimulating missteps as "The Blog Reflex," the journal provides a much-needed antidote to the inanities of consumer culture. The biggest danger would be for n+1 to fall through the trap-door of elitism, around which Adorno himself danced. Communication requires both speakers and listeners, and by making common cause with like-minded bloggers, n+1 might swell the ranks of the enlightened, rather than going the genteel way of the salon. To that end, its introductory essaylets would do well in the future to forgo simplistic binary code - Literary Blogs: Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down? - in favor of sustained, thoughtful analysis.See more about n+1's "The Decivilizing Process" here. "The Blog Reflex" is, unsurprisingly, not currently available online.Update: If you're not tired of this yet, see the follow-up post: Love: A Burning Thing.
Essays

Oprah Going To The Dogs?

The latest in the burgeoning genre of book review-cum-anti-Oprah- screed, to which I made a humble contribution some weeks ago here, came courtesy of Peter Birkenhead writing for Salon.com. His excellent piece was featured on Monday, and has thus far garnered upwards of 300 reader responses, by far the most feedback I have seen to any single piece on Salon, which now posts all such commentary.The thrust of Birkenhead's piece is that Oprah has completely sold out her once (halfway) respected Book Club to the forces of capitalism, in the form of her latest endorsement, ironically titled The Secret, an insipidly condescending visualize-it-and-it-shall-be-yours self-help contrivance, by Rhonda Byrne. Byrne is backed by an elite lineup of self-help heavy hitters, and Birkenhead trenchantly observes that "the enlisting of that dream team, in what is essentially a massive, cross-promotional pyramid scheme -- is brilliant." Brilliant when it comes to selling books, that is, not actually helping people. And, as Birkenhead points out, Oprah is, of course, at the top of the pyramid.It got me thinking about the various self-help flowers out there and cross-pollination, and so I thought I would do a little research. I sought to enlist the help of a large pack of rehabilitated canines, a dream team, if you will, of (formerly) problem pooches. Cesar Millan, as anyone who has seen his TV show The Dog Whisperer or picked up his new book Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Correcting Common Dog Problems, is the leader of the pack. He is, in my opinion (and as someone who is considering becoming a dog owner), a pretty likable personality, and he certainly knows his dogs. But don't let the dog thing fool you: Cesar Millan is a self-help guru like the rest, believing that it is the owner, not so much the dog, who must change his or her habits in order for a dog to overcome its own behavioral problems. So, could it be that even the beatific Cesar Millan is part of the aforementioned pyramid scheme?Acting on a hunch, and with some time to kill at Barnes and Noble, I picked Up Cesar's Way, and looked no further than the acknowledgments for my answer. Cesar makes a special effort to thank some of the personalities who have aided him on his spiritual journey. First and foremost, you guessed it, Oprah. After effusive praise of the den mother comes thanks to another dream team of self-help gurus: Anthony Robbins, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Phil, all of whom have upwards of 25 different books authored and for sale on Amazon. Cesar also thanks John Gray, of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus fame, for helping save his marriage. It seems that Cesar's guiding spiritual values are anything but pure-bred. Rather they are engendered by a whole host of self-helpers.Using Cesar's Way as a litmus test, it would appear that Birkenhead is certainly on to something when it comes to the trend of self-help cross-marketing. Help yourself, sure, but it also helps to have some new-agey friends, all of whom have sold millions of books, on your side. Couldn't do it without 'em. If you scratch behind my ears, I'll scratch behind yours. Let's just hope, for Cesar's sake, that Dr. Phil is free of ticks and fleas.
Essays

War Poetry. What is it Good For?

