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A blog about "displaced thoughts on misplaced literatures."
Matthew Cheney is a writer and teacher who lives in New Hampshire. His work has been published by English Journal, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places.
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Number of Readers that added this blog to their MyJacketFlap: 4
The marvelous Weird Fiction Review
website has now posted a conversation that Eric Schaller and I had
about our books, our magazine The Revelator
, the weirdness of New Hampshire, and other topics.
Along with this, WFR
has posted Eric's story "Voices Carry"
(originally in Shadows & Tall Trees
) and my story "The Lake"
(originally in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
So if you're curious about us or our writings (or just utterly bored), Weird Fiction Review
is a great place to start.
I'm thrilled that my A Cappella Zoo
story "Killing Fairies" has just been reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2016
edited by Steve Berman for Lethe Press
The table of contents for Best Gay Stories
this year is quite strong, and it's an honor to be among this company. It's especially nice to have my story in a book with a story by Richard Bowes, since "Killing Fairies" is my attempt to write Bowesian tale: something that skirts the line between fiction and memoir. In this case, I wanted to preserve a few memories of my first year of college before those memories slip away (they grow dimmer and dimmer), and I thought a fun way to do that would be to give myself the challenge of trying to write like Rick.
It's harder than it looks. The problem for me was that my memories didn't add up to a story. There were a couple of really great characters (two of the strongest personalities I ever met in my life), but no story, just encounters that ultimately led nowhere because I quickly lost contact with those people as I developed a better network of friends. Then I thought: Who did I hope
to meet in college, but never did? And thus I created the strange, perhaps rakish character of Jack. Once he was added to the mix, the story began to cohere.
Here's a brief excerpt:
I met Jack at the end of my first year of college, a year that had begun in misery and ended in something else, though even now I'm not sure what to call it. Jack was two years ahead of me, and like me was one of the few people in our program who wanted to be a playwright and not a screenwriter. He was six-foot-four, scarecrow thin, with short sandy blonde hair and green eyes that won all staring contests. We had our first conversation during the height of a frigid winter. This was back in the mid-'90s, when you could still smoke inside buildings in New York City, and the smoking area for the Dramatic Writing Program at NYU was in a stairwell of the seventh floor of 721 Broadway, headquarters of all my shattered dreams. I regret I wasn't a smoker — it would have been easier to make friends, easier to have the casual conversations that led to connections, especially since the stairwell was an egalitarian place where the distinctions between faculty and students disappeared; the only distinction was between those who were fond of nicotine and those who were not.
I ended up in the stairwell with Jack because we were continuing a conversation we'd begun in class. It was a class called, simply, "Cabaret" — we all wrote and then performed two cabaret shows during the semester. Jack and I had somehow started talking about Arthur Miller, a playwright revered at DWP (he'd taught a course or two just before I enrolled). In class, I'd told Jack I thought Death of a Salesman was sentimental drivel, and he said he was thrilled to hear someone say that. Class ended, and we walked through the narrow DWP hallway to the stairwell, where a couple of other students nodded to Jack, though he paid no attention to them. As our evisceration of Miller's entire career wound down, and as I told Jack for the third time that no, I didn't need to bum a cigarette, he said, "So, tell me something about you I don't know."
"I'm left-handed," I said.
"I know that," he said.
"I'm from New Hampshire."
"Everybody here knows that."
"I used to read a lot of science fiction."
"What about you?" I said.
"It's only fair."
"Fine," he said, exhaling smoke. "I kill fairies."
I'm sure my face displayed exactly what he wanted: wide-eyed shock.
"People give them to me," Jack said. "Fairies. Plastic or glass. Dolls. Icons. And every one of them, I smash with a hammer, or I cut off their hair and wings, or I throw them in front of the subway, or I bite their fucking heads off and spit them to the ground."
Perhaps I chuckled nervously. More likely, I stood silent.
"You should come over sometime," he said. "It's fun. We can have a fairy-killing party."
is one of the few LGBT presses out there, and much deserves our support. (And they're currently celebrating their 15th anniversary!) The Best Gay Stories
series is consistently interesting and a valuable guide to queer writing today.
Here's the table of contents:
"A New Gay Fairy Tale" by Sandip Roy
"Repossession" by Jonathan Harper
"Gift-Wrapped" by Daniel M. Jaffe
"Wildlife" by Carter Sickels
"Fordham Court" by Richard Bowes
"What Do You Wear to a Nudist Colony?" by Michael Hess
"Marginalia" by Daniel Scott
"Monograph" by Mike Dressel
"Shoot-out" by Lou Dellaguzzo
"Killing Fairies" by Matthew Cheney
"Acres of Perhaps" by Will Ludwigsen
"Surfaces" by Peter Dubé
"Tea At Balmoral" by Paul Brownsey
"The Lesson" by Kelly Link
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Adrian Van Young
, Blood: Stories
, Cheney publications
, Electric Literature
, Michael Haneke
, Texas Chainsaw Massacre
, Add a tag
The good folks at Electric Literature
invited me to converse with Adrian Van Young, perhaps not knowing that Adrian and I had recently discovered we are in many ways lost brothers, and so we could go on and on and on...
We talked about Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Sublime, writing advice, writers we like, Michael Haneke, neoliberalism, The Witch, and all sorts of other things. It was a lot of fun and we could have gone on at twice the length, but eventually we had to return to our lives.
Many thanks to Electric Lit for being so welcoming.
I have been busy and have neglected this blog. I forgot to make a post here about some of the most exciting news of my year: I have a story in the current issue of my favorite literary magazine, Conjunctions. It's titled "Mass" and it is about, among other things, a mass shooting.
Early this morning, at least 50 people were killed and 53 wounded in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The New York Times is currently calling this the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
I'm not going to write about the gun politics of this. For that, please read the work of Patrick Blanchfield, particularly "So There's Just Been a Mass Shooting", "God and Guns", and "The Gun Control We Deserve". (He's excellent on Twitter, as well, if you want his most recent thoughts.) I have sputtered on about the topic in the past, not always coherently. Patrick is better at it, and better informed, than I. Thinking through the complex, contradictory, vexing, and emotionally charged landscape of gun politics, I'm better (or at least more comfortable) in fiction. Thus, "Mass".
(Titles fascinate me. The title of this issue of Conjunctions is Affinity: The Friendship Issue. Affinity is something more than friendship. Friendship is useful, it feels good, it glues us socially, and sometimes it may be, yes, an issue. But affinity is more: its etymology [via Latin and French, a story told by the OED] is rich with ideas of relationship: relationship via marriage; any relationship other than marriage; a neighborhood; relationship between people based on common ground in their characters and tastes; spiritual connection; structural relationship; adjacency.)
A character in "Mass" has been reading theoretical physics:
“Not especially detailed theoretical physics, but introductory sorts of texts, popularizations, books for people who don’t really ever have a hope of truly understanding physics but nonetheless possess a certain curiosity. And its words are sometimes beautiful — a tachyonic field of imaginary mass — who couldn’t love such a phrase? I find it all strangely comforting, the more far-out ideas of quantum theory and such. It’s like religion, but without all the rigmarole and obeisance to a god. Or perhaps more like poetry, though really not, because it’s something somehow outside language, but nonetheless elegant, and of course constricted by language, since how else can we communicate about it? But it gestures, at least, toward whatever lies beyond logos, beyond our ability even to reason, though perhaps not to comprehend. At my age, and having spent a life devoted to language, there is comfort and excitement — even perhaps some inchoate feeling of hope — in glimpses beyond the realm of words. There is, I have come to believe, very much outside the text. What is it though? Call it God, call it Nature, call it the Universe, call it what it seems to me now to be — having read and I’m sure misunderstood my theoretical physics — call it: an asymptote.”
Mass. Affinity. Asymptotes.
The OED: b. Relationship by blood, consanguinity; common ancestry of individuals, races, etc.; an instance of this.
And then there is "Blood"
. And Blood: Stories
"Why did you give it that title?" people ask. There are a lot of answers. (And that, in itself, is an answer.) Here's one: As a child of the early AIDS era, I always knew queer blood is politicized and scary. Scary, thus politicized. Politicized, thus scary.
Until recently, the FDA prohibited any man who had had sex with men since 1977 from donating blood. Now, if you've been celibate for a year, you can donate. The massacre in Orlando brought this policy back into the news
, with various outlets reporting that while queers were attacked, and blood was needed, any man who had had sex with a man in the last year could not, under FDA rules, donate blood.
Blood is a reality and blood is a potent metaphor: beautiful and terrifying, wonderful and evil.Consanguinity.
Blood is life and blood is death; blood is family and blood is genocide.
Is there an opposite to blood? What is water
in our metaphors? It washes blood away, but also sustains us as we live, for much of what we are is water. Tears are made of water, salt, enzymes, hormones. They taste like oceans and look like rain.
Water is what we weep.
I weep for my queer brethren. I weep, too, for the inevitable homonationalism
as queer shoulders are put to the wheel of US imperialism and US exceptionalism; as pride is wielded for Us against Them.
But I am not feeling political today.
Sometime looking backward
into this future, straining
neck and eyes I'll meet your shadow
with its enormous eyes
you who will want to know
what this was all about
"A Long Conversation"
Yesterday, my aunt, after (as they say) a (short? long? relative to what?) illness, died.
We had never lived near each other, but she was a profound influence on my life. She and her daughter, my cousin, gave me Stephen King stories when I was much too young for them. Night Shift, Skeleton Crew
. The titles are still magic to me, the covers of the old paperbacks as powerful as any personal icon I have. So much of what I became as a writer is because of those stories. So much of what I became as a writer, then, is because of her.
She was a brilliant artist, a fun and funny person, so smart, so straightforward, saucy, even, and strong as the mightiest metal. She had a magnificent life with magnificent people in it, as well as hardship, oh yes, hardship, indeed, as we all do, yes, but still: she struggled, persevered, survived, didn't let the bastards get her down.
I will miss her forever and cherish her forever. Her husband, my uncle, provided me with my middle name, and I am always proud to have been named for him, one of the best people I know.
(The cover of my book called Blood
is a picture of a man with his heart removed.)
At the wedding of my youngest uncle some years ago, my oldest uncle, this great man now a widower, gave a toast in which he said ours is a motley family of steps and halfs, of once- and twice-removeds, of marriages and unions and affinities, but in the end those designations don't much matter, because family is family, and that's who we are, and what we are, and what we have, because we love each other.
Affinity. And even more so that most important of political cries: Solidarity.
I remember that Auden kept revising his poem "September 1, 1939"
, because he couldn't decide between "We must love one another or die," "We must love one another and die," or nothing at all.
Here, then, my own tentative, inadequate revision: We must love one another or nothing at all.
I loved my aunt fiercely, and I love fiercely all you queer folk out there aching and screaming and scared and willing to fight, and all who dance against the gunfire, hands held together through the pain, lips together in solidarity, lives together as we live and live and live — even if separated by oceans, even if drowning in tears — always striving, even if never reaching, like asymptotes, like believers and holy fools — as we remember and honor the dead, as we go on, as we must, you, me, all — whether strangers or the oldest of lovers, we are — we must be — a mass of friends, family, water, blood.
And I dream of our coming together
not only by love
but by lust for a working tomorrow
the flights of this journey
and necessary as water.
"On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge"
Kenneth James is editing the journals of Samuel Delany for publication. Volume 1 is coming out from Wesleyan University Press in December.
For the future volumes, Ken needs help with funding.If you already know how valuable this project is, don't read on. Just go donate.
But if you need some convincing, please read on...
“Mesmerizing . . . a true portrait of an artist as a young Black man . . . already visible in these pages are the wit, sensitivity, penetration, playfulness and the incandescent intelligence that will characterize Delany and his extraordinary work.”
—Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“This is a tremendously significant and vital addition to the oeuvre of Samuel Delany; it clarifies questions not only of the writer’s process, but also his development—to see, in his juvenilia, traces that take full form in his novels—is literally breathtaking.”
—Matthew Cheney, author of Blood: Stories
“These journals give us the very rare experience of being able to watch genius escaping from the chrysalis.”
—Jo Walton, author of Among Others
As my blurb in the publicity materials shows, I've read volume 1, which covers the years 1957-1969. It's great. It shows us the very young Delany, it offers juvenilia and drafts that have never been public before, it shows his reading and writing and thinking during the period where he went from being a precocious kid to a professional writer. It's thoughtfully, sensitively edited, and is being published by the academic press that has been most devoted to Delany for a few decades now. It's a revelatory book.
Volume 2 will be even more exciting, I expect. Ken plans for it to begin with Dhalgren
material and then to continue through the 1970s, which would mean it includes material related to Trouble on Triton, Tales of Nevèrÿon,
and, depending on how he edits it, Hogg, Neveryóna, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
, and others. It will also show how deeply connected Delany's nonfiction is to his fiction, and will show the development of his engagement with critical theory. Additionally, there's lots of material in the 1970s journals about his first experiences as a university teacher.
I'm just back from spending a few days at the Delany archive
at Boston University, and I've looked through a few of the 1970s journals. They're truly thrilling for anybody interested not only in Delany the writer, but in the writing and thinking process in general. They're especially interesting for those of us who think that after 1969, Delany's work only got more brilliant. They are working journals, not really diaries as we generally think of them, and they clarify a lot of questions of when particular things were written, and why, and how. That makes them, if nothing else, of immense scholarly value. But they've also got material in them that just flat-out makes for good reading.
The work of editing them is ... daunting. This is why Kenneth James deserves your donations. (Wesleyan University Press is great, but they've got limited funding themselves. These books are not going to sell millions of copies, not because people don't love Delany's work, but because there's a small market for this sort of publication.) Ken probably knows Delany's work as well as anybody on the planet other than (perhaps) SRD himself. As a Cornell undergraduate, he interviewed Delany in 1986 — an interview deemed substantial enough to be included in Silent Interviews
. Later, he wrote the introductions to Longer Views
and 1984: Selected Letters
. He organized the SUNY Buffalo conference on Delany, the first international conference on SRD's work, and guest-edited the volume of Annals of Scholarship
that preserved some of the papers from that conference. He's written on various of Delany's books. He knows his stuff better than perhaps anybody else knows that stuff.
Ken is an independent scholar without a permanent university affiliation, which in this economic/academic structure means he has hardly any source of financial support for a project like this. He needs our support. Editing these journals is a full-time job if it's going to get done before the end of the century. The journals are handwritten, mostly in spiral ring notebooks. They're in various states of organization and disorganization. (The BU archivists are magnificent, and have done a great job of indexing and preserving the journals to the best of their ability, but these were working journals, not documents immediately designed for eternal preservation) And they are copious
. In six hours of reading and notetaking yesterday, I made it through only a few months' worth of journals. Transcribing, editing, and annotating them will be a gargantuan task. Ken has already proved it is a task he is prepared for, a task he is capable of completing. I don't think I could do it. I know he can.
I could go on and on. Delany is one of the most important writers and thinkers of our time. The more I read, the more I delve into his archive, the more I believe this to be true. I've spent a decade studying his work and feel I'm only now beginning to move beyond a superficial appreciation of it.
We need these books, and we need Ken to be the one to put them together. There is nobody better for the job. Please help him do it.
A new interview with me
— the first to come out since Blood: Stories
was released — is now up at One Story
's blog, part of the publicity leading up to the One Story Literary Debutante Ball
. Many thanks to Melissa Bean for conducting the interview, and for her very kind words about the book.
Here's a taste:
MB: On that note, what inspires your stories?Read more at One Story...
MC: Daydreams and nightmares created by anxieties, fears, and desires.
I don’t write fiction for the sake of therapy, per se, but I am prone to anxiety and I have an active imagination, so it’s often the case that a story starts from one of my weird anxiety fantasies.
This afternoon, I will be flying to Los Angeles for the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference
. Here's my schedule of events, in case you're in the area and want to say hello...
- Thursday, 3/31: Black Lawrence Press reading and party at CB1 Gallery, 7pm
- Friday, 4/1: Signing at Black Lawrence Press booth (#1526), 1-2pm
- Saturday, 4/2: signing at the GLBTQ Caucus Hospitality Booth (#633), 12-12.30pm
And of course I'll be wandering around the conference and spending lots of time at the book fair.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Once again, chaos and luck have conspired to release another issue of the venerable Revelator
magazine into the world!
In this issue, you can read new fiction by Sofia Samatar and John Chu; an excursion into musical history by Brian Francis Slattery; surreal prose poems by Peter Dubé; an essay by Minsoo Kang; revelatory, rare, and historical Wizard of Oz
comics; art by Chad Woody; and, among other esoterica, shotgunned books!Go forth now, my friends, and revel in The Truth ... and All!
This review originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Z Magazine
. I'd forgotten about it until somebody today mentioned that it's the anniversary of most of the striking workers' demands being met (12 March 1912), and so today seemed like a good one to post this:
by Bruce Watson
New York, Viking, 2005, 337 pp.
Lawrence, Massachusetts was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, what might be called one of the greatest mill towns in the United States, but "greatest" is a difficult term, and underneath it hide all the conditions that erupted during the frigid winter of 1912 into a strike that affected both the labor movement and the textile industry for decades afterward.
Bruce Watson's compelling and deeply researched chronicle of the strike takes its name from a poem and song that have come to be associated with Lawrence, although there is, according to Watson, no evidence that "Bread and Roses" ever appeared as a slogan in Lawrence until long after 1912. This fact might suggest that Watson's position is one of a debunker, but he offers less debunking than revitalizing, and the ultimate effect of his book is to show why the romantic notions behind the "Bread and Roses" phrase do a disservice to the courage and accomplishments of the strikers.
Watson's greatest strength is his ability to weave weighty research into a narrative that is lively and seldom ponderous.
There are costs to this approach, because the minutia of a strike's planning and execution are not always suspenseful, and so, as Watson strives to hold the reader's interest there are times when the sentences sound like the narration of "America's Most Wanted" and swaths of yellow from the journalism of 1912 seem to have seeped into the book's pages.
This is a minor annoyance, though, in a book filled with vivid portraits of ordinary workers and their families, and with precise, careful renderings of an age and culture.
Again and again, Watson brings the book back to the circumstances of the immigrant workers who started the strike, and he compares their lives to those of other workers throughout the United States, to the owners and administrators of the mills, to the politicians, to the police and the soldiers who were sometimes fierce combatants with the strikers, sometimes bewildered and beleaguered sympathizers.
It would be interesting to watch a free-market ideologue respond to Bread and Roses, because again and again Watson presents damning evidence of the failures of unbridled capitalism to produce anything but misery for people who worked in the mills. He includes a budget created by one of the workers' wives; she lists such expenses as rent, kerosene, milk, bread, and meat. Watson lays out the family's other expenses, the fact that they couldn't afford to buy coal and so their only heat during the brutal winters came from the bits of wood their children could scavenge, the luxuries they couldn't buy (butter and eggs), and then comments: "Like most mill workers, the Bleskys could not afford clothes fashioned in Manhattan sweatshops from fabric made in Lawrence. ... The Bleskys each wore the same clothes until they wore out. When the strike began, Mrs. Blesky was still wearing the shawl, skirt, and shirtwaist she had bought in Poland three years earlier, just before coming to Lawrence. Ashamed of her shabby appearance, she almost never left her home."
Searching through numerous archives, Watson has unearthed one story after another like this one, and each undermines the fanciful justifications and accusations made by the mill owners, which Watson also chronicles well. To his credit, though, he does not present the owners, the politicians who supported them, and the reporters who often printed even their most outrageous lies as caricatures, creatures so obsessed with profit that they would happily trod over the people who created that profit for them. Instead, he tries to divine the self-delusions and paranoid fears that motivated the workers' many antagonists. While on the surface it may seem immoral to try to portray the masters of such misery as flawed and idealistic human beings, the result is both complex and useful, because ideology was as much a part of what created the misery as was greed.
The Lawrence strike became a national cause, and it attracted the attention of celebrities and rising stars of the labor movement, including Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn of the IWW and John Golden of the AF of L. The events and tactics that brought so much attention to Lawrence are particularly fascinating, and Watson does an admirable job of showing how the strikers decided to carry out the strike and advance their cause, particularly with the controversial and immensely effective "children's exodus", where the children of strikers were sent to the homes of union members in New York, Vermont, and elsewhere. With each new day and week of the strike, more groups joined in, until the strike itself became, for a short time, a panoply of people from all around the world. Numerous women, too, who had often been relegated to the background in labor struggles before, became vital players in Lawrence, and the book includes a marvelous photograph of a parade of women holding their hands high, joyous smiles on their faces as they march down the street, defying the martial law imposed on the city.
Even as more and more strands are added to the story, the tale itself stays clear. Watson manages to show how the different segments of the labor movement both aided and undermined each other, and he doesn't smooth over the conflicts that broke out when the national interests were different from the local ones. (On the whole, though, this strike was remarkably unified compared to others both before and after it.) Haywood and Flynn in particular make for great characters in the story, but Watson skillfully keeps them from stealing the stage, always bringing the story back to the lives of the workers in Lawrence, the people who would have to live with the consequences of the strike once the nation's interest turned to other events.
In the end, it is the ordinary workers who remain the most remarkable element of the Lawrence strike, as Watson tells the story, because here were people from vastly different backgrounds, experiences, religions, and even political views who found solidarity and, through this solidarity, a certain amount of success.
The epilogue is not misty-eyed about the effects and consequences of the strike, but it also offers a kind of quiet hope for the future: for all the possibilities that imaginative, energetic, and compassionate mass action can create.
John Eliot Gardiner, from Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven
A nagging suspicion grows that many writers, overawed and dazzled by Bach, still tacitly assume a direct correlation between his immense genius and his stature as a person. At best this can make them unusually tolerant of his faults, which are there for all to see: a certain tetchiness, contrariness and self importance, timidity in meeting intellectual challenges, and a fawning attitude toward royal personages and to authority in general that mixes suspicion with gain-seeking. But why should it be assumed that great music emanates from a great human being? Music may inspire and uplift us, but it does not have to be the manifestation of an inspiring (as opposed to an inspired) individual. In some cases there may be such correspondence, but we are not obliged to presume that it is so. It is very possible that "the teller may be so much slighter or less attractive than the tale." [source] The very fact that Bach's music was conceived and organized with the brilliance of a great mind does not directly give us any clues as to his personality. Indeed, knowledge of the one can lead to a misplaced knowingness about the other. At least with him there is not the slightest risk, as with so many of the great Romantics (Byron, Berlioz, Heine spring to mind), that we might discover almost too much about him or, as in the case of Richard Wagner, be led to an uncomfortable correlation between the creative and the pathological.
has an MFA from Iowa
, the MFA of MFAs. (He also has a Ph.D. in Lit from Harvard, so he is a man of fine and rare academic pedigree.) Bennett's recent book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War
is largely about the Writers' Workshop at Iowa from roughly 1945 to the early 1980s or so. It melds, often explicitly, The Cultural Cold War
with The Program Era
, adding some archival research as well as Bennett's own feeling that the work of politically committed writers such as Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck was marginalized and forgotten by the writing workshop hegemony in favor of individualistic, apolitical writing.
I don't share Bennett's apparent taste in fiction (he seems to consider Dreiser, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, etc. great writers; I don't), but I sympathize with his sense of some writing workshops' powerful, narrowing effect on American fiction and publishing for at least a few decades. He notes in his conclusion that the hegemonic effect of Iowa and other prominent programs seems to have declined over the last 15 years or so, that Iowa in recent years has certainly become more open to various types of writing, and that even when Iowa's influence was at an apex, there were always other sorts of programs and writers out there — John Barth at Johns Hopkins, Robert Coover at Brown, and Donald Barthelme at the University of Texas are three he mentions, but even that list shows how narrow in other ways the writing programs were for so long: three white hetero guys with significant access to the NY publishing world.
What Bennett most convincingly shows is how the discourse of creative writing within U.S. universities from the beginning of the Cold War through at least to the 1990s created a field of limited, narrow values not only for what constitutes "good writing", but also for what constitutes "a good writer". It's a tale of parallel, and sometimes converging, aesthetics, politics, and pedagogies. Plenty of individual writers and teachers rejected or rebelled against this discourse, but for a long time it did what hegemonies do: it constructed common sense. (That common sense was not only in the workshops — at least some of it made its way out through writing handbooks, and can be seen to this day in pretty much all of the popular handbooks on how to write, including Stephen King's On Writing
Some of the best material in Workshops of Empire
is not its Cold War revelations (most of which are known from previous scholarship) but in its careful limning of the tight connections between particular, now often forgotten, ideas from before the Cold War era and what became acceptable as "good writing" later. The first chapter, on the "New Humanism"
, is revelatory, especially in how it draws a genealogy from Irving Babbitt
to Norman Foerster to Paul Engle
and Wallace Stegner
. Bennett tells the story of New Humanism as it relates to New Criticism and subsequently not just the development of workshop aesthetics, but of university English departments in the second half of the 20th century generally, with New Humanism adding a concern for ethical propriety ("the question of the relation of the goodness of the writing to the goodness of the writer") to New Criticism's cold formalism:
Whereas the New Criticism insisted on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the poem or story — every word counted — the New Humanism focused its attention on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the humanistic subject. It did so not as a kind of progressive-educational indulgence but in deference to the wholeness of the human person and accompanied by a strict sense of good conduct. (29-30)
This mix was especially appealing to the post-WWII world of anti-Communist liberalism, a world scarred by the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and a United States newly poised to inflict its empire of moral righteousness across the world.
For all of Bennett's gestures toward Marxism and anti-imperialism, he seems to share some basic assumptions about the power of literature with the men of the Cold War era he disdains as conservatives. In the book's conclusion, he writes:
It remains an open question just how much criticism some or all American MFA programs deserve for contributing to the impasse of neoliberalism — the collective American disinclination to think outside narrow ideological commitments that exacerbate — or at the very least preempt resistance to — the ugliest aspects of the global economy. Those narrow commitments center, above all, on an individualism, economic and otherwise, vastly more powerful in theory and public rhetoric than in fact. We encourage ourselves to believe that we matter more than we do and to go it alone more than we can. This unquestioned inflation of the personal begs, in my opinion, the kinds of questions that must be asked before any reform or solution to some seriously pressing problems looks likely to be found. (173)
This is almost comically self-important in its idea that MFA programs might (he hopes?) have enough cultural effect that if only they had been more willing to teach students to write like Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck, then maybe we could conquer neoliberalism! One moderately popular movie has more cultural effect than piles and piles of books written by even the famous MFA people. If you want to fight neoliberalism, your MFA and your PhD (from Harvard!) aren't likely to do anything, sorry to say. If you want to fight neoliberalism ... well, I don't know. I'm not convinced neoliberalism can
be fought, though we might be able to find an occasional escape in aesthetics
. The idea that Books Do Big Things In The World is one that Bennett shares with his subjects; he'd just prefer they read different books.
As self-justifying delusions go, I suppose there are worse, and all of us who spend our lives amidst writing and reading believe to some extent or another that it's worthwhile, or else we wouldn't do it. But "worthwhile" is far from "world-changing". (Rx: Take a couple Wallace Shawn plays
and call me in the morning.)
Despite this, Bennett's concluding chapter had me raising my fist in solidarity, because no matter what our personal tastes in fiction may be, no matter how much we may disagree about the extent to which writing can influence the world, we agree that writing pedagogy ought to be diverse and historically informed in its approach.
Bennett shows some of the forces that imposed a common shallowness:
There was, in the second wave of programs — the nearly fifty of them founded in the 1960s — little need to critique the canon and smash the icons. To the contrary, the new roster of writing programs could thrive in easy conscience. This was because each new seminar undertook to add to the canon by becoming the canon. The towering greats (Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Woolf, whoever) diminished in influence with each passing year, sharing ever more the icon's niche with contemporary writers. In 1945, in 1950, in 1955, prospective poets and novelists looked to the neverable pantheon as their competition. In 1980, in 1990, in 2015, they more often regarded their published teachers or peers as such. (132)
That's polemical, and as such likely hyperbolic, but it suggests some of the ways that some writing programs may have capitalized on the culture of narcissism that has only accelerated via social media and is now ripe for economic exploitation
. I don't think it's a crisis of the canon — moral panics over the Great Western Tradition are academic Trumpism — so much as a crisis of literary-historical knowledge. Aspiring writers who are uninterested in reading anything written before they were born are nincompoops. Understandably and forgiveably so, perhaps (U.S. culture is all about the current whizbang thing, and historical amnesia is central to the American project), but too much writing workshop pedagogy, at least of the recent past, has been geared toward encouraging nincompoopness. As Bennett suggests, this serves the interests of American empire while also serving the interests of the writing world. It domesticates writers and makes them good citizens of the nationalistic endeavor.
Within the context of the book, Bennett's generalizations are mostly earned. What was for me the most exciting chapter shows exactly the process of simplification and erasure he's talking about. That chapter is the final one before the conclusion: "Canonical Bedfellows: Ernest Hemingway and Henry James". Bennett's claim here is straightforward: The consensus for what makes writing "good" that held at least from the late 1940s to the end of the 20th century in typical writing workshops and the most popular writing handbooks was based on teachers' knowledge of Henry James's writing practices and everyone's veneration of Hemingway's stories and novels.
For Bennett, Hemingway became central to early creative writing pedagogy and ideology for three basic reasons: "he fused together a rebellious existential posture with a disciplined relationship to language, helping to reconcile the avant-garde impulse with the classroom", "he offered in his own writing...a set of practices with the luster of high art but the simplicity of any good heuristic", and "he contributed a fictional vision whose philosophical dimensions suited the postwar imperative to purge abstractions from literature" (144). Hemingway popularized and made accessible many of the innovations of more difficult or esoteric writers: a bit of Pound from Pound's Imagist phase, some of Stein's rhythms and diction, Sherwood Anderson's tone, some of the early Joyce's approach to word patterns... ("He was possibly the most derivative sui generis
author ever to write," Bennett says. Snap!) Hemingway's lifestyle was at least as alluring for post-WWII male writers and writing teachers as his writing style: he was macho, war-scarred, nature-besotted in a Romantic but also carnivorous way. He was no effete intellectual. If you go to school, man, go to school with Papa and you'll stay a man.
The effect was galvanizing and long-term:
Stegner believed that no "course in creative writing, whether self administered or offered by a school, could propose a better set of exercises" than this method of Hemingway's. Aspirants through to the present day have adopted Hemingway's manner on the page and in life. One can stop writing mid-sentence in order to return with momentum the following morning; aim to make one's stories the tips of icebergs; and refrain from drinking while writing but aim to drink a lot when not writing and sometimes in fact drink while writing as one suspects with good reason that Hemingway himself did, despite saying he didn't. One can cultivate a world-class bullshit detector, as Hemingway urged. One can eschew adverbs at the drop of a hat. These remain workshop mantras in the twenty-first century. (148)
Clinching the deal, the Hemingway aesthetic allowed writing to be gradeable, and thus helped workshops proliferate:
Hemingway's methods are readily hospitable to group application and communal judgment. A great challenge for the creative writing classroom is how to regulate an activity ... whose premise is the validity and importance of subjective accounts of experience. The notion of personal accuracy has to remain provisionally supreme. On what grounds does a teacher correct student choices? Hemingway offered an answer, taking prose style in a publicly comprehensible direction, one subject to analysis, judgment, and replication. ... One classmate can point to metaphors drawn from a reality too distant from the characters' worldview. Another can strike out those adverbs. (151)
Bennett then points out that the predecessors of the New Critics, the conservative Southern Agrarians, thought they'd found in Hemingway almost their ideal novelist (alas, he wasn't Southern). "The reactionary view of Hemingway," Bennett writes, "became the consensus orthodoxy." Hemingway's concrete details don't offer clear messages, and thus they allowed his work to be "universal" — and universalism was the ultimate goal not only of the Southern Agrarians, but of so many conservatives and liberals after WWII, when art and literature were seen as a means of uniting the world and thus defeating Communism and U.S. enemies. "Universal" didn't mean actually
universal in some equal exchange of ideas and beliefs — it meant imposing American ideals, expectations, and dreams across the globe. (And consequently opening up the world to American business.)
Such a discussion of how Hemingway influenced creative writing programs made me think of other ways complex writing was made appealing to broad audiences — for instance, much of what Bennett writes parallels with some of the ideas in work such as Creating Faulkner's Reputation
by Lawrence H. Schwartz and especially William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist
, where Daniel Singal proposes
that Faulkner's alcoholism, and one alcohol-induced health crisis in November 1940 especially, turned the last 20 years of Faulkner's life and writing into not only a shadow of its former achievement, but a mirror of the (often conservative) critical consensus that built up around him through the 1940s. Faulkner became teachable, acceptable, "universal" in the eyes of even conservative critics, as well as in Faulkner's own pickled mind, which his famous Nobel Prize banquet speech
so perfectly shows.
(Thus some of my hesitation around Bennett's too easy use of the word "modernist" throughout Workshop of Empire
— the strain of Modernism he's talking about is a sanitized, domesticated, popularized, easy-listening Modernism. It's Hemingway, not Stein. It's late Faulkner, not Absalom, Absalom!
. It's white, macho-male, heterosexual, apolitical. The influence seems clear, but it chafes against my love of a broader, weirder Modernism to see it labeled only as "modernism" generally.)
Then there's Henry James. Not for the students, but the teachers:
As with Hemingway, James performed both an inner and an outer function for the discipline. In his prefaces and other essays, he established theories of modern fiction that legitimated its status as a discipline worthy of the university. Yet in his powers of parsing reality infinitesimally, James became an emblem similar to Hemingway, a practitioner of resolutely anti-Marxian fiction in an era starved for the same. (152)
Reducing the influence and appeal here to simply the anti-Marxian is a tic produced by Bennett's yearning for the return of the Popular Front, because his own evidence shows that the immense influence of Hemingway and James served not only to veer teachers, students, writers, and critics away from any whiff of agit-prop, but that it created an aesthetic not only hostile to Upton Sinclair but to the 19th century Decadents and Symbolists, to much of the Harlem Rennaissance, to most forms of popular literature, and to any writers who might seem too difficult, abstruse, or weird (imagine Samuel Beckett in a typical writing workshop!).
As Bennett makes clear, the idea
of Henry James's writing practice more than any of James's actual texts is what held through the decades. "He did at least five things for the discipline," Bennett says (152-153):
- His Prefaces assert the supremacy of the author, and "the early MFA programs depended above all on a faith that literary meaning could be stable and stabilized; that the author controlled the literary text, guaranteed its significance, and mastered the reader."
- James's approach was one of research and selection, which is highly appealing to research universities. Writing becomes a laboratory, the writer an experimenter who experiments succeed when the proper elements are selected and balanced. "He identified 'selection' as the major undertaking of the artist and perceived in the world a landscape without boundaries from which to do the selecting." Revision is key to the experiment, and revision should be limitless. Revision is virtue.
- James was anti-Romantic in a particular way: "James centered modern fiction on art rather than the artist, helping to shape the doctrines of impersonality so important to criticism from the 1920s through the 1950s. He insulated the aesthetic object from the deleterious encroachments of ego." Thus the object can be critiqued in the workshop, not the creator.
- "James nonetheless kept alive the romantic spirit of creative inspiration and drew a line between those who have it and those who don't." He often sounds mystical in his Prefaces (less so his Notebooks). The craft of writing can be taught, but the art of writing is the realm of genius.
- "James regarded writing as a profession and theorized it as one." The writer is someone who labors over material, and the integrity of the writer is equal to the integrity of the process, which leads to the integrity of the final text.
These ideas took hold and were replicated, passed down not only through workshops, but through numerous handbooks written for aspiring writers.
The effect, ultimately, Bennett asserts, was to stigmatize intellect. Writing must not be a process of thought, but a process of feeling. It must be sensory. "No ideas but in things!" A convenient ideology for times of political turmoil, certainly.
Semester after semester, handbook after handbook, professor after professor, the workshops were where, in the university, the senses were given pride of place, and this began as an ideological imperative. The emphasis on particularity, which remains ubiquitous today, inviolable as common sense, was a matter for debate as recently as 1935. The debate, in the 21st century, is largely over. (171)
I wonder. From writers and students I sense — and this is anecdotal, personal, sensory! — a desire for something more than the old Imagist ways. A desire for thought in fiction. For politics, but not a simple politics of vulgar Marxism. The ubiquity of dystopian fiction signals some of that, perhaps. Dystopian fiction is being written by both the hackiest of hacks and the highest of high lit folks. It shows a desire for imagination, but a particular sort of imagination: an imagination about society. Even at its most personal, navel-gazing, comforting, and self-justifying
, it's still at least trying to wrestle with more than the concrete, more than the story-iceberg.
So, too, the efflorescence of different types of writing programs and different types of teachers throughout the U.S. today suggests that the era of the aesthetic Bennett describes may be, if not over, at least far less hegemonic. Bennett cites its apex as somewhere around 1985, and that seems right to me. (I might bump it to 1988: the last full year of Reagan's presidency and the publication of Raymond Carver's selected stories, Where I'm Calling From
.) The people who graduated from the prestigious programs then went on to become the administrators later, but at this point most of them have retired or are close to retirement. There are still narrow aesthetics
, but there's plenty else going on. Most importantly, writers with quite different backgrounds from the old guard are becoming not just the teachers, but the administrators. Bennett notes that some of the criticism he received for earlier versions
of his ideas pointed to these changes:
I was especially convinced by the testimony of those who argued that the Iowa Writers' Workshop under Lan Samantha Chang's directorship has different from Frank Conroy's iteration of that program, which I attended in the late 1990s and whose atmosphere planted in my heart the suspicion that, for some reason, the field of artistic possibilities was being narrowed exactly where it should be broadest. In the twenty-first century, things have changed both at Iowa and at the many programs beyond Iowa, where few or none of my conclusions might have pertained in the first place. (163)
That's an important caveat there. The present is not the past, but the past contributed to the present, and it's a past that we're only now starting to recover.
There's much more to be investigated, as I'm sure Bennett knows. The role of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference
and similar institutions would add some more detail to the study; similarly, I think someone needs to write about the intersections of creative writing programs and composition/rhetoric programs in the second half of the twentieth century. (Much more needs to be written about CUNY during Mina Shaughnessy's
time there, for instance, or about Teachers & Writers
.) But the value of Bennett's book is that it shows us that many of the ideas about what makes writing (and writers) "good" can be — should be — historicized. Such ideas aren't timeless and universal, and they didn't come from nowhere. Bennett provides a map to some of the wheres from whence they came.
|a box of Blood|
Though delayed, my debut collection, Blood: Stories
, now exists. I know because I received copies of it straight from the printer. That means it's also going to arrive at the distributor within the next day or so, and from there ... out into the world.
I'll have plenty more to say later, I'm sure. For now, I'm just going to go marvel at the thing itself...
Read the rest of this post
Posting here is likely to continue to be sparse for a while, aside from occasional announcement-type notes such as this one. I'm preparing for Ph.D. qualifying exams and anything not related to that and/or to the impending release of Blood: Stories
has been cut from my waking hours since this summer.Blood: Stories
has an official release date of February 20. It is at the printer now as I write this, and can be ordered not only from the publisher, but also from Amazon
(U.S.), Barnes & Noble
, and Small Press Distribution
. (It hasn't hit Book Depository yet, but when/if it does, I'll post a link, as that's often the least expensive way to order internationally.) There will be an e-book version eventually, but not until this summer at the earliest. BLP also has a new subscription series for their books
, which has various options, all of which are less expensive than buying the books individually.
I'll be in New York City this coming weekend to read at the Sunday Salon series on February 21
at Jimmy's No. 43 (43 E. 7th St.) at 7pm alongside Alison Kinney, Thaddeus Rutkowski, and Terese Svoboda. If you're in the area, stop by!
Various other events are coming up, too. I'll mention them here, but you can also keep up with things via Twitter
, my newsletter
, and/or the book's Facebook page
Speaking of books, Eric Schaller's debut story collection, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air
, has now been released by Undertow Publications (and is available as both a bookbook and an e-book at the usual outlets). It's a marvelous concatenation of stories of horror, dark fantasy, and general weirdness. Some are disturbing, some are amusing, some are both. It's a really smart, entertaining book. I'm especially pleased it's coming out now, near to the release of my own collection, because Eric has been my erstwhile partner in a number of crimes, including The Revelator
(a new issue of which is impending. Even more than its been impending before). Eric hasn't always gotten the credit he deserves as fiction writer because he only publishes stories now and then, and often in somewhat esoteric places, so it's a real pleasure and even a (dare I say it?) revelation
to have a whole book of his work and to get to see the range and complexity of his writing.
Finally, in terms of new work, I have exciting news (well, exciting to me) -- my story "Mass" will appear in the next print issue (issue 66) of Conjunctions
. It's a tale of academia, mass shootings, and theoretical physics. Having it published by Conjunctions
is almost as exciting for me as having a book out, because Conjunctions
is my favorite literary journal, the place where the aesthetic feels most convivial to my own, and I've been submitting to it for almost 20 years. I've had stories on the website twice ("The Art of Comedy"
and "The Last Vanishing Man"
), and numerous stories that came close, but were not quite right for the theme of the issue or didn't quite fit with other material or just weren't quite to the editors' tastes. Getting into the pages of Conjunctions
means more to me than getting into The New Yorker
or any other magazine would (although I'd love the New Yorker
I think that's it for news. Thanks for reading, and thanks for bearing with me!
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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We're almost there — my debut book, Blood: Stories
, was scheduled for January release, but is going to be a couple weeks late, because things happen, it's a small press, etc. It looks like it's going to be a really beautiful object and well worth the wait. I expect copies will be making their way out in the world around the second week of February.
The book's info has been submitted to the distributor (Small Press Distribution
), and should appear in their databases early next week, which will allow bookstores and libraries to place orders. It should also be hitting all the online vendors soon. (It's been on Goodreads
for a while.) That means the pre-order sale from Black Lawrence Press
will end, so if you want to order directly from the publisher at a discount, you'll need to do it immediately to get the discount.
People have asked about e-books. BLP does not yet do e-books, though they're hoping to have them by the end of the year. Plans are afoot. But I doubt there will be any before summer at the earliest.
I'll be stepping out of my hermitage and making some appearances to support the book. The first will be Sunday Salon in New York City
on February 21. Then I'll be at the AWP Conference
in Los Angeles (March 30-April 2), where I'm doing a couple of signings and a reading. This summer, I'll be at Readercon
. More details on all of this later. My newsletter
are good ways to keep up with what I'm up to.
(Reviewers: Either BLP or I can provide a PDF, an unofficial e-book, or, if you're really convincing about your need for it, a physical copy [they're a small press with limited resources, and hardcopies are not cheap even for the publisher]. Email me
And here is the table of contents:
“How to Play with Dolls”
Weird Tales, no. 352, November/December 2008
One Story, no. 81, 2006
Sunday Salon, November 2009
“Getting a Date for Amelia”
Failbetter, no 4, 2001
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, no. 21, November 2007
Icarus, Winter 2010.
Mythic, edited by Mike Allen. Mythic Delirium Books, 2006
“How Far to Englishman’s Bay”
Nightmare, August 2013
“The Last Elegy”
Logorrhea, edited by John Klima. Bantam Books, 2007
The Flash, edited by Peter Wild, Social Disease, 2007
“New Practical Physics”
Say…What’s the Combination, 2007
“Where’s the Rest of Me?”
“The Art of Comedy”
Web Conjunctions, 2006
“Walk in the Light While There is Light”
Failbetter, no. 42, 2012
“A Map of the Everywhere”
Interfictions, edited by Delia Sherman & Theodora Goss, Small Beer Press/ Interstitial Arts Foundation, 2007
Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, edited by Steve Berman. Lethe Press, 2013
“The Island Unknown”
Unstuck 2, 2012
Earlier this month, just back from a marvelous and productive MLA Convention
in Austin, Texas, I started to write a post in response to an Inside Higher Ed article on "Selling the English Major"
, which discusses ways English departments are dealing with the national decline in enrollments in the major. I had ideas about the importance of senior faculty teaching intro courses (including First-Year Composition), the value of getting out of the department now and then, the pragmatic usefulness of making general education courses in the major more topical and appealing, etc.
After writing thousands of words, I realized none of my ideas, many of which are simply derived from things I've observed schools doing, would make much of a difference. There are deeper, systemic problems, problems of culture and history and administration, problems that simply can't be dealt with at the department level. Certainly, at the department level people can be experts at shooting themselves in the foot, but more commonly what I see are pretty good departments having their resources slashed and transferred to science and business departments, and then those pretty good departments are told to do better with less. (And often they do, which only increases the problem, because if they can do so well with half of what they had before, surely they could stand a few more cuts...) I got through thousands of words about all this and then just dissolved into despair.
Then I read a fascinating post from Roger Whitson: "English as a Division Rather than a Department"
. It's not really about the idea of increasing enrollment in English programs, though I think some of the suggestions would help with that, but rather with more fundamental questions of what, exactly, this whole discipline even is
. Those are questions I find more exciting than dispiriting, so here are some thoughts on it all, offered with the proviso that these are quick reactions to Whitson's piece and likely have all sorts of holes in them...
The idea of creating a large division and separating it into departments is not one I support, because I think English departments ought to be more, not less, unified, but it nonetheless provides a template for thinking beyond where we are. (I don't think Whitson or Aaron Kashtan, whose proposal on Facebook Whitson built off of, desires a less unified discipline. But without clear mechanisms for encouraging, requiring, and funding interdisciplinarity, the divisions will divide, not multiply.)
The quoted Facebook post in Whitson's piece basically describes the English department at my university, and each of those pieces (literature, composition, linguistics, ESL, English education, creative writing) has some autonomy, more or less. I'm not actually convinced that that autonomy has been entirely healthy, because it's led to resource wars and has discouraged interdisciplinary work (with each little group stuck talking to each other and not talking enough beyond their own area because there's little administrative support for it and, indeed, quite the opposite: the balkanization has, if anything, increased the bureaucracy and given people more busy-work).
English departments need to seek out opportunities for unity and collaboration. I don't see how dividing things even more than they already are would achieve that, unless frequent collaboration were somehow mandated — for instance, one of the best things about the program
I attended for my master's degree at Dartmouth was that it required us to take some team-taught courses, which allowed fascinating interdisciplinary conversations and work. They could do that because they were Dartmouth and had the money to let lots of faculty collaborate. Few schools are willing to budget that way; indeed, at many places the movement is in the other direction: more students taught by fewer faculty.
Nonetheless, though I am skeptical of separating English departments more than they already are, I like some of Whitson's proposals for ways to reconfigure the idea of what we do and who we are and could be. Even the simple act of using these ideas as jumping-off points for (utopian) conversation is useful.Planetarity
Here's a key point from Whitson: "I propose asking for more diverse hires by illustrating how important marginalized discourses are to the fields we study, while also investing heavily in opportunities for new interdisciplinary collectives and collaborations." (Utopian, but we're here for utopian discussion, not the practicalities of convincing the Powers That Be of the value of such an iconoclastic, and likely expensive, approach...)
This connects to a lot of conversations I observed or was part of at MLA, particularly among people in the Global Anglophone Forum
(where nobody seems to like the term "global anglophone"). Discussions of the difficulties
for scholars of work outside the US/Britosphere were common. At least on the evidence of job ads, it seems departments are, overall, consolidating away from such areas as postcolonial studies and toward broader, more general, and often more US/UK-centric curriculums. The center is reasserting itself curricularly, defining margins as extensions, roping them into its self-conception and nationalistic self-justification. The effect of austerity on humanities departments has been devasting for diversity of any sort.
I like the idea of "Reading and Writing Planetary Englishes" as a replacement for English Lit, ESL, and parts of Rhet/Comp. Heck, I like it as a replacement for English departments generally. It's not perfect, but nothing is, and "English" is such a boring, imposing term for our discipline...
(Where Comparative Literature — "Reading and Writing Planetary Not-Englishes" — fits within that, I don't know, and it's a question mostly unaddressed in Whitson's post and will remain unaddressed here because questions of literature in translation and literature in languages other than English are too big for what I'm up to at the moment. They are necessary questions, however.)
Spivak's idea of "planetarity" ("rather," as she says, "than continental, global, or worldly" [Death of a Discipline
72]) is well worth debating, and may be especially appealing in these days of seemingly endless discussion of "the anthropocene" — but what exactly "planetarity" means to Spivak is not easy to pin down. (She can be an infuriatingly vague writer.) Here's one of the most concrete statements on it from Death of a Discipline
If we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away. And thus to think of it is already to transgress, for, in spite of our forays into what we metaphorize, differently, as outer and inner space, what is above and beyond our own reach is not continuous with us as it is not, indeed, specifically discontinuous. We must persistently educate ourselves into this peculiar mindset. (73)
A more comprehensible statement on planetarity appears in Chapter 21 of An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
, "World Systems and the Creole":
The experimental musician Laurie Anderson, when asked why she chose to be artist-in-residence at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, put it this way: "I like the scale of space. I like thinkng about human beings and what worms are. We are really worms and specks. I find a certain comfort in that."
She has put it rather aggressively. That is not my intellectual style, but my point is close to hers. You see how very different it is from a sense of being the custodians of our very own planet, for god or for nature, although I have no objection to such a sense of accountability, where our own home is our other, as in self and world. But that is not the planetarity I was talking about. (451)
On the next page, she makes a useful statement: "We cannot read if we do not make a serious linguistic effort to enter the epistemic structures presupposed by a text." (Technically, yes, we can
read [decode dictionary meanings of words] without such effort, but whatever understanding we come to will be narcissistic, solipsistic.)
And then on p.453: "...I have learned the hard way how dangerous it is to confuse the limits of one's knowledge with the limits of what can be known, a common problem in the academy."
Spivak (here and elsewhere) exhorts us to give up on totalizing ideas. She quotes Édouard Glissant on the infinite knowledge necessary to understand cultural histories and interactions: "No matter," Glissant says, "how many studies and references we accumulate (though it is our profession to carry out such things properly), we will never reach the end of such a volume; knowing this in advance makes it possible for us to dwell there. Not knowing the totality does not constitute a weakness."
That could be another motto for our new approach: "Not knowing the totality does not constitute a weakness."
What can be known, then, if not a totality, a thing to be mastered? Our limitations.
What I personally like about transnational, global, planetary, etc. approaches is that their impossibility is obvious and any pretense toward totalized knowledge is going to be laughed at, as it should be.
One point Whitson makes that I disagree with, or at least disagree with the phrasing of, is: "Most undergraduate students in English do not have a good grasp of rhetorical devices (kairos, chaismus, prosopopoeia
) and these would replace 'close reading' (a term that lacks the specificity of the more developed rhetorical tradition) in student learning outcomes and primary classes."
Reading is more than rhetorical analysis. "Close reading" may have a bad reputation, and in some of the ways it's used it deserves that bad reputation, but it remains a useful term for a necessary skill. Especially as we think about ways of communicating what we do to audiences skeptical of the humanities generally, a term like "close reading", which can be understood by people who aren't specialists, seems to me less alienating, and less likely to produce misunderstandings, than "rhetoric". But that may just be my own dislike of the word "rhetoric" and my general feeling that rhetorical analysis is, frankly, dull. (There's a reason I'm not a rhet/comp PhD, despite being at a great school for it.) I wouldn't pull a Whitson and say "We must have no rhetorical analysis and only close reading!" That's silly. There are plenty of reasons to teach rhetorical analysis in introductory and advanced forms. There are also many good reasons to teach and encourage close reading. Making it into an opposition and a zero sum game is counterproductive. After all, rhetorical analysis requires close reading and some close reading requires rhetorical analysis.
In any case, instead of debating rhetorical analysis vs. close reading vs. whatever, what I think we ought to be looking at first is the seemingly simple activity of making meaning from what we read. That unites a lot of approaches with productive questions. (John Ciardi's title How Does a Poem Mean?
has been a guiding, and fruitful, principle of my own reading for a long time.) From there, we can then begin to talk about interpretive communities
, systems of textual analysis, etc: ways of reading, and ways of making sense of texts. Certainly, that includes methods of argument and persuasion. But also much more.
There's much to learn from the field of rhetoric and composition on all that. (In fact, a term from rhet/comp, discourse communities
, can be quite useful here if applied both to the act of reading and the act of writing.) Reading should not — cannot — be the province only of literary scholars. A recent issue of Pedagogy
offers some fascinating articles on teaching reading from a comp/rhet point of view. Further, coming back to Spivak, it seems to me that her work, for all its interdisciplinarity, frequently demonstrates ways that readers have been led astray by not reading closely enough, and her own best work is often in her close readings of texts.
Whitson proceeds to a utopian idea of planetarity (one inherent in Spivak) as a way of broadening ideas of literature beyond the human. This would certainly make room for eco-critics, anthropocene-ists, animal studies folks, etc. This isn't my own interest, and I will admit to quite a lot of skepticism about broadening the idea of "literature" so much that it becomes meaningless, but it's clear that we need such a space within English departments, even for people who think plants write lit. Our departments ought to contain multitudes.Media
I've taught media courses, and obviously have an interest in, particularly, cinema
. I don't think most such studies belong in English departments, so I am inclined to like the idea of it as a separate department within a general division. While there are plenty of English teachers who teach film and media well, and as an academic field it has some of its origins there, cinema especially seems to me to need people who have significant understanding of visual and dramatic arts. (Just as "new media" [now getting old] folks probably need some understanding of basic computer science.)
Media studies is inherently a site of interdisciplinary work, and that's a good thing. Working side-by-side, people who are trained in visual arts, theatre arts, technologies, etc. can produce new ways of knowing the world.
Something that media studies can do especially well is mix practitioners and analysts. Academia really likes to separate the "practical" people from the "theory" people. This is an unfortunate separation, one that has been detrimental to English departments especially, as literary scholars and writers are too often suspicious of each other. (I'll spare you my rant about how being both a literary scholar and a creative writer is unthinkable in conventional academic English department discourse. Another time.) You'll learn a lot about understanding cinema by taking a film editing class, just as you'll learn a lot about understanding literature by taking a creative writing class. Indeed, I often think the benefit of writing workshops (and their ilk) is not in how they produce better writers, but in how they may enable better readers.
On the other hand, and to argue in some ways against myself, writing and reading teachers ought to be well versed in media, because media mediates our lives and thoughts and reading and writing. To what extent should a department of reading and writing be focused on media, I don't know. Media tends to take over. It's flashy and attracts students. But one thing I fear losing is the refuge
of the English department — the one place where we can escape the flash and fizz of techno-everything, where we can sit and think about a sentence written on an old piece of paper for a while.Education
I'm less convinced by Whitson's arguments about a division of "Composition Pedagogy and English Education". Why put Composition with English Education and not put some literary study there? Is literary study inherent in "English Education"? Why separate Composition, though? Why not call it "Teaching Reading and Writing"? Perhaps I just misunderstand the goals with this one.
It seems to me that English Education should be some sort of meta-discipline. It doesn't make much sense as a department unto itself in the scheme Whitson sets up, or most schemes, for that matter. Any sort of educational field is very difficult to set up well because it requires students not only to learn the material of their area, but to learn then how to teach that material effectively.
To me, it makes more sense to spread discussion of pedagogy throughout all departments, because one way to learn things is to try to teach them. Ideas about education, and practice at teaching, shouldn't be limited only to people who plan to become teachers, though they may need more intensive training in it.
If we want to be radical about how we restructure the discipline, integrating English Education more fully into the discipline as a whole, rather than separating it out, would be the way to go.Writing
Whitson proposes merging creative and professional writing as one department in the division. This is an interesting idea, but I'm not convinced. Again, my own prejudices are at play: in my heart of hearts, I don't think undergraduates should major in writing. I think there should be writing courses, and there should be lots of writers employed by English departments, but the separation of writing and reading is disastrous at the undergraduate level, leading to too many writers who haven't read nearly enough and don't know how to read anything outside of their narrow, personal comfort zone.
In the late '90s, Tony Kushner scandalized the Association of Theatre in Higher Education's annual conference with a keynote speech
in which he (modestly) proposed that all undergraduate arts majors be abolished. (It was published in the January 1998 issue of American Theatre
magazine.) It's one of my favorite things Kushner has ever written. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's a taste:
And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentameter in their sleep, how many think that "materialism" means that you own too many clothes, and "idealism" means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors--and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passe. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it's still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler, and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.
What I would hope you might consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they've arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They're gullible and adoring; they'll believe you. And then at least you'll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say "But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!" and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you'll need all the credits you can cadge together.
Call it the pedagogy of pulling a switcheroo. A good pedagogy, at least sometimes. It doesn't have to be, indeed should not be, limited to Western classics, as Kushner (inadvertently?) implies, and the program he calls for would not be so limited, because the kinds of conversations that he wants students to be able to recognize and join are ones that inevitably became (if they weren't already) transnational, global, even maybe a bit planetary.
So yes, if I
were emperor of universities, I'd abolish undergraduate arts majors, but keep lots of artists as undergraduate teachers. I'd also let the artists teach whatever the heck they wanted. Plenty of writers would be better off teaching innovative classes that aren't the gazillionth writing workshop of their career. Boxing writers into teaching only writing classes is a pernicious practice, one that perpetuates the idea that the creation of literature and the study of literature are separate activities.
But let's come back to Whitson's first proposal: planetarity and the making of textual meaning.
My own inclination is not to separate so much, but to seek out more unities. What unites us? That we study and practice ways of reading and ways of writing. We should encourage more reading in writing classes and more varied types of writing in reading classes. We should toss out our inherited, traditional nationalisms and look at other ways that texts flow around us and around not-us. (Writers do. What good writer was only influenced by texts from one nation?) We should seek out the limits of our knowledge, admit them, challenge them, celebrate them.Imagination
Perhaps what we should think about is imagination. We need more imagination, and we need to educate and promote imagination. So many of the problems of our world stem from failures of imagination — from the fear
of imagination. If you want to be a radical educator, be an educator who inspires students to imagine in better, fuller, deeper ways. The conservative forces of culture and society promote exactly the opposite, because the desire of the status quo is to produce unimaginative (unquestioning, obedient) subjects.
English departments, like arts departments and philosophy departments, are marvelously positioned to encourage imagination. Any student who enters an English class should leave with an expanded imagination. Any student who studies to become an English teacher should be trained in the training of imaginations. We should all be advocates for imagination, activists for its value, its necessity.
One of the best classes I've ever taught was called Writing and the Creative Process. (You can find links to a couple of the syllabi on my teaching page
, though they can't really give a sense of what made the courses work well.) It was a continuously successful course in spite of me. The stakes were low, because it was an introductory course, and yet the learning we all did was sometimes life-changing. This was not my fault, but the fault of having stumbled into a pedagogy that gave itself over entirely to the practice of creativity, which is to say the practice of imagination. Because it was a pre-Creative Writing class, the focus wasn't even on becoming better writers
but rather on becoming more creative (imaginative) people
. That was the key to the success. Becoming a better writer is a nice goal, but becoming a more creative/imaginative person is a vital goal. Were I titling it, I'd have called that course Writing and Creative Processes
, because one of the things I seek to help the students understand is that there is no one process for either writing or for thinking creatively. But no matter. Just by having to think about, talk about, and practice creativity a couple times a week, we made our lives better. I say we
, because I learned as much by teaching that class as the students did; maybe more.
English departments should become departments of writing, reading, and thinking with creative processes.
I began with Spivak, so I'll come back to her, this time from her recent book Readings
And today I am insisting that all teachers, including literary criticism teachers, are activists of the imagination. It is not a question of just producing correct descriptions, which should of course be produced, but which can always be disproved; otherwise nobody can write dissertations. There must be, at the same time, the sense of how to train the imagination, so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other. (54)
Training — encouraging, energizing — the imagination means a training in aesthetics, in techniques of structure, in ways of valuing form, in how we find and recognize and respond to the beautiful and sublime.
I'm persuaded by Steve Shaviro's arguments in No Speed Limit
about aesthetics as something at least unassimilable by neoliberalism (if not in direct resistance to it): "When I find something to be beautiful, I am 'indifferent' to any uses that thing might have; I am even indifferent to whether the thing in question actually exists or not. This is why aesthetic sensation is the one realm of existence that is not reducible to political economy." (That's just a little sample. See "Accelerationist Aesthetics"
for more elaboration, and the book for the full argument.)
Because the realm of the aesthetic has some ability to sit outside neoliberalism, it is in many ways the most radical realm we can submit ourselves to in the contemporary world, where neoliberalism assimilates so much else.
But training the imagination is not only an aesthetic education, it's also epistemological. Spivak again:
An epistemological performance is how you construct yourself, or anything, as an object of knowledge. I have been consistently asking you to rethink literature as an object of knowledge, as an instrument of imaginative activism. In Capital, Volume 1 (1867), for example, Marx was asking the worker to rethink him/herself, not as a victim of capitalism but as an "agent of production". That is training the imagination in epistemological performance. This is why Gramsci calls Marx's project "epistemological". It is not only epistemological, of course. Epistemological performance is something without which nothing will happen. That does not mean you stop there. Yet, without a training for this kind of shift, nothing survives. (Readings 79-80)
If we're seeking, as Whitson calls us to, to create more diverse (and imaginative) departments of English, then perhaps we can do so by thinking about ways of approaching aesthetics and epistemology. We can be agents of imagination. We don't need nationalisms for that, and we don't need to strengthen divisive organizational structures that have riven many an English department.
We can — we must — imagine better.
A review by another Matt
, Matt Zoller Seitz, convinced me to watch Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
, and I'm glad I did. I wasn't going to, but these sentences got me curious: "It is wrenching but never exploitive. It is impressively skeptical of the same mission that it takes on its shoulders: to make something positive from a senseless crime without diminishing its senselessness."
What kept me from the film had been a fear of it being maudlin or superficial. I know the Shepard case well, I've seen The Laramie Project
a couple of times, I've heard Judy Shepard speak about her son's murder. I didn't think more could, or even should, be made of it. The film proved me wrong.Matthew Shepard
was only a year (and a couple months) older than me. He died a few days before my 23rd birthday. Despite the barrage of national (and international) news coverage, I didn't learn of his murder for a few weeks, because I was in the midst of my first year working full-time at a boarding school, and I barely had time to sleep, never mind keep up with the news. At some point, a friend from college emailed and asked what the climate was like where I was, given how rural and isolated it seemed in my notes to her, and she worried, she said, because of what had happened to the boy in Wyoming. I didn't know what she was talking about at the time, but I soon did.
A rural gay man killed by homophobia. Once I knew about the story, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I followed the trial coverage obsessively. I thought I knew the story pretty well, but one of the excellent things Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
does is shift the angle. It's no longer the story of someone defined by his murder, though the murder is of course important, but rather the story of Matt Shepard, his friends, and his family. It tries to recover the Matt Shepard who became Matthew Shepard, a symbol for the world. That turns out to be a powerful, gripping, and deeply moving quest.
|Michele Josue & Matt Shepard|
It works so well because director Michele Josue is perfectly positioned to do this work — she went to high school with Shepard, but doesn't seem to have stayed closely in touch with him later, and so the film is partly about her own recovery of Matt, her own quest to fill in gaps. What she discovers and chronicles are both the material remnants of his life and, more importantly, the network of people who knew him and remember him. She finds his presence by mapping his absence.
While the film is informative and quite moving with regard to his murder, it's not so much a true crime movie as it is a story of how friendship works and how friendship lasts. It's significant that Josue made the movie fifteen years after Shepard's death, because the time is enough to allow some perspective and to allow us to look back on the legacy, but it's also not so much time that major figures within the story are no longer available. It's also not enough time, if there is such a thing as enough time, to get rid of the pain. A significant section of the film explores Josue's desire to escape grief, and her realization that such escape is not only not possible, but not desireable.
A question that comes up repeatedly, though quietly, throughout the second half of the movie is: Why did this particular crime capture the world's attention? As multiple people point out in the film, gay bashing wasn't (and isn't) especially rare. Dozens of other people were killed for being (or being perceived as) gay in 1998, but it was Shepard's story that moved the world. There's no single answer, and no really definitive answer, though some good partial answers surface, the most convincing being how much Shepard looked and seemed like an ordinary (white) boy from down the street, and how particularly brutal his murder was. (I suspect it resonated, too, because we couldn't help imagining the many hours he spent bleeding alone before he was discovered and helped, though it was too late, ultimately, to save his life. If we imagined that unimaginable time, and if we did so as someone who lived or had once lived in terror of being hurt or killed if our sexuality were known, the resonance was overwhelming and devastating.) He could have been anybody's son, somebody says in the film, which isn't exactly true, of course, but it highlights one of the perceptions that made Shepard's such an irresistible story — his was a familiar sort of face, his family a seemingly familiar sort of family, and his story came from the heart of the American mythos: not just rural but frontier
America, where he was left to die while tied to a fence post. (Later, Brokeback Mountain
would further publicize the idea of all-American gayness through its setting.)
It doesn't feel to me like a long time from Matthew Shepard's death in 1998, and yet it's more than 17 years now. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday at the beginning of this month. It's hard to imagine Matthew Shepard, the symbol, at thirty-nine, but Josue helps make a thirty-nine-year-old Matt imaginable, and thus makes his death all the more heartbreaking.
That heartbreaking quality surprised me in the film, because after the initial shock of the story, for those of us who weren't friends with Matt Shepard, his death actually came to stand for a lot of good progress that was made afterward. I have very mixed feelings about the assimilationist success of Gay, Inc.
, but I really never expected to see federal gay marriage in my lifetime, to see gay kisses become relatively normalized on tv and in mainstream movies, to see anything remotely like Sense8
from anyplace other than the very indie and very queer world, etc. Watching Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
, I remembered what it used to feel like to live in terror of anybody finding out, or even just suspecting, that you're not entirely heterosexual. It's not that the terror's all gone, or that we're all safe and happy and prosperous etc., or that there aren't still bashings and murders (in 2014 the FBI counted
"1,248 victims [of hate crimes] targeted due to sexual-orientation bias" and suicide remains
an ever-present problem). But in many places of the U.S. now, it is easier to live openly as a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. The culture (or, at least, part of the dominant culture) has shifted, and Matthew Shepard's murder — and the conversations and work that murder inspired — contributed to the shift.Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
reminds us of this, and it does a lot more besides. It pays close attention to how people continued their lives after his death. It shows why his death remains meaningful, and why his life deserves to be remembered. It suggests much about forgiveness, about grieving, about news media, and about living with questions that can't be answered. It is, finally, a beautiful tribute to a friend, and to a grief that cannot, and should not, be lost.
I was honored to be the nonfiction editor for a special issue of Fantasy
magazine, part of the ever-growing Destroy series
from Lightspeed, Nightmare,
— this time, QUEERS DESTROY FANTASY!
The editor-in-fabulousness/fiction editor was Christopher Barzak, the reprints editor was Liz Gorinsky, and the art editor was Henry Lien. Throughout this month, some pieces will be put online. So far, Austin Bunn's
magnificent story "Ledge"
is now available, as are our various editorial statements
. More will be released later, but most of the pieces I commissioned are only available by purchasing the ebook
[also available via Weightless
] or paperback
. There are magnificent pieces by Mary Anne Mohanraj, merritt kopas, Keguro Macharia, Ekaterina Sedia, and Ellen Kushner, and only merritt's "Sleepover Manifesto" will be online.
I owe huge thanks to all the contributors I worked with, to the other editors, to managing editor Wendy Wagner who did lots of unsung work behind the scenes, and to John Joseph Adams, who kindly asked me to join the team.
It is far too early to tear down the barricades. Dancing shoes will not do. We still need our heavy boots and mine detectors.1. Seeking Refuge in Feminist Revolutions in Modernism
—Jane Marcus, "Storming the Toolshed"
Last week, I spent two days at the Modernist Studies Association
conference in Boston. I hadn't really been sure that I was going to go. I hemmed and hawed. I'd missed the call for papers, so hadn't even had a chance to possibly get on a panel or into a seminar. Conferences bring out about 742 different social anxieties that make their home in my backbrain. I would only know one or maybe two people there. Should I really spend the money on conference fees for a conference I was highly ambivalent about? I hemmed. I hawed.
In the end, though, I went, mostly because my advisor would be part of a seminar session honoring the late Jane Marcus
, who had been her advisor. (I think of Marcus now as my grandadvisor, for multiple reasons, as will become clear soon.) The session was titled "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers: Feminist Revolutions in Modernism", the title being an homage to Marcus's essay "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers" from the 1981 anthology New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf
, itself an homage to the phrase in Woolf's A Room of One's Own
. Various former students and colleagues of Marcus would circulate papers among themselves, then discuss them together at the seminar. Because of the mechanics of seminars, participants need to sign up fairly early, and I'd only registered for the conference itself a few days before it began, so there wasn't even any guarantee I'd been able to observe; outside participation is at the discretion of the seminar leader. Thankfully, the seminar leader allowed three of us to join as observers. (I'm trying not to use any names here, simply because of the nature of a seminar. I haven't asked anybody if I can talk about them, and seminars are not public, though the participants are listed in the conference program.)
Marcus was a socialist feminist who was very concerned with bringing people to the table, whether metaphorical or literal, and so of course nobody in the seminar would put up with the auditors being out on the margins, and they insisted that we sit at the table and introduce ourselves. Without knowing it, I sat next to a senior scholar in the field whose work has been central to my own. I'd never seen a picture of her, and to my eyes she looked young enough to be a grad student (the older I get, the younger everybody else gets!). When she introduced herself, I became little more than a fanboy for a moment, and it took all the self-control I could muster not to blurt out some ridiculousness like, "I just love you!" Thankfully, the seminar got started and then there was too much to think about for my inner fanboy to unleash himself. (I did tell her afterwards how useful her work had been to me, because that just seemed polite. Even senior scholars spent a lot of hours working in solitude and obscurity, wondering if their often esoteric efforts will ever be of any use to anybody. I wanted her to knows that hers had.) It soon became the single best event I've ever attended at an academic conference.
To explain why, and to get to the bigger questions I want to address here, I have to take a bit of a tangent to talk briefly about a couple of other events.
The day before the Marcus seminar, I'd attended a terrible panel. The papers that were about things I knew about seemed shallow to me, and the papers not about things I knew about seemed like pointless wankery. I seriously thought about just going home. "These are not my people," I thought. "I do not want to be in their academic world."
I also attended a "keynote roundtable" session where three scholars — Heather K. Love, Janet Lyon, and Tavia Nyong’o — discussed the theme of the conference: modernism and revolution. Sort of. It was an odd event, where Love and Nyong'o were in conversation with each other and Janet Lyon was a bit marginalized, simply because her concerns were somewhat different from Love and Nyong'o's and she hadn't been part of what is apparently a longstanding discussion between them. I mention this not as criticism, really, because though the side-lining of Lyon felt weird and sometimes awkward, the discussion was nonetheless interesting and vexing in a productive way. (I know Love and Nyong'o's work, and appreciate it a lot.) I especially appreciated their ideas about academia as, ideally, a refuge for some types of people who lack a space in other institutions and have been marginalized by ruling powers, even if there are no real solutions, given how deeply infused with ideas of finance and "usefulness" the contemporary university is, how exploitative are the practices of even small schools. (Nyong'o works at NYU, an institution that has become the mascot for neoliberalism
. His recent blog essay "The Student Demand"
is important reading, and was referenced a number of times during the roundtable.) As schools make more and more destructive decisions at the level of administration and without the faculty having much obvious ability to challenge them, the position of the tenure-tracked, salaried faculty member of conscience is difficult, for all sorts of reasons I won't go into here. As Nyong'o and Love pointed out, the moral position must often be that of a criminal in your own institution.
All of this was on my mind the next day as I listened to discussions of Jane Marcus. After the seminar, some of us went out to lunch together and the discussion continued. What I kept thinking about was the idea of refuge, and the way that certain traditions of teaching and writing have opened up spaces of refuge within spaces of hostility. Marcus stands as an exemplar here, both in her writing and her pedagogy. The question everyone kept coming back to was: How do we continue that work?
In her 1982 essay "Storming the Toolshed", Marcus reflected on the position of various feminist critics ("lupines" — she appropriated Quentin Bell's dismissive term for feminist Woolfians, reminding us that it is also a name for a flower
Feminists often feel forced by economic realities to choose other methodologies and structures that will ensure sympathetic readings from university presses.We may be as middle class as Virginia Woolf, but few of us have the economic security her aunt Caroline Emelia Stephen's legacy gave her. The samizdat circulation among networks of feminist critics works only in a system where repression is equal. If all the members are unemployed or underemployed, unpublished or unrecognized, sisterhood flourishes, and sharing is a source of strength. When we all compete for one job or when one lupine grows bigger and bluer than her sisters with unnatural fertilizers from the establishment, the ranks thin out. Times are hard and getting harder.
Listening to her students and colleagues remember her, I was struck by how well Marcus had tended her own garden, how well she had tried to keep it from being fatally poisoned by the unnatural fertilizers of the institutions of which she was a part. She found opportunities for her students to research and publish in all sorts of places, she supported scholars she admired, and when she couldn't find opportunities for other people's work, she did was she could to create them. She was tenacious, dogged, sometimes even insufferable. This clearly did not always lead to the easiest of relationships, even with some of her best friends and favorite students. As with so many brilliant people, her virtues were intimately linked to her faults. Jane Marcus without her faults would not have been Jane Marcus. Faults and all ("I've never been so mad at somebody!"; "We didn't speak to each other for a year"), again and again people said: "Jane gave me my life."
There seemed to be a sense among the seminar participants that the sort of politically-committed, class-conscious feminism that Marcus so proudly stood for is on the wane in academia, and that while the field of modernist studies may be more open to marginalized writers than it was 30 or 40 years ago, the teaching of modernism in university classes remains very male, very Eliot-Pound-Joyce, with a bit of Woolf thrown in as appeasement to the hysterics. (I have no idea whether this is generally accurate, as I have not done any study of what's getting taught in classes that cover modernist stuffs, but it was the specific experience of a number of people at the conference.) Since the late '90s, there's been the historically-minded New Modernist Studies*, but the question keeps coming up: Does the New Modernist Studies do away with gender ... and if so, is the New Modernist Studies a throwback to the pre-feminist days? Anne Fernald looked at the state of things in the introduction to the 2013 issue of Modern Fiction Studies
that she edited, an issue devoted to women writers:
The historical turn has revitalized modernist studies. Beginning in the late 1990s, its impact continues in new book series from Oxford and Columbia University Presses; in the Modernist Studies Association (MSA), whose annual conference has attracted hundreds of scholars; and in burgeoning digital archives such as the Modernist Journals Project. Nonetheless, one hallmark of the new modernist studies has been its lack of serious interest in women writers. Mfs has consistently published feminist work on and by women writers, including special issues on Spark, Bowen, Woolf, and Stein; still, this is the journal’s first issue on feminism as such in nineteen years. Modernism/modernity, the flagship journal of the new modernism and the MSA, has not, in nineteen years, devoted a special issue to a women writer or to feminist theory. Only eight essays in that journal have “feminist” or “feminism” as a key term, while an additional twenty-six have “women” as a key term. And, although The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms includes many women contributors, only one of the twenty-eight chapters mentions women in its title, and, of the six authors mentioned by name, only one—Jean Rhys—is a woman.
Similarly, Marcus's socialism and Marxism may not be especially welcome among the New Modernists, for as Max Brzezinski polemically suggests in "The New Modernist Studies: What's Left of Political Formalism?"
, the New
in New Modernist Studies
could easily slip into the neo
For scholars who have at least some sympathy with Marcus's political stance, there's a lot of deja vu, even weariness. How long, they wonder, must the same battles be fought?
For once, I'm not as pessimistic as other people. Routledge is launching a new journal of feminist modernism (with Anne Fernald as co-editor). Within the world of Virginia Woolf studies, much attention is being paid to Woolf's connections to anti-colonialism and to her ever-more-interesting writings in the last decade of her life. There is a strong transnational and postcolonial tendency among many scholars of modernism of exactly the sort that Marcus herself called for and exemplified, particularly in her later writings. Vigilance is necessary, but vigilance is always necessary. Networks of scholars and traditions of inquiry that Marcus participated in, contributed to, and in some cases founded remain strong.
As some of the people at the conference lamented the steps backward to regressive, patriarchal views, I thought of how lucky I've been in how I've learned to read and perceive this undefinable thing we call "modernism". The modernisms I perceive are ones where women are central. The Joyce-Pound-Eliot modernism is one I'm familiar with, but not one I think of first.2. Foremothers
I discovered Woolf right around the time I discovered Joyce and Kafka. I was too young (12 or 13) to understand any of their work in any meaningful way, but something about them fascinated me. I flipped through their books, which I found at the local college library. I read Kafka's shortest stories. I memorized the first few lines of Finnegans Wake
, though never managed to get more than a few pages into the book itself. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
, enjoying the first chapter very much and not getting a lot from the later ones (I still don't, honestly. My tastes aren't Catholic enough). I skimmed the last section of Ulysses
, looking to see how Joyce made Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness work. And then I read the first few pages of Mrs. Dalloway.
That wasn't a library book, but a book I bought with my scant bits of allowance money, saved up for probably a month. It was a mass market paperback with a bright yellow cover. I read the first 50 or so pages of the book and found it enthralling and perplexing. It ended up being too much for me. But there was something there. The first paragraphs were among the most beautiful things I'd ever read.
Skip ahead five or six years and I'm a student at NYU, studying Dramatic Writing. A friend I respect exhorts me to take a course with Ilse Dusoir Lind, who has mostly retired but comes back now and then to teach a seminar, this term on Faulkner and Hemingway. She wrote some of the earliest critical articles on Faulkner and, she later tells me, helped found the Women's Studies program at NYU. My friend was right: her class is remarkable. I don't much like Hemingway except for some of his short stories, but she takes us through The Sun Also Rises
, various stories, and The Garden of Eden
with panache. (I particularly remember how ridiculous and yet captivating she thought The Garden of Eden
was.) And then of course Faulkner, her great love. She taught us to read The Sound and the Fury
and Absalom, Absalom!
, for which I will always be grateful. Thus, my first experience of academic modernism was an experience of two of the most major of major modernist men seen through the eyes of a brilliant woman.
Skip ahead a year or so later and I've just finished my junior year of college. I've decided to transfer from NYU to UNH for various reasons. It's a tough summer for me, a summer of reckoning with myself and my world. I work at the Plymouth State College
bookstore, a place I've worked on and off for a number of summers since middle school. That June, the College is hosting the International Virginia Woolf Society's
annual conference, organized by a relatively new member of the PSC English Department, Jeanne Dubino
. My colleagues at the bookstore are all working as volunteers at the conference. They introduce me to Jeanne and I join the ranks of the volunteers. The bookstore goes all-out with displays. We stock pretty much every book by and about Woolf in print in the US. I remember opening the boxes and helping to shelve the books. None of us were efficient at shelving because we couldn't stop looking at the books.
Hermione Lee's biography
had just come out and we hung a giant poster of it up. I bought a copy (35% employee discount!) and began to devour it. One night, I was working the registration desk. Hermione Lee came in. She was giving the keynote address. She was late, having been delayed by weather or something. She was tired, but friendy. "Can I still get my registration materials?" she asked. "Certainly," I said. "And might I ask you to sign my book in return?" She laughed, said of course, and did so while I finished with her paperwork.
I found the conference enthralling. I never wanted to go home. (My parents had just divorced; being at the conference was much more fun than being at the house with my father.) The passion of the participants was contagious. Jeanne was astoundingly composed and friendly for someone in charge of a whole academic conference, and we continued to talk about Woolf now and then until she left Plymouth for other climes. I got to know Woolf because I got to know Jeanne.
Skip forward 6 months to the spring term of my senior year at UNH. By some bit of luck and magic, the English Department offered an upper-level seminar on Woolf this term and I was able to fit it into my schedule. I was the only male in the class, and relatively early on one of the other students said to me, in a tone of voice reserved for a rare and yet quite unappealing insect, "Why are you here?" (What did I reply? I don't remember. I probably said because I like Woolf. Or maybe: Why not?) The instructor was Jean Kennard. We read all of the novels except Night and Day
, plus we read A Room of One's Own
, Three Guineas
, and numerous essays. It was one of the hardest courses I've ever taken, either undergrad or grad, and one of the best. It exhausted me to the bone, and yet I wouldn't have wanted it to do anything less. Few courses have ever stayed with me so well or let me draw on what I learned in them for so long. Prof. Kennard was exacting, interesting, and intimidatingly knowledgeable. I didn't dare read with anything less than close attention and care, even if that meant not sleeping much during the term, because I feared she would ask me a question in class and I would be unprepared and give a terrible answer, and there was no way I was going to allow myself to do that because I already identified as someone for whom Virginia Woolf's work was important. I figured either I'd do well in the class or I'd collapse and be put on medical leave. (I had other classes, of course, and I was acting in some plays, and there was a bit of work on the side to give me some income, so not many free hours for sleeping.)
In the days of the LitBlog Co-op
in the early 2000s, I met Anne Fernald
. I didn't know she was a Woolfian or involved in modernist studies; I knew her as a blogger. Eventually, we talked about Woolf. (When I moved to New Jersey in the summer of 2007, Anne gave me a tour of the area. I remember asking her how work
on a critical edition of Mrs. Dalloway
was coming, naively expecting that work must be almost done. We had to wait a few more years. It was worth the wait.)
I didn't really encounter modernism in a classroom again until recently, because it wasn't a part of my master's degree work, except peripherally in that to study Samuel Delany's influences, which I did for the master's thesis, meant to study a lot of modernism, though modernism through his eyes. But his eyes are those of a black, queer man influenced by many women and committed to feminism, so once again my view of modernism was not that of the patriarchal white order, even though plenty of white guys were important to it.
And then PhD classes and research, where once again women were central. (It was in one such class that I first read Jane Marcus's Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race
Thus, this quick overview of my own journey is a story of women and modernism. My own learning is very much the product of the sorts of efforts that Marcus and other feminist modernists made possible, the work they devoted their lives to. They are my foremothers, and the foremothers of so many other people as well. My experience may be unique in its weird bouncing across geographies and decades and media (I've never been very good at planning my life), but I hope it is not uncommon.3. Reading Marcus
I've been reading lots of Jane Marcus for the last month or so. Previously, I'd only read Hearts of Darkness
and a couple of the most famous earlier essays. Now, though, I've been combing through books and databases in search of her work. (At the MSA seminar, someone who had had to submit Marcus's CV for a grant application said it was 45 pages long. She published hundreds of essays and review-essays in addition to her books.)
I'm tempted to drop lots of quotes here — Marcus is eminently quotable. But perhaps a better use of this space would be to think about Marcus's own style of writing and thinking, the way she formed and organized her essays, which, much like Woolf's many essays, show a process of thought in development.
At the end of the first chapter of Hearts of Darkness
, which collects some of her more recent work, Marcus writes:
The effort of these essays is toward an understanding of what marks the text in its context, to hear the humming noise whose rhythm alerts us to the time and place that produced it, as well as the edgy avant-garde tones of its projection into the modernist future. For modernism has had much more of a future than one could have imagined. In a new century the questions still before me concern the responsibility for writing those once vilified texts into classic status in a new social imaginary. If it was once the critic's role to argue the case for canonizing such works, perhaps it is now her role to question their status and explore their limits.
This statement concisely maps the direction of Marcus's thinking over the course of her career. Her efforts were first to recover texts that had fallen out of the sight of even the most serious of readers, then to advocate for those texts' merits, then to convince her students and colleagues to add those texts to curricula and, in many cases, to help bring them back into print. She argued, for instance, for a particular version of Virginia Woolf, one at odds with a common presentation of Woolf as fragile and apolitical and sensitive and tragic. Marcus was having none of that. Woolf was a remarkably strong woman, a nuanced political thinker whose ideas developed significantly over time and came to a kind of fruition in the 1930s, and a far more complex artist than she was said to be. Later, though, Marcus didn't need Woolf to be quite so much of a hero. She was still all the things she had been before, but she was also flawed, particularly when it came to race. The Woolf that Marcus looks at in "'A Very Fine Negress'"
and "Britannia Rules The Waves"
is in many ways an even more interesting Woolf than in Marcus's earlier writings, because she is still a Woolf of immense depth but also immense contradictions and blind spots and very human failures of perception and sympathy. Marcus's earlier Woolf is Wonder Woman (though one too often mistaken for a mousy, oversensitive, snobby, mentally ill Diana Prince
), but her later Woolf is more like a brilliant, frustrating friend; someone striving to overcome all sorts of circumstances, someone capable of the most beautiful creations and insights, and yet also sometimes crushingly disappointing, sometimes even embarrassing. A human Woolf from whom we can learn so much about our own human failings. After all, if someone as remarkable as Woolf could be so flawed in some of her perceptions, what about us? In exploring the limits and questioning the status of the works we once needed to argue into the mainstream conversation, we also remind ourselves of our own limits, and perhaps we develop better tools with which to question our own status in whatever places, times, and circumstances we happen to inhabit.
This is not to say that Marcus's early work is irrelevant. Not at all. It is still quite thrilling to read, and rich with necessary insights. (If anything, it does make me sad that a number of her best, most cutting insights about academia and power relations remain fresh today. There's been progress, yes, but not nearly enough, and much that was bad in the past repeats and repeats into our future.) Here's an example, from a May 1987 review in the Women's Review of Books
of E. Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical
by Patricia Romero, a book Marcus thought misrepresented and misinterpreted its subject. Near the end, after detailing all the ways Romero fails Pankhurst, Marcus makes a sharp joke:
Sylvia Pankhurst has had her come-uppance so many times in this book that there's hardly anywhere for her to come down to. Romero says that she met her husband on the same day that she met Sylvia Pankhurst's statue in Ethiopia. One hopes that he fared better than Sylvia.
Ouch. But this joke serves as a conclusion to the litany of Romero's failures as Marcus saw them and turns then to a larger point:
Let it be clear that I am not calling for nurturant biographies of feminist heroines. I, too, as a student of suffrage, have several bones to pick with Sylvia Pankhurst. In writing The Suffragette Movement she not only distorted history to aggrandize the role of working-class suffragettes in winning the vote, but, more importantly, she wrote the script of the suffrage struggle as a family romance, a public Cinderella story with her mother and sister cast as the Wicked Stepmother and Stepsister. It was this script which provided George Dangerfield and almost every subsequent historian of suffrage with the materials for reading the movement as a comedy. Sylvia provided them with a false class analysis which persists. Patricia Romero now unwittingly wears the mantle woven by Sylvia Pankhurst as the historian so bent on the ruthless exposure of her subject that she gives the enemies of women another hysteric to batter — though the prim biographer would doubtless be horrified at the suggestion that the Sylvia Pankhurst whom she despises and exposes was engaged in a project similar to her own and is, in fact, her predecessor.
Such an amazingly rich paragraph! The review up to now has been Marcus showing the ways that she thinks Romero misrepresents Sylvia Pankhurst, and the effect is mostly to make us think Marcus venerates Pankhurst totally and is defending the honor of a hero against a detractor. But no. Her message is that feminist history deserves better: it deserves accuracy. Both
Romero and Pankhurst failed this imperative by letting their ideologies and prejudices hide and mangle nuances. Both Romero and Pankhurst, wittingly or unwittingly, presented the deadly serious history of the suffrage movement as comedy. Both, wittingly or unwittingly, provided cover and even ammunition for misogynistic discourse. And that, ultimately, is the argument of Marcus's review. She sees her job as a reviewer not to be someone who gives thumbs up or thumbs down, but to be someone who can analyze what sort of conversation the book under review enters into and supports. The limitations she sees in the book are not just the limitations of one book, but limitations endemic to an entire way of presenting history.
She then brings the review back to Pankhurst and Romero's portrait of her, and now we as readers can appreciate a larger vantage to the evaluation, because we know it's not just about this book, but about historiography and feminism. Marcus mentions some other, better books (a hallmark of her reviews: she never leaves the reader wondering what else there is to read — in negative reviews such as this one, it's books that do a better job; in positive reviews, it's other books that contribute valuable knowledge to the conversation), then:
The problem with the historian's project of setting the record straight is that it flourishes best with a crooked record, the crookeder the better. Romero has found in Sylvia Pankhurst's life the perfect crooked record to suit her own iconoclastic urge.
We might think that Marcus here is holding herself apart from "the historian's project of setting the record straight", that she is setting herself up as somehow perfect in her own sensibilities. But in the next sentence she shows that is not the case:
Admitting one's own complicity as a feminist in all such iconoclastic activity, one is still disappointed in the results. I came to this book anticipating with a certain relish the pleasure of seeing Sylvia Pankhurst put in her place. But because the author writes with such contempt for her subject as well as for activism of all kinds, I came away with a deep respect for Sylvia Pankhurst and the work she did for social justice.
To be a feminist is to be iconoclastic. To be a feminist is to be faced with many crooked records. But this book can serve, Marcus seems to be saying, a warning of what can happen when the desire to be an iconoclast overcomes the desire to be accurate, and when one is tempted to add some crooks to the record before straightening it out. The danger is clearly implied: Beware that you do not depart too far from accuracy, lest you lead your reader to the opposite of the conclusions you want to impart.
Marcus would have been a wonderful blogger. Her writing style is discursive, filled with offhand references that would make for marvelous hyperlinks, and she doesn't waste a lot of time on transitions between ideas. At the MSA seminar, someone said that Marcus's process was to write lots of fragments and then edit them together when she needed a paper. Her writing is a kind of assemblage, both in the sense of Duchamp et al.
and of Deleuze & Guattari
(In the course where we read Hearts of Darkness
, one of the other students pointed out that Marcus jumps all over the place and rarely seems to have a clear thesis — her ideas are accumulative, sometimes tangential, a series of insights working together toward an intellectual symphony. If we were to write like that, this student said, wouldn't we just get criticized for lack of focus, wouldn't our work be rejected by all the academic publishers we so desperately need to please if we are to have any hope of getting jobs or tenure? "She can write like that," our instructor said, "because she's Jane Marcus." Which in many ways is true. We read Jane Marcus to follow the lines of thought that Jane Marcus writes. It's hard to start out writing like that, but once you have a reputation, once your work is read because of your byline and not just because of your subject matter, you have more freedom of form. And yet I also think we should be working toward a world that allows and perhaps even encourages such writing, regardless of fame. Too many academic essays I read are distorted by the obsession with having a central claim; they sacrifice insight for repetitious metalanguage and constant drumbeating of The Major Point. It's no fun to read and it makes the writing feel like a tedious explication of the essay's own abstract. Marcus's writing has the verve, energy, and surprise of good essayistic writing. This was quite deliberate on her part — see her comments in "Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic"
on Woolf as an essayist versus so many contemporary theorists. I don't entirely agree with her argument, since I don't think "difficult" writing should only be the province of "creative writers" and not critics, but I'd also much prefer that writers who are not geniuses aspire to write more like Woolf in her essays than like Derrida. And the insistence that academic writers build Swamp Thing jargonmonsters to prove their bona fides is ridiculous.)
Her discursive, sometimes rambling style serves Marcus well because it allows her to connect ideas that might otherwise get left by the wayside. Marcus makes the essay form do what it is best at doing. Her 1997 essay "Working Lips, Breaking Hearts: Class Acts in American Feminism"
masterfully demonstrates this. At its most basic level, the essay is a review (or, as Marcus says, "a reading") of Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism
, which builds off of the work of Tillie Olsen, particularly her invaluable book Silences
. But Marcus's essay is far more than just a look at this one anthology — it is also a tribute to Tillie Olsen
, who herself influenced Marcus tremendously, a study of feminist-socialist theory and history, a manifesto about canons and canonicity, a personal memoir, and even, in one moving footnote, an obituary for Constance Coiner, a feminist scholar who died in the crash of TWA flight 800
By writing about Olsen, a generation her elder, Marcus is able to take a long view of American feminism, its past and future. She's writing just as the feminists of the 1970s are becoming elders themselves and a new generation of feminists is moving the cause into new directions, often without sufficient attention to history. Discussing one of the essays in Listening to Silences
, she writes:
More troublesome (or perhaps merely more difficult for me to see because of my own positionality) is Carla Kaplan's claim that my generation of American feminist critics used a reading model "based on identification of reader and heroine, and it tended to ignore class and race differences among women" (10). She assumes that the generation influenced by Olsen always produced such limited readings of exemplary texts — Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper", Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers", and Isak Dinesen's "The Blank Page" — without acknowledging that there was a strong and vocal objection to reading these texts historically as merely embodying the interests of certain feminist critics themselves. I know I was not alone in choosing never to teach them. (I have often said that these texts were chosen because they reflected the experience of feminists in the academy.) In addition, it seems important to make clear that the differences among women made by race, class, and sexual orientation were marked by many critics at the time (always by Gayatri Spivak and Lillian Robinson, e.g., and often by other nonmainstream feminist critics). There is a real danger in essentializing the work of a whole generation of feminists.
What Marcus repeatedly did for the history of British modernism, especially in the 1930s, she here does for the history of the movement she herself was part of: She calls for us not to reduce the history to a single tendency, not to make the participants into clones and drones. She acknowledges that some feminists in the 1970s and 1980s read from a place of self-identification, oblivious to race and class, but exhorts us to remember that not everyone did, and that in fact there was discussion among feminists not only about race and class, but about how to read as a feminist. She doesn't want to see her own generation and movement reduced to stereotypes in the way the British writers of the 1930s especially were. Throughout Hearts of Darkness
, she writes about Nancy Cunard
, first to overcome the many slanders of Cunard over the decades, but also to offer a useful contrast with Woolf in terms of racial perceptions and desires. She wants attention to Claude McKay
and Mulk Raj Anand
because only reading white and mostly male writers distorts history, which distorts our perception of ourselves: "It is my opinion that the study of the period would be greatly enriched by wresting it from the hands of those who leave out the women and the people of color who were active in the struggle for social change in Britain. It is important for students to know that leftists in the thirties were not all leviathans on the questions of race, gender, and class. Not all their hearts were dark. ...the critics before us deliberately left us in the dark about the presence of black and South Asian intellectuals on the cultural scene" (181). (Peter Kalliney's recent Commonwealth of Letters
does some of the work of tracing these networks, and Anna Snaith
has done exemplary work in and around all of this.)
"Working Lips, Breaking Hearts" brings all of these interests together, and does so not only for British and U.S. writers and activists of the 1930s, but also for Marcus's own generation of feminists. This is our history
, she seems to say, and we must take care of it, or else what was done to the people of the 1930s by historians and literary critics will be done to us
, a blistering 2002 review-essay about critics' interpretations of whites' uses of black culture in the 1920s and 1930s, Marcus wrote:
Why should cross-racial identification with the oppressed be perceived as evil? Certainly, while it was both romantic and revolutionary and very much of the period, such love for the Other is not in itself a social evil. The embrace of the Other and the Other’s values and the Other’s arts, language, and music, has often been progressive. Interracial sex and interracial politics were and are important to any radical cultural agenda. Cunard and [Carl] Van Vechten were not sleeping with the enemy. One might even say that the bed, the barricade, the studio, and the boîte, or Paris nightclub, were the sites where the barriers to progressive human behavior were broken down.
But the mistaking of those whites who loved blacks, however motivated by desire, politics, or by sheer pleasure at hearing the music and seeing the extraordinary art of another people, as merely a set of cultural thieves does not contribute to our understanding of the cultural forces at work here.
The cultural forces at work were ones Marcus begins to see as queer:
The fear that motivates [critics] North, Douglas, and Gubar is the taint of the sexually perverse. What is the fear that motivates Archer-Straw and Bernard? Is it fear of the damage done to the stability of the black family and the wholeness of black art by the attention of queer white men and white women who broke the sexual race barrier? If we try to look at this from outside the separatist anxieties that are awakened on both sides of the color line by these early personal and political crossings, the modernist figures represent a rare coming together of radical politics, African and African American art and culture, and white internationalist avant-garde and Surrealist intellectuals. These encounters deserve attention as a queer moment in cultural history and I think that is the only way to get beyond the impasse of discomfort about the modernist race pioneers in our current critical thinking. If it is because of a certain liberated queer sexuality that certain figures could cross the color line, could try to speak black slang, however silly it sounded, then sex will have to take its place as a major component in the translation of ideas.
As she so often did, Marcus pays attention here to what she thinks are the forces and desires that construct certain interpretations. "Why this?" she asks again and again, "and why now?" What sort of work do these kinds of interpretations do, whom do they help and whom do they hurt, what do they make visible and what do they leave invisible? What social or personal need do they seem to serve? And then the implied question: Whom do my own interpretations help or hurt? What do I make visible or invisible by offering such an interpretation?
One of Marcus's masterpieces was not a book she wrote herself, but an annotated edition of Woolf's Three Guineas that she edited for Harcourt
, published in 2006. Three Guineas
had not been served well by most critics and editors over the years, and Marcus's edition was the first American edition to include the photographs Woolf originally included, but which, for reasons no-one I know of has been able to figure out, were dropped from all printings of the book after Woolf's death. Marcus provided a 35-page introduction, excerpts from Woolf's scrapbooks, annotations that sometimes become mini-essays of their own, and an annotated bibliography. It's a model of a scholarly edition aimed at common readers (as opposed to a scholarly edition aimed at scholars, which is a different [and also necessary] beast, e.g. the Shakespeare Head editions
and the Cambridge editions
of Woolf). (She had already laid out her principles for such Woolf editions in a jaunty, often funny, utterly overstuffed, and quite generous review
of [primarily] Oxford and Penguin editions in 1994, and it seems to me that we can feel her chomping at the bit to do one of her own.) Three Guineas
is in many ways the key text for Marcus, a book overlooked and scorned, even hated, but which she finds immense meaning in. Her annotated edition allows her to show exactly what meanings within the text so deeply affected her. It's a great gift, this edition, because it not only gives us a very good edition of an important book, but it lets us read along with Jane Marcus.
It's unfortunate that Marcus never got to realize her dream of a complete and unbowdlerized edition of Cunard's Negro
anthology. Copyright law probably makes re-issuing the book an impossible task for at least another generation, given how many writers and artists it includes, although perhaps a publisher in a country with less absurd copyright regulations than the US could do it. (Aside: This is yet another example of how long copyright extensions destroy cultural knowledge.) Even the highly edited version
from 1970 is now out of print, though given how Marcus blamed that edition for many misinterpretations of Cunard and her work, I doubt she'd be mourning its loss. I wish somebody could create a digital edition, at least. Even an illegal digital edition. Indeed, that would perhaps be most in the spirit of the original text and of Marcus — somebody should get hold of a copy of the first edition, scan it, and upload it to Pirate Bay
. We need to be criminals in our institutions, after all...4. Refuge and the Criminal
Let us go then, you and I, back to where we began: refuge and revolutions.
"the numbers show that the teaching staff at America's universities are much whiter and much more male than the general population, with Hispanics and African Americans especially underrepresented. At some schools, like Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Princeton, there are more foreign teachers than Hispanic and black teachers combined. The Ivy League's gender stats are particularly damning; men make up 68 percent and 70 percent of the teaching staff at Harvard and Princeton, respectively." —Mother Jones, 23 November 2015
(Somewhere, Jane Marcus says that we may have to work and live in institutions, but that doesn't mean we have to like
"Experts think that the more than $1.3 trillion in outstanding education debt in the U.S. is more than that of the rest of the world combined." —Bloomberg, 13 October 2015
My own assemblage here breaks down, because I have no conclusions, only impressions and questions.
Right now we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, a refugee crisis
. In my own state of New Hampshire, the Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, said
there should be a halt to accepting all refugees from Syria. It is an ignorant and immoral statement. Maggie Hassan is a typical centrist Democrat, always rushing to put disempowered people in the middle of the road to get run over by the monster trucks of the ruling class.
"Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center." —NYT, 24 June 2015
Yesterday (as I write this), a man walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic with a gun
. He killed three people before police were able to take him into custody. It was an act of terrorism, but will seldom be labelled that. Maggie Hassan will not call for middle-aged white men with beards to be barred from entry.
"The Republicans also organized a gun-buyer’s club, meeting in a conference room during work hours to design custom-made, monogrammed, silver-plated 'Tiffany-style' Glock 9 mm semi-automatic pistols." —Slate, 24 November 2015
As I write this, U.S. police officers have killed 1,033 people this year
, including 204 unarmed people. The shooter at the Planned Parenthood clinic is very lucky to be alive. This proves it is actually possible for U.S. police not to kill people they intend to take into custody, even when they're armed. If the shooter had been a black man, though, I expect he would be dead right now.
"'We are locked and loaded,' he says, holding up a black 1911-style pistol. As he flashes the gun, he explains amid racial slurs that the men are headed to the Black Lives Matter protest outside Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct police headquarters. Their mission, he says, is 'a little reverse cultural enriching.'" —Minneapolis Star Tribune, 25 November 2015
had a small folding knife and was running away. 16 bullets took him down
(Have you seen M.I.A.'s new video, "Borders"
? You should.)
(What can we use, too, from Wendy Brown's recent discussion
of rifts over gender and womanhood? What is getting lost, and what is newly seen?)
"The year-to-date temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.55°F (0.86°C) above the 20th century average. This was the highest for January–October in the 1880–2015 record, surpassing the previous record set in 2014 by 0.22°F (0.12°C). Eight of the first ten months in 2015 have been record warm for their respective months." —National Centers for Environmental Information
(I could go on and on and on. I won't, for all our sakes.)
After listening to Heather Love and Tavia Nyong'o at MSA, I came back to the idea I've been tossing around, inspired by Steve Shaviro's great book No Speed Limit
, of the value of aesthetics to at least stand outside neoliberalism. Love and Nyong'o seemed dismissive of aesthetics, and I wanted to mention Commonwealth of Letters
to them, and propose that perhaps if an art-for-art's-sake aesthetic is not, obviously, an instigator of utopian revolution, it may be a refuge. Kalliney shows that such an attention to aesthetics was just that for some colonial subjects in the 1930s who came to London to be writers and intellectuals. I am wary of an anti-aesthetic politics, a politics that seeks revolution but not the good life, a politics that does the work of neoliberalism by insisting on usefulness.
The university certainly has been an imperfect refuge, often just the opposite of refuge. Aesthetic attention will not open up a panacea or a utopia, nor will the refuge it provides be significantly more just and effective than the refuge of academia. But it is not nothing, and it is not anti-political. I think Marcus's writings demonstrate that. She recuperates The Years
and Three Guineas
not only by arguing for their political power, but for their aesthetic achievements. They survive, and we who cherish them are able to cherish them, not only because of what they say, but how they say it. Form matters. Form is matter.
Which is not to say, of course, that we should descend into a shallow formalism any more than we should wrap ourselves in the righteousness of an easy economism. Remember history. Remember nuance. Remember not to distort realities for the sake of an easy point. Don't provide cover for the exploiters and oppressors.5. Art and Anger
Photographs of suffragettes lying bloody, hair dishevelled, hats askew, roused public anger toward the women, not their assailants. They were unladylike; they provoked the authorities. Demonstrations by students and blacks arouse similar responses. Thejustice of a cause is enhanced by the nonviolence of its adherents. But the response of the powerful when pressed for action has been such that only anger and violence have won change in the law or government policy. Similar contradictions and a double standard have characterized attitudes toward anger itself. While for the people, anger has been denounced as one of the seven deadly sins, divines and churchmen have always defended it as a necessary attribute of the leader. "Anger is one of the sinews of the soul" wrote Thomas Fuller, "he that wants it hath a maimed mind." "Anger has its proper use" declared Cardinal Manning, "Anger is the executive power of justice." Anger signifies strength in the strong, weakness in the weak. An angry mother is out of control; an angry father is exercising his authority. Our culture's ambivalence about anger reflects its defense of the status quo; the terrible swift sword is for fathers and kings, not daughters and subjects. The story of Judith and the story of Antigone have not been part of the education of daughters, as both Elizabeth Robins and Virginia Woolf point out, unless men have revised and rewritten them. It is hardly possible to read the poetry of Sappho, they both assure us, separate from centuries of scholarly calumny.
—Jane Marcus, "Art and Anger"
Why not create a new form of society founded on poverty and equality? Why not bring together people of all ages and both sexes and all shades of fame and obscurity so that they can talk, without mounting platforms or reading papers or wearing expensive clothes or eating expensive food? Would not such a society be worth, even as a form of education, all the papers on art and literature that have ever been read since the world began? Why not abolish prigs and prophets? Why not invent human intercourse? Why not try?
—Virginia Woolf, "Why?"
*In "Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies"
, Susan Stanford Friedman sums up some of the changes that made the New Modernist Studies seem new: "Modernism, for many, became a reflection of and engagement with a wide spectrum of historical changes, including intensified and alienating urbanization; the cataclysms of world war and technological progress run amok; the rise and fall of European empires; changing gender, class, and race relations; and technological inventions that radically changed the nature of everyday life, work, mobility, and communication. Once modernity became the defining cause of aesthetic engagements with it, the door opened to thinking about the specific conditions of modernity for different genders, races, sexualities, nations, and so forth. Modernity became modernities, a pluralization that spawned a plurality of modernisms and the circulations among them.
The most peculiar property of language is its symbolic function. The writer exchanges meanings for marks, while the reader performs the opposite task. There are no meanings outside us, or if there are, we do not know them. Personal meanings are made with our own hands. Their preparation is a kind of alchemy. Everything that we call rationality demands imagination, and if we did not have the capacity to imagine, we could not even speak morality or conscience.
—Leena Krohn, "Afterword: When the Viewer Vanishes"
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have done wonders for the availability of contemporary Finnish writing in English with their Cheeky Frawg press
, and in December they will release their greatest book yet: Collected Fiction
by Leena Krohn.
I've been a passionate fan of Leena Krohn's work ever since I first read her book Tainaron
ten years ago. I sought out the only other translation of her writings in English available at the time, Doña Quixote & Gold of Ophir
, and was further impressed. I read Datura
when Cheeky Frawg published it in 2013. It's all remarkable work.Collected Fiction
brings together all of those books, plus more: The Pelican's New Clothes
(children's fiction from the 1970s, just as entrancing as her adult work later), Pereat Mundus
(which I've yearned to read ever since Krohn mentioned it when I interviewed her
), some excerpts and stories from various books published over the last 25 years, essays by others (including me) that give some perspective on her career, and an afterword by Leena Krohn herself.
This book is as important a publishing event in its own way as New Directions' release earlier this year of Clarice Lispector's Complete Stories
. It's a similarly large book (850 pages), and though not Krohn's complete stories, it gives a real overview of her career and provides immeasurable pleasure.
One of the wonders of this collection is just how big
it is. I keep jokingly referring to it as KROHN!
, and not just because of Jeremy Zerfoss's gorgeous cover, but because this is a doorstop of a book that collects the work of someone whose writing might often be described as delicate, miniature tales. Her books don't tend to be especially long, and even her novels are built of miniatures. But now we can hold this huge collection of decades of writing and its solidity is stunning.
In a helpful overview of the first thirty years of Krohn's writing (1970-2001) included here, Minna Jerman writes: "Gold of Ophir
is constructed in such a way that you could easily read its chapters in any order, and have a different experience with each different sequence." This is true for most of Krohn's novels, it seems to me, and is another virtue of her writing, something that makes it feel so different from so many other books, so truly strange, and yet so captivating, like a puzzle that isn't especially insistent about its puzzle-ness — or, to quote the great John Leonard
, it embodies "Chaos Theory, with lots of fractals."
This is what I want to tell you, then: Reader, you should get this book at the first opportunity and you should spend a year (at least!) reading through it in whatever order you feel like, letting it be a magical, mind-warping cabinet of curiosities, a wonderbox of a book. You should not devour Leena Krohn's writing. Savor it, take it in in small bits, because there are so many glorious small bits here. Why rush? This is rich, rich material. Just as no rational person would ever guzzle a truly fine scotch, so you should sip from Krohn's fountain of dreamwords.
And this is what I want to tell you
, O Writerly Types: This book is a gift to you, a tome of possibilities. Stop writing like everybody else. We don't need you to make your vision fit into the airport bookstore shelves. Those shelves are full. We need more writers who will do what Leena Krohn has done, who will seize language as a tool for dreaming back toward consciousness, who will find forms that fit such dreaming, who will not replicate the conventions of now but instead reconfigure their own conventions until they seem inevitable. Learn from this book
, O Writers. Let it inspire you to write in your own new ways, your own new forms, your own truthful imaginings.
In a trance, his hand already numb and senseless, accompanied by the rustle of the rain and the croaking of frogs, Håkan was taken through the eras toward the wondrous time when he did not yet exist.
—Leena Krohn, Pereat Mundus: A Novel of Sorts
"In other words, yes, we really do want to take your guns. Maybe not all of them. But a lot of them."
—Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo
Okay. All I've got's an antique rifle that would likely explode if fired, so no big deal to me. I would love to live in a country with far, far fewer guns. One of the reasons I think the NRA should be considered complicit with murder is their careful collusion over the last few decades with gun manufacturers to keep a flooded market profitable by using every scare tactic they could imagine to encourage people to keep buying. (I've written about all this, and other aspects of gun culture, plenty of times before
.) I'm quite comfortable around guns, since I grew up with them as an everyday object (everything from .22 pistols to fully-automatic machine guns), and I have many friends who are gun owners, even gun nuts
. But though I sometimes find guns attractive, even fascinating, I don't like
them and I wish there were vastly fewer. The Oregon shooting happened at a place I'm familiar with, half an hour from the home of one of my best, most beloved friends. The present reality of mass shootings in the US is grotesque, and the easy availability of guns is a major part of the problem.
But I think Josh Marshall is delusional. No matter how much you wish for it, the guns in the United States are not going to be confiscated, and not just because of a lack of political will. The NRA sells the fear of confiscation to gun nuts all the time, but it is not just unlikely and not just politically difficult — given the amount of guns in the US, it is as close to impossible to achieve as any such thing is. The horse left the barn at least forty years ago.
Certainly, it's valuable for activists to come out and say what they want rather than to lie or, at best, hedge their commentary to appear less radical. I like radicals, especially nonviolent ones, so I'm all for being openly radical.
And the idealism in Marshall's blog post is nice. I understand the feeling. But it's fairy-tale utopian. You want to think big, to be honest about your ultimate goals, and so you want to stop talking about things that might actually be able to be accomplished like universal background checks and maybe some restrictions on certain sizes of magazines and certain styles of rifles. I get it. I would like to stop talking about how I'll pay next month's bills and instead dream about winning the lottery.
But at a certain point you have to explain how you want to go about achieving your dream. What are the actual mechanics? What are the mechanisms that would bring your dream to reality? The fact is, I have a vastly better chance of winning the lottery than the US has any chance of significant gun confiscation.
Let's pretend we live in a fairy land where somehow the government would pass laws like the ones Australia famously passed. For basic background on that and how it worked, here's an overview from Vox
. There are a bunch of things in there that are pretty much politically inconceivable in the US, even if they would likely survive challenge in the courts
. But we're playing Let's Pretend.
So let's pretend those laws pass. We can't, though, forget the fundamental, awful, maddening, bizzaro truth: including both legal and illegal weapons, by even conservative estimates, there are somewhere around as many guns as people in the U.S. Numbers are notoriously difficult to get, but let's say 300 million, just to have a nice even number to play with. (It could be 250 million, it could be 350 million. What's fifty million here or there when counting deadly weapons?)
Let's pretend Australian-style laws pass, which would mean the goal is to get to 20% of guns bought back, as Australia apparently did
. We're talking, then, somewhere around 60 million guns. (Router and Mouzos in their study of Australia say it would be 40 million, but, again, estimates always differ, and a lot depends on whether you're also including the black market, antique guns [some of which, unlike mine, shoot quite well], etc.)
How do you collect and destroy between 40 and 60 million guns?
If it's a buyback, how do you pay for the guns you're buying back? In 1996 in Australia, the average price paid was US$359. For 60 million guns, that would be $21,540,000,000. Not an impossible amount, given that we casually spent at least that per month of war in Iraq, but still. Twenty-one-and-a-half billion dollars is not small change, and that's 1996 dollars.
What do you do with people who won't turn their guns in? I could be wrong, but I doubt most American gun owners would turn in their guns, at least not the guns they cared about. Sure, they might turn in stuff that was in bad shape, or that they didn't especially want anymore. You want to give me good market value for a gun I don't care about? Great! Here it is. Enjoy. Thanks for the cash.
What about the rest? The guns you want to confiscate are not the ones most gun owners are likely to turn in for even a mandatory buyback. And what does mandatory
mean? How do you make it mandatory? Who enforces it? How?
You'd need a registry, but how would you create a registry? You could mandate a registry of all new sales of guns, but that doesn't do anything about the 300 million, give or take 50 million, already out there. You could try using data from Form 4473
, but by the time all the laws get passed and Federal Firearms License holders are notified that they have to turn all of their 4473 info over to the ATF, most of those forms, I expect, will have somehow mysteriously gotten destroyed in floods and fires, have been misplaced, etc. You could say, "All gun owners are now required to register their weapons!" and the laughter would be cacophonous.
So what will you do about civil disobedience?
Send the police!
Great idea. The police. The nice (white) liberal's fallback answer to every problem. Tut tut occasionally about the cops' embarrassing habit of killing black men every day, then turn around and advocate for giving the police even more power.
The fact is, to collect even a small percentage of the guns currently in circulation in the US, you would have to institute highly authoritarian laws, strongly empower the police and military to take action against otherwise law-abiding citizens, punish any disobedient police and military members strongly (and there would be a lot of disobedience within the ranks, I expect), and violate a bunch of civil liberties so you could find out who owned what weapons. And imprison lots of people. (Yay, prisons
If you're going to be honest about what you want, then you have to be honest about how you would like to get what you want. The complete statement Josh Marshall and others should make is this one: "We really do want to take your guns, and we are willing to empower the state to do so via the police and, if necessary, the military. If you resist, we will imprison you."
Not quite so rosy a fairy tale now, is it?
Do I have a better fairy tale? Not really. I have no solution, certainly nothing short term. Various small, achievable regulations might do a little bit of good. The best I can imagine is a change in culture, a change in attitudes where gun ownership is viewed the way smoking is today, as an unfortunate, smelly, lethal vice/addiction, that, despite whatever momentary pleasures it may offer, is harmful to individuals and society.
Start pitying gun nuts. Listen to their macho power fantasies and nod your head sadly and say, "I'm truly sorry you feel so terrified all the time, so inadequate. I'm so sorry that you feel the only way to get through your days is to keep the power of life or death over other people with you at all times. If you ever want help, please ask. I know the withdrawal will be incredibly hard and painful, but the results will be worth it. We'll all get to live a little longer."
Imagine encouraging doctors to talk to people about the statistics on guns and public health
. (Imagine better funding for research on guns and public health!)
Imagine interventions for people with NRA Derangement Syndrome (the mental disorder that results in a person believing NRA propaganda, needing to stockpile tens of thousands of rounds, needing to own dozens and hundreds of guns just in case one day the gun grabbers succeed with their nefarious plans and/or the zombie apocalypse occurs).
Imagine cognitive behavioral therapy for hoarders of deadly weapons.
Imagine alternatives to toxic masculinity and warrior dreams.
Imagine movies and TV shows and video games where guns are portrayed not as sexy and awesome, but as the last refuge of the weak and deranged.
Imagine— Well, go ahead, we're talking fairy tales, so imagine whatever you want. But think, too, about how we get to fairyland.
by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal
regarding Thomas Ligotti
, Jeff VanderMeer was asked: "Can Ligotti’s work find a broader audience, such as with people who tend to read more pop horror such as Stephen King?" His response was, it seems to me, accurate:
Ligotti tells a damn fine tale and a creepy one at that. You can find traditional chills to enjoy in his work or you can find more esoteric delights. I think his mastery of a sense of unease in the modern world, a sense of things not being quite what they’re portrayed to be, isn’t just relevant to our times but also very relatable. But he’s one of those writers who finds a broader audience because he changes your brain when you read him—like Roberto Bolano. I’d put him in that camp too—the Bolano of 2666. That’s a rare feat these days.
This reminded me of a few moments from past conversations I've had about the difficulty of modernist texts and their ability to find audiences. I have often fallen into the assumption that difficulty precludes any sort of popularity, and that popularity signals shallowness of writing, even though I know numerous examples that disprove this assumption.
When I was an undergraduate at NYU, I took a truly life-changing seminar on Faulkner and Hemingway with the late Ilse Dusoir Lind, a great Faulknerian. Faulkner was a revelation for me, total love at first sight, and I plunged in with gusto. Dr. Lind thought I was amusing, and we talked a lot and corresponded a bit later, and she wrote me a recommendation letter when I was applying to full-time jobs for the first time. (I really need to write something about her. She was a marvel.) Anyway, we got to talking once about the difficulty of Faulkner's best work, and she said that she had recently (this would be 1995 or so) had a conversation with somebody high up at Random House who said that Faulkner was their most consistent seller, and their bestselling writer across the years. I don't know if this is true or not, or if I remember the details accurately, or if Dr. Lind heard the details accurately, but I can believe it, especially given how common Faulkner's work is in schools.
And this was ten years before the Oprah Book Club's "Summer of Faulkner". I love something Meghan O'Rourke wrote in her chronicle of trying to read Faulkner with Oprah
Going online in search of help, I worried about what I might find. What if no one liked Faulkner, or—worse—the message boards were full of politically correct protests of his attitude toward women, or rife with therapeutic platitudes inspired by the incest and suicide that underpin the book? But on the boards, which I found after clicking past a headline about transvestites who break up families, I discovered scores of thoughtful posts that were bracingly enthusiastic about Faulkner. Even the grumpy readers—and there were some, of course—seemed to want to discover what everyone else was excited about. What I liked best was that people were busy addressing something no one talks about much these days: the actual experience of reading, the nuts and bolts of it.
We often underestimate the common reader.
Which brings me to another anecdote. When I was doing my master's degree, I fell in love with the poetry of Aimé Césaire
, particularly the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
. I was at Dartmouth, so our instructor (who later very kindly joined my thesis committee) was an expert on Césaire and had spent time in Martinique with him. I asked him how it was possible for someone who wrote such complex, thorny stuff to have become so popular among not just individuals, but whole groups of people who had not had great access to education and who may have little knowledge of modernist poetry. He said something to the effect of: Difficulty depends on what you expect, and what your context for understanding is. If your experience and perception of the world fits with that of the writer, then the form a great writer finds to express that experience and perception is going to be accessible to you, or at least accessible enough to allow you some level of basic appreciation from which to build greater appreciation. He said he'd seen illiterate people deeply, deeply moved by Césaire's poetry when it was read aloud. He knew countless people who had memorized whole passages. He himself fell in love with Césaire's work when he was at school in England, far away from home, and his roommate, who was from the Caribbean, had written (from memory) passages of the Notebook
on the ceiling of their dorm room so that it would be the last thing he saw each night and the first thing he saw each morning. Césaire may not have been an international bestseller, but his popularity is real, and is a kind any writer would be humbled by and grateful for.
I've been reading around in Modernism, Middlebrow, and the Literary Canon: The Modern Library Series 1917-1955 by Lise Jaillant
, which includes a fascinating chapter on Virginia Woolf. While the information about how Orlando
sold well from the beginning is familiar to anyone who's read much biographical material about Woolf, far more interesting and revealing is the discussion of the fate of Mrs. Dalloway
in the Modern Library edition in the US. This actually has a lot of parallel to Ligotti becoming part of the Penguin Classics line
, for, as Jaillant writes
, "The Modern Library was the first publisher's series to market Woolf as a classic writer.") During and immediately after World War II, the Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway
sold quite well, at least in part because of its use in schools:
In 1941-42, Mrs. Dalloway sold four copies to every three of To the Lighthouse. This trend continued after the war, a period characterized by a huge rise in student enrolments, and an increasing number of courses on twentieth-century literature. The Modern Library edition of Mrs. Dalloway was often adopted for use in survey courses at large universities. In 1947, for example, one professor at the University of Wisconsin ordered 1,400 copies of Mrs. Dalloway, and another one at the University of Chicago ordered 800 copies of the same book. In the 1940s, Mrs. Dalloway sold around 2,800 copies a year. If we look at the twenty-year period from 1928 to 1948, Mrs. Dalloway sold 61,000 copies.
It probably would have gone on like that if the Modern Library hadn't lost the reprint rights to Mrs. Dalloway
— Harcourt/Brace had decided to start their own line of inexpensive "classic" editions (Harbrace Modern Classics). Attitudes toward modernist novels had changed, too, as Jaillant says: "...the idea that a modernist work could also be a bestseller was increasingly contested in the 1940s and 1950s, at the time when modernism was institutionalized in English departments. The popularity of Mrs. Dalloway
and To the Lighthouse
was soon forgotten, as modernism came to be seen as a difficult movement for an elite" (102). (I don't know how well Mrs. Dalloway
and To the Lighthouse
sold between 1948 and the 1970s. By 1975 or so, Woolf was championed by feminist scholars and started on her way to becoming one of the most frequently studied writers on Earth. I've been told that sales of her books were pretty dismal by the end of the 1960s, and that most of her books were out of print, but that may be more a matter of memory and perception than fact. This is something I need to look into further.)Mrs. Dalloway
and To the Lighthouse
are not easy books. They aren't The Waves
, but they're still nothing anyone would ever describe as "easy reads". (The Waves
did very well at first, since it was Woolf's first novel after Orlando
, selling just over 10,000 copies in the first six months in the UK, but it then dwindled to only a few hundred copies sold in the UK in the next six months, according to J.H. Willis
) The various editions of Mrs. Dalloway
and To the Lighthouse
still sell well today, and are not only beloved by English professors, but by all sorts of common readers who come upon them in a class or just in the course of ordinary life and find something in the pages worth wrestling with. Even The Waves
is deeply loved by many people, and it's one of the most difficult of modernist texts. But it, like all of Woolf's best writing, does things to you few, if any, other books do.
This gets back to what Jeff said about Ligotti: "he’s one of those writers who finds a broader audience because he changes your brain when you read him." If readers trust that the effort of learning to read a strange or difficult writer is worth it, then they may put forth that effort. Brains are stubborn, and sometimes resist being changed. I threw Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
across the room three times when I first read it. Eventually, I put in enough work that the book was able to teach me how to read it. And then we were in love, eternal love.
There's no sure pathway to such things, for writer or reader, and of course there are plenty of marvelous, difficult writers whose work has never succeeded much, if at all. In many cases, success (eventual or immediate) is a matter of packaging, and sometimes that packaging is deceptive. Look at Faulkner, for instance. His reputation among critics and scholars in the 1930s was generally high, but the only book that sold well was his sensationalist pulp novel Sanctuary
. The Southern Agrarians
(and, later, New Critics
) rather oddly reconfigured and tamed Faulkner, downplaying and flat-out misinterpreting and misrepresenting the darkness, ambiguity, and weirdness of his work. The biggest successes at this were Malcolm Cowley, who gave up left-wing politics around the time he started editing the various Viking Portable
editions of major writers, and Cleanth Brooks, who palled around with the Agrarians and helped create and promulgate New Criticism. Cowley's Portable Faulkner
presented a simplified and superficial vision of Faulkner, while Brooks's studies of Faulkner provided (mis)interpretations
of his works that made Faulkner seem like an unthreatening nostalgist, a writer palatable both to the more conservative of Southern critics and the blandly liberal Northern critics. The simplified/sanitized/superficial view of Faulkner led to a Nobel Prize and quick canonization. Faulkner himself even seems to have bought into the new, cuddly presentation — his last great work was Go Down, Moses
in 1942, with nothing written after it of comparable quality, depth, or strangeness. Some of the later books and stories are quite readable, but they're relatively shallow and often cloying. Partly, or perhaps even fundamentally, this was the result of chronic alcoholism catching up to Faulkner, but it was also a matter of his having apparently decided to write what his growing audience expected of him.
Still, even with all its simplicities and superficialities, the canonization of Faulkner allowed his work to stay in print, to receive wide distribution, and to be read. Many people probably didn't read past the Agrarian/New Critic view for decades, but I expect many others did
. (Especially people influenced by existentialism, who would have seen the darkness and even nihilism within the best writings. For a long time, and maybe still, people outside the US academy saw a deeper, stranger Faulkner than US professors and critics.) The books were available, the words could be read.
The lesson here, if there is a lesson, is that literary history is complex and doesn't easily boil down to simple oppositions like popular
. And that so much depends upon how a book is sold to readers, and how readers have the opportunity to discover a book, and what they expect from it and hope from it, because what they hope and expect from a book will determine how they find their way into it, and it will further determine whether they stick with it when the way in proves challenging. If writers, publishers, critics, and teachers respect readers as intelligent beings and keep high expectations for them, some great things can happen sometimes, especially if a "difficult" book is able to stay in print for a little while, to lurk on shelves until it is discovered by the readers who need it, the readers ready to help its words live.
I mentioned William Plomer
in passing when discussing
my summer research on Virginia Woolf. Thanks to the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, I was recently able to read his fourth, and perhaps least-read (which is saying something!) novel, The Invaders
. It's an odd book, one that sometimes feels a bit under-cooked, with an ending that seems to me perfunctory, forced, and utterly unsatisfying. Yet there are also moments of real artistry and interest, and I've found myself thinking about it continuously since I finished it a week ago. The Invaders
is, among other things, a gay novel, but it doesn't get noted in even some of the most comprehensive studies of gay fiction, and Plomer deserves to be generally better known by scholars of queer literatures. He was not as talented or accomplished a fiction writer as many of his friends in the London literary scene, but his point of view was unique among them, because though he was mostly educated in England, his home until he was in his 20s was South Africa, and then he moved to Japan for a few years, before finally settling in London (though with many excursions elsewhere, particularly Greece). After The Invaders
, he wrote only one more novel (and that 18 years later), but he published numerous volumes of poetry, biography, autobiography, etc. Fiction seemed to defeat him eventually. It's unfortunate, because there's a lot in The Invaders
to suggest that if he had let down his guard a bit, if he had trusted the characters and stories more, if he had not been so seduced by English propriety, he might have been able to rekindle the creative fury that propelled him originally.
|Plomer, 1933. Photo by Humphrey Spender|
Plomer's first novel, Turbott Wolfe,
written in his late teens, remains the most famous of his books today, and was championed by Nadine Gordimer. There's a brash energy to it that disappears from a lot of his later fiction, and it's more aesthetically daring than what he wrote subsequently. Sado
, his next novel, tells the story of Europeans in Japan. It's more subdued and oblique than Turbott Wolfe
, but also more openly about homosexual desire, though "openly" here is a relative term, as all the homosexual desire, though not difficult to see, is implied. Plomer's next novel, The Case Is Altered
, is a sort of novel of manners that becomes a tale of murder (as, I would submit, all novels of manners ought). It was a significant success, helping to keep the Hogarth Press afloat during the 1930s. In Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers
, J.H. Willis, Jr. describes the novel succinctly, noting first that it was based on a gruesome murder in Plomer's own boarding house:
Although the crazed butchery of Beryl Fernandez by her husband in front of their small child is the shocking climax of the novel, it does not constitute the main interest in the book. Plomer's first English novel explores in depth the traditional subject of a respectable rooming house on its way down, but the most intense aspect of the novel is the thinly disguised homosexual relationship that develops between the Plomer-like hero, Eric Alston, and Willie Pascal [note the initials], the extroverted, working-class brother of Alston's girlfriend Amy. It was Plomer's most overt statement of his sexual identity in fiction and went beyond the lyrical eroticism of Sado. (203-204)
By the time The Case Is Altered
became a success in 1931, Plomer was well established in England's literary circles. At the end of the '20s, he'd become friends not only with the gay male writers of his own generation (e.g. W.H. Auden, John Lehmann, Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood), but also with E.M. Forster, who remained a close, lifelong friend.
And then in 1933 Plomer changed publishers, moving with a short story collection, The Child of Queen Victoria,
from the Hogarth Press to the more mainstream Jonathan Cape (with whom he would soon become an employee, leading to his role in Cape's acquisition of his friend Ian Fleming's James Bond novels). The next year, Cape released The Invaders
, a story of a middle-class London family's relations with a variety of mostly working-class people. (I will summarize and quote from a lot of the book as I go on, given how rare it is.)
The novel doesn't really have a plot, just encounters, and yet there's a momentum and tension to it all, because it always feels that one of these encounters could go horribly wrong at any moment. That tension is mostly false. Characters do encounter disappointments, misunderstandings, frustrations, anger, and, in the end, get involved with a robbery ... but the consequences for the middle-class family that we are set to identify with are almost nil, and even most of the working-class characters end up pretty well, if occasionally bruised and disillusioned.
The "invaders" of the title are the working-class characters, and one of the ways the novel is interesting is in its portrayals of class difference. The main character is Nigel Edge, a veteran of World War I (and badly injured in the war), who works at a tea importer/distributor and lives with his cousin, Frances, and her father, Uncle Maurice, who had been a colonel in the Boer War. Uncle Maurice has strong ideas about class differences and considers anyone from the working classes to be congenitally dishonest. Class differences seem to him eminently reasonable and necessary. Nigel and Frances are no revolutionaries, but their faith in the class system is not especially strong, and Nigel especially is drawn to the working classes. In some ways, this is clearly because by spending his time among people of a lower class, he's able to feel better about himself: compared to theirs, his life is comfortable, prosperous, and well-ordered. But his life is neither interesting nor attractive, and he is a failure as a conventional man: he lives with his cousin and uncle rather than a wife, he has no children, and though he fought and was wounded in the war, his tastes and mannerisms are far from virile.
Interestingly, the novel does not begin with Nigel's point of view. The first chapter is a lovely, panoramic description of London that seeks to establish the variety of people and sites, the numerous possibilities of interclass contact, particularly around the Marble Arch
. Here's the first paragraph:
Gleaming and stinking, gliding and vibrating, the traffic swerves and jostles round that squat anachronism, the Marble Arch. This was Tyburn. Butchery, cries of agony, steaming entrails, calm courage, Perkin Warbeck and Claude Duval, have helped to prepare the scene. Go this way, there is a nunnery; go that way, there is a public house; go down there, and you will come to rich people's houses. You aren't a nun, you don't drink and will never be rich, so for you there is a large hotel, a large cinema, and behind those hollow cliffs some sort of comfort and amusement may be bought. And over there, beyond the wheels and windows of the traffic, is the grass and the comparatively open air, the common heritage of all of us corpuscles who are carried from time to time through this artery of the great body of London, or held there for a while with the policeman on point-duty, the beggar who scratches himself at the gate, or the commissionaire in gold braid at the foot of the cliff. Here is somebody with a grudge, here is somebody whistