Essays

Write What You Know? Identity Politics and Fiction

1. No novel has entranced me this year like the French author Mathias Énard’s Compass, short-listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. Énard, a writer with tremendous empathy for his characters, both as individuals, and also as contextualized individuals embedded within contemporary geopolitical conflicts—the book is dedicated on the last page “to the Syrian people”—writes what ostensibly seems a didactic treatise on the world of orientalist academics. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist whose dreamscape and memories over the course of one sleepless night populate the entirety of the text while taking us through both Eastern and Western lands: Vienna, where Franz lies on a sickbed in the present, to Aleppo, Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and Istanbul, to which Énard pays special attention as the historic "conduit" between Europe and Asia. As Franz dreams restlessly about the woman he loves— another orientalist scholar, Sarah, a historian, whose polyglot prodigiousness on all things worldly and otherworldly pays homage to all forms of scholarship—Compass emerges as both a technical and scholarly feat as well as a love letter to the "Orient" and a rebuke to the fiction of its otherness. In amusingly familiar academic segues we can see, through Franz, what Sarah might write about: a fanciful article entitled “On the Cosmopolitan Fates of Magical Objects,”  Franz imagines (probably accurately) as a title for an article that Sarah would write to show “how these objects are the result of successive shared efforts…that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other, and that these words—Orient, Occident—have no more heuristic value than the unreachable destinations they designate.” Énard’s brilliance is as self-evident as it is comical: Where else but in the idiosyncratic exchanges of academics could we ruminate on such grand ideas through the study of genie lamps and flying carpets? Through Franz’s one-night journey through memory, we meet quirky Egyptologists, composers, writers, archaeologists, philosophers, even charlatans; many of whose stories, whether they physically featured in Franz’s life or not, peter out in a tale of heartbreaking fits and starts. Franz and Sarah’s own story is, predictably, no less sad. I have been in awe of Énard’s gifts since Street of Thieves, during which I marveled at the empathy with which he treated his Moroccan protagonist, Lakhdar, a young man who travels from Tangier to Tarifa and finally, Barcelona, haunted by an Islamist bombing he had minor involvement in and his excommunication from his family, but assuaged by his love for literature and art: Ibn Battuta and Naguib Mahfouz, the familiar beauties of Tangier and the exotic newness of Barcelona. In Compass, Énard ostensibly faces less of a challenge writing a protagonist with whom he shares at least some cultural sensibilities (although obsessed as Franz is with the appropriation of Oriental music on European composers from Franz Liszt to Hector Berlioz to Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom get several fascinating pages of description, we shouldn’t minimize the author’s feat: to my knowledge Énard is not an ethnomusicologist), even as the ghost of Edward Said hangs insistently over the orientalist scholars’ cerebral quibbling. Books like these give me an unerring hope in the human capacity to reach out to an unknown self and try, with meticulous research, observation, erudition, but principally with empathy, to understand a self distinct from one’s own. When I first began to read Compass, I had just begun writing another short story of my own: the first that didn’t include subcontinental Muslim characters. I struggled with the sweep and ambition of the story I wanted to write—one that would have to pass through many generations of an interracial family to plumb the effects of environmental disaster—the Dust Bowl for instance—to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of intergenerational memory. I settled on a four-monologue, play-like structure for the story: one for each generation. I spent months reading first-hand accounts, history texts, longform stories about the impacts and memories of natural disasters. I used my historiographical research in environmental history to think about the people in books as people I could try to know. I read books that described catastrophes: starting off with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I remembered as a ruthless story of tenant farmers trapped in economic hardship and poverty as the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head; as crops failed and harsh drought swept over the prairie. When I finally had a draft I could consider complete, I gave it to my first reader—my most generous reader. She returned it with the terse comment that I should “write what I know.” What had I done wrong? Had I failed in my research? The details were all correct, I was confident about that. Had I failed to do justice to the two white characters from whose perspective I wrote the first two monologues? Or to the two mixed-race black characters in the last two monologues? Had I failed to empathize? I went back to the drawing board, trying to convince myself to jettison the story entirely. But the logic of writing solely what I knew was unconvicing. How can I reconcile myself to writing stories about people solely from my cultural background when the stories I want to write have a different sweep, a distinct subject matter that requires me to understand characters outside of my lived experience? That is what I have always seen as the point of literature: its capacity for universality. 2. As it turns out, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for writers today. Rachel Cusk, recently profiled in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, had her first book published at 26. She now deems her early work as inferior. Thurman takes Cusk’s disillusionment as a reflexive turn away from the earliest iterations of herself because she managed “to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings.” Cusk is now married for the third time; about her book Aftermath, a painterly if perplexing memoir about the dissolution of Cusk’s marriage with Adrian Clarke, Thurman argues that Clarke “haunts the text like a ghost.” Thurman wonders: Why doesn’t Aftermath explain why the marriage dissolved? “This was partly for the children’s sake,” Cusk says. But Aftermath met with some cruel reviews, after which Cusk seemed to change course. She says of her trajectory: “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can find it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.” Profiling writers of fiction, mining their lives for clues to explain the eccentricities and artfulness, or perhaps even artifice inside the work themselves—not just thematically but as a direct analog for a protagonist or an entire plot—has become a bit of a trope. Ever since Lena Dunham burst on to the scene, the justification of using autobiographies as the principal quarry from which to mine stories from the vantage point of the writer (what is essentially primary research for the literary critic) has become increasingly more ubiquitous. But of course, you don’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to know that the tradition is far older than Dunham. One could argue it is steeped in the pursuit of the Great American Novel itself: in the specificities of Philip Roth’s Newark Jewish oeuvre, or Norman Mailer’s racially-charged machismo, or as literary critics rigorously argue, on any work of fiction anywhere and any time. But a certain timbre of particularity, coincident with the rise of the personal essay, has most certainly become more central and self-aware in literature of late: specific questions about which characters represent the author and whether plots actually occurred in the author’s real life pop up in interviews when they were once considered gauche to ask a novelist. A recent interview between writers Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria finds them talking about “self-serving writing,” work inspired by autobiography, as if it represented the pinnacle of truth-telling. Escoria talks intimately about her book Juliet the Maniac, contending that she doesn’t really “understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction.” There’s more than a whiff of writers being far too hard on themselves. The problem is why contemporary literary trends motivate young writers to believe that their own personal histories are the only histories they can plumb with any believable depth: a belief that visibly flails when confronted with the Enlightenment origins of humanistic “imaginative” capacities that can be traced to at least as far back as Denis Diderot. As Jean le Rond d’Alembert demonstrates in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, for Diderot painting, sculpture ,and architecture were deemed at the head of knowledge known as “Imitation,” but it was poetry and music that demonstrated imagination: that the skill demonstrated “by the warmth, the movement, and the life it is capable of giving, it seems rather to create than to portray them.” This creation was rarely conceived merely as reproduction, nor has it been for a very long time. After all, with writers like Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion, as Daniela Serrano so powerfully writes, the compulsion is reversed: it is not looking at yourself that is the most uncomfortable, but at other people. There can be no doubt, however, that "identity"—with all the limitations and deliverances the word connotes—has become so powerful in popular culture, that the imaginative arts, across different mediums, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Dunham, when criticized about the whiteness of Girls, claimed that she wanted “to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately.” In Sofia Coppola’s recent remake of the Civil War-set, Don Siegel movie The Beguiled, she shifted the perspective from that of the male interloper’s to the women in the cloistered Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, but crucially she also excised the role of a slave character—one that was present both in Thomas Cullinan’s original book, which served as the source material for both films, and in the first film, where she was played by Mae Mercer. Coppola received her share of outrage for "whitewashing," an accusation she deflected the way Dunham did: by essentially arguing that she didn’t wish to take an important subject lightly the way the original source material did; instead, by focusing on what she knew best. But if the dogged discoverers of Elena Ferrante’s true identity are to be believed, Ferrante didn’t know much about the poverty of Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan upbringing either. Has lived experience supplanted all other forms of knowledge as the sole true source of authenticity? As an avid Ferrante fan, I take umbrage with such a reading: I could care less about her true identity—and if she hasn’t truly lived it, then the Neapolitan novels merely display a capacity for virtuosic observation and insight. 