During the Second World War - unquestionably the "decisive, ideological struggle" of its time - the government instituted a draft, income taxes rose as high as 82%, food and luxury goods were rationed, and people further participated in the war effort by buying war bonds and planting victory gardens. What the President has often referred to as the "decisive, ideological struggle of our time," (italics mine) has not inspired in our nation a corresponding spirit of sacrifice or sense of urgency. Even he, the war's greatest supporter, tells us that to do our part, we need only shop and watch the increasingly blood-spattered and heart-rending images of destruction on the nightly news. Explosive violence is met with half-measures, and as Congress continues its endless posturing, Bush soldiers on and Iraq spirals into disaster. If only we could invest as much in this reckless war - to either win it or defeat it - as Brian Turner has in his poetry, we might still see ourselves free of the whole vile mess.Turner has done his part. After graduating from the University of Oregon with an MFA in poetry, he spent seven years in the U.S. Army, including one year as an infantry leader in Iraq. It was during this time that he composed Here, Bullet, an attempt not only to chronicle his involvement in the war, but also to serve as witness to its human cost. In this, Turner has succeeded as few have. Eschewing the easy route, Turner expands his telling of the war beyond the bounds of his own experience to encompass not only those who fight and die with him, but the lives of average Iraqis and, most strikingly, those he fights against.Although Turner's views on war in general are made clear in such poems as "Gilgamesh in Fossil Relief" and "Sadiq," where he writes to his fellow soldiers, "it should break your heart to kill," the majority of the book avoids politics, with Turner only betraying his true sentiments in the last few pages, when, observing the aftermath of a bombing, he writes:The stunned gather body parts from the roadwayto collect in cardboard boxeswhich will not be taped and shippedto the White House lawn, not buriedunder the green sod thrown over, box by boxemptied into the rich soil in silencewhile a Marine sentry stands guardat the National Monument, Tomb of the Unknown,our own land given to these, to sayif this is freedom, then we will share it.Although Turner understandably felt it necessary to address his feelings on the war, his work pays its greatest dividends when it avoids partisanship. Instead of haranguing the reader, his vivid imagery and often shocking juxtapositions force the reader to come to terms with the war as it is being lived. His eye for telling details is sharp - a mustache and wedding ring lie forlorn on the sidewalk after a roadside bombing, glow in the dark stars on the ceiling of an arms dealer's home - and his descriptions of violence are an integral part of the work, always horrific, sometimes possessing a distressing beauty, never gratuitous.In the year or so Here, Bullet has been out, although no reviewer has dared question Turner's qualifications, many have been critical of his language, commenting on a tendency towards purple prose and cliched usage. But by reducing the poems to a mere formal exercise, these critics miss the point. It's not Turner's language, as stirring as it often is, that gives his work its power, but his eye for detail and his unwillingness to spare his readers. These aren't the self-indulgent maunderings of a neurasthenic MFA at a bucolic liberal arts college, these are epistles written in blood, and in this context, even the cliches work: the image of sunflowers turning their faces to the dawn as seen through the site of a sniper rifle in "Observation Post #71" or "R&R"'s paean to "beer... so cold it sweats in your hand" closely followed by the seeming non sequitur, "I'm all out of adrenaline, all out of smoking incendiaries." The combination of the familiar and the harrowing catches the reader off-guard, and the impact, as in all the best writing, comes not from form, but truth.If there is one real complaint to be made about the book, it is that Turner's work borrows heavily from the tradition of the poet/warrior, an archetype that has existed at least since the days of ancient Greece, when the soldier Archilochus wrote:Some Saian mountaineerStruts today with my shield.I threw it down by a bush and ranWhen the fighting got hot.Life seemed somehow more precious.It was a beautiful shield.I know where I can buy anotherExactly like it, just as round.It's difficult to imagine anyone expressing the idea better, and the few weak pieces in the collection, such as "Cole's Guitar," bring nothing new to such commonly rendered themes as camp life. But despite these similarities, Turner takes a risk, unique at least in my reading, by making a genuine attempt to understand the people who he fights for and against. Where many poets have addressed their enemy as a faceless other, acknowledging, at best, the universality of human suffering, Turner has clearly studied Iraq and makes a concerted effort to use what he has learned to draw a clearer picture of the war. Excerpts from the Qur'an and historical references provide some necessary context for the war, which, as he writes in his opening poem "A Soldier's Arabic," "starts where we would end it... an echo of history, recited again." Turner skillfully deploys this knowledge, sharing it with the reader in lessons in the book's introductory poems, then building on those lessons, exposing the reader to the same words and images until what was once unfamiliar resonates deeply. This resonance combines with a (considering the circumstances) remarkable display of imaginative empathy to create Turner's best poems and reaches its culmination in "2,000 lbs" a narrative of a suicide bombing told from the perspectives of Iraqis, American soldiers, and the bomber himself. In fifty to a hundred years, this is the poem that teachers will use to teach the Iraq War, much as Wilfed Owens' poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" is used when discussing the First World War.So Here, Bullet, a great book. So what? Who wants to read it? Many people complain of "Iraq fatigue," and it is undeniable that the constant grim headlines and footage from the war make even the staunchest supporters (are there any left?) wish it would all just go away. There's already more information available than can be digested, and it's questionable if even the most diligent study will bear fruit. Why, then, should anyone care about one more book in a seemingly endless series devoted to the topic? Why would anyone want to know this war better? The issue, in my opinion, is not attempting to know the war, but attempting to identify with it. Art serves its highest purpose when it helps us to cultivate our sympathies. Because many of us have no personal stake in the war, it's too easy to turn off the television or ignore the headlines, to pretend the war isn't there or to let someone else take responsibility for a mess that isn't "mine" to clean up. But the war goes on, whether we voted for it or not, and everyday it destroys lives. We need to care, and for those of us who can't yet identify with the lives of soldiers and Iraqis dying half a world away, Turner's poetry is more than great literature, it's a revelation.
Essays

The Fabulist: Ryszard Kapuscinski

At Slate, media critic Jack Shafer cuts through the effusive eulogizing of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (here at The Millions and elsewhere) to point out that it was "widely conceded that Kapuscinski routinely made up things in his books." As a trained journalist, I recognize and respect Shafer's insistence on this point (though the essay's incendiary headline might have been a step too far.) And as such, I'm happy to concede to Shafer's wish that we not use the same yardstick to compare Kapuscinski and contemporary foreign correspondents like Anthony Shadid who put their lives on the line to deliver reports on Iraq and other war-torn places.However, one shouldn't take Shafer's discomfort as a condemnation of Kapuscinski's work. I think it's telling that Shafer mentions Truman Capote and Joseph Mitchell, two masters of so-called narrative non-fiction, as others who "straddle the wall between fiction and nonfiction." And yet I'm glad to have read these writers' work. Even James Frey's now infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was considered by many to be a great read, and had it not been for the Oprah factor and Frey's irritating arrogance, the reaction to the fabrications it contained would likely not have been as severe. To define these books as journalism (or memoir, or "truth") exclusively does a disservice to journalism - offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate - but to suggest that there isn't a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers. (Thanks to Brian for sending the Slate piece my way.)