Essays

There Is No Such Thing as the Young Adult Novel

Here’s a proposition: there is no such thing as the young adult novel. There are, of course, novels written about teenagers and novels that focus on coming of age, novels that that skirt the subjects of sex and drugs and death or, alternatively, focus on our first experiences of them, what the world feels like when you’re just learning its brightest and darkest corners. But when you try to define the category, it remains slippery and elusive: difficult to delimit in terms of content, since YA now covers addiction and rape as readily as -- and sometimes alongside -- first crushes and homecoming dances. YA is impossible to pin down as a reading level when books like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted are getting double-shelved: you can find them in straight fantasy as well as the young adult section. Kate Axelrod has written about the difficulty of selling her first novel, which fell somewhere in the seam between literary fiction and what we understand as YA. And as for who’s reading it, well, recent Neilsen numbers suggest that some 80 percent of YA novels are being purchased by non-teens. The rise of adults reading young adult books has lead to a certain amount of moral panic among cultural commentators: Ruth Graham’s 2014 Slate essay "Against YA" is an often-cited example, but another version seems to pop up every six months or so, most recently Joe Nutt’s "Why Young-Adult Fiction Is a Dangerous Fantasy." (Because it’s gossip, apparently? These pieces often skew sexist, and Nutt’s insistence that a group of largely female authors has denied a generation of young men their own literacy by writing about romance certainly fits the bill.) Graham’s argument and those like it have been ably refuted: by The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among other outlets.  Alyssa Rosenberg sums it up best in her Post piece: To simply give up on romance novels or young adult literature as hopeless categories of fiction, fit only for the weak-minded or young and incapable of improvement, is to embrace a kind of snobbery and rigidity about what is worthy and what is not. A hopeless belief in love and happy endings is not the only perspective that’s adolescent. But the moralizers aren’t the only ones panicking. Young adult novels are big business, and as their potential audience expands, a core community of YA authors, bloggers, librarians, and readers are concerned that publishers hungry for crossover hits will dilute the label with books aimed too old -- or even change its name all together, as was suggested at a 2015 panel which touched off a debate across the YA Internet. The concern was more than aesthetic: as librarian Molly Wetta wrote in a piece about the controversy, Young adult literature isn’t a market segmentation or an abstract category to me. YA is Willow by Julia Hoban, which I found with handwritten notes on the inside cover that declared the book had “saved my life” in a teen’s handwriting…To me, and many teen librarians, YA isn’t for anyone’s bottom line. It’s one of the ways we help support the intellectual, emotional, and recreational needs of teens. What had for years been a niche community inhabited largely by teenagers and the adults invested in their stories has, seemingly overnight, become a crowded market and a hip brand. So as adults who’d never heard of YA before Stephenie Meyer (and who haven’t read anything in the category that isn’t by John Green) worry themselves over what their interest in adolescence means, the stalwarts of the YA community are asking themselves a different question, namely: how do we reckon with the fact that, in almost all cases, adults are the ones writing books for teenagers to read? This is where it gets personal. My first novel is, yes, YA . It’s an easy thematic fit, a book about a teenage girl falling in love and discovering her family’s secret history. But the language is, apparently, literary, or that’s what I heard from editors and agents and now sometimes reviewers on Goodreads, who accuse me of having written a whole new category of novel, exactly what Wetta & co. were dreading: young adult for adults. It’s tempting to just go ahead and disagree with this, to say, I wrote my book for teenagers! I did! and leave it at that. It is true, by the way: that’s what I intended when I wrote it. But as anyone who’s written anything -- and especially anything as long and demanding as a novel -- can tell you, your intentions, lovely as they are, don’t always make it into the finished product.  It’s also true that while I wanted the book to appeal to teens, I also, inevitably, wrote the book I, at 26, wanted to write. Young adult books should aim to speak to teens, but they have to use an author’s voice to do it. The bind of writing a young adult novel as a grown up -- which, with very few exceptions, YA authors are -- is that you are necessarily writing towards a category of people that no longer includes you. It used to, of course; it’s not like we have no direct experience of our subject. But that experience is limited and particular and farther away every day; especially in a moment when technology often changes too rapidly to keep up with in real time, faithfully rendering a 16-year-old’s relationship to her cell phone becomes impossible in the often years-long book publishing cycle. Writing young adult novels requires empathy, but it is also somewhat a matter of guesswork. It asks authors to reach across a gap that cannot fully be bridged. Young adult for adults. The phrase rattles around my head all the time now. Regardless of how it was intended, it feels like an insult: like I was showing off for my friends instead of reaching out to readers. I’m an adult who reads YA voraciously and sees no shame in it; in fact, I think most grown ups could use to spend a little more time in touch with their teenage selves, examining and interrogating the stories they absorbed as adolescents. Because before I was a woman who read YA, I was a girl who read everything. Some of what I read was beautiful, was helpful, was funny and wise and tender. That was what I worked to remember. Some of what I read was ugly, or thoughtless, and those were the things that hung around quietly, insinuating themselves into me so seamlessly that it’s taken me all of these years to see them, even just to realize that they are there. I wanted to write a book that helped girls ask themselves the questions it had taken me so long to come to. And I wanted to suggest that the answers might be broader than any book, or genre, or category, could encompass. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I know how my novel will be read or received; I’m a first-time author, and it’s more than possible that I’ve missed the mark. But I hope so much that my adolescent heart and adult perspective will speak to at least a teen or two -- that regardless of whether it fits into anyone’s perceptions of category or genre, my book will find a home on someone’s shelf, and if I’m very lucky, in her life, too. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

Chance Operations at the Hospice Luis Plaza Dañin

I (like to) believe that in the year 2002, when I started to write my first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, I approached English, my second language, as a system that, through minor detonations of syntax, could be restructured to accommodate my preoccupations. Constraining the use of conjunctions to contort sentences? Worked. Blanking parentheticals after writing them (no seas curiosa Jessica) and then trying to write about their potential content to dramatize blanks in memory? Did not. Relying on chance to retrofit associations into a mostly blank memory of my time at the Hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Perhaps. At my Jesuit high school in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I belonged to a volunteer group known as the apostolic group. Every Saturday we visited the old and the infirm at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. I don’t remember much about my time there besides a long hallway, benches, baskets with bread. Why the impulse to write about what’s mostly a blank? A cynic (like me) might contend that, since the hospice experience fits into the coming of age narrative (boy visits the old and the infirm, hands them bread and milk, realizes the world contains unspeakable suffering, etc.), I am, in retrospect, assigning great significance to my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. The contention of the cynic (still me) faces complications. Since back then I’d wanted to become a Jesuit priest, those visits to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin were obvious manifestations of that impulse to become a Jesuit priest, an impulse that to this day provides a dangerous type of solace, incidentally, because if you persist in seeing yourself as the Jesuit priest boy who cared for the old and the infirm, you are prone to overlook the almost nothing you are doing for others now. How to write about mostly blanks? Of course I could have retrofitted so-called telling details, scents, quirks of character, sequences out of the Conflict-Action-Resolution machine, but because the rest of my life already contained so much machine crap (dayjobs, ads, diaper dialogues), and because I believed literature’s sole purpose was to not be machine crap, I attempted alternatives. How about if I open three books at random, I thought, jot down whatever I find compelling in those pages, and see if what I jot down yields any associations that I can outstretch along the long hallway of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Not everything in chance is chance, John Cage said. One must learn to ask the right question: what are the three books that come to mind when I think of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? The answer came quickly: The Book of Psalms, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, The End of Story by Lydia Davis. The first two came to mind because of their religious associations (the cover of my edition of The Book of Disquiet contains a man in agony, though later someone pointed out the man is just a goalie failing to catch a soccer ball). The End of The Story came to mind because to me it’s a performance of how forgetting the contours of the loved one does not diminish the intensity one feels for the loved one. According to my notes, on March 3rd, 2012, I completed the first cycle of opening each of these three books at random. The next day I completed three more. Only the first two cycles yielded immediate reactions. The reactions to the passages below are from 2012, the reactions to my reactions from 2016. (1) From The Book of Psalms: Do not be mute and do not be quiet, god. Reaction: What did the elderly think of us? Were they really waiting for us on that long hallway? Or were they always there in the afternoons? Where else would they go? None of them had their own room. Reaction to reaction:  The muteness of god many of us members of the apostolic group would experience years later, the muteness of the elderly over the years since I couldn’t remember anything they’d said to me, the white noise of the train in The Silence by Ingmar Bergman -- all of these might have played a role in wondering what the elderly thought of us. I remembered an immense room we weren’t supposed to enter or didn’t want to enter but did, an empty room with tall ceilings and rows of beds where those who were too sick to walk to the long hallway remained. (2) From The Book of Disquiet: Most people are other people. Reaction: Did I wonder who the elderly were as I am doing now? Who were they when they were young? Did they also spend their lives in pursuit of something they didn’t want? Reaction to reaction: We were probably too enamored with our role as saviors of the old and the infirm to wonder who they were, although it isn’t farfetched to imagine many of us did ask them who they used to be, or perhaps they told us without us having to ask them, given we did spend hours sitting next to them on the benches along the long hallway. (3) From End of the Story: When I returned he said very little to me and kept turning away from me, and because he kept turning away from me, I was frightened and couldn’t sleep. Reaction: Perhaps there’s an elderly man along the long hallway who, because he kept turning away from us, frightened us? Reaction to reaction: I can see now why I might have found this passage about turning away compelling. It’s easier to invent someone who’s turning away from you because you don’t have to imagine a face. I also associated this turning away with the men in "The Subway" by George Tooker, although in that painting the men are not turning away but staring in hiding. To imagine the old and the infirm turning away from me felt like the correct representation of them. No matter how often I’ve tried to dismiss the almost blank memory of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, the feeling that every Saturday we abandoned the old and the infirm has not subsided. This pious retrospective, the cynic (you know who) might add, is useless. Except perhaps to create the illusion you’re a good person. I don’t disagree. Fiction isn’t meant to be useful though. These are just my attempts at remembering my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. The rest of the cycles did not yield enough variations in the material. Seek his presence always, The Book of Psalms said, for instance, but I already knew the answer to the reaction I’d jotted down (and yet was god’s presence to be found in that long hallway?). Asleep, I was even more helpless against them, Lydia Davis wrote, and yes, I was helpless against the memory of old and the infirm, whether I was asleep or awake, but how to represent this helplessness without overdramatizing the minute impact of this helplessness? Perhaps I did not ask the right question. By focusing on books that linked too closely to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, I wasn’t likely to unearth new material. For other sections of The Revolutionaries Try Again, I had already tried to focus on books that had no relationship to my content in the hopes that this juxtaposition (the streets of Guayaquil + interviews with John Cage, for instance) would inject new language into content I was too familiar with. But I wasn’t after new material. I was after an atmosphere in which to think about the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín. Since I had already decided not to invent what I couldn’t remember, the exercise of chance might have created an atmosphere in which to obsess about what I could remember, and it was this narrowing of obsession that (I like to believe) yielded the first series of sentences I would later call “performance of an impulse,” a type of sentence that eschews narration (for the most part) but creates dramatic tension by obsessing on the impulse behind the sentence. Here, then, is the performance of the impulse to remember the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín, which appears in chapter XIII of The Revolutionaries Try Again: The long hallway where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group, Leopoldo thinks, the long hallway like a passageway inside cloisters or convents where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group every Saturday from 3:00 to 6:00, the long hallway with its hollowed benches alongside its walls where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group to hand them sugar bread and milk, where the apostolic group performed cheerfulness and chattiness for the old and the infirm, the long hallway that’s probably empty at night just as it is empty for Leopoldo tonight despite all those Saturdays he’d spent there when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, all those Saturdays he spent in that long hallway at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín trying to cheer up the old and the infirm who’d been forsaken by their families or who had no families or who had nowhere else to go, who had toiled in menial jobs the entirety of their lives just like the masses of people Leopoldo will encounter inside the bus on his way to Julio’s party tonight -- did you even ask the old and the infirm about their jobs, Leopoldo? what could you have possibly said to them to cheer them up? did you actually cheer them up or were you simply a reminder to them that god’s blessings were elsewhere like they’ve always been? -- whose last days were spent along a sunless hallway that smelled like the eucalyptus and menthol ointments they rubbed on their chests, which must have reminded them of the Merthiolate their mothers would swab on their scraped elbows and knees, whose last evenings were spent on donated hospital beds inside rooms with unreasonably high ceilings (why did the Jesuits build those rooms with such high ceilings? so that when the time came for the old and the infirm to die the priests could direct them to the vast pointlessness of the lord above?), inside rooms where Leopoldo and Antonio would stroll among the donated hospital beds with their bread baskets just in case they missed someone on the hallway, just in case someone couldn’t get out of bed but still wanted a sugar bun (what did the Jesuits think this exposure to the suffering of the old and the infirm would do to a band of scrawny fifteen year olds? did the Jesuits think that it would change their lives? that they would grow up to be stalwarts against suffering and injustice instead of growing up to be just like everyone else except every now and then they feel guilty about the suffering of the old and the infirm yet at the same time feel superior to everyone else because they were such good Samaritans then?), the long hallway where the faces and names of the old and the infirm continue to slip from him, year after year one more conversation or gesture or emotion vanishing from that long hallway like a punishment, although if you ask him about it Leopoldo will tell you that he’s not fifteen anymore and does not believe in punishments handed down from a god who’s in any case too busy not existing just as Leopoldo’s too busy not existing or barely existing in that long hallway in the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

An Invitation to Hesitate: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ at 70