3. But if this is truly an impasse, the contemporary moment in fiction, then it is a problem we must contend with. Arguably we are already contending with it, although perhaps with less success than one would hope. Lionel Shriver told an audience at a writer’s festival last year that, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are 'allowed”'to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” As Sarah Schulman reported, Viet Thanh Nguyen responded in the L.A. Times by saying: “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.” Nguyen makes a compelling point: we can use this schism to our advantage, but only if we understand the baggage that attends literary, cultural, and political history. Personally, I found Coppola’s version of The Beguiled captivating—with a particularly heartbreaking performance by Kirsten Dunst with a depth almost entirely missing from the earlier incarnation—just as I find much to admire in Dunham’s writing on Girls. But both come saddled with a crucial lack of ambition and not, as they had ostensibly hoped, racial sensitivity. Wouldn’t The Beguiled be all the more interesting if Coppola had extended her nuanced portrayals to a black female character? If it weren’t so illustrative of the loaded identitarian schism at the heart of leftist politics, it would make for the perfect right-wing conspiracy: not only have well-meaning liberals become too PC, they are now roundly dismissed as blinkered by the same folks whose ire they hoped to deflect in the first place. It goes without saying that the problem doesn’t operate solely at the level of the artist herself. Somehow the gambit has been working, arguably with a deep historical legacy, to widen gaps between artists and audiences, with publishers eager to pander to particular readers depending on the artist. It is by now a cliché that many novels written by women are designed to look like romance novels. On the covers of her books being targeted to specifically to female audiences, Margaret Atwood, in an interview in 2015, mentioned that “there were probably some quite disappointed readers.” Atwood’s interviewer Jessica Stites responded that she couldn’t get her friends to start reading the Neapolitan novels because the first book has a wedding dress on it. Meanwhile, author Nnedi Okorafor wrote a book with a female Muslim protagonist, only for her publisher to suggest a cover with a white female figure on it.  One wonders: How could publishers be failing so much to adapt? Surely this is not what Nguyen had in mind. Indeed, if writers are to be brave they must truly go there, and like any writer for any story, do meticulous research. But that may not be enough: one hopes writers have the capacity to publish in a world less maladapted to receive their work as well. How did we find ourselves here in the first place? Surely writers never decided in closed-door meetings that the social scientific and humanistic academic emphasis on Culture with a capital c would bleed into fiction to such a degree that writers would begin to parse identities into little parcels, keeping only those they could hold ground on; seeing the act of storytelling itself as one circumscribed by the belonging of a identitarian category. Far more likely is that for writers this is a passive process, one driven by our politics (and/or publishers), by reading the expectations of audiences or anticipating outrage, fears, and concerns that are exacerbated by the near-monopoly in fiction of white authors. Surely writers writ large know there is something reductive about using our own lives as not only the canvases for our art, but of art itself. The argument, or perhaps merely a passive trend riding on a form of herd mentality, seems to dictate that the craft itself has become one’s calling card. Which is to say: not only has the liminal space between identity and individuality been overcome, but storytelling has crashed right through its center, obviating the need for anything else. Why should a story need anything more than an identity? Why shouldn’t Kumail Nanjiani plumb the comedic depths of his own lived trajectory the same way Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and countless others do? There can be no prescriptive answer on this question that is not simultaneously political. But I suspect that there comes a point when the regurgitated version of one person’s life, especially when that person belongs to a minority group, begins to feel tired: a genre as trope; Oriental fiction with veils on the covers. The ruse being played here is that there is no more a sense of a story without an identity preserved through the complex Venn diagrams one inhabits (or fails to); no universality, no totality: merely a small set of interlocking bricks that hold together the walls of our perception of the world. A place where Plato’s Cave is now color-coded, numbered and charted—hierarchies everywhere, opportunities only to move up or down or sideways like chess pieces. And now that the Cave is so stratified, why feel the need to leave it and see it as it is? How can one tell a story, any story, about any form of universal phenomenon if the response one instinctively pre-empts is: How could you know anything about that? This should have been written by a white gender non-conforming person who grew up without money or the awareness of privilege but nonetheless took advantage of it and grew to believe in less humane economic precepts than she/he/they would have had they not been white. It underlies an inherent paralysis, not too different from the paralysis Amitav Ghosh describes for storytelling which is failing to grapple with climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Climate is not identity or racial politics, however, regardless of how closely their consequences are intertwined, but the concept of paralysis, I suspect, prevents talented artists like Sofia Coppola from stretching the bounds of their own ambitions; and more dangerously than for the minority writer it becomes a convenient alibi for the white artist’s conception of believability. But as with most things, it is a double-edged sword. How can we disregard the critique of the white writer who considers himself (often himself) objective enough to take on any character, a critique which has only become more prominent because marginalized writers have pushed it up in discourse after decades of unrewarded work? Today, at least, it is acknowledged in some circles that not only do minority writers deserve a pulpit, but that storytelling in turn requires minority writers (although certainly not a standard held up nearly enough). Still, it requires a peculiar moment in contemporary culture when certain white male writers can comically (and of course also infuriatingly) decry that their jobs are harder as white men than if they were minorities. In that way, storytelling as with most things bears a truly striking institutional likeness—to the extent that the enterprise of writing and publishing is an institution—to our current politics. Regardless, the argument of constriction applies to minority writers too—identitarian thought has bled into the wholesome creed of “write what you know.” We have erected walls for ourselves that are both comforting in the way that occupying a niche gives a writer and claustrophobic in the sense of wells running dry, new writers providing old stories that are tired reflections of the works of older writers. Nowhere in my experience is this more true than in fiction from my native South Asia, where the timbre of even the most lauded works by Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie has acquired a quality of permanence most subcontinental writers cannot help but emulate in the sprint for awards success. Interestingly, the most incisive critics of Roy have recently pointed out the utter lack of tonal difference between her abundant nonfiction and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: where non-fiction can afford to proselytize, fiction ceases to breathe when crafted in the same mold. Again, however, publishers erect roadblocks in the name of pandering to certain audiences. From a Pakistani perspective, it is all to easy for me to envision publishers who expect me to deal with Islamophobia or terrorism on some level in all my writing, even if apropos of nothing. And thus: in reifying the fictions of identity (the baseline fact most left-leaning writers can agree on), we have elevated almighty Culture, enforced monopolies of singular identities and mashed them all up. No longer can storytelling be ambitious in the fashion of Doris Lessing (who admittedly dabbled in both very autobiographical and very non-autobiographical work, the height of the latter reached in her sublime Canopus in Argos space fiction). Instead, every story would serve itself best as another iteration of your own personal diagram, chipping away at your own identity slowly, painstakingly, even dully over the decades like Philip Roth, but surely not like Mathias Énard: there would no imagination, only personal research. No external perception, only introspection. 4. With this conversation raging in my head as a writer of color, it’s fascinating sometimes to dissect my own responses to my work. Had my first reader got it right—was she letting me off the hook by telling me to write what I knew because the story didn’t hold up to the literary standards she knew I aspired to? Very possibly. I didn’t let the story go, however. I doubled down, and worked even harder at it. But even more intriguing to me than the cases where I double down are those where I have chosen to let go. When my first work of fiction was published, at The Rumpus, my editor told me that the website had commissioned an artist to illustrate my story. I couldn’t wait, both for the story, and for the art it would sit alongside. When the story was published, I was astonished. The style of the art was sparse and completely appropriate to the story: three drawings in all. But curiously, the second illustration, inspired by a pivotal scene where my male Pakistani protagonist has a brief exchange with a friend’s grandmother, looked suspiciously Western. There was a reference to chai in the text, but scant other details. I remember instinctively thinking: there’s no way the grandmother would look like that. A Pakistani grandmother would be wearing a loose dupatta, along with a shalwar kameez—a long tunic and loose trousers. I thought about it for a long time. Ultimately, I decided that there was something about that drawing that captured other specificities—the posture of the grandmother, her spirit—that moved me. I concluded that it was great as it was. The artist had read my story and decided to interpret it the best way she could, and despite the initial skepticism it aroused in me, I liked the idea of the illustration reading my work as something transcendent, something neither here nor there but everywhere: maybe, something even universal. The day after the story came out, I contacted the artist: one of her works hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder both of my resistance and release and of the artist’s intended or unintended attempt to universalize my work. I don’t wish to ask. Why should I? No matter how much specificity we try to achieve, we will always fall short. After all, as the (white, male) writer Mark Greif tells us, “your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know it feels.” Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.
Essays