Seventy years ago, The New Yorker devoted its entire contents to a single article for the first and only time in its history. With no prior announcement or warning, the August 31st, 1946 issue eschewed the magazine’s trademark cartoons and "Talk of the Town" section in favor of something less frivolous: a 30,000-word article on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The article appeared just over a year after the bombing, and became a surprise sensation: the issue sold out almost as soon as it hit the stands, was reprinted as a special edition giveaway for U.S. Book of the Month Club subscribers, and went on to sell more than three million copies in book form. The piece’s title -- Hiroshima -- represented the intentions of its author, John Hersey; that it is to say, it suggested an air of neutrality. Hersey’s article was not to be a clear-cut damnation of the bombing quoting facts and figures about casualties and the decimation of infrastructure. Rather it would be a simple declaration of the human aspect, somehow so often ignored in the nuclear debate, deferring judgment to the reader. In a style that would later be recognised as a highly influential precursor to the New Journalism movement, Hersey’s article combines the narrative conventions of fiction with intensive research, creating a nonfiction account of the aftermath of the bombing following the intertwined stories of six survivors, all of them ordinary civilians. There is Miss Sasaki, a 20-year-old clerk whose leg is broken when the building she is in collapses. She is rescued, but, unable to walk, she is forced to spend three days under a makeshift corrugated iron shack with no food and water. Her companions are “a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn.” None of them speak once for the duration of the three days. There is also Father Kleinsorge, a German priest who seems to come away from the blast relatively unscathed, but suffers for months afterwards from a terrible undiagnosed sickness and finds the cuts he sustains never seem to heal, continually opening up again. Likewise, Mrs. Nakamura and her children suffer from a lingering illness, with her hair falling out in clumps until she is completely bald. Like so many other survivors she also finds herself destitute -- everything she has ever owned is destroyed in the blast. And yet, Hersey reminds us that these are “among the luckiest in Hiroshima” -- the survivors -- and in doing so, he highlights the absurd nature of this kind of indiscriminate weaponry. He tells us that Dr. Sasaki, one of the six protagonists, “calculated that if he had taken his customary train that morning, and if he had had to wait a few minutes for the streetcar, as often happened, he would have been close to the center at the time of the explosion and would surely have perished.” With this realization, every moment of Dr Sasaki’s life gains a sudden significance, because every small factor -- every pause, every moment of chance -- becomes an element leading him to the pure luck of his survival. And what did he do to make him any more worthy of living than anyone else? Hersey suggests all of these themes in a voice of absolute detachment and neutrality. His voice is clearly not aligned to “the Americans,” nor is it to the Japanese. In a way this voice of calm seems almost to emanate from the bomb itself: describing the horrors wrought in a neutral tone that knows nothing can be done to change the reality of what has happened. Although Hersey’s voice is characterized by its impartiality, it is important to emphasize that part of the popular success of Hiroshima stemmed from its ability to truly put American readers into the perspective of the victims for the very first time. When people speak of the atomic bombings as a justified preventative action, or, indeed, when anyone speaks of nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent, it is always from the perspective of the aggressor. Hersey’s narrative put readers on the ground, amid the confusion and the fear and the suffering, reminding us that the 100,000 lives sacrificed to potentially save 1,000,000 others included hospital patients, schoolchildren, doctors, mothers, priests, and all manner of ordinary people. Hersey showed the readers of The New Yorker that the victims were people just like them, and it was his gifts as a storyteller (just the year before he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) combined with his journalistic skills that gave the piece its resonance and humane power. Hiroshima ends with the voice of the child -- Hersey quotes from a school essay written by one of Mrs. Nakamura’s children. The child recalls the bombing and aftermath with a sense of excitement, and even fondness. Perhaps the child is still too young to understand the full impact of everything he has seen, but by ending with this voice, Hersey suggests a sense of dread for the next generation; a generation normalized to violence and mass destruction. The structure of Hiroshima reinforces this, with each of the four parts covering a longer period of time: the first narrates the moment of impact, the second the next few hours, the third the next few days, and the final part the following months. This expansion of time moves the reader exponentially further and further from the moment of destruction, highlighting the speed with which a tragedy of this magnitude can become ordinary to us and be forgotten. Indeed, one of the most horrifying things about Hiroshima is the speed with which the survivors, and the city, return to a state of routine and normality. In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that Hiroshima is as relevant as ever. Drone warfare is now a simple fact of life, and the nuclear threat still very much exists. Indeed, just a few weeks ago the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was asked whether she would be “prepared to authorize the nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children,” to which she answered, without hesitation or preceding clarification: “Yes.” Perhaps such a sense of assurance is considered a necessary component of leadership, and perhaps any sign of hesitation would be construed as a weakness and a political shot in the foot. However, if Hersey’s Hiroshima teaches us anything it is that there is no such thing as assurance when it comes to nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it suggests that we need leaders who will hesitate; who will consider the woman who puts out her arm for help, only for her skin to slip “off in huge, glove-like pieces.” We need leaders who will stop for a moment to think about the men with empty eye sockets, “the fluid from their melted eyes” pouring down their faces, and remember that the world cannot be so easily divided into "friend" and "enemy." Hesitation is, in fact, what gives us our humanity, and blind assurance is what robs us of it. So consider this anniversary an invitation to hesitate. As is only proper, The New Yorker has made an exception to its subscribers-only policy for access to their archives. You can read John Hersey’s timeless article here. You can read it now, and imagine the many lives that might have been.
Essays

What I Learned on My Debut Book Tour From the Books I Read Along the Way

In her collection of essays and talks The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin wonders why we have book tours at all. “It wasn’t until the seventies, I think, that publishers realised they could sell more books by sending their author to two hundred cities in eight days to sign them,” she told a Women in Language conference in 1998. “So now here in Berkeley you have Black Oak and Cody’s, and we in Portland have Powell’s and the Looking Glass, and Seattle has Elliot Bay Books running two readings a day every day of the week and people come.” I packed The Wave in the Mind into my luggage as I set out from Britain for North America. Not least because I’d be visiting Portland, Ore., Le Guin’s home city; and not only because 35 percent minimum of my carry-on is reading material; but as an unknown British writer, I needed to holdfast to Le Guin’s promise for my 12-events-in-seven-cities first book tour: people come! I hoped my other reading would be as encouraging: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and, on the recommendation of a friend, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I’d pick up others along the way. All would be serendipitous. I’m going to learn from them not only how to handle a book tour better, but how to be better, fully stop. Lantern Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. “This is how I want to spend my life,” writes Gilbert in Big Magic, “collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.” This was how I wanted to spend my life, too -- as a published author. I’d come to Brooklyn for the launch of my debut, The Pig in Thin Air. The event marked a psychological “end” to writing the book; despite having done publicity events in the U.K., New York provided closure on the book’s making. Lesson one, perhaps: writing a book is a desperately personal thing, and only you know when it’s “finished.” I needed a public introduction for that. I needed that moment to be recognized. Pig is my first published book. I’ve always written: journalism, non-fiction, short stories, flash fiction, and I teach writing too. I have a mob of novels complaining bitterly of unfinished business from their various stashes. Pig came after a 2014 tour of North America working with organizations and individuals changing our species’ relationship to nonhuman animals. I approached Lantern Books with an idea based on this trip: a carnivore-to-vegan literary memoir, and a study of how we come closer to the animals we eat. The publisher was keen. I wrote the book in six months. Another nine of rewriting, copy editing, and proofing later, and Pig was published. Then the hard work began. If you’re Thomas Merton, it’s okay if your books “stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption, and destruction.” For the rest of us, there are sales to make. A publisher to please. It means months of emails, organizing events. It means the people at Powell’s and Elliot Bay saying, “We’ve got Murakami that night…what did you say your name was?” It means more time on social media than is good for any writer, in an attempt to secure an audience. I’ve got an audience in Brooklyn. Readers, artists, wine buyers, magazine editors. My introduction is conducted by my publisher. I calm my nerves (will I read well?; answer clearly?) by recalling Big Magic’s closing exhortation: “we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.” On the face of it, you couldn’t get two more different books, or writers, than myself and Gilbert; Pig, and Big Magic. But in other ways I couldn’t have chosen (okay, it was a recommendation) a better book as company. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was a writer without fame or fortune. She had three well-received books, and still worked full-time elsewhere. But like Gilbert, “my intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing” and that meant finding a way to be the professional writer; maybe even making money from it. Because I was not making any money from this tour. Lesson two: in Gilbert’s words, “I became my own patron” to make this tour happen. Even mid-list authors at big publishing houses are expected to organize, and usually pay for, their promotion and travel. And that’s okay. Lesson three: opening nights will always be nerve-wracking. But that’s okay too. The evening is full of goodwill and good sales and good food and fireflies and my new shoes start to break in; and, yeah, I’ve finally achieved something I’ve dreamt of for 35 years. I count myself lucky; a little bit of big magic has found its way to my door. Various Locations, Including a Chicken Slaughterhouse, Toronto The last two chapters of Pig tell the story of my involvement with the Save Movement, a group advocating for the end of the exploitation of nonhuman animals, which holds regular vigils to bear witness to the vast numbers of animals killed every day. Pig is one of the first published accounts of this movement, and it’s important for me to return and support their work; okay, as well as sell my books. On the flight from New York I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. As a vegan writer, there are few representations of veganism or vegetarianism in literature; I want to study them, to see how we come across. Pig is a vegan memoir; in my fictional writing, also, I experiment with vegan characters to explore difference, especially around toxic masculinities (the macho need for meat). The Vegetarian was -- or should have been -- the ideal book to read before hosting a potluck, reading to a crowd outside a slaughterhouse, and giving a talk to activists at the University of Toronto. But The Vegetarian is a disappointing book (Jon Yargo and I will have to disagree on this one). The emotions are “vague” and “almost.” The female protagonist is passive; we hear her voice only through italicized fragments or the eyes of of other people. As Kate Tempest says, “there’s a temptation to create passive female characters. It’s a narrative trap set up by the male standard that you’ve got to fight. I don’t know why I fell into it. I don’t even know any passive women!” It’s easy to see what Kang has tried to do by exploring the ways in which male culture objectifies women -- but do you do that by again objectifying a woman? But The Vegetarian was the right book to read for Toronto. It made me observe more closely the active (not passive) and present (not withdrawn) women who lead the advocacy movement in the city. The vigils are organized and run mainly by women. There are men participating, but the Save movement is led and shaped by proactive, intelligent, and compassionate women. So across my three events, I prioritize reading the sections that speak to the ways in which feminist ethical thought has shaped my work. That feels the right thing to do for this white, British, middle-class man with a book in his hand. I need a new book for travelling. My host Lorena, who runs healing circles for those who attend the vigils, tells me about a second-hand store 10 minutes walk away: Circus Books & Music. Within half an hour I’ve got four new titles, including The Beluga Café by Pacific Northwest writer Jim Nollman, a book that will come in handy later. The FARM Animal Rights Conference, Los Angeles Four days in a hotel. I’m here to “work the room” and promote Pig to hundreds of animal-loving attendees as well as help out on the Lantern Books table, and do my first official signing. Conferences can be good places to sell your book if the theme is aligned. But four days? That’s a lot of “working the room” for a writer who prefers early nights. By Day Three and the awards dinner it’s all a bit much. I’ve done my “meet the writer” signing. I need time out. I get caught reading a novel at the bar while the other 1,700 delegates are, mostly, attending the gala. At least the novel is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the most well-known fiction to explore our relationship with the animals we eat. The only “appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb [the novel],” says Costello, “is in silence and in solitude.” It’s too cramped in the gala; too many people; and too much weird singing. For an introvert writer, a book tour is a many-peopled challenge. And the conferences at which our books might sell are one long, tiring, smiling engagement. A Hollywood music producer comes over and starts chatting. This is the type of contact I should be cultivating, says my promotional brain; she produced the sound for the new advocacy film Unity. She’s attractive, too. “Does the mind by nature prefer sensation to ideas; the tangible to the abstract?” asks Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello’s son as he lies in bed with a woman he’s just met at…okay, a conference (albeit one at which his mother, not he, is the invited writer). Well, tonight the mind prefers the ideas, the abstract. I need quietude; to read. As soon as I say this, the music producer admits she’s overwhelmed by all the people too. She squats down -- I don’t ask her to sit -- and we talk about the need for creative solitude. I didn’t expect there to be much on this tour -- but this little? Another lesson: you cannot, as Le Guin says, be both a writer and a person on the book tour. “People line up to ‘meet the writer,’ not realizing this is impossible,” she continues. “Nobody can be a writer during a book tour […] All their admirers can meet is the person -- who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner.” Right then, probably all three. Writers live with this contradiction. We read in solitude, and we write in solitude. But in between, we need to make connections, and it can be a trial, a judgement. We do it as person or writer (or both); and yet who this I, this you, this writer/person is, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, as Le Guin says, the book tour “recovers for us the social act.” It brings us out into the world again. It might feel like the gates of hell, but it is also a doorway to other people. Phinney Books, Greenwood, Seattle, Wash. The dreaded fear on every tour is, of course, that no one will turn up. Well, not no one. That would be okay; you slink off with only the bookseller’s disdainful smile and a few hours saved (nothing more welcome than a cancelled social engagement). But if two people and a dog turn up, you have to sit through the embarrassment and shame that they know that you know that hardly anyone came out for you. And that despite your author-status, in this town, on this night, you’re still a nobody. That smarts. Apparently there’s an anthology about book reading failures. I cannot find it, and perhaps the included writers have thought better and sought injunctions to have it censored. Or maybe it’s that, as Gilbert says in Big Magic, failure is not what it seems to be. According to the acclaimed Anne Enright, “failure is what writers do.” Tell that to a writer waiting for a crowd to arrive on a warm, sunny evening in Seattle. Warm and sunny means people don’t want to come inside. Great. I go onto social media to seek advice from fellow writers. The best is from ethicist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. “Don’t judge by numbers. Give those two people (and the dog) everything that you’d give a larger crowd. Then you know you haven’t let them down. Or yourself." And so that’s what I do. Seattle is my smallest event. But there are some people, including a friend, and including a woman from the mid-sized non-profit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, who happens to be in town. She buys a book, and is generous in her praise of the talk. And yet that isn’t the magic. About halfway through, two young girls (and a dog! called Fenway) slip in at the back. When the questions begin, one of the girls shares her story: she was diagnosed as diabetic, and was on her way to losing her sight and having a foot amputated. But she adopted a vegan diet, recovered her sight and saved her foot. She’s still diabetic, but her health is massively improved. I understand that -- while it is no panacea or cure-all -- vegan food practices are healthier for humans, and the only way to feed a planet of nine billion. Others in the audience give the girl incredulous looks. But the woman from PCRM corroborates her story with direct reference to medical research. Then I understand: this event isn’t for me. I didn’t organize it to sell books. I organized it so this young woman could have her story validated by the woman from PCRM, who she would never have met otherwise. And I learn this lesson well: you don’t write the book for yourself. Once it’s published, it’s not yours. It’s theirs. Before I leave, I ask Tom the bookseller (and author of A Reader’s Book of Days, essential desktop material for all writers) what he’d recommend. He puts in my hands The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. “It’s an old book, but reissued,” he says. “It’s my favorite right now.” “Okay, then I’ll take it,” I say, equally unequivocally. I’m full of relief the evening is over, eager to settle up and have a drink at a bar. So eager in fact that I trade the sale of three Pigs for which Tom has taken the money, for The Last Samurai. This is a learning in itself: that getting out of the bookstore with your profit can be an escape act -- not because of the bookseller, but because of a) the relief of selling any at all; and b) what else do you do with cash in a bookstore? So I leave two bucks down, and four copies of Pig heavier, taking back some advances I’d sent ahead. I start reading The Last Samurai that night. It’s a sublimely written tale of the life of Ludovic, a child genius, and his mother Sybilla, that explores the limits of genius (or knowledge porn, as Brian Hurley puts it) through Ludo’s search for his father, told through his prodigious learning -- dozens of languages, engineering, history, literature, film. All this is sieved through their mother-and-son obsession with Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai.  It’s only now that I wonder if my fear of the low turnout and the, well, actual low turnout, was on Tom’s mind as he recommended The Last Samurai. In the last pages, when Ludo’s narrative arc has come to its end, he meets another genius, a pianist his mother once took him to see in concert. This pianist cannot play concerts any longer because of his unconventional and noncommercial approach. Their discussion turns to what art is worth making and how to put it into the world.  That is, even if there are only five people in the world who will buy the pianist’s CD (my book) but they are the type of person who will buy his CD (my book) and get off their train (path in life) to work for a sculptor in Paris (challenge themselves and do something amazing)…does he (me) need 10,000 people to buy his CD (my book)? Does he (I) need 1,000 people at his concert (my reading)? Or just the five people (and dog!) that matter? Discuss. Village Books, Bellingham, Wash. Or, let’s talk about fathers. Jim Nollman’s The Beluga Café is an enjoyable book. Considering it was published in 2002, it was weird how often it turned up on shelves during my tour. Perhaps the most magical element is that, for an adventure with “art, music and whales in the far North” the artist-adventurers never actually see any whales. There’s a hint of this when Nollman quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” But it’s a good book for touring the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of the clash of cultures between Western colonial whites and the Inuit. It would be a lifesaver during the reading at Village Books. I’d fallen on a successful pattern for book readings of less than 20 people. I’d introduce how I wrote Pig, then read for 10 to 15 minutes and open it up to the audience to hear their stories, before reading another section. I ask Clarissa, a local vegan who’d given me support on Twitter in generating interest for the event, to share her story. Then I open it up to the wider audience; a man in his '60s puts up his hand. “So, you, as a vejjan [sic]” he says to me, “what do you think about the Native Americans hunting whales?” I’d wanted the moment to be a sharing of stories, not Q&A, and whales hadn’t featured; but okay, I’d read Nollman so I was prepared. No, I’m not another white British colonialist telling the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest they can’t hunt whale. But for myself, as for Jim Nollman and his companions, I just don’t believe people can “own” whales. It settles him. The conversation continues, I read another section, and then there’s the Q&A. The troublemaker raises his hand. I often read from the first half of Pig, a memoir of growing up as a meat eater, and the family consternation at my attempts to go vegetarian. So I talk about growing up, and explain how my father is/was an alcoholic, and in 2008 went on a bender and went missing -- and remains missing. I read this bit, admitting that it’s also for affect. I want to move people with my writing; and this bit moves people. I never guessed anyone would actually ask me about it. “So can you explain the relevance of your missing father to this book?” Later, a friend says she wanted to hug me (and slug the guy). But wasn’t this why I’d written the book? To answer that question: not for him, but for myself? I say that toxic masculinity is a major global problem; the perverse need for men to dominate others, to own or consume their flesh, is wrecking our world. And maybe having a father whom I rebelled against at such an early age, who left my mother when I was two, providing my sister and I with a childhood shaped more by women who cared and less by men who drank, made me feel this way. Staring down the crises we face -- climate change, deforestation, water pollution, our common health problems, gender inequality, the suffering of other species -- calls for care and interdependence, not more toxic machismo. Another guy in the crowd thanks me for what I’ve said, and shares his own story. After the reading is over, the troublemaker comes up. “You know, I rescue those little black and red ladybugs from my car windscreen and put them into the grass,” he says. “So maybe I’m a little bit vejjan too.” Hey, maybe. Isn’t that a start? Silently I thank Jim Nollman and his sober failure in the Arctic, a failure that, as a writer and artist, he suffered, but was able to blend into a humble story of adventure and commitment. “Few professionals make their livings describing internal demons,” writes Nollman. “These professionals have decided that the internal story must be excised from their documentaries and non-fiction accounts, best left to novelists and feature-film writers to invent. What is it? Sissy? Too difficult? Too personal? Or is it just deemed uninteresting?” Too difficult? Too personal? I don’t know. What I do know is I’m glad I wrote that part about my father. I’m glad I read it out. And I’m glad I was asked that question. Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the End There are two more stops on the tour -- Portland and Vancouver, B.C., and five more lunches and readings and dinners and signings, including a talk in a church to 150 people, which emphasizes the lessons I’ve learnt. Not least of these is that having locals on the ground organizing and supporting makes the event go swimmingly. So what practical things have I learnt for the next tour? two people and a dog is okay, too -- and sometimes, better invitation is better than confrontation rely on social media only so far don’t think that you’ll get downtime in between events being professional counts; those sore shoes, trimmed nails, suit jacket all go towards the impression you leave on the individuals who turn up I may have laid down on the floor of an Airbnb apartment and cried that I did not want to get up and travel for another six hours to do it all again. But I did get up. I did do it all again. And what I earned from doing that will not be taken away easily. What did I earn? Freedom. Freedom from the fear that your work doesn’t count. It counts. Even if it’s for the five people who buy your book, but those five people, as Ludo says, cross the bridge, take a train, and go to work for a famous sculptor (or some similarly beautiful thing) because they read your book (or listened to your CD). “The most ancient, most urgent function of words,” writes Le Guin, is “to form for us ‘mental representations of things not actually present,’ so that we can form a judgment of what world we live in and where we might be going in it, what we can celebrate, what we must fear.” We create books or write essays and invest in the infrastructure around that writing; we put it into people’s hands and ask them to read, or listen. This is an auxiliary but no less essential part of the writer’s craft. It is a hard slog; there is little downtime in the downtime. But the joy of meeting people and having them hear your words; the emails and reviews that emerge from the ether; the connections made between people who ‘get’ the same mental representation that you do… All this means that maybe you’ve given them something to think about, and that changes them. And remember this: you will never have a first book tour again. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

In Order to Live: Story Structure in the Horoscopic Style

In the late 12th century, the father of teenage Leonardo Fibonacci takes him off the North African streets and sets him at the feet of gruff Arab tutors. They can’t help it -- they like the kid, who they can tell is going to be a nightmare until they agree to teach him the Art of Nine Symbols. Back in Pisa, Fibonacci discovers an axiomatic sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). The corresponding ratio describes the pleasing spiral he’s been staring at all day -- it just looks right. Eight hundred years later, a creative-writing student drafting a story is told it might help to draw its plot. And there it is. (See figure A.) Structure Here come the metaphors. John McPhee compares writing a story to prepping a meal, and to the gathering -- crystallizing -- of salt underground. His essay, “Structure,” traces the Continental Divide, pulls on “chronological drawstrings,” and knits the presumed narrative scarf from the “threads” everyone keeps talking about. McPhee encourages students to diagram a story as “a horizontal line with loops above and below it to represent the tangents along the storyline, a circle with lines shooting out of it that denote narrative pathways” (See Figure B.) The rhetorical free-for-all disguises the wide influence of the gist -- the anatomy of storytelling. Speaking of stories, “the shape of the curve is what matters,” says Kurt Vonnegut. Whereas Gustav Freytag’s muse was, sadly, a triangle, the sign and symbol of Fibonacci-McPhee is more like a map. But they’re manifestations of the same idea: of stories seeking, building, bending like a river, or anyways conceived of less as an appeal to a reader than as science-ish fieldwork. This definition of structure -- indeed any definition of it -- begs the question: What if structure is not that geometric or quite so cosmic or even, according to an au courant diagnosis, “televisual?” What if structure consists of questions themselves and not strictly the objects of those questions with which plotting is synonymous: A dead body. An excess of suitors. “A fully armed and operational battle station.” Stories posit a teller in the service of the told, who are now able to, if they must, rate that service with a fractional number of stars. But the novel especially is a kind of hopeless democracy of two. An author and a reader staring at the same machine -- the same story -- not sure if and when it worked. Two privileged children -- serialized TV and narrative nonfiction -- have done so well for themselves that they should have laid the framework bare. But an erudite incoherence about structure is the rule. One thing for sure is that structure’s an anxiety, about a better way to tell a story, and surer proof of our discernment -- that we get it. And so the idea of order in nature settles the nerves. The golden spiral is in the leaves, in shells -- in stories? The Fibonacci-McPhee Sequence Early on in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire there’s a transition in point of view, from William -- scion, dilettante, and ex-singer in a punk band -- to a blank-slate teen, Charlie, as he removes from its sleeve “the first Ex Post Facto LP from ’74.” This raised my hackles -- though perhaps I should admit to having the quick-trigger hackles of someone with too many bookmarks in too many novels, not to mention paused places in the middle of episode three of season two, etc. Along with the ambitious size of the book, the coincidences of City on Fire have been well scrutinized: “…overstuffed with characters, and the lines of action uniting them fray to the point of breaking;” “overuse of chance discoveries of buried evidence.” There’s a wariness about what exactly the novel’s up to, despite the fact that just a little later it more or less tells you. In what is either a cool nod to, or a hearty embrace of, genre convention, Charlie’s crush, Samantha Cicciaro, is mysteriously shot. But thereafter the book occupies itself less with whodunit than with the shots’ sound waves ringing out into the night, washing over 10 other characters and, in a quantum-mechanical whisper, telling them that no one is alone. City on Fire is a needle threaded between conventional plotting and ambitious “structure.” It finds itself among contemporary novels exhibiting an inflated sense of connection -- storytelling in a kind of horoscopic style. It’s always been an odd thing to chalk up to a matter of belief: that one reader’s definition of a story is to another not a story at all. In a twist you would have never seen coming, “narrative architecture” becomes our term for what’s not necessarily there. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. -- Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science” We have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about structure. The following terms were used to describe the structure of narratives bearing the mark of horoscopic style (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, City on Fire, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s TV adaptation Game of Thrones): “stereoscopic,” “televisual,” “kaleidoscopic,” “unfilmable” -- at least before the film. These structures were “non-linear,” “multi-head,” “multi-thread,” “rhizomatic,” “fragmented” -- this last appearing so often that I had to wonder just what constitutes whole, homogeneous storytelling. What was it about these structures that was so “innovative” and “experimental?” Or, for that matter, “soap operatic” and “ruthless?” To wit, Cloud Atlas is defined by “mapping” and “maplessness.” Its structure is “cool.” Here’s what happens: The novel’s five story lines culminate palindromically in one central section before the stories pick up in reverse order in the second half of the book (A, B, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, A). But that’s not what’s happening. Circumstantially, the story lines are connected by a birthmark, and, thematically, by music. The Five Narratives are also connected by the fact that Mitchell wrote them impeccably and, in accordance with genre, faithfully. It is said that the author pulled it off by “immersing himself in the different narratives one at a time, even keeping them in different ‘folders.’” Here is structure conflated with something more like process -- the scout’s knot tying oneself to a chair. The story is a function of the author’s method of organizing for himself. McPhee describes his own use of Nabokovian note cards: “Then I move the cards around to see where I’m going to find a good structure, a legitimate structure.” It seems fair to ask: Who’s immersing whom here? Shall we perhaps hold each part of the story and think about whether or not it brings us joy? These are the perils of “world-building.” A Game of Thrones episode marks time by cutting to each of its story lines, from Winterfell to Meereen, ne’er betraying a particular imperative to move the story in any direction but between. There’s a similar call-sheet structure to A Visit from the Goon Squad (the aforementioned rhizome); in her review, Sarah Churchwell sums up horoscopic style quite nicely: Egan’s vision of history and time is also decidedly, and perhaps reassuringly, cyclical: the impacts these characters have upon each other are engineered not by coincidence but by connectedness itself, as the people we bump against and bang into become the story of our lives. Not coincidentally, here is how Hallberg describes his intrepid journalist character: “A receiver. A connector. A machine made exactly for this.” Let us remember our Borges: that absolutely accurate “Map of the Empire” is torn to faded shreds, except, perhaps, where it showed us those places we’d put down our novels. Granted, these books are in almost every way excellent; Egan, Mitchell, and Hallberg are genius naturalists. Capable of invoking anything -- any clipper ship or anxiety or rhododendron. But that kind of genius can be difficult to distinguish from a painterly need to get into the corners of the frame. Structure should be instrumental to a thing’s use; a handle for the writer’s talent. And yet the imperial cartographer’s exactitude somehow became a suitable answer for how to keep a reader in thrall. These novels have been praised for, among other things, ambition, inventiveness, and that they are, but what connects them more than anything else is that they’re romantic about structure. The least we could do is to stop insisting that we’re all referring to the same thing. Which is, generally, convention. Structure is nearly synonymous with aiming for the cheap seats of genre, where the detective and the wizard and the submissive sit together and watch the game. We’ve come to regard suspense as a market force -- an outline in chalk with which to take ingenious exception. And so we’re flush with cool hybrids. MacArthur fellows take on zombies; Ursula K. Le Guin gatekeeping Kazuo Ishiguro; a market for post-apocalypse in full bloom. But whenever much attention is paid to exceptions to the rule, one can only assume the rules are very clear. I’m speaking of genre, but also rent. Writing to market or furiously curating a social media platform are seen as considerations on the level of food on the table. A cottage industry in semi-pro writing has met popular -- and extremely earnest -- demand. In this sense, horoscopic style is both product and allergy to the “tools” of the craft industry; links to a “weak verb converter;” intensive three-day seminars for the low, low price of $995 for tuition and Final Draft software. If our entertainments were piles of San Andrean rubble, wouldn’t we know? Perhaps, but structure has a way of passing itself off as an answer to the very question it presents -- it’s what works. “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages,” McPhee writes. And the other way? “Listeners, we are currently fielding numerous reports that books have stopped working.” -- Welcome to Night Vale, “Station Management” “Fiction is the posing of narrative questions,” is actually something the writer David Lipsky has said aloud on multiple occasions. Lipsky teaches a class of singular usefulness, from which I basically repeat back lessons in a dazed monotone. Men call him Lipsky, and women call him David. We were of one mind to get a good seat, and another to duck and scribble. In class, Lipsky calls on people, a barbaric pedagogic practice literally frowned upon by most of us, and what’s more, there was a preponderance of correct answers -- never a drawing. The idea was that story -- or, synonymously -- structure, is no more and no less than to ask the reader leading questions in the hopes of interesting them. Of a given character -- will she or won’t she be fired, loved, caught, absolved? In the end, the class was approximately half Immunes, with the other half wearing white smocks sporting one of David’s terms of art printed in bold: withheld data. No one likes to be asked what the story’s about. But Lipsky was never referring to the about of the abstract painting or the period of the historical novel. Nothing was an allegory of post-whatsit America. He meant: a girl is trying to fit in at a private school. Or: those letters were forged. And once the story’s little knife is stowed, and a quorum had nodded or squinted or furrowed, he would say ask us to make an annotation in the margin: If a particular story, once begun, should find itself resolved, another story has to take the baton. Now and then I’ll read a novel by a writer who seems to have bought in. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel in two -- the technical term here would be “parts.” Groff sets up the reader for any number of things -- matriarchs withholding approval; a million-dollar bet on the marriage of an implausibly successful playwright to an “Ice queen from nowhere.” Readers will note the use of brackets. Nowhere-ian royalty Mathilde is “pretending to be faithful. [perhaps not].” Groff has referred to these bracketed asides as a “Greek chorus,” but what they are really is an efficient method of opening up dramatic-ironic gaps -- questions. “She couldn’t know, he thought. [She did!]” Ironically it’s the alternatives to “narrative architecture” that can seem a little bloodless and technical. Structure, to George Saunders, consists of “tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply.” These being tools at anyone’s disposal, no matter how inconveniently literary. After all, there are high stakes in life as it is ordinarily lived, which is to say, pitched anxiously between desire and embarrassment. A story that works makes room for the possibility that it won’t. “It wouldn’t have to be good,” says the imperious, soon-wedded older sister in Rebecca Curtis’s “The Toast.” It just “needs to be appropriate.” And yet there are some of us who wouldn’t be caught dead using a “tool.” We might keep it in the drawer by the bed, but what writer told to tell their story, find their own voice -- “in order to live” -- would want to feed it through “clunky machinery.” Who Cares? Case Studies About Star Wars: The Force Awakens, critics had 8, 10, 11, 18, 32, 43, and 77 “questions,” 6 of which were of the “big” variety, 11 of which were size “huge.” And 7, 15, 17, and 25 questions had gone exasperatingly “Unanswered.” Question in this context means “plot hole,” of which 5, 9, 40 (and “20 more” on top of that) were “unforgivable.” Admittedly, some of the enumerated are more like inconsistencies -- does one need a map to reach coordinates in space? -- but many of these questions are entirely intentional plot devices. Where is Luke Skywalker? gets you the movie. Rey’s parentage gets you all three. To be clear, the notable equivalence here is between functional storytelling and the galling lack thereof. It’s hard to say just how this happens, but there might be a clue on the white smock, a variation on the lover’s quarrel: What’s the difference between not telling and a lie? One more case study from the relevant world: Serial. When it became clear that a radio documentary had become a blockbuster, that people loved this murder, Sarah Koenig, it seems, felt herself painted into an ethical corner. Here she is, bristling at the notion of enacting “suspense,” with the NYT Magazine’s question in bold: But the podcast is a hybrid of journalism and entertainment. You have a lot of information, and it seems you’ve structured it for maximum suspense. I don’t think that’s fair…To us, it didn’t feel that different from a really long magazine story or -- you know, any story that you would take care in structuring. In the very first episode, Koenig describes Adnan Syed ’s mild manner -- he doesn’t seem like a vicious psychopath. “I know, I’m an idiot,” says Koenig, her tone pitched to effective self-deprecation. Koenig knows that 12 podcast episodes won’t decide whether in fact evil is human or inhuman. (Not even Janet Malcolm knows: “The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil -- it is merely a restatement of the mystery.”) If not “suspense,” Koenig admits to “structuring.” But this distinction doesn’t hold up to scrutiny -- not that I question whatsoever Koenig’s integrity. Actually, Serial is too good, and too intelligently structured for her to have a leg to stand on. “I’m an idiot” is a play for identification. (“Silly me.” -- Season Two.) This line -- about looking into Adnan’s big brown eyes -- is right there in the script where, perhaps, there could have been a breakdown of cell-phone tower data (and after a useful delay of an episode or two, a questioning of its accuracy). I have little doubt about which was the better choice. When David Remnick asks Koenig about her method, she says, “I think I’m trying to convey that you can trust me because I’ve done my homework.” And in this sentiment, she sounds a lot like David Lipsky (“Bond with your reader. Tell them honest things.”). This trust is also a kind of structuring -- I know, I’m an idiot. But there are a lot of stories out there, and we tend to pick the one that looks us in the eye and asks, maybe a little preposterously, Can I tell you a secret? Koenig is then asked about decisions she made with Serial’s decidedly unpatented voice. Co-producer Julie Snyder levels with her after an unsatisfying cut: Edit after edit after edit…“It’s not working…It’s not good. I need to know what you -- Sarah Koenig -- make of all this. Otherwise I don’t care. I don’t know why you’re telling me all this...You need to make me care.” I was quite uncomfortable with that initially, but then I realized…That’s the thing that’s going to make you listen to the stuff I think is important. If that sounds a lot like “Keep your eye on the ball,” you’re not wrong. But rest assured that our culture-making class hadn’t even thought of the ball much less kept an eye on it. (See: testaments to their confidence approximately everywhere you look.) Koenig’s discomforted by the idea that making someone else care is indistinguishable from selling it to them. To name just a few of the principled stands against Caring What Anyone Else Thinks: morning pages and the art-therapy discipline; The Compulsive’s Way -- simply not being able to stop; “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” or art as vocation (“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present.” -- Elena Ferrante, not on Twitter). This has to do with one’s basic orientation as an author: Is art a means to cultivate or to reach? And if you must insist on writing, I have to ask -- just how acutely do you feel the need to be borne witness to? Because a singular question harries stories at every turn, echoing the unminced words at the Serial editing bay: What is any of this for? Inevitably, the answer occurs somewhat too late: Making someone else care is the highest commandment of structure. Which is why, after the remedial instruction, almost all of what David Lipsky does is prose tips. The theory being that thinking unapologetically in terms of setting things up and paying them off frees the writer to devote themselves otherwise to sentence-making. The syllabus, with few exceptions, is composed of those writers who can really launch ships prose-wise: David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Zadie Smith. In fact, the “system” -- would that it were my own batch of Kool-Aid -- kinda dead-ends at despairingly scintillating talent. But generally speaking that talent is not responsible for America’s mass-market mysteries on short flights; or that which manages to hit her dull and chipped funny bone; or sate her great appetite for vanilla S&M and truer detectives. A working fallacy results. Tent poles such as Game of Thrones, The Marvel Universe -- they have a kind of ideological monopoly on What happens next? But the more we accept the premise that what succeeds in the market works, the easier it is to convince ourselves that the market itself strives to give us the culture we need. [It doesn’t.] The challenge for lit is the same for our culture at large from here on: distinguishing the market’s products from actual voices. “Implausibility is part of the design.” -- Louis Menand, “The Time of Broken Windows” It’s not that Hallberg commits the ordinary fictional sin of superimposing a false meaning on his novel, which is ultimately just as believable as a line drawn to connect any one thing to another. City on Fire may be elaborately plotted, and a story richly told, but it is not given, not structured for us. Though, we can easily exaggerate the author’s sacrifice. It’s not quite walking in front of a tank; maybe more like picking up a shift. A sense of the uncanny, of a kind of empathic genius at work, is as essential an aspect of reading as structure, but most readers, I think, experience design as unforeseen plausibility. Some things do work every time. For example, I go to the physical bookstore and get the “ambitious” book over and over, like Charlie Brown when Lucy promises to hold the football but instead of a football it’s that thing when The Times runs a review by Michiko Kakutani in the daily and then another on Sunday. Tour de force in hand, I go home and read the first chapter with a sheepish sense of my own demography. Along those lines, I can imagine how refining the concept of narrative structure must seem a split-hair, just another narcissistically small difference. Dirty tomatoes and organic stories at $26/lb -- not those factory-farm stories wrapped in pink blood on a bed of Styrofoam. But in the bathwater of authenticity are plenty of real distinctions -- I’m looking at you, Texas barbecue, starting a band, and the notion of a high literature that tells “honest things.” Whenever I hear that triumphalism -- lines grayed, blurred away! -- I find myself fondly missing the clarity of differences. If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval...That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long -- long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line -- and because it is not long enough. -- Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One” This is where it seems as if I should offer some kind of agnostic politesse. Endorse a descriptivism of storytelling -- all structures are “legitimate.” Any structure that makes you happy. “You don’t choose it so much as it chooses you,” says Carmine Cicciaro, Samantha’s father. It’s always tempting to side with anti-dogmatism. But I can’t do that. Because, what if there is a moral to this story? Structure abides. Ex Machina’s key cards and power-outs; Groff’s unreliable Rashomon-esque narrators of sex after marriage. An out-of-print novelist sees a picture of Britney Spears exiting a restaurant holding a pack of cigarettes, her phone, “and then she’s got my second book.” (“Case #2: Britney”– Mystery Show.) But it is literary reporting that has pretty much become structure’s standard bearer. In Rachel Aviv’s “Where Is your Mother?”, a healthy child cries in an empty apartment, and dust plumes off the bed. “I was born overseas,” the mother says, and nothing else. In “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield,” Daniel Engber asks “What if D.J. had a private chamber in his head, a place where grown-up thoughts were trapped behind his palsy?” Story writes itself, as they say. [Nope.] Then again, a sound almost like clockwork accompanies Kathryn Schulz writing of sixth-century tsunamis, barking dogs ahead of the wave, and a number: 243. In the first few paragraphs of these stories, it feels as if inspiration taken from McPhee’s looping squiggles was only ever as important as his old-hand assurance that the storytelling principle is ethically OK in “narrative nonfiction” or where’s-the-line journalism. I’m not so worried about some moralizing theory of declining attentions spans -- our “distraction.” In fact, nothing could distract me from another form of anxiety: I desperately want to pay relentless attention to only the few, mattering things. Structure, truly evident, directs that attention. If stories are a means to tell us what you “think is important,” then by all means. The policy of bracing honesty has these lesser known clauses: that you have to figure out what most needs to be said, and why anyone should want to hear you say it. If you happen to read pop physics, there’s what’s called the “observer effect.” Any observation affects the experiment (the “collapse of the wave function” -- what happens emerges from a prior limbo of possibilities). The observer effect also applies to the question of structure and the black box of process: none of it works, because it cannot be verifiably shown to have done what it intended to do. Writing is nothing until the precise moment the reader intuits a meaning. I want to tell you something. I can draw the map. Only you can tell me if it goes anywhere. Say the word.
Essays

Screaming Notes the Human Soul Seldom Makes Audible: On Raul Brandão’s ‘The Poor’

1. Raul Brandão debuted in English a month ago without a murmur. We should welcome him with the joyful thrill of discovering a late, great Portuguese novelist heretofore unknown to the Anglo-American world. However the recent publication of The Poor also exemplifies one accidental way of hampering a foreign writer. Although the usual method involves a bad translation, Karen Sotelino gets an A from me for navigating syntactically and lexically close to the original. But what can you do with inaccurate translation of context? According to Dalkey Archive Press, this is “a powerful tribute to the underclasses” and an exposé of the “economic situation in Portugal.” How unexciting: Portugal’s first Modernist novelist downgraded to a turn-of-the-century social realist fiction pamphleteer. DAP could have found more suitable candidates among his contemporaries. Now, bad translations can’t be salvaged, only scraped and rewritten, but let’s see if we can correct Brandão’s haphazard labeling. In the first chapter, the unnamed narrator introduces several people living in a derelict tenement building: a group of prostitutes and thieves; Senhor José, a pallbearer; the unemployed Gebo, his wife and daughter, Sofia; and Gabiru, “a solitary philosopher, slender, as sad as a funeral, and armed with the most formidable and strangest of wisdom in God’s creation.” After this general introduction the plotless narrative dissolve into a series of vignettes about pain, abjection, futility, and hope. Beyond this it’s risky to make strong claims about the novel’s point since Brandão was a very undisciplined, contradictory thinker who wrote from intuition. When he published The Poor in 1906, Portugal had surrendered to Naturalism since José Maria de Eça de Queirós had introduced it in 1874 with The Crime of Father Amaro. In the 1890s, the nation experienced constant political turmoil due to a faltering economy and the rise of the Republican Party, which was hellbent on overthrowing the monarchy, through revolutionary means if necessary (as it happened in 1910). Novelists moved away from excoriating the bourgeois like Eça to depicting the squalid conditions the poor and working classes lived in. Animated by a pamphleteering militancy Eça had always wisely avoided, these propaganda-minded novelists, the majority safely forgotten nowadays, turned literature into a weapon against the crown. In Brandão’s novel we catch glimpses of this shift away from the bourgeoisie to the lumpens in the way he chronicles Gebo’s job-searching daily routine, his wife’s death, his debilitating disease, and Sofia prostituting herself as the household’s breadwinner. Even Brandão’s prominent and compassionate use of prostitutes, a topic Portuguese literature had barely addressed before him, sprang from these circumstances. This, however, is as far as Brandão goes in paying his dues to his time’s littérature engagée. As a journalist, Brandão certainly followed with interest “the economic situation in Portugal,” but this means little to his characters. Too busy taking beatings to read their Karl Marx, the prostitutes, with typical Portuguese passiveness, blame their condition on that blameless entity known as fate; as the morose prostitute Mouca declares, “It’s all over! We’ve all got to suffer!” Gebo is ideal material to join a union and start distributing leaflets, perhaps speak at rallies, but parties are as remote from him as he is from securing a decent pension, and he doesn’t have the leisure to form a political consciousness because he devotes every second to looking for work. Afraid that Sofia will starve, he is goaded by his wife who shouts at him, “Just go out and steal! Steal!”, while regretting to himself, “I’ve been so honest.” As for Gabiru, this “tragic figure, laughing daily along with thieves and soldiers,” is the only one with studies and time to reflect about his own condition, but he’s a useless, inconsistent Dostoyevskian intellectual devising a slipshod philosophical system not even he probably understands in full: He was born to dream. He sighs with relief as he locks himself away in the garret, crying out, “I’m going to think…!” He knows words and theories and has read huge old tomes, yet he’s never seen the rivers and mountains before his very eyes, nor the trees. He delves into profound ideas and has never known reality. Although Brandão, the son of poor fishermen, showed enormous tenderness in his fiction and non-fiction for the downtrodden, he goes beyond poverty as a socio-political cause and uses it to sketch a diffuse theory of suffering as a redemptive virtue and the engine of beauty, creativity, and meaning. “Why were these outcasts born? They wake up defeated, to scrounge, to cry out for scraps of bread, to rest again only in their graves. A dreamless road, that’s their bitter lot: fatigue, humiliation, and hunger,” says the narrator. Lines later he asks, “Why does God create them?” This question obsessed Brandão from 1906 until his death in 1930. Dialogues, allegories, and ruminations lead to a constant refinement of why pain exists and what justifies existence. His prostitutes may resign themselves to fatality, but Brandão saw certainty as an adversary. The novel whirls around the same questions repeatedly like a paleographer trying to decipher hieroglyphs in the hopes of finding valuable knowledge from beyond. Thus, instead of acting like a novelist who builds a plot organically, he carefully constructed his vignettes like a lab scientist devises experiments to validate a hypothesis. This runs the risk of making the narrative monotonous, but it’s also this monomaniac forcefulness that opens up new regions in humanness like an earthquake revealing priceless ruins. Instead of self-analyzing themselves, the characters live beholden to what in Brandão’s oeuvre is ambiguously called the “Dream,” an unsystematised idea that can be likened to the hope that keeps one going, a belief in improvement. “For dregs,” we’re told, “Dreams are the sole form of reality.” Only Gabiru, long considered the author’s alter ego, puts forth an explanation for the existence of pain. He lacks the restful mind conducive to the routine of acceptance the prostitutes and Gebo dull their doubts with. Gabiru thinks like a poet for whom the “splendor of nature” remains a daily novelty: “I cannot get used to it. Every morning it’s as if I were to find myself before monstrous nature for the first time -- gold, green, and blue like her rivers, forests, and roaring ocean.” In this pantheistic worldview, humans are one with the universe and their atoms spin in a cosmic dance of rearrangements. By retaining this gift to allow the world to surprise him, he seems to put up with the burden of existence better. But even if the works of nature resonate with “the words of Him who preaches into the infinite,” at times God also seems like a mere excuse, like the whores’ fatalism. As the narrator says of the poor: “Throughout infinity, it is on their pain that God thrives.” Furthermore, Gabiru’s sense of wonder at the universe comes with the price of constant anxiety; if everything amazes him, he can never convert reality into the ordinary sustenance that allows one to function in society. Even though he thinks he’s found answers, his inquisitiveness smacks of despair. Some chapters contain nothing but his writings’ loose scraps exalting pain: “In order for something radiant to burst forth from matter, what is needed? An ocean of tears.” For him only “suffering creatures are worthy of life, and in reality they are the only ones that live.” Brandão did not accept Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that suffering was useless but turned it into the catalyst that propels development, especially in the arts: To create, one must suffer. It has always been true and remains so, only pain gives life to inanimate things. With a chisel and an inert tree trunk, wondrous works are created, if the sculptor has suffered. Furthermore, with words and lost sounds, with immaterial objects another miracle is possible: to make laughter and dreams, to cause the shedding of tears among other creatures. With the simple, dry letters of the alphabet, some miserable person of genius, immersed in hidden water, builds something eternal, more beautiful and solid than if materials were wrenched from the heart of mountains. Unsurprisingly, love here is equated with self-abnegation and meek endurance: Gebo only ceases to seek a job, to feed his daughter, when his body breaks down; Sofia in turn prostitutes herself to support him through his ailment; Mouca, after slapping Sofia for envying her, asks her to slap her back “so I’ll know you’re my friend;” and Gabiru, in love with Mouca, who does not reciprocate, puts up with the other tenants’ just to be with her. Still, the narrator’s cynical asides always sully this picture of virtue. Of the tenants he says, with a subtle dark humor that runs through the book, “Stray dogs are happier, and trees, incomparably so.” 2. If the metaphysical aspects of the novel should captivate anyone looking for a serious meditation about the human condition, how about knowing that Brandão is also renowned in Portugal for opening up new novelistic possibilities? In the 20th century, he’s to the Portuguese novel what Fernando Pessoa is to its poetry. José Saramago counted him amongst his favorite writers. He’s been lauded as precursor of everything, from Existentialism to the nouveau roman. Although it sounds improbable that in 2016 there are still great Modernist writers left to discover, Brandão has the same importance Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce have in their respective languages. Beginning with his first novel, he started imploding the Naturalist novel, inventing a personal form that, though largely ignored in his lifetime, would posthumously influence future generations. For instance, he had little regard for rounded characterization. Practically no character has a backstory or a full personality; they’re almost mere voices, or puppets moaning on stages in front of crowds.  “Nary a one talks about her past,” says the narrator about the prostitutes, “in fear of scorn, but they hold it inside, never forgetting.” But then again it’s “always the same story, eternal humus kneaded with tears. They know they were born to suffer and are resigned to it: dregs are necessary.” Childhood, in the novel’s logic, shows up only as a conduit of pain. The Poor also shattered the uniform perspective of the novels of its time. Using short chapters, Brandão shifts from third to first person, sometimes even within paragraphs. Some chapters don’t have clear narrators, demanding that the reader identify the speaker. Not to mention there’s a narrator who seems to simultaneously live inside and outside the narrative, sometimes a tenant, at other times omniscient. He also got rid of plot, and by extension of time. It’s not really a matter of time being fragmentary, like in Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner, but of time barely existing since the characters, like insects in amber, are immobile. The action does not progress in a straight arrow but grows, like a wall of bricks, by the accretion of identical layers of humiliation and anguish one upon the other, until it’s big and wide enough to block all sunshine. And even if Dalkey has linked the author’s time and place to the themes he dealt with, nothing in the novel really screams Portugal. Thirty years before him, Eça busied himself putting in his pages a Lisbon nowadays still intact for tourists to selfie it. But Brandão’s novel takes place in an opaque limbo of torment, in wherever people withstand futile martyrdom. References to a shared external reality are so rare as to be grating when come across: Baron Rothschild; François de La Rochefoucauld; Hamlet; Sir John Falstaff; the Portuguese currency at the time, the real; the poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage; the Republican Party; Don Quixote; and Brazil. By my count that’s all that identifies the book’s world as possibly ours. It’s a far cry from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin and John dos Passos’s New York. The only contemporary with a higher disregard for a sense of place was Kafka. Brandão’s Modernism, however, was more instinctive than planned, an inner necessity rather than a deliberate intention to shack up with the zeitgeist. He had no axes to grind with the past. Pessoa burst in 1915 with a loud magazine called Orpheu thundering his alignment with several avant-garde movements burning through Europe, basking in his own cosmopolitism, and judging his predecessors inferior. Brandão, 20 years older, stayed in his corner, minding himself, provincially averse to manifestos and doctrines. In 1921, his friend and poet Augusto Casimiro noted down his indifference to his contemporaries. Only “Stavrogin’s Confession,” the unpublished chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, discovered in November of that year, galvanized him. He shared with him the psychological intensity, the philosophical skirmishes, the reduction of characters into living ideas, the absurd, and the pity for the downtrodden. (Crime and Punishment had been serialized in Portugal in 1897.) But Brandão couldn’t abhor another writer’s language and structure, and so he gradually divested himself of what he saw as artificial in literature in order to allow himself to communicate without rhetorical distortions. In effect his novels became less dramatic and more monological, in order perhaps, as Gabiru writes, “To allow my whole universe to speak, allow all that is inside me preach in its hoarse voice.” Elsewhere our unhinged philosopher writes that there is no inanimate thing “that does not have a voice and that does not make its confession.” The sermon and the confession: one-way modes of speech, centered upon the self and, one presumes, more authentic. Brandão wanted his own system to externalize what existed only inside him. Since literariness, for him, obfuscated the self, his search for individualistic expression implied paring his language down to a slapdash style. This is most obvious in his use of repetition, in particular the repetition of a vocabulary consistent from novel to novel: tree, river, pain, cry, ludicrous, humus, root, water, scream, dream. The word “moonlight” shows up seven times on page 119. Before reading Sotelino’s translation, I worried about this; too often translators confuse repetition with sloppiness, and their urge is to prettify the prose. Milan Kundera once complained about the translators who had made Kafka’s prose more literary because they couldn’t accept simplicity in such a great writer. But repetition is one of Brandão’s trademarks, the consequence of his obsessively inhabiting one theme during a lifetime; and so Sotelino is to be commended for having kept the oftentimes tedious lexicon instead of succumbing to synonyms. You can tell she paid attention when you can find whole sentences repeated: “The sister would kiss and caress me…”, “He stirs the embers of his ideas and he’s never looked life in the face.” The Pallbearer’s “hoarse, raspy chest” shows up twice, as does Gebo’s daily search for some “measly spare change.” Not even chapter titles are spared (“Gebo’s Story” and “Gabiru’s Philosophy” appear each in four chapters). But the book’s most notorious repetition is in its use of natural imagery. For instance there’s a gigantic river metaphor that engulfs the novel from the opening paragraph on: Like a mysterious wave rolling in from some unknown ocean, it begins to rain. A sweet sound, that of the rain. Recalling so many things, lost and sad! At first the soaked earth swells, and when it bursts there’s a rush so torrential, the rocks are left glistening. It plows through the earth, exposing roots, dragging humus through the deluge along with dried leaves, dead animals, rocky dregs all swirling together, then dissolving, stirring into the foamy water, headed to the unknown. Such is life. A river of moaning, tears, and mystery. A murky wave exposes the deepest roots, as a torrential rush engulfs all disgrace and laughter, relentlessly dragging this human humus up to some shore, where the filthy hands of the suffering finally find another helping hand; where their exhausted, tearful eyes are amazed before an eternal dawn, and where dreams are made real… This metaphor then breaks up into tributaries that flow into the narrative. We see water as life, “Life for you was like clear running water through the hands of one of those statues you see in the fountains.” But its flux is also a symbol of death, mixing decayed matter, “Leaves from trees, things rotting in the shadows wanted to join the eternal flood.” Likewise, we read that this “question of death, although present since time immemorial, terrifies us like a huge river bringing ideas, explanations, and theories to the surface.” Water sates but it’s also the aforementioned “ocean of tears.” People drown in envy, “The others, sensing he was still happy, dragged him down, like the drowning do to those trying to save them.” Finally, the river is the duality of life itself that can’t be resolved: “All rivers, like all lives, eventually flow into the great ocean of beauty. The existence of humble, simple creatures is like a current -- of water or tears, but always clear. Anger, ambition, self-interest make life murky, like swirling dirt makes water dirty.” That this extended metaphor cascades so crystalline down the novel is a testament to Sotelino’s craftsmanship. Although he lacks the pyrotechnics of António Lobo Antunes, Brandão’s simple sentences, especially Gabiru’s aphorisms -- “If nature creates monsters, it is because they are necessary, like a cleansing abscess.” -- first startle me with their unexpected strangeness, then enthrall me with their conviction of truthfulness. Brandão’s demand for precision reflects itself in the characters’ struggle with language itself. Several remark upon how words hinder them. “Up in a garret, the Pallbearer wants to say, ‘I love you!’ but he has always been so crude he does not know how to say what he feels.” One character says of another, “She barely knows how to express herself. Their talk is like stones communicating, two beings rolling together along in the same huge wave of life, by chance.” And an unnamed voice blurts at one point: “I don’t know how to tell the story, what words can narrate an existence that is like a discarded rag, soaked in tears.” “All words seem worn and withered” to Gabiru, as incapable of connecting with others as of “coming up with a new language, a language like that of the springs, that of the trees at the onset of March, to tell you how I feel,” which in theory will let him attain a clearer order of closeness above ordinary speech. For him this language is nature itself and man was just “born so that everything may have a mouth.” The problem, of course, is that when men speak, the expression comes out muddled. Gabiru is no wiser than anyone else. A refrain in the novel denounces everybody’s ignorance. “Gebo did not understand life,” the narrator says; later he adds, “As it was, Sofia knew nothing about life.” According to Gabiru, Mouca, “who knows nothing, tumbling along like a rock in a deluge, will discover the extraordinary dream.” But then, “Gabiru does not understand existence” either. Even the unnamed narrator confesses in the first pages, “I’m poor and wary, and know nothing of life, but I’m a prince.” Not understanding life, real life, is akin to not living, which is why Gabiru wants to awake “the emotion inside, so that you can say, ‘I have lived!’” The greatest danger, to the characters, more than physical violence and penury, is the realization of a misused life. Meaninglessness is Gabiru’s and the author’s terror. Brandão’s repetition stemmed from his loyalty to disharmony. He never found an answer to his existentialist crisis that could satisfy him, so he kept asking the same question, hoping that in one of the many variations of his lifelong enquiry he’d find one explanation that soothed him. His reasoning never walked straight lines; instead it made detours through doubt and returned to the starting point. Having read nearly all his fiction, I can’t hide the suspicion that he wrote himself into a philosophical cul-de-sac. But watching him try to decipher the invisible is still a grand spectacle for the many moments when he pulls the words’ nerves with pliers to hear them scream notes the human soul seldom likes to make audible.
Essays

What Percival Everett’s ‘Erasure’ Can Tell Us about Authenticity

When I first read Percival Everett’s Erasure, it was assigned to me by Gregory Pardlo. Years removed from his Pulitzer Prize, Pardlo was a professor in Hunter College teaching “Multicultural Literature,” a course as challenging and thought-provoking as the man himself. For an entire semester, Pardlo (lovingly) demanded that we see the error of labeling creative works as “Asian” or “Black;” he told us that ascribing a culture with homogeneous traits does not empower the people lashed to said traits, that the authors who peddle this work are reinforcing, unconsciously or not, the foundations of institutional racism. Shuffled between Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, I opened up the pages of Erasure and was immediately annotating line after line, scribbling in the margins, folding pages for future reference.  Everett posed a question that remains unanswered 15 years later, although the argument is louder, or more visible, than ever: Who is qualified to write about underrepresented communities? What is the “authentic black voice?” In Erasure, we follow the absurd life of Thelonious Ellison, or Monk, as he’s known: a protagonist whose biggest, fiercest antagonists are his own intelligence and boredom. A writer, Monk is told throughout his life -- by black and white constituents -- that he is “not black enough:” I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads. Though he shares his name with two African-American artists, Monk tries to distance himself from what passes as African-American art in the present day. Existing in a world of his own, Monk is constantly reminded that he is “different,” even within his own family; his writing hinges so close to his own interests and intrinsic intellect that it comes across as alien. Monk’s own father tells him when he’s young: 'You have a special mind. The way you see things. If I had the patience to figure out what you were saying sometimes, I know you'd make me a smarter man.' While Monk’s intelligence and overall awkwardness seems to barely keep him afloat both in his writing career and academia, he begins to notice that another writer is benefiting from public ignorance. Throughout the story, Monk is forced to confront the success of We Lives in the Ghetto, a fictional book written by Juanita Mae Jenkins, which is lauded by critics and owes its success through its inclusion of prostitution, underage pregnancy, and violence. This has earned the book the reputation of epitomizing what one review calls the “experience which is and can only be Black America.” Monk sees Juanita -- an allusion to Sapphire, the author of Push, and others of her ilk -- as the embodiment of everything that he feels is wrong with cultural classification in the literary world. Everett lays out the two major pitfalls of navigating author authenticity. The first deals with the stress writers of color deal when navigating their own narratives. Pushed to the brink, Monk pens My Pafology, a book triple stuffed with every stereotype imaginable (its chapters are titled “Won,” “Too,” “Free,” “Fo”) and ships it off to the publisher. He aims for the manuscript to be so emphatically rejected, for it to completely insult every person who turns its pages that Monk can then point to it as proof that the black experience in America is not universal. He banks on these people in power, the Gatekeepers of the publishing world, being able to identify his obvious dishonesty. He wants to be found a liar. But of course, My Pafology become regarded as an opus of the African-American experience. As his own personal narrative unravels, Monk accepts the book deal as the offer price soars, and even dresses up to pose as the walking stereotype and author of My Pafology, Stagg R. Lee. By becoming the writer he hates, Monk becomes an extension of the industry bigotry he was intending to fight. By this time, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the man whose name calls back to icons of African American art and culture, vanishes, erasing himself while attempting to fit the model he is forced into. Everett paints the people in the publishing world and academic circles, who aid Monk in his self-immolation, as completely out of touch with reality. They are imbecilic, cartoonishly naive. In the current literary world, there are failsafes built into the process of publication to manage author authenticity, although they are not absolute. We can plan parades for the new emerging voices, but a James Frey or, more recently, a Michael Derrick Hudson will come around to disrupt the common order. Hudson found himself sitting on a poem which had been rejected (on his count) 40 times by publishers. So he changed the name -- not of the poem, but his own. Michael Derrick Hudson became Yi-Fen Chou and now Chou’s poem, “The Bees, the Followers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” quickly found itself published and honored in the Best American Poetry Anthology of 2015. The editor of that year’s poetry selection was none other than Sherman Alexie who, in an explanation for his selection of Chou’s (or Hudson’s) work, laid out the credentials for his process. While these included specifics such as not selecting work from friends and not factoring in a poet’s larger body of work, there were two rules that helped Hudson become our real-life Monk. Alexie made the decision to pay special attention to underrepresented demographics, namely women and people of color. There is nothing wrong with an editor’s choice to strictly follow these rules, and it’s commendable to hear that a person in Alexie’s position is being especially sensitive to the disenfranchised. But as David Orr points out in his New York Times coverage of the scandal, Alexie’s selection process reveals inherent holes in gauging authenticity. No matter what his intent was, he admitted to using a standard with very poor checks in place for success, which was exactly the fallacy practiced by the editors and publishers who greenlighted Stagg R. Lee. It is in these moments in which those who prepare to combat bias begin by performing a bias of their own, and this is the trap Alexie set his bed on. As Orr explains: The problem, as the Yi-Fen Chou case demonstrates, is that this accommodation can be a tricky business when our ideas about excellence in poems collide with our ideas about the worthiness of poets. This exposes a major flaw in artistic perception in publishing. In Erasure, everyone is fooled by Stagg R. Lee. And while Monk wrote My Pafology (whose title he later shortens just to Fuck) to fly in the face of convention -- standing as a big fiery middle finger towards an establishment that he feels seeks to earn a profit by deciding which voices are heard and which are silenced -- this plan backfires when the established “Gatekeepers” in publishing failed to get the joke. If anything, the Hudson/Chou debacle proves that even though we are now more intensely sensitive to issues of race and class, if a man is able to take the place of a more deserving writer with a simple Word document name change, this system is as flawed as what was already in place. So what is different from the world Erasure shows us and our world now? If we can’t depend on the morals of the writer or the objectivity of the editors and publishers, how do we navigate the shoals of the authenticity debate? When Erasure was published, the power and reach of the Internet were vastly different from today. Reddit and Twitter have become socially acceptable places to air grievances and watch them either garner support or get ripped apart. The comments section of articles are modern-day gladiator arenas wherein combatants thrash their opponents, helmets of anonymity firmly fastened. It is in these arenas, ones which were basically absent in the world Monk inhabited, that a parallel set of Gatekeepers has grown in voice and influence. Now everyone can afford a soapbox. And while, the result is not always productive, there has been no greater time than now for social injustices to come to light with relative immediacy. A perfect recent example is the publication of the book Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, which has garnered attention primarily because of the glowing write-up it received in The New York Times. The story follows the journey of Victor (at some points also known as Jim): a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter of other slaves against the backdrop of a United States that never abolished slavery. Winters is not a stranger to retooling history for his narratives (his Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was popular amongst some critics for its conceit in the “mashup” genre), and novels involving slavery are not uncommon -- many have surfaced in the last year. But critics took issue with the fact that Winters, a white author, is not only writing about slavery but also choosing to carry the voice and perspective of a black man. In the Times write-up (by Alexandra Alter), Lev Grossman is quoted as praising Winters for being “fearless.” Meanwhile, the book, ahead of its release, has already landed a television deal. The backlash on social media was instantaneous. The primary question was why a white man writing about slavery in the skin of a black man constituted as a “fearless” act. Winters explained that his goal was to make literal the idea that “slavery is still with us” (which prompted the follow-up question, “With whom, exactly?”). But what also has people troubled is the fact that a white author felt himself “prepared” to write about the volatile subject matter of slavery by studying black pieces of literature. While you can be sure that Winters did “read and reread literary classics by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston,” to help place himself in context, many people cited this as a perfect example of how white privilege pervades publishing. Yet this immediate public reaction is the beauty of our current culture. This is what Everett was missing in Erasure. And yes, while I tell my classes that if everyone is shouting, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands, the actual amount of progress during a debate is limited -- there is still something valuable in the opportunity for a variety of voices to weigh in. While working on the first draft of this essay, my first contribution to The Millions was published. My wife tapped me later that night and asked, “Have you read what’s happening in the comments section?” Reluctantly, I scrolled through what had become a fairly complicated discussion. While the posts began with a severe thrashing of Paul Beatty’s work, the topic of author authenticity immediately came up. By the time I read the last comment, the discussion had covered opinions on Beatty’s intended audience and relative merits, misunderstandings that were quickly clarified, and recommendations for authors and music that handled the topic better. What excited me the most was that the comments even delved into my current fascination with author authenticity. With a quick scroll of the page, questions arose regarding the standards of gatekeepers within the African-American literary community. One even went as far to state that, much like Monk himself, Beatty was both the self-aware victim having to cater to a low-set bar, and a willing manifestation of the irony: a black man preaching about the limitations of his culture while shoveling a story that fails to advance the discussion in a relevant way. Sure, they weren’t able to solve the issue in 21 comments, but in having the discussion alongside the article that sparked the discussion, there was a reasonably clear exchange of ideas and ideals. It would be in this platform that My Pafology, even after clearing the first two hurdles of the author’s ethics and publishers’ close-mindedness, would have been eviscerated by avid and watchful readers. In giving us the fall of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Percival Everett was forcing us to question whether it was possible to clearly define the African-American experience in our country. The intervening 15 years have seen further missteps as we try to determine the answer. But the conversation is moved forward, however discordantly, by the new guard of people thinking about art and equality. Our world is not like Monk’s, and yes, we have the Internet to thank.
Essays, Screening Room

Comfort Objects

1. My animosity toward musicals began in my youth, when I was still in elementary school in the late 1970s. My hatred of the art form stemmed from mother’s love of it. My mother, Carmella, never watched much television and had little interest in the arts. But whenever The Sound of Music was broadcast on television, she would claim the TV set in our house. No matter how many times she had seen The Sound of Music, she would watch it again and again. Mom knew the words to all of the songs, and she would sit on the couch in the basement family room of our raised-ranch home in Rome, New York, a smile plastered on her face, her dark head bobbing to the music as she hummed or sang along to the tunes. Sometimes my father, my sister, Lisa, or I would humor Mom and watch the 1965 film with her; more often Mom watched it alone, drinking her coffee, smoking her cigarettes and munching on popcorn. But although I appreciated the talent of Julie Andrews and felt some affinity for the von Trapp family, I could never make it through a full screening of the movie. Besides being long, The Sound of Music seemed sentimental and geared toward a female audience; as a ten-year-old boy, I was more interested in watching football, baseball, Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney specials. My interest in the musical waned after the opening sequence with Andrews prancing in a meadow and belting out the title track, with the words: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” If I did sit on the couch next to Mom and attempt to watch the movie with her, I would offer commentary and make fun of the action on screen. “This is so stupid,” I would say. I couldn’t understand why the characters would be talking normally one moment and then suddenly start singing. The gazebo scene with Rolfe and Liesl presents the most annoying example of this “breaking into song.” The two meet in a park and the conversation turns to Liesl’s age. Rolfe tells Liesl, “You’re such a baby.” Liesl replies, “I’m sixteen, what’s such a baby about that?” And then Rolfe begins singing: “You wait little girl, on an empty stage, for fate to turn the light on...” Soon they are dancing inside the gazebo, their figures illuminated by a stylized lighting pattern as rain streaks the windowpanes. It seemed ridiculous to me, and my mother never explained the concept of the musical genre, the goal of telling stories and conveying emotion through dialogue, song and dance. Still, if Mom was watching the movie, I would try to stick around for the song “Maria” so I could sing along loudly, changing the lyrics to, “How do you solve a problem like Carmella?” Mom would become irate and order me out of the family room. One year my father and I escaped the noise of The Sound of Music by hiding out in our mudroom, adjacent to the family room, where we played a game of Nerf basketball while Mom tried to watch her show. But even though the door was closed, we made too much noise, our bodies brushing against the drywall as one of us drove to the rim while the other tried to block the shot. Mom hopped off the couch, marched across the room and banged on the door. “Cut it out in there,” she yelled. I don’t know why I resented the movie so much or felt compelled to disrupt her evening’s entertainment. I should have sacrificed my time and watched the film quietly with her, trying to learn from it and appreciate what Mom saw on screen; instead I made it difficult for her to enjoy the experience. I guess I couldn’t accept her need for the repeated viewing. I would argue with her about it. “Mom, you’ve seen it a million times. Why do you need to see it again?” She would only say, “Because I want to. That’s all.” I didn’t understand at the time the lure of familiar works of popular culture and the comfort they bestow. The Sound of Music touched my mother in a special way and gave her momentary pleasure. For only a few hours one night a year the film made her forget her worries about finances or her unhappy marriage to my father. I have since discovered how we often return to our favorite songs, movies and books, seeking contentment or an escape from our daily lives. For me it’s the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. I screen it every year during the Christmas season. I know all of the dialogue before it’s spoken, and my family gets annoyed with me over my repeated viewing. But just like Mom with The Sound of Music, I can’t stop myself from watching the saga of George Bailey’s frustrated existence in Bedford Falls -- no matter how many times I have seen it before. One of my favorite moments in the film comes when George proclaims to Mary Hatch (Reed): I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long. But George never left Bedford Falls, becoming trapped by having to run the Bailey Building and Loan business after the death of his father. Growing up in the small city of Rome, tucked in the Mohawk Valley in central New York state, I could relate to George’s desire to flee the provincial setting of Bedford Falls, to explore the  world and to pursue his ambitions. I recognized the same theme in Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical, coming-of-age novel Look Homeward, Angel, as the protagonist, Eugene Gant, sought to experience life beyond the hills of  Altamont, a fictionalized version of Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I carried the same urges as George and Eugene when I left Rome on a cold October morning in 1994 -- my used, silver hatchback loaded with my possessions -- and drove southbound to Florida, where I would stay with a friend of my aunt’s and search for a job in journalism or the Sunshine State’s burgeoning film industry. I had received my master’s degree in film and video a year earlier and wanted to travel the U.S. while starting my professional life. When I was a bachelor in my twenties and thirties, It’s a Wonderful Life provided emotional succor when loneliness consumed me at Christmastime; George Bailey gave me hope that it wasn’t too late for me to fall in love -- that I could find my own version of Mary Hatch, get married and start a family. This didn’t happen until much later in my life, but the movie always lifted my spirits and helped me to withstand the hard times while I remained unattached. And the enduring lessons about the importance of family, friendship and faith make It’s a Wonderful Life worthy of repeated viewing. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sums up the movie’s theme with his inscription in a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer -- left behind for George to read -- “Dear George: Remember no man is failure who has friends.” 2. After my mother remarried, and before lung cancer claimed her life in 2011, I watched The Sound of Music with her at her new home with my stepfather, Bill. My sister and I had bought Mom the DVD for Christmas or her birthday one year, sometime in the early 2000s. I kept quiet while I sat on the couch next to Mom, glancing over at her occasionally, like when Christopher Plummer and the von Trapp family sang “Edelweiss.” Even though so much time had passed, the joy on Mom’s face resembled the delight she had exhibited when I was a child. Her face still looked the same while watching the movie, and this time I didn’t spoil her happiness.
Essays, Lists

Octogenarian Hotties

1. American book publishers have forever been on the lookout for the next hot young thing. In a country built by people who shucked the old world in favor of a new one they got to make up on the fly, this hunger for newness -- in books and just about everything else -- was probably an inevitable strain of the national character. And it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. A very cursory list of American writers who got published before they turned 25 includes Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Karen Russell, Gore Vidal, and David Foster Wallace. Not a single dog in that pack. But for every hot young thing who went on to a long and venerable career, there are dozens, hundreds, who blazed briefly and then vanished. Moreover, publishing’s abiding obsession with fresh voices ignores a curious fact about our current literary scene: a startling number of the finest writers at work today are not twentysomethings; they’re eightysomethings. Yes, we’re witnessing the unlikely rise of the octogenarian hottie. (Fellow staff writer Sonya Chung explores and celebrates the work of later-in-life writers at our sister site, Bloom.) Here are sketches of a half-dozen members of this implausibly durable and prolific tribe. 2. Gay Talese At the age of 84, Gay Talese has just published his 14th work of non-fiction. As we have come to expect from one of our greatest living journalists, The Voyeur’s Motel is richly reported, elegantly written -- and deeply disturbing. Above all, it’s a testament to the payoffs when a skilled reporter stays in for the long haul. Talese, who once wrote for and then wrote a book about our newspaper of record, calls himself “a man of record.” In bulging file cabinets in his subterranean bunker in New York City, he tucks away every scrap of research for possible use at a later date. He discards nothing because he understands that everything has the potential to become a story. This obsessive collecting accounts for the existence of The Voyeur’s Motel. The titular character is Gerald Foos, who bought a motel near Denver in the 1960s for the express purpose of spying on his guests. He cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms, then installed fake vents that allowed him to climb into the attic and observe everything that happened in the rooms below. In 1980, Foos wrote an anonymous letter about his project to Talese, who was about to publish his best-seller about sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not just as some deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote, adding, “I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I have watched, and compiled interesting statistics on each…” Intrigued, Talese eventually visited the Manor House Motel and accompanied Foos into his attic observatory for several voyeuristic sessions. But since Foos was not willing to reveal his identity -- and since Talese insists on using real names -- the notes went into Talese’s file cabinets, along with the copious journal entries Foos began to send. Foos insisted that his retrofitted motel was not the lair of “some pervert or Peeping Tom,” but rather “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state.” He saw himself as a “pioneering sex researcher” in a league with Masters and Johnson. Foos’s journals chronicled every imaginable kind of participant in every imaginable scenario: sex between happily and unhappily married couples, group sex, swingers, cross-dressers, a nun, drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists, wounded Vietnam veterans, and one guy who had sex with a teddy bear. Foos even witnessed a murder. But since the voyeur remained unwilling to go on the record, Talese filed away the journal entries and eventually forgot about Gerald Foos. Then in 2013 -- 33 years after he first wrote to Talese, and several years after he sold his two motels -- Foos called Talese to announce that he was finally willing to go public with his story. Talese was ready. He had everything he needed in chronological order in his file cabinets, including the fact that the voyeur’s experiment became a long slide into misanthropy. After decades of peeping, Foos concluded: “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest. They are part of a fantasy world of exaggerators, game players, tricksters, intriguers, thieves, and people in private who are never what they portray themselves as being in public.” When Talese made one last research trip to Colorado in the summer of 2015, Foos took him to the site of the recently demolished Manor House Motel. Foos was hoping to find a souvenir in the fenced-in platter of dirt, but after a while he gave up. When his wife suggested they go home, he said, “Yes, I’ve seen enough.” There was to be one major hiccup. As the book was going to press, a Washington Post reporter dug up the fact that Gerald Foos had failed to tell Talese that he had sold his the Manor House Motel and then repurchased it in the 1980s -- after the events recorded in The Voyeur’s Motel. Talese warned in the book that Foos could be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator,” adding, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.” Despite these clear caveats, Talese blurted to a Post reporter that his book’s credibility was “down the toilet” and he would not be promoting it. Happily, Talese quickly came to his senses and disavowed his disavowal, then vigorously set about promoting a book that only a “man of record” and a gifted journalist could have written. Cynthia Ozick At the age of 88 -- “piano keys,” as she merrily puts it -- Cynthia Ozick has just published her seventh volume of criticism, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the yin to the yang of her high-minded novels (read our interview with Ozick here). A self-proclaimed “fanatic” in the cause of literature, Ozick is not ashamed to be wistful about the passing of a time when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event.” In a sense, Ozick is a keeper of a guttering flame, but she presses on, living in the bedroom community of New Rochelle where she has lived since the 1960s, not far from her girlhood home in the Bronx. She rarely ventures beyond the neighborhood supermarket these days, and she still writes late into the night at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood. One sign of greatness in a writer of fiction is the ability to make readers care about characters and worlds that would ordinarily be of no interest to them. I approached Ozick’s 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, with more than a little trepidation. It’s the story of a young woman named Rose Meadows who accepts a job as assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, an imposing scholar of a medieval Jewish heresy known as Karaism. The novel unfolds in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, amid an enclave of refugees from Europe’s gathering storm. Not exactly my kind of set-up, but my trepidation vanished before I reached the bottom of the first page. I was beguiled, swept away. The publication of that novel also served as a reminder that Ozick can be funny in a brazen, Buster-Keaton kind of way. Thirty-eight years after publishing her first novel, Ozick got sent out on her first book tour to promote Heir, a form of exquisite torture and humiliation that she chronicled for the New York Times in a story that should be required reading for every aspiring novelist and every comedy writer. Yes, high literature may be all but dead in America, but it helps that a keeper of the flame is still able to make us laugh out loud. Toni Morrison Last year, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison, our only living Nobel laureate, published a slender novel called God Help the Child. Unlike her previous 10 novels, this one avoids large historical themes -- particularly slavery and its unending repercussions -- and instead tells a fable-like story of a well-off cosmetics executive named Bride living in modern-day California. The damage done to children has been an abiding preoccupation of Morrison’s, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which an 11-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped by her father. In God Help the Child the damage is less brutal but no less insidious. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, was instantly and forever appalled by her daughter’s dark skin: “It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.” While God Help the Child is not Morrison’s finest work -- how many novels rise to the level of Beloved? -- it offers an insight into the sources of one writer’s late-career flowering. Arthritis has put Morrison in a wheelchair, and writing is not only a way out of physical pain, but a way to control her world. As she told The New York Times Magazine last year: I know how to write forever. I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control… Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place. Philip Levine This fall, nearly two years after he died at the age of 87, the poet Philip Levine will posthumously publish a slim but sumptuous miscellany called My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. A former U.S. poet laureate who came up through the infernos of his native Detroit’s auto factories, Levine was productive right up to the end of his long life, producing the essays, speeches, journal entries and verse fragments that make up this welcome new collection. It is, in essence, the story of how one poet got made, and it’s best read in tandem with Levine’s only other book of prose, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, from 1994. The new book offers a lovely description of Levine’s very first poems, composed when he was a teenager, at night, in woods near his home in Detroit. He called them “secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” Years later, on a return visit to his hometown, Levine encounters an elderly black man who is scratching out a garden and an existence amid the city’s ruins. As the two men talk, life and poetry merge. As Levine put it: “There are those rare times in my life when I know that what I’m living is in a poem I’ve still to write.” Joan Didion Now 81, Joan Didion has produced three fairly recent memoirs that prove beyond all doubt that she is a master stylist and one of our keenest social observers. The first of the three books, Where I Was From, is my favorite, a cold-eyed reassessment of the myths and assumptions Didion once held about her family and her native California, what she now scorns as “the local dreamtime.” The other two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are unflinching dissections of the grief Didion lived through after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Bravery, it turns out, is not the exclusive province of the young. Lawrence Ferlinghetti At the age of 97 -- which makes him the only nonagenarian in this tribe -- the poet, publisher and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shopping a new book called To the Lighthouse, a surrealistic blend of fiction and autobiography. Ferlinghetti, who has published some 50 volumes of poetry, including the million-copy-seller A Coney Island of the Mind, is still represented by his long-time literary agent Sterling Lord, who is a spry 95. 3. So why is it that some writers dry up while others keep producing good work deep into the twilight of their lives? There is no single reason for this late-career productivity, just as there is no single approach that unifies these writers. Talese and Ozick continue to plow the same furrows they’ve been plowing for decades, to great effect. For Morrison, writing is a way to escape physical pain and assert control. For Levine and Didion, the late years became a time of looking back, of revisiting origins and reassessing beliefs. For Ferlinghetti, it’s a chance to explore a new form. If their motivations and methods vary, it’s safe to say that all of these writers share Morrison’s need to write forever, that they’re in the grip of what the writer Roger Rosenblatt has called “the perpetually evolving yearning.” There will always be something new to say, maybe even some new way to say it. In his posthumous collection of essays, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said contended that late-life work isn’t always a summing up, or a display of accumulated wisdom, or a reassessment; it can also be “a form of exile” marked by “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” Said cited Jean Genet and Ludwig von Beethoven, among others, as exemplars of this intransigence. Late style can also be a response to the breakdown of the body, as when Henri Matisse underwent colon surgery at age 71 and, no longer able to stand and work at an easel, gleefully embarked on what he called his “second life,” a 13-year flurry when he sat in a wheelchair and used simple scissors and sheets of colored paper to create the ebullient, child-like cutouts that would become the exclamation point of his long career. He kept at it until he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 84. The painter Chuck Close, who underwent a major stylistic shift of his own in his mid-70s, recently said, “The late stage can be very interesting. Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was.” The above list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It omits countless octogenarians who are still doing fine work, as well as writers who were productive until they died in their 80s (and beyond), including: Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in 2014; the poet John Ashbery, still prolific at 89; Saul Bellow, who died at 89 in 2005; E.L. Doctorow, who died last year at 84 and will posthumously publish his Collected Stories next year; Elizabeth Hardwick, who died at 91 in 2007; Gabriel García Márquez, who died at 87 in 2014; the Canadian short story master and Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, still working at 85; Philip Roth, (who is currently in retirement but was productive into his 80s); James Salter, who died last year at 90; and Tom Wolfe (85). As different as these writers are, they do have one thing in common: they were all in for the long haul, and they all found a way to keep up the good work. Image: Wikipedia, Girolamo Nerli
Essays

Instagram and the Pornification of Food

1. Over the lifetime of the last generation, pornography has saturated our culture — or so the line goes. It’s an argument you’re likely familiar with; pearl-clutching declarations of porn’s ubiquity are neither new nor unique. Though the word “pornography” has been used by English speakers since before the American Civil War (and although the depiction of human sexuality is itself a prehistoric practice), representatives of every point on the political spectrum -- from religious conservatives to radical feminists -- will have you believe that, in recent years, it has managed to diabolically ooze into every crevice of our lives. If you’re hesitant to take this claim at face value, there’s certainly evidence to support it: the billions per year generated by the global porn industry; the appearance and normalization of (mainstream) porn’s tropes, themes, and styles in (mainstream) culture; and the gradual decline in the mutual exclusivity between Porn and Real-World Legitimacy, at least for certain kinds of people. An example of the latter are women whose “legitimate” careers have been based on a foundation of heretofore taboo sexual labor -- like Kim Kardashian, who launched her multimillion dollar superstar brand all from a home movie (or what’s been framed as one, anyway). Just look at the word itself: “porn.” Plosive and punctuated, the epithet has become a modifier, its traditional meaning -- “traditional” here applying to content, rather than to medium -- diluted. “Porn” is now a shorthand for the visual consumption of just about anything you might like to look at -- particularly if doing so evokes the kind of gratification that feels at once visceral and indulgent -- from the great outdoors and litters of puppies to haute couture and perfectly applied makeup. Whether or not pornification is an actual phenomenon, the ascent of food porn shows us that our consumption of sex is mirrored in the way we consume other things. As #foodporn has climbed into the millions across social media, the inevitable comparisons between it and the more familiar kind of indulgence has shed light on internet users’ anxieties about the human body. 2. At the moment, I follow around 300 Instagram accounts. That means my feed doesn't refresh enough for me to see new content every time I check the app, which I do a lot. Luckily, there’s the Explore feature, which suggests images and accounts based on my activity, like the accounts I follow and the type of content I view, double-tap, and search for. The Explore feature’s algorithms are constantly suggesting that I look at posts and accounts in which human bodies prominently feature. If I hang out in the app long enough, this parade of corporeality can get overwhelming, though I don’t have anyone but myself to blame. Though I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way, even if you don’t get burned out on all those internet bodies, you have to admit there are a lot of them on the app, clothed and naked alike. (Instagram’s user agreement forbids nudity, which has resulted in the #FreeTheNipple campaign, as well as a lot of creative circumventing of the rule.) For some reason, the anxiety caused by these images isn’t quite bad enough to outweigh the pleasure (Charge? Thrill? Dopamine high?) they bring me. I could unfollow all the punks, the activists, the sex workers, the artistically and casually and provocatively unclothed, the yogis, the straight-edgers, the addicts in recovery, the #TranformationTuesdays, all the people undergoing or pursuing gender transition, weight loss, sobriety, muscle-building, or spiritual fulfillment, the people whose bodies figure prominently, if not principally, in their Instagram presence -- but then I wouldn’t have anyone to follow. That’s what I used to think, anyway. As much as I enjoyed (or felt compelled to use) Instagram, I began wishing I could scroll through it without being reminded of my own subjectivity, that I could just submerge myself, purely as an observer, among images that evoked feelings similar to the ones I felt while consuming other human bodies, but that didn’t make me feel guilty as I inevitably objectified them. Is it pornification that has troubled the categories of acceptable public nudity, marketing, creative expression, and self-documentation? That has warped the distance between selfie, personal brand, transactional performance, and art? Is it pornification that has created this embodied sprawl across this particular user-generated platform, and others? And what relationship, if any, does this destabilization have with the social media anxiety we hear so much about? In the midst of this Instagram ennui, it happened: A friend tagged me in a post made by a food porn account. It was a photo of a deep-fried ball of mac n' cheese mounted on a home-rolled ice cream cone and drizzled with ranch dressing. More joke than comestible, my friend’s find was a gastronomic outrage. Rather than laugh (or shudder) and move on, I was intrigued. I followed the account that posted that image, but not before going back several months into its history, liking its photos and devouring the videos of fat, sugar, and bread being put through an Inquisition-style gauntlet of rendering: plunged into vats of oil and dipped into bowls of melted cheese, only to be frozen, breaded, and then dipped again. Of course, Instagram began to suggest similar accounts, and I followed more and more. With hundreds of thousands of followers (at the moment, the tag “food porn” itself is over 92 million strong), I was just one in a multitude of users who check in daily to see what’s new in the world of pornified food. 3. Food porn is nothing if not diverse, encompassing everything from hi-res photos of thousand-dollar-per-plate French cuisine, to homemade mini-docs on how to make the perfect bowl of phở, to a gif of that moment the dressing, cheese, or chocolate drizzle -- the icing on the cake, as it were -- melts onto the completed dish. Despite this, whether amateur or professionally produced, a creation process viewed via video or a photo of the final product, food porn is all about looks. Scientists call the natural desire to look at food “visual hunger,” and the internet has become one means by which to satisfy (and by some accounts, to pique) this craving. Of course, by the very nature of the medium, the “goodness” of food is more about its visual appeal than how it actually tastes. This principle, naturally, is foundational to human porn. The performance itself, rather than the quality of the sex, is what’s being consumed (although for many porn producers, including those that define their product as “feminist,” the sexual gratification of their performers is part of their brand). We see the importance of the visual in human porn featuring a penis as exemplified by the all-important cumshot1. The cumshot is replicated in Instagram food porn, not with the actual consumption of the food but rather its literal destruction by human hands. With these hands, croissants are torn apart, sandwiches split open, cakes ruptured in a deluge of their own innards. The humans attached to these hands are rarely seen. Interestingly, some videos limit even the amount of human intrusion that these hands present. Instruments for handling and holding food -- and in this case, destroying it uneaten -- are the viewer’s prostheses. It’s only in that moment of destruction, when the hands are tearing apart their delicious victim, that they are intended to be visible. The general invisibility of the creators of Instagram’s food porn accounts means that whether they eat the food that they post can’t actually be known. From “eater-on-the-street” type accounts that document their owner roaming a major city in search of its best meals, like the thenaughtyfork, to accounts whose content is generated by user submissions, like gastronogram, the curators behind the meals are often almost unseen, precluding any opportunity to watch them consume their own content. This trend holds true for all classes of food porn accounts, from the proprietary ones of world-class, five-star restaurants, to the kind whose almost-nihilistic embrace of bad-for-you meals come across as distinctly Millennial in tone. 4. Though its star might have risen on Instagram, across social media, and within the popular purview, food porn is actually much older than its faddishness might belie. Is food just the next subject to be seized upon within, as Chris Chitty has described in his Marxist theorizing around sex, our “profoundly pornographic … postmodern attunement of the world”? Food and cooking were popular long before the internet, and remain as much in legacy media, especially TV. But there is no American cooking show that doesn’t have at least a whiff of narrative, the pretense of an ongoing relationship between the host and the audience as the former introduces old recipes, develops new ones, pits contestants against one another in a battle of skill, or explores the local color that informs this or that regional cuisine. With food porn, especially as found on Instagram, the cuisine is stripped of narrative and reduced to the visual, and then reduced again -- like a hearty consommé -- by repetition, including subsequent, nearly identical images. Although there are plenty of visual recipes for classic dishes or old standbys, there are just as many that function as filler, in which the food being “made” can only be described as such by its loosest definition (Can slathering a store-bought cookie in Jif creamy peanut butter actually be termed “making food”?). But on Instagram, food porn images are inextricable from the commentary posted below them. Sometimes an explanation or reflection, but just as often a string of emojis, hashtags, and requests for shares, the text below the picture is where the user will often find the food porn account owner(s) gleefully acknowledging the naughtiness of indulgence. From the self-deprecation of DudeFoods creator Nick Chipman, whose Instagram account has 26,000 followers and features the hashtag #EatLikeShit and jokes about the effects that food like the Double Decker Mac & Cheese Stuffed Bacon Weave Taco will have on his health; to the coyness of Jessica Hirsch’s CheatDayEats, which supplies exercises for “when you want to work off” your fry-stuffed pastrami Reuben po’ boy or sprinkle-festooned Nutella milkshake, a food porn account without a gendered, and inherently fatphobic, wink toward its own guilt is hard to find. Though it betrays an anxiety about how food affects our bodies, this playfulness is safe to express because, unlike with human porn, there is no stigma around enjoying this content. In comparing human and food porn, the difference between shame and guilt is key. For Americans, the phenomenon of the eating disorder, the so-called “obesity epidemic,” and increasing wealth disparity -- and thus, food insecurity -- are all hot-button issues. In this context, and much like human porn, the licentiousness of food porn is intrinsic to its appeal. Yet indulging in it has a distinctly different moral flavor from the triple-X. When it comes to the food porn narrative, the concerns about America’s cultural “addiction” to human porn don’t seem to come into play. There seem to be few, if any, qualms about food porn’s potential to desensitize viewers to actual food, thereby making them dissatisfied with the food they do have and causing them to value it less. The same, of course, can’t be said about critics of human porn and its dubious negative effects. That’s because the question of human porn’s badness unspools in a labyrinth of directions while seeming to rely on a single given: It harms women, both as performers and as a demographic, because of the way it affects male porn viewers2. According to some, this harm has grown to epidemic proportions. Released only last month, the draft of this year’s Republican platform declared pornography to be a “public health crisis” that must be stopped from damaging American children. In light of the arch guilt performed by food porn creators and consumers, the cultural mandate of shame in consuming or performing in human porn is perhaps the most significant way in which our consumption of sex differs from that of food. Despite food porn’s many joking references to the adverse effects of gluttony (not just on Instagram, but across platforms), you’ll never see a “Fight The New Drug”-style campaign targeting vegan chilaquiles, because enjoying food porn is the opposite of controversial. Publicly supporting human porn (let alone porn performers), however, is so politically dangerous that even the cartoonishly amoral Donald Trump has promised to crack down on it in the event he wins the general election. 5. Why do we want to consume anything that we see online, particularly when this consumption, to varying degrees, seems to cause such anxiety? This question recalls one voiced by Cari Romm in her Atlantic piece about what food porn does to the brain: “What’s the appeal in ogling what you can’t have?” What, indeed? Why is it that these unattainable bodies and foods are still compelling to us, and in such parallel ways? I’ve been watching human porn on the internet since 2004 or so, less and less over the years -- not because I think porn itself is unethical, but because I’ve become aware that consuming porn without paying for it is. And while I happen to be of the opinion that efforts to censure or criminalize human pornography are rooted in whorephobia and misogyny, I still think there’s something to the idea that certain ways of consuming porn -- porn of all kinds -- has the potential to affect us in negative ways. It’s impossible to discount the perplexing intersections of power dynamics -- whorephobia chief among them -- that complicate our feelings about human porn; but I suspect that this drive toward visual consumption creates a conflict that is unique unto itself, a breed of anxiety that is distinct from all of the other ones we feel, or are told to feel, about it. Because if pornification is indeed real, then its object is not limited to the human body, but rather can be anything that we crave. Pornification, then, is when desire, rather than its object, becomes the primary drive for consumption. The appeal of the internet is, or used to be, its ability to unburden us of the physical. But the rise of food porn hot on the heels of human porn suggests a breed of body anxiety than can only be redirected, rather than eliminated. Beneath the very real concern that desensitization -- to sex, to violence, and yes, to food -- will make us less open and responsive as humans, lies a bedrock fear, the crux and key to pornification’s terror and appeal: How will I satisfy myself when this is no longer satisfying? 1 It’s worth noting here that all kinds of bodies are capable of ejaculation, and it’s not only cis male performers that enact cumshots. 2 Few of these same critics to be concerned about porn’s effects on non-heterosexual male performers or consumers. Image: Flickr, L.A. Foodie