In Defense of Autodidacticism

All devoted readers can recall moments of childhood reading that glow with the significance of self-mythology. These are our versions of David Copperfield shut in his upstairs room, “reading as if for life.” Such episodes are often incidental: a stray volume plucked off a parent’s shelf, a book pressed into one’s hand by a discerning librarian. Only in retrospect do they appear formative. Here is one of mine: I am eight or nine, sitting on a hardwood floor with an illustrated encyclopedia of science and medicine spread before me. Somewhere in the room a fan thrums to protest the North Carolina heat. Each page, as I turn it, catches the torrent of air, buckles and billows like a veiny paper wing. The book’s frank images would gratify any young reader with an appetite for the macabre: gangrenous limbs, blackened teeth, snarled human hands frozen in a praying mantis-like claw. I brush past medical curiosities to arrive at the section I visit repeatedly, obsessively: the pages on human evolution. Yes, I think, tracing my finger along the contours of that ancient anatomy; that was us, that was me. The humanoid forms of Australopithecus africanus and Homo erectus stalk through my brain. In the inner corridors of my being a quiet rebellion stirs, a mute skepticism against the parents who had informed me that human beings were created by God alone. In high school, science education became not wondrous but instrumental, the only thrill coming from an affably deranged chemistry teacher who spoke darkly of toxic vapors and a disfiguring lab accident in his past. Biology, chemistry, and physics, I learned, were labors to suffer through if you wanted to become a doctor or an engineer, and I had no plans of doing either. David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo (1996) challenged that easy view and expanded my sense of the intellectual possibilities available to me. I came across the book the summer after my senior year of high school. During those months I followed a strict routine. I would rush home from my shift at the local Subway, strip off the green polo that reeked of chemically elasticized bread, and begin what I thought of as my real job: reading novels. A beloved teacher had recommended The Song of the Dodo. I opened the book dutifully but with trepidation. What could a 700-page volume about island biogeography have to do with my guiding passion—which, I had declared to myself, was literature? My grim compulsion (now thankfully abandoned) to finish every book I started heightened the risks of embarking on such a lengthy voyage. Quammen, luckily, made for a thrilling companion. The book tells a story of how ecosystems unravel. Joining together lucid explanation of evolutionary concepts, biographical accounts of 19th- and20th-century naturalists, and dispatches from his travels to remote islands, Quammen ushers his readers into a world where species can grow large or Lilliputian, spread across continents or vanish altogether. Scientists eager to learn which organisms live where and why have long turned to islands. Charles Darwin’s famous visit to the Galápagos in the 1830s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s expeditions in Malay a few decades later were pioneering but hardly singular. Islands present simplified, exaggerated versions of evolutionary processes that occur on mainlands. Endless forms most beautiful, and also most strange, evolve in insular habitats. Elephants dwindle to dwarfism; reptiles swell gigantic. Yet island populations, Quammen shows, are particularly vulnerable, prone to inbreeding, habitat loss, and other extinction risks. Asked whether she was a “fiction or a nonfiction person,” the critic and novelist Francine Prose replied: “I consider myself a sentence person.” With Quammen I discovered the truth of this view—that elegant sentences can emerge, glinting, from any genre. Here he halts by an animal skeleton on the island of Anak Krakatau: The sun-bleached bones, clean and austere after months in this tropical autoclave, show nicely white against the dark lava. They lie in a graceful cluster, like a still life arranged for a Japanese garden. Once they belonged to a mammal. With sentences like these Quammen stirred the marvel I had once felt poring over illustrations of hominids and connected it to my adult passion for literature. He modeled how a writer could achieve intellectual breadth without forsaking style. An English major at Yale who wrote a master’s thesis on William Faulkner, he seemed utterly at ease explaining sophisticated ideas in population biology. Quammen himself is part of a near-extinct breed: the generalist, the autodidact, the person of letters. Four years after I read The Song of the Dodo, I won a Rhodes Scholarship and sent off a stuttering email to Quammen, who was a Rhodes Scholar in the 1970s and whose name I had blurted in my interview. He not only returned my email, but spoke with me on the phone, an act of generosity I suspect he saw as unexceptional. He could not have known how powerfully his book set certain interests of mine in motion, that there existed a clear line between my reading of The Song of the Dodo and my decision to pursue graduate training at Oxford in the history of science. Quammen told me he hadn’t much enjoyed his time at Oxford, and this report became less surprising once I began my studies there. Some of my professors would drop the word “autodidact” as a sneer. Anyone who ventured outside their academic subspecialty or (worse) dared to write about important matters without first receiving an Oxbridge education was subjected to withering derision. Quammen’s example of iridescent self-education had inoculated me against this snobbish reasoning. Autodidacticism, I felt, was something miraculous, a mark of irrepressible curiosity, a way of slicing through disciplinary borders; if the product (Quammen’s book, for example) was so marvelous, the practice couldn’t be so bad. Sometimes, in such moments of High Table pomposity, I would think back to Quammen and his phone call. As one might expect from a man who had wandered all over the world, he spoke to me that day about adventure. “No one wants to be at Oxford,” he said. “But you’re just a train ride from Paris.” Sitting a year later by the Seine, I thought to myself: how right he was; and how strange, that a book about dodos had brought me to this shining river. The sun had set, and the city’s lights cast distended orange shadows over the blue-black ripples. Paris, too, was an island. I looked at the water. It was a beautiful surface, of dark currents and gold-streaked gleams. I looked; and, half-forgotten pages turning in my mind, I wondered about the creatures stirring within. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Adapting the Bard: On the Hogarth Shakespeare Project’s Diversity Problem

In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s TaleA Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021. Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources. Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example. As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues. Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation. Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student. When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.” The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym. Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes: [Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day. So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain. White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it. Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text. The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer. Image Credit: Wikipedia
Essays

Women Who Want Out

Three recent novels expose the stories startups have been telling us—that they’re solving the world’s biggest problems, boosting our brain power, optimizing our creativity, enhancing our efficiency, and enriching our work—as rank fictions. High-tech know-how seeds Doree Shafrir’s Startup, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, and Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love. Startup trades in the insider-gossip that butters the bread at Buzzfeed where Shafrir is a senior writer; Lacey’s The Answers hacks the perfect girlfriend out of visionary biotech; Nutting’s Made for Love builds the sex doll single AI engineers must dream about. Shafrir, Lacey, and Nutting have done more, however, than merely point out that the daily grind of disruptive innovations that never deliver on their promises has started to grind us down. These three writers suspect that startup culture has been selling vaporware for long time, but not only because it’s been catfishing for free labor—it’s been catfishing for women. In the 2.0 economies the novels depict, men feel as entitled to women’s ideas and work as they do to their bodies. The creative tech fields browse binders full of women like pickup artists swipe for Tinderellas because the new software pulsing through our gadgets has made both the job market and the dating market one big networked meat market. Startup culture has given more men more tools that they can use to pivot every professional, intellectual encounter—real or virtual—with a woman into an opportunity to hook up. Consequently, Shafrir, Lacey, and Nutting are no longer asking if women can have it all; they’re trying to figure out if women can decide to have none of it. As their heroines bladerun through the present and not-so-distant future worlds built on Silicon Valley’s platforms, they discover that it’s now as hard to abandon the career pipeline as it is to cut a “nice guy” loose. A quick second click is all it takes in these three novels for the unconscious bias, the mansplaining, the negging, and the objectification that #yessallwomen experience as #everydaysexism to turn into harassment, doxing, stalking, and outright violence. Each book features women who are as ambivalent about their careers as they are about their romantic relationships. Startup follows three such women—Katya, Sabrina, and Isabel—who orbit TakeOff, a fictional startup hawking a unicorn: a mindfulness app that purports to increase productivity by anticipating and ameliorating users’ negative states of mind. (A savvy reader will recognize that TakeOff’s product is yet one more way of insisting that women should smile.) Yet all of the women in Startup have good reasons for being in bad moods. For one thing, all of them are dealing with difficult men. Even the most ambitious of the three characters, the up-and-coming tech journalist Katya, spends more time slow-fading her tech-bro boyfriend and fending off her married supervisor, Dan, than she does on TakeOff’s beat. Like Katya, Sabrina also tries not to piss off Dan, who is her husband. After a stint on the mommy track, Sabrina struggles to leverage her creative writing into TakeOff’s hashtags, while Dan remains MIA when it comes to domestic labor. After working all day and parenting solo all evening, Sabrina moonlights in Craigslist’s dirty panties forums in order to keep the depths and debts of her online shopping addiction secret. Meanwhile, TakeOff’s millennial “Engagement Ninja,” Isabelle, drives most of the novel’s plot by simply ignoring the unsolicited dickpics the CEO sends her after she ends their workplace affair. Startup’s conclusion takes full, if heavy-handed, recourse in a clever play on words to illustrate its moral. Shafrir’s female characters realize that their careers will never take off in TakeOff’s world. Even when men aren’t trying to get the women into bed, they’re still scheming to run away with the women’s ideas and labor. Startup recalls many real-life stories, like those told by Ellen Pao, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Kate Losse, Susan Faludi, Nina Power, and Susan Flower.[1] The only way forward for “doing our own shit,” the three women conclude over a glass of wine in the middle of a day they’ve taken off work, is to leave. Sabrina and Katya will take their romances and their careers offline; Isabelle does the same with her Twitter account, which was invaded by trolls when news about her sexual harassment went viral. Lacey’s The Answers and Nutting’s Made for Love pick up the theme of going off the grid. Their protagonists don’t think it’s worth even trying to have a career anymore, and they have resisted branding or marketing themselves online accordingly. This makes it all the more imperative for the men in the novels to get these women wired up. When we meet Lacey’s 30-something protagonist, Mary, she’s bookkeeping to pay down her debts at an old-school, bricks-and-mortar travel agency. Mary sets The Answers’s plot in motion when she starts second-job searching in order to afford an expensive new age medical cure for a set of symptoms that would crash WebMD. Mary doesn’t find a job but an “income generating experience” tacked on a bulletin board in her local health food store. Though well-educated and well-traveled, Mary’s throwback youth in one of Tennessee’s evangelical outposts means that she’s still never seen a movie, owned a cell phone, or heard of US Weekly. Mary therefore lacks ambition’s proof-of-concept networks, which means she’s perfect for a celebrity’s high-tech “girlfriend experiment.” Her ideas are both unique and untapped: ideal fodder for the lonely and the entrepreneurial. In Made for Love, Hazel similarly confronts the “paycheck to paycheck ennui” of her life as a soon-to-be college dropout and accepts a fast-tracked marriage proposal from “Gogle’s” CEO with only slightly more enthusiasm than she once served plates of “lukewarm French fries” to needy, seedy men in a diner. Lacey’s and Nutting’s heroines quickly learn, however, that even if they’re no longer networking to smash the glass ceiling, they’re still caught in a funhouse where the patriarchy takes ambivalence personally. Silence in the face of a bro jonesing for affirmation can get ugly fast. Mary’s “income generating experience” entails performing in a celebrity’s “girlfriend experiment.” A white-coated research team supplies a celebrity, Kurt, with women; each fulfills one aspect of a whole girlfriend. Among others, there’s a “Maternal Girlfriend,” an “Anger Girlfriend,” an “Intellectual Girlfriend,” and my personal favorite, the “Mundanity Girlfriend.” But Mary’s job as the “Emotional Girlfriend” is the most important. She has to listen to Kurt “while remaining fully engaged by asking questions, maintaining eye contact, affirming his opinion, and offering limited amounts of advice or guidance that may or may not be entertained.” She has to maintain eye contact. She has to smile when he smiles. She should “never disagree, challenge, or complain;” nor should she “criticize him for anything, no matter how caring her tone might be.” A variety of training sessions as well as “technological therapies”—gadgets that monitor and adjust both her body and the brain—will make sure she upgrades until she gets it right. While Kurt sucks her dry to get over his creative block (finally, he feels “understood”), Mary ghosts him for her own reasons. But when she comes back, he’s armed and ready with a lot of followers and a video camera. Publically shaming Mary turns out to be the creative career hack Kurt always needed. Nutting’s Hazel also comes to regret and resent designs that promise to be responsive. Hazel spends the honeymoon days of her marriage to Gogle’s CEO, Byron, wandering around his futuristic home in her biofeedback jumpsuit, hydrating with “sublingual” water, noshing on “bioengineered kelp,” sleeping inside a “sensory dome.” When they have sex, Byron likes to “monitor [her] arousal levels via digital pulse readout.” She leaves Byron after he gets back down on his knee a second time to propose that they install microchips in their brains and “meld” to become the “first neural-networked couple in history.” Hazel bolts to her father’s retirement community where she walks in on her dad warming up his new sex doll. Hazel fears that Byron would be delighted to strip her down to “part computer, part vagina, part breasts,” too. Byron wants more than that, however. He won’t let Hazel leave the marriage, not only because he’s already installed an expensive microchip in her brain, but because, like Kurt in Lacey’s The Answers, he’s been getting off on the “easy” way he and Hazel had of “communicating.” Byron “always wanted to talk about himself,” and Hazel was happy to listen. She responds in “vague” but “affirmative” ways. Byron repeatedly describes Hazel as “interesting;” he’s been using her thoughts, memories, and experiences as R&D. Hazel eventually escapes the next-level stalking that microchip affords. In an off-the-grid southern town, she closes out the novel having closed-eye sex with a man who’s only good in bed when he can believe he’s bedding a dolphin instead of a woman. Shafrir, Lacey, and Nutting have written novels about women who just want out: of their love lives, their work lives, and the networks that startup culture has engineered to broker mergers between the two. Please, they are saying. Stop it. Leave us alone. But all the heroines discover that nothing drives a man wilder, apparently, than a woman who wants out. [1] Shafrir has acknowledged that reports about Ellen Pao’s experience shaped how Startup depicts sexual harassment.
Essays

The Creative Life: How We Do It (Any Way We Can)

1. The copy center guy authored a children’s book.  I just found that out. Alex came over to drop off whatever documents I’d sent along for duplication and saw me working on a poem on my computer screen. “You’re a poet?” he asked. “Oh, y’know—I dip and dabble,” I replied.  Sometimes it’s best to keep the artistic pursuits and the day job separate, for the sake of sanity, and boundary. The next day, Alex brought in a copy of his children’s book and gave it to me gratis.  It was the story of a boy from Jamaica who moved to New York when he was six years old. “Write what you know, huh?” I said, stopping by the copy center later in the day to pay my compliments. “Pretty much,” he laughed. We’re still simply work colleagues—no real friendship has bloomed, or at least not yet—but there’s something charged to our exchanges now.  A solidarity.  A comradeship. 2. I’ll admit I thought this was all going to be a lot different—my life, I mean, in both its shape and focus therein.  I studied theater at college, and pursued it for several years after, as both playwright and actor.  To make a living in the theater is a grave challenge; even the talented Annie Baker keeps a teaching position to pay the rent.  Still, I had hopes: My hero, Spalding Gray, was rumored to be paid up to $15,000 a performance for one of his signature monologues.  So I thought I’d try to be just like him.  But then he killed himself, which seemed like a terrible omen. Still, I liked this idea of art and wealth commingling in my life.  It’s not something I would have admitted at the time, but I liked believing that I could—would—be the outlier.  I’d live in a top-floor high-rise apartment, with a little place in the country as well.  My friends would be famous, too: I’d drink absinthe with Johnny Depp, schmooze with Stephen Colbert on set. So I kept going, kept grinding.  But poems—always a mere habit and hobby, started in college—began to take center stage in my creative life.  They were pleasurable to write.  I didn’t feel pressure to sell them or bend them to an audience’s need.  There was no money to be gleaned from them, and so my shallow side, still very much in charge of my life’s choices at this point, had no use for these strange, irregular texts.  With poems, I could work in private and play. 3. Wallace Stevens: insurance executive. William Carlos Williams: doctor. T.S. Eliot: banker. The list goes on and on.  No one makes a living as a poet.  That’s the genre’s curse…and its gift. 4. To feed and educate my inner poet, I started reading and studying each year’s issue of The Best American Poetry, which introduced me to Jennifer L. Knox, whose high-octane dramatic monologue poems were the perfect stepping-stone for a theater artist looking to head in a new direction.  From Knox, I found my way to David Kirby's scatological long-lined verses, then double-backed to James Tate's surreal prose blocks, before segueing over to Tony Hoagland’s accessible narratives, at which point I settled down and let Marie Howe tell me what it's like to lose a sibling.  The further I read into the present-day canon, the more I wanted to read. 5. How does the poet Danez Smith pay his bills, I found myself wondering the other day.  And then I thought, who gives a shit. Did you read his latest crown of sonnets over at Granta?  Oh, you really ought to.  They’ll knock you out. 6. A few years later, it wasn’t fun trying to be a (famous) actor or (famous) playwright anymore. I was too worried about making rent. To squash the nerves, I took a job as a legal secretary at a law firm in midtown Manhattan (Franz Kafka: legal clerk!).  It seemed like an all right fit.  The colleagues were kind, the work agreeable.  Three weeks into the gig, my agent called and asked me to get down to Canal Street during my lunch break for an audition to play Guard Number #2 in Mission Impossible 3.  Still programmed to go after the brass ring, I jumped in a cab, which ended up getting stuck in traffic, at which point I freaked out and called my agent. “I don’t want to do this anymore!” I said.  “I don’t want to bend my entire life to put myself in actor-crammed rooms, with miniscule odds, all for the chance to say three lines opposite Tom Cruise!  I have a job right now, and they guarantee to pay me—every two weeks—provided that I show up on time and don’t steal too many office supplies!  I don’t want this life anymore!” He listened to me rant, and said “okay.”  The next day he called again, asked if I could get to Astoria for a chance to play a five-line, live-action role in the forthcoming computer-animated Smurfs movie, opposite Neal Patrick Harris. “Did you hear what I said yesterday?” I asked.  “I’m done with it.  I don’t want it anymore.” 7. At which point I became sad for a long, long time.  I’d always identified as Josh the Actor. What was I supposed to be now?  Josh the Legal Secretary?  Josh the Aspiring Writer?  Just…Josh? 8. Something was going on, though, during all those many months of identity crisis.  It moved too slow and internal to see, but through all the blue, something wonderful was happening too. I just kept reading poems and then kept writing my own strange wares.  They were lousy.  But slowly, they began to improve. 9. This brings us to the present.  Nine years later, I have that exact same day job.  I still go after the poems every day. They bring in no money, but I love them and want to keep making more of them—stronger/stranger ones too. You might be waiting for the big turn, in the third act, when the writer finds himself and his signature voice, thereby catapulting to great acclaim. But that’s not my story. We’re everywhere.  Poets and children’s book writers.  Novelists and memoirists.  Painters and sculptors, dancers and, yes, even actors, and folks who play upright bass in three-piece jazz band trios at the coffee shop on summer Sunday afternoons.  We clean your teeth, snake the clogs in your drain, and drop off color copies to your desk during the week.  Hell, some of us are even chief executives!  Sure, there are those of us who teach at the high school or collegiate level, anchored into tenure or as frantic adjuncts.  We keep an unending variety of other job to support ourselves and our families, so that we might in our free time still do the thing we love most to do.  It doesn’t always pay, but we do it anyways. Why would you do that though, I’m often asked at parties, by those who couldn’t possibly understand, or even by my own nagging voice during necessary moments of doubt, Why poetry? I still haven’t figured out how to answer that question, succinctly or definitively. Quite frankly, the question doesn’t need answering. There I am, back at my desk the next morning.  Going after the poem again. Image Credit: Flickr/Jake and Lindsay.
Essays

Art of War: The Legacy of Michael Herr

` Michael Herr died in June 2016. He was the journalist that I, like most of my peers who reported from Iraq, wished we could have been. His book Dispatches appeared 40 years ago, the pinnacle of embedded-style war reportage. Besides Dispatches, Herr co-wrote Full Metal Jacket, and part of Apocalypse Now–America’s three defining cultural artifacts from the Vietnam War. Herr wrote Martin Sheen’s voiceover that begins Apocalypse Now, talking about Saigon and Vietnam: “All I could think of was getting back to the jungle. I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one.” If writing was a mission, it had been a long time since Herr had gone into the jungle. Instead, Herr chose silence—in 2001, he gave an interview for a documentary, First Kill, and he wrote a short book about his friend Stanley Kubrick. But after 9/11, Herr had nothing to say about the years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Herr gave no comment on Sebastian Junger titling his own book War, as though Junger could somehow be definitive; Herr offered no television commentary on Fox News or PBS, taking a stand one way or the other; Herr never complained when reporters and freelancers, present company included, aped his surrealistic style in ways much more akin to plagiarism than homage. I could call Herr’s silence a form of discipline, for realizing he had nothing new to say; I could call it a sin, for bottling up his wisdom and pulling a Salinger while the world crashed down around him; I can call it coping, choosing peace and quiet over a cacophony that’s only gotten worse—why demean oneself in such a world? And would his observations have carried any extra weight just because of a book from 1977? Chances are he would have been one more target of society’s craving for revisionist history, of questions and accusations: “What did he make up? Is Dispatches really nonfiction? Composite characters? Is he a fabulist? Did he even go to Vietnam?” I trusted Herr from my first moments in Iraq, in 2007. I got off a helicopter and a young captain offered to take my bags. “I packed them,” I told him, “I’ll hump them.” I learned that from Herr, who wrote “I never let the grunts dig my holes or carry my gear.” And I thought of Herr at the Bayji Joint Security Station, where I arrived just after a truck bomb nearly destroyed the place.  Like Herr had written, “It was no place I’d have to tell anyone not to call me ‘Sir.’” When I got back, I couldn’t wait to talk about it—sending photos and stories here and there, hustling up some publications. That was 2007, 2008, and 2009, now eight years since my last time in Iraq. I think about Iraq every day, write about it occasionally, talk about it more than I wish I did. By the time I went to Iraq, Herr had long retreated into silence–not even mystery, since there was no Salinger-esque clamor for his reemergence. He lived long enough to see Vietnam demystified and reconstructed. He became a devout Buddhist, meditating at his home in upstate New York. Was that how he coped? Is that the right word? Of course, our wars haven’t ended. This generation of soldiers and journalists and plenty who did both has just started reckoning with what Herr spent 40 years to get to. As a coping method, “silence” is certainly the last choice many of us have made. Dignity, modesty, humility—surrendered like the Bayji compound was lost to ISIS. Who can blame us? This merry-go-round has too many brass rings hanging just within reach: book deals, screenplays, talking slots on news programs and bytes of space in Internet columns, essays in collections that might be read or might not. So much to say, and too many years to go before we can hope for Herr’s perspective. Herr showed that war reporting—embedded reporting, specifically—could capture the soldier’s voice and life while keeping the real focus on the writer. Ernie Pyle never did that, not really. Herr’s prize—and curse—was presenting his own story foremost. For those writing about the wars in first person, third person, it doesn’t matter—it’s often a means to an end, the byline the subject. I know this is true. My bookshelf is full of novels and nonfiction telling war stories from dozens of personal points of view. There is the patriotic jerkoff next to the self-flagellating regret; the melodramatic tale of a bright-eyed lieutenant rests on top of the cynical bureaucrat laughing at his own joke; a detached reporter unwilling to choose a side rests on a shelf next to a colonel’s second-guessing. My own literary attempt is there too—my reporting packaged in a self-produced creation, a marketing tool and manuscript to send to publishers and agents. It doesn’t hold up—my 2009 conclusions fall apart, by 2017 long since revealed as a mirage. At least it wasn’t published. I’m certainly not silent—I like to write reviews of books related to the wars, offering my take on somebody else’s. Now and then, I head to a library or small venue where the silverhairs spend an evening, and I narrate my photos and encapsulate my three summers spent in Iraq. It pays, and I can reuse my script and just make sure to change the venue’s name when I tell them thanks for having me. It’s all very familiar, and I tell myself it’s maybe new to them, and isn’t that worth something? I was in the Army, went to Iraq in Desert Storm decades ago. I play the veteran’s card when I can, an easy comeback against the cocktail commandos of our toxic modern era. But it’s a reflexive superiority that feels badly disciplined—sounds good only in the moment. Still, in writing classes, I do enjoy using different drafts of my work as examples of revision—to show how the overwrought melodrama of the first draft becomes a reasonable conclusion by the final. It’s a form of coping, the drafting and revision, that is—working out the absurdities that no audience should be subjected to. Our emotional investment with a first draft is a kind of reverence—we’re so pleased with our words, with our thoughts and with ourselves. But that’s pride, not message. The revision process requires us to be—in Lester Bangs’s perfect words—contemptuously indifferent, to cut without passion or prejudice. Writing gives us that underrated opportunity. And then you have to say: I’m done. Leave the final draft and step away and now it’s in the world. Dispatches is Herr’s final draft—he never came back and said, “What I meant was…,” or judged his experience against another’s, or said “I told you so.” I am envious of that ability to take himself out of the game. If we want to know what he thinks, we can go to his book—words that will not change. On Elvis Presley’s death 40 years ago in August 1977, Lester Bangs wrote that we would never agree on anything like we did with Elvis. We’re never going to agree on anything like we did on Michael Herr. Now there are so many other wartime books to read, and who says Dispatches is better than any other? I thought it was Michael Herr, you thought it was David Finkel or Sebastian Junger or Clinton Romesha or Siobhan Fallon, or Zero Dark Thirty or Lone Survivor or whoever you thought spoke to what you expected a war experience to read like, to look like, to capture the violence, chaos, and heartbreak. If you don’t believe that we all once agreed on Michael Herr, I promise it was true. But he never tried to convince us. In my war reporting I did my part to make these wars palatable to the masses. Do I feel a hint of moral crime from that contribution? It happened during a war. Did that thought occur to Michael Herr? Maybe he saw his copycats and sycophants and his silence meant: “Be careful what you wish for.” But Herr was confident enough in silence to let us work that out ourselves. Myself, I see the brass rings; I will earn a couple hundred bucks to narrate my photos, or I’ll write an essay to keep my name current. I went to the wars and I still want a mission. For my sins, occasionally I get one.
Essays

[REDACTED]: A Brief Hate Affair

There is a special joy in finding someone who hates a book as much as you do.  But not just any hate, and not just any book.  There are plenty of books you may not like: books that fail to deliver on their explicit premise or implicit promise, books with middles that sag like the floor of a teardown, books with underwritten or overworked prose, books that strain credulity, books that could stand to strain credulity a bit more, books that are too long, books with bad covers, books that just aren’t very good.  The world is full of books you may not like, and it is not hard to be generous about them, especially as a writer—because, as well you should know, books are incredibly hard to write, and even harder to write well.  A genuinely good book is something of a rarity; a genuinely great book is something of a miracle.  So if someone, in your estimation, misses the mark, that is an easy thing to forgive, either by way of reading charitably or simply putting down the book in question. The type of book I describe here must be a book that you not only dislike, but that everyone else likes, a lot.  By “everyone,” I mean friends and family, the general reading public, and publishing’s commercial/critical apparatus—everyone loves it, and your non-love is so unusual as to make you question your taste.  In extreme cases, it may seem as though there’s a conspiracy afoot in the general culture to make you feel insane, a kind of cultural gaslighting.  The hatred you develop for these books is different in character from mere non-enjoyment.  It is rooted in a feeling of unfairness—not so much being left out, as being the clear-eyed pariah in a horror film, Steve McQueen in The Blob.  It is a hatred that begins to feel personal, a resentment that extends from the text in question to the person responsible for the text. Several examples of books like this come to mind from recent years, but I will focus on one in particular, title and author redacted.  This novel came highly recommended in print and online reviews, and by many of my friends and colleagues.  I’ll credit my mother, an unusually wary reader, with some ambivalence, but by and large the response was a tidal wave of praise.  It was variously hailed as one of the 10 best of the year, an utterly brilliant book, a landmark performance by [REDACTED]. I found it almost unreadable.  The highly touted prose is a lush jumble of metaphors and registers without any controlling logic or taste.  Each sentence is like a cordoned-off museum of its own aesthetic particulars, seemingly unrelated to the sentence coming before or after.  A single paragraph might blithely mix lavish description, various unconnected similes, a flat and unfunny sex joke or two, and futurist Internet-speak, with no seeming concern as to how any of these elements work together.  How, I wondered as I read, did this qualify for anyone as “sparkling prose?”  For me, the reading experience was like being trapped in a mudslide, an avalanche of language, each additional word adding to the incoherence. The story is a series of lazy implausibilities cobbled together with all the deftness of a tailor wearing oven mitts.  The characters are ludicrous, with ludicrous back stories and ludicrous arcs—they are ludicrous to an extent that feels intentional, satirical, except nothing is being discernibly satirized.  Rather than a failed attempt at satire, the general silliness of the proceedings instead stems from what feels like authorial disengagement; the novel itself seems uninterested in why its characters do things and what their level of self-awareness is.  They simply move where [REDACTED] needs them to and behave as the story dictates, however unconvincingly.  The overall effect is a contempt for these people and their fictional reality. If I’d happened randomly upon the book, I would have simply stopped reading, but in the spirit of someone not getting a joke and asking the teller to repeat it over and over, I kept on, thinking at some point it would click.  When it hadn’t halfway through, I finally stopped, feeling deceived.  What trick of promotion—what cocktail party legerdemain—had managed to foist this nonsense upon the reading public, had somehow turned this gobbling turkey into a golden goose?  That the book had been published at all was vexing enough—though not, seemingly, to the scores of critics and fellow authors who padded the proceedings with an introductory chapter of praise.  I moved on to other, less maddening novels, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t seek out negative Amazon reviews for that paltriest comfort:  the spectral two-star outrage of other bewildered readers. The reflexive cynical view—one that is easy to adopt in the thrall of book-hate—is that you have fallen victim to a corporate conspiracy.  Publishing decides ahead of time a certain writer’s moment has come, the engines of commerce and publicity fire up, and the quality of the book in question is a distant secondary concern.  While this may contain a kernel of truth, a simpler, more general explanation probably suffices.  Namely, there is a great inexorable power in expectation—as social beings, we want to like things we’re supposed to like, and we’re uncomfortable standing at the platform, watching the bullet train of popular opinion shriek by.  Human nature, of course, tends toward a herd instinct, but the inclination of readers—and this includes agents, editors, publicists, and critics—to enjoy a book derives mostly from good qualities:  kindness and generosity and the urge to like, rather than dislike things. About a year later, I sat with friends on the second-floor porch of a rented vacation house in the mountains.  We were enjoying a drink and the view of a late summer sunset over a canopy of trees just beginning to bruise with the colors of autumn.  It was cool, birds flew to and fro, and from inside the house drifted music and the smell of roasting meat.  The scene felt unimprovable, but then, from out of nowhere, this book came up in conversation and I discovered, to my surprise, two other readers who hated it. Oh, my friends!  Oh, the joy!  The sweet, delicious bliss of finding other readers who hate a book as much as you!  Our individual aversions, long suppressed in unspoken self-doubt, were suddenly given full voice in an ecstasy of communal loathing.  At last, we’d found each other.  We leaned in with a conspiratorial air. “Godawful,” said my friend B. “I put it down after 50 pages, maybe 40,” said J. I said, “It’s completely ridiculous.  I quit halfway, imagine reading the whole thing.” “I did,” said B.  “I couldn’t believe I was reading the same book people gushed over all year.  It was like I had to keep checking.” This went on too long, as this kind of thing typically does.  Twenty, 30 minutes, maybe.  We were like children gorging on an unattended cake, so desperate to get in every last piece of frosting and crumb that we misjudged our appetites.  The initial greedy sugar rush of shared hatred went away and we crashed into a state of rueful circumspection. B said, “I mean, there’s no question [REDACTED] is talented.” “Yeah,” said J, “And I loved [REDACTED’S] first novel.  I think it was part of my disappointment.” The conversation spiraled in once or twice more to how bad the novel was, but with ever-waning enthusiasm.  As readers, I think, we share an understanding of what a niche audience we are, and what a niche enterprise writing a novel is.  There’s a feeling—and perhaps this goes a way toward explaining why bad literary novels become fêted—that any nominally non-stupid book enjoying a moment of popularity is something to be celebrated.  Disliking a popular literary novel—that blackest of black swans—is not like disliking a TV show everyone else thinks is great.  Being the contrarian in the corner of the party who thinks Breaking Bad is overrated might not win you any friends, but being the reader who thinks a good book is overrated feels uncomfortably close to a betrayal.  We settled down. I said, “Yeah, agreed.  [REDACTED] really is an interesting writer. “I’ll read the next one,” said B. “Also,” J said, “I guess we could be wrong about this.” But that was a possibility too terrible to contemplate, and the conversation moved on to other things as we went inside for dinner. Image Credit: Flickr/K-Screen Shots.
Essays

Bringing Home Baby Reveals Life, Death, and Everything in Between

The first night we brought our baby home from the hospital, my husband and I slept with a light on all night. Sky, our brand new newborn, small and wrinkly, was swaddled in a hospital blanket but constantly wriggling out of it because, no matter how many times we tried, we just couldn’t swaddle her the way they had taught us in the hospital or the prenatal classes we had optimistically taken three months ago, when I was pregnant and glowing and feeling smug that I was organized enough to sign us up for prenatal classes and my hands and feet weren’t as swollen as the pregnant woman next to me and surely if pregnancy was proving so easy for me, what lay ahead couldn’t possibly be challenging. And then I was handed a tiny baby and told to go home and protect her and raise her and go on with life as if any semblance of the life I once knew still existed. I was told to live as if a certain fear that goes hand in hand with a certain love hadn’t been planted deep inside me. And so we came home, and we slowly took the baby out of the car, my husband and I already snapping at each other in terror—watch her head, hold her carefully, support her neck, her toe is catching on the blanket, watch out for the water dripping off the awning. It was nearly 7 p.m. by the time we got home that night. We had hoped to get home earlier but it turns out that being discharged from a hospital is rarely in the patient’s hands—there was paperwork to fill out, a lactation class to attend, a terrifying video on the dangers of shaking a baby to watch, a wheelchair to wait for—new mothers, no matter how they’re feeling, are not allowed to pick up their baby and simply walk out of the labor and delivery floor—they must wait for a wheelchair and an orderly to wheel them, like a sick person, out of the hospital grounds. But the minute you’re out of the hospital, no more wheelchairs, no more nurses, no more doctors, no more medical support or advice—you’re on your own. Get off the wheelchair and figure this out. The hospital no longer cares. We couldn’t bring ourselves to place her in her independent crib that night—even though that swivels over our bed, it felt too far away from us so we put the travel crib we’d bought on our bed and gently placed her on it. “Keep a hand on her, keep a hand on her. They startle easily if they don’t feel held. I read that somewhere. Just keep a hand on her while I quickly go pee and then I’ll keep a hand on her while you get ready for bed,” I whispered to my husband. He nodded and sat down next to her and kept a hand on her and continued staring down at her face in disbelief. Our bed isn’t big enough for her crib and two adults so my husband and I slept on our sides, not moving, and with no sheets or pillows to cover us because we were too afraid of errant adult bedsheets falling on her face and obstructing her nose. We didn’t need bedsheets or pillows anyway because there was no chance of either of us falling asleep. The fear and shock that gripped us would make sleep difficult—something that proved convenient given our daughter’s lack of sleep schedule. That same fear also made us, two fully-functioning adults, scared of the dark in those early days and so we left the bathroom light on with the door open so that light would trickle into our room and let us see the outlines of furniture and the tiny face of our new baby. The last time I remembered sleeping with the light on in the room was when my grandfather died and a similar fear and love enveloped my family. I remember spending the night in the same room as my parents and brother on the night that we got the news, the bathroom light on, light coming in to make it easier for us to wander to the bathroom or to the kitchen in search of a glass of water. I lived in New Delhi then and my grandparents lived in the building next door to us in the same housing complex. My parents worked full time and my grandparents helped raise us and the day my grandfather died, our home filled with neighbors and friends who brought food and love and support and held us while we cried and then at night our home emptied but we couldn’t bring ourselves to go back to our own rooms. All four of us huddled on my parents’ bed and I have blurry memories of seeing my mother, sleepless, walking around, in and out of the bedroom. I slipped in and out of sleep while my father followed my mother out of the bedroom so they could mourn the way adults mourn without disturbing me and my brother. And I remember very little else of that day and night. With our new baby lying in between us on that first night, those same thoughts of life and death and the terrifying and exhilarating space in between, made us leave the bathroom light on. We had to see this little fully-formed human, eyelashes and all, in order to believe it had really happened. I didn’t understand how, in less than 48 hours, I had fallen so madly in love with someone that I was terrified of. I couldn’t see how life could possibly continue under this new and crushing love. How would I ever again face darkness, how would I ever again sleep comfortably? The thoughts, though outlined with happiness this time, were eerily similar to the thoughts I had on the night my grandfather died. The start of life and the end of life felt parallel in that way—how could I go on when human life begins and ends? How could I go on with such a clear idea of the finiteness of existence? How could I do something as simple as brushing my teeth and climbing into bed in a cool, dark room knowing that babies are born and people die? What else could possibly be relevant? But the difference this time was that in 45 minutes, our daughter started screaming and we had to get up to feed her and change her diaper and soothe her back to sleep before we returned to our positions on two sides of her, one hand gently on her for comfort (more my comfort than hers, I realize in retrospect), bathroom light still on. And then we did that over and over again before natural morning light started to come in from the edges of the curtains and we realized we had made it through night one and we felt a surge of joy. As the skies outside got brighter, the fear lifted. I got up and put coffee on and thought to myself, maybe I don’t need sleep after all. But when my grandfather died, I vaguely recall, as the morning light appeared, the fear and the sadness intensified. I must have drifted off to sleep eventually that night because it took a moment in the morning to remember that my grandfather was no longer alive but life still had to go on. Being awake was not fun. This time being awake was great fun. And life was in front of me asking to have her diaper changed. Because, it turns out, life does go on even though babies are born and people die. Those of us in the middle still have to brush our teeth and have something to eat and carry on conversations and watch the days turn into nights that eventually again become days. There’s no escaping that but for now I’m too tired to give it much thought. And our daughter now sleeps in her own independent crib, without the annoyance of having my hand on her all night. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression

Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom...well, there was a lot to think about. All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact. I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list. But how to truly turn them off? Ask them to annotate. The a-word: to add notes to (a text or diagram) giving explanation or comment. To say they “hate” it not strong enough. The most common disclaimers being about how it takes them out of the story, how if they stop they can’t remember what happened, that it takes too long, that it’s not enjoyable anymore. I’ve had students tell me, with genuine feeling, that reading’s been ruined for them—forever. Well, yes, if “reading” is that thing they do at bedtime with that cup of cocoa, and if that’s the thing ruined forever, then, no, I’m not sorry. How many students do trig curled up in bed without a pen or pencil? So the task has to be to get them to see reading as something a little more combative, which is not to undermine scanning and context. I love scanning and context, reading for the sheer drama of turning the page, for the drama of occupation, of escape—especially on a beach, or hungover, or sitting in 24E on a flight without a functioning TV. But in a high-school English class, the skill of reading as an intimate, assertive thing stands as the thing I’m more interested in—the premise being that if reading were less of a spectator sport maybe we’d inhabit a world better informed, more critical—and critical in a reflective rather than a reactive sense—a world shaped more collectively by thoughtfulness, by magnanimity. But annotate what, students ask? A fair question. And the place to begin is questions, the questions that come after the who, what, when, and where have been answered. Why questions—about place, about character, about motives...about the weather. Questions that pick at the story’s fabric in ways that enhance that fabric as opposed to designing a new one. So, for instance, after reading the first couple of pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out loud in class, students invariably ask questions about why the novel’s named after Gatsby, about what makes him great, if his father gave him any other advice than the part about not all the people in the world having had the advantages he’s had. About how come the narrator doesn’t know the name for a seismograph. Interesting enough questions, but dead ends, as a couple of the students put it (though at least two of their classmates are adamant that we need to pursue the seismograph thing) because they depend either on plot that hasn’t happened yet or hearsay. Better the question that at least allows for the possibility of an answer through what’s already there rather than depending upon the goose chase of the imagination. So when Nick Carraway says that “[R]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” it might benefit us to ask why? Why “hope” as opposed to something else? Why infinite? And what might this tell us about Nick Carraway’s temperament? Questions that allow us to begin to work out the kind of world Nick Carraway lives in and how that world might interact with ours. The kinds of questions that unnerve what’s in front of us, that give us something to hold onto in terms of plot while, simultaneously, digging a little deeper into that plot. They want to know how many they need. A ball of string question. And I tell them not to go all gung-ho and answer the questions, but to let them sit for a while, the idea being to try and read from inside the story rather than from inside a predetermined perspective. Virginia Woolf calls it the art of delaying dictation: “If we could banish all [such] preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” Even in novels, to delay that impulse, that reflex, as long as possible, allowing the piece itself a chance to stand, at least for a moment, outside the moment of presumption. The questions more important, paradoxically, than the answers. It sounds all back to front, but getting students to trust, first and foremost, their own ability to ask questions rather than a teacher’s executive ability to provide answers leads, again, to the kind of critical, reflective impulse our world so desperately need. It allows students access to a way of thinking, a means for seeing, long after they’ve forgotten if affect works primarily as a verb or a noun, or how many suitors Odysseus slays in the great hall. Which brings up the question of quantity. If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing. That said, they can’t be forced. It tends to work to begin small—maybe one annotation every two pages, but a real one. Not underlining or highlighting—that’s not annotating, that’s underlining or highlighting. Annotating is where there’s something highlighted or underlined and accompanied by a note working out why said moment was underlined or highlighted. Why questions: about reserving judgments and infinite hope. So, one every two pages. And we agree to it as a class. If one person doesn’t do it, we all do jumping jacks. Not literally, though I wish, just like I wish I could pull off having class outside and using saxophones and live macaws as props. In place of jumping jacks, a two-minute free write on some contemporary event, like a wardrobe malfunction. And this is where the larger picture begins to coalesce—the significance of developing a skill through reading that translates into larger worlds, a skill learned in a safe space where poor judgment comes without real consequences, except intellectual ones. The point being that the consequences aren’t human. They’re judgments about characters experiencing pain, triumph, sadness, joy, hurt, and so on, but we can get them wrong and little changes. Getting people wrong in the real world, of course, comes with real consequences, sometimes tragic. The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. To return to Virginia Woolf’s point: if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential. The other part of this resides in stillness. To be still, to hover, inside a piece of literature requires students stopping for moments at a time within the characters and their fates, their worlds. Annotations force them into that space, if only for a moment, alongside a partial stepping back from the worlds circumscribed by their own egos: the teaching of reading as the teaching of stillness, a kind of meditative, cognitive moment where students develop the ability to be intellectually still in a world so often pushing their intellects to move at breakneck speed from moment to moment, a constant shuffling of information, their minds the photons inside the Hadron collider moving at a searing pace. And this is crucial no matter where students go to school, no matter what the classroom: English and History, Science, Math, Art, Foreign Language, Metalwork, etc. Students need to know how to undermine and dismantle the spectacles surrounding them, and how to slow each spectacle down in turn in order to better see the axles turning inside of it. Critical reading is where that stillness begins. Annotations in the margins of Macbeth or a set of scribbled-on sticky notes in Their Eyes Were Watching God are the beginning points of interpreting their worlds, the ones screeching past them without brakes. Image Credit: Pixels.
Essays

Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer

1. A lot of fans know Edgar Allan Poe earned just $9 for “The Raven,” now one of the most popular poems of all time, read out loud by schoolteachers the world over. What most people don’t know is that, for his entire oeuvre—all his fiction, poetry, criticism, lectures—Poe earned only about $6,200 in his lifetime, or approximately $191,087 adjusted for inflation. Maybe $191,087 seems like a lot of money. And sure, as book advances go, that’d be a generous one, the kind that fellow writers would whisper about. But what if $191,087 was all you got for 20 years of work and the stuff you wrote happened to be among the most enduring literature ever produced by anyone anywhere? In one sense, there could not be a more searing indictment of the supposed rewards of the writing life: how, whether we’re geniuses like Poe or not, we suffer and rewrite and yet never realize anything even kind of approaching a commensurate value. In another sense, there’s hope for us all. Last October, in the depths of a depression so profound and overwhelming that I had to take mental-health leave from work, I started rereading Poe for the first time since I was a kid. And something happened: I encountered a writer completely different from the one I thought I knew. It turned out Poe was not a mysterious, mad genius. He was actually a lot like my writer-friends, with whom I constantly exchange emails bitching about the perversities of our trade—the struggle to break in, the late and sometimes nonexistent payments, the occasional stolen pitch. In short, I realized that Poe was, for a good portion of his career, a broke-ass freelancer. Also, that our much-vaunted gig economy isn’t the new development it’s so often taken to be. Poe’s short stories weren’t the adventure-horror tales I remembered, either. They turned out to be exquisitely wrought metaphors for despair. In “MS. Found in a Bottle,” the narrator, finding himself just about to be sucked into a whirlpool, says, “It is evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge—some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.” I read the line and laughed in recognition. That was 2016 for me, in a sentence. Call it a most immemorial year. I didn’t know it then, but reevaluating Poe is, in fact, a time-honored tradition. Every generation discovers its own Poe; in the 168 years since his death, the hot takes have just kept coming. R.W.B. Lewis described the phenomenon this way in 1980: “One of the important recurring games of American literary history has been that of revising the received human image of Edgar Allan Poe.” There are obvious and less obvious reasons for this continual reevaluation. For starters, Poe’s earliest biographies—some of them based on inaccurate information Poe himself provided—needed correcting in a literal sense. Poe’s literary executor Rufus W. Griswold, for whatever reason, forged letters and deliberately torpedoed Poe’s reputation. The inaccuracies and falsehoods weren’t cleared up until almost 100 years after Poe’s death, with Arthur Hobson Quinn’s 1941 biography. Another reason is, well, I’m not the only person to read Poe as a child and again as an adult and to be struck by the differences. In his magnificent Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, published in 1971, Daniel Hoffman writes, “I really began to read Poe when just emerging from childhood. Then one was entranced by such ideas as secret codes, hypnotism, closed systems of self-consistent thought.” Later, Hoffman says, “Returning to the loci of these pubescent shocks and thrills…I found that there was often a complexity of implication, a plumbing of the abyss of human nature.” Ditto. You never enter the same Poe whirlpool twice. Much of his work has a purposeful, built-in double nature; he intended we discover “secret codes” of meaning. While Poe despised facile parables, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1842, he allowed, “Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious meaning in a very profound under-current, so as to never interfere with the upper one without our own volition,” such schemes are permissible. This points to the other important, less acknowledged, double nature of Poe’s work. It’s both art and commercial entertainment. Few other American writers so obviously and continually straddle the gap between high and low culture, between art for art’s sake and commercial enterprise. Which is why the Poe reevaluation game isn’t just played by academics and highbrows—including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate, Jacques Barzun, and Vladimir Nabokov. Poe is pop, too. The Simpsons, Britney Spears, Roger Corman, an NFL team and romance novelists have all joined in the game. The Beatles put Poe in the top row, eighth from the left, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just slightly removed from W.C. Fields and Marilyn Monroe. I think if Poe hadn’t had to write for money, he’d probably have faded away long ago. 2. Picture this: A tech breakthrough has made mass publishing cheaper than ever before. With the cost of entry down, new publications launch with much high-flown talk about how they’ll revolutionize journalism, only to shut their doors a few years or even months later. Because the industry is so unstable, editors and writers are caught in a revolving door of hirings, firings, and layoffs. A handful of the players become rich and famous, but few of them are freelance writers, for whom rates remain scandalously low. Though some publications pay contributors on a sliding scale according to the popularity of their work, it’s mostly the case that writers don’t earn a penny more than their original fee even when their work goes viral. I’m speaking of Poe’s time, not our own. Still, I expect some of this will sound familiar. Pretty much the only piece missing is a pivot to video. Here’s something else that might sound familiar. Poe grew up writing moony, ponderous poetry and dreaming of literary stardom. Surely, he figured, the world would recognize his genius—the critics would rave, the angels would sing! The problem was he had no trust fund, no private means. Poe had been more or less disowned by his wealthy adoptive father John Allan, who would eventually leave Poe out of his will altogether. All of this meant, then as now, that Poe had to compromise his cherished ideals and buckle down to the realities of the marketplace. He would hold a series of short-lived and ill-paid editorial jobs, beginning with the Southern Literary Messenger, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Graham’s Magazine, and, finally, the New York Evening Mirror and the Broadway Journal. In between and after these jobs, he’d be what John Ward Ostrom called a “literary entrepreneur,” i.e., a broke-ass freelancer. As Michael Allen laid out in 1969’s Poe and the British Magazine Tradition, the story of Poe’s career is in large part the story of a writer struggling to adapt to the demands of a mass audience. His earliest literary friends and mentors had “turned him to drudging upon whatever may make money” (John Pendleton Kennedy) and advised him to “lower himself a little to the ordinary comprehension of the generality of readers” (James Kirke Paulding). Meanwhile the stakes were as high as stakes go. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that if Poe didn’t write pieces he could sell, he and his family didn’t eat. Poe’s one-time boss George Graham described him wandering “from publisher to publisher, with his print-like manuscript, scrupulously clean and neatly rolled” yet finding “no market for his brain” and “with despair at heart, misery ahead for himself and his loved ones, and gaunt famine dogging at his heel.” At one point, when Poe was ill, his mother-in-law and aunt Maria Clemm was forced to do all this on Poe’s behalf: “Going about from place to place, in the bitter weather, half-starved and thinly clad, with a poem or some other literary article she was striving to sell…begging for him and his poor partner, both being in want of the commonest necessities of life.” I’ve heard some freelance horror stories in my time, but this one takes the Palme d’Or. Even when Poe did manage to sell his literary wares, he didn’t earn very much, as this chart I assembled shows. Over time, he did his fitful best to make his art commercial; he simplified his language and tried his hand at popular forms. Some of these experiments worked and some didn’t. Poe still wrote “in a style too much above the popular level to be well paid,” as his editor-friend N.P. Willis put it. Why? The usual reasons, as I see it. A writer’s heart wants what it wants. It’s not at all a simple matter to ditch the obsessions that drive you to write to begin with, and it’s hard to change your natural register, no matter that commonplace comment in MFA programs, Maybe I’ll just write a romance novel for money. If it really were so easy to write popular stuff, wouldn’t we all be churning out viral articles and paying the rent with royalties from our bestselling YA werewolf romances? In between writing prose that makes the Nobel people tremble, I mean. Piece Year Published Original Payment Approx. Amount in 2017 Dollars “Ligeia” 1838 $10 $253 “The Haunted Palace” 1839 $5 $127 “The Fall of the House of Usher” 1839 $24 $609 “The Man of the Crowd” 1840 $16 $431 “The Masque of the Red Death” 1842 $12 $345 “The Pit and the “Pendulum” 1842 $38 $1,093 “The Tell-Tale Heart” 1843 $10 $315 “The Black Cat” 1843 $20 $631 “The Raven” 1845 $9 $277 “The Cask of Amontillado” 1846 $15 $426 “Ulalume” 1847 $20 $562 “Annabel Lee” 1849 $10 $308 Sources: “Edgar A. Poe: His Income as a Literary Entrepreneur” and In2013dollars.com 3. So, where exactly does the hope come in? It’s true Poe’s unending financial problems did not make his life happier or longer and likely constrained some of his writerly impulses. Catering to the market was hardly his first choice, and he remained ambivalent about writing for an audience and magazines he sometimes saw as beneath him. “The poem which I enclose,” Poe wrote to his friend Willis in 1849, “has just been published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It pays well as times go—but unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it feel I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets.” Then, of course, there were other people’s feelings. Poe’s attempt to adapt to the market did not go unpunished in his own day. “Hints to Authors,” a semi-veiled takedown, was first published anonymously in a Philadelphia paper in 1844: “Popular taste is sometimes monstrous in character…judging by the works and mind of its chief and almost only follower on this side of the Atlantic, it is a pure art, almost mechanical—requiring neither genius, taste, wit nor judgement—and accessible to every contemptible mountebank.” And the commercial stink has never quite worn off. It seems to be among the reasons Henry James and Aldous Huxley—who likened Poe’s poetic meter to a bad perm—criticized him so harshly. Marilynne Robinson has noted how “virtually everything” Poe wrote was for money: “This is not exceptional among writers anywhere, though in the case of Poe it is often treated as if his having done so were disreputable.” Yet commercial pressure arguably pushed Poe in the direction that saw him write some of the most lasting work in American history—even world history. I can only speculate, of course, but I think that if Poe had had his druthers, he’d have gone on with the pretentious poetry and abstruse dramas he initially favored. I seriously doubt we’d still be reading him now. Just try pushing through “Al Araraaf.” It’s like sitting down to a lengthy phone call with an elderly relative. You love this person, but it’s a chore. We tend to view popular success with a skeptical eye, just as many did in Poe’s day. We tend to think of commercial pressure as corrupting. What if it can be also a positive, transformative force? Certainly, the ability to speak to millions of people across 17 decades is not a bad thing. It’s a real-life superpower. We should all be so lucky. On that point, consider how conditions for freelancers and other writers have improved since Poe’s time. As Tyler Cowen relates in In Praise of Commercial Culture, today more people than ever receive basic education. Vastly more people receive higher education. The cost of art materials has fallen tremendously (think of the price of video equipment just 30 years ago compared to today). And you no longer have to go to a particular concert hall or museum to access art; you can just Google. By comparison, Poe’s couple of decades as working writer really sucked. So yeah, hope. When I first cracked back into Poe last October, my therapist begged, “Please stop reading him. He’s too depressing.” But my experience of reading Poe and other writers on Poe the last 11 months has been the opposite of depressing. It helped me climb out of a very deep hole. In the end, Poe only pocketed $191,087, but he did get the immortal fame he grew up dreaming of. And I got taken, blessedly, outside myself. If the past is anything to go by, what lies ahead is not destruction. It just might be the stuff of our wildest dreams. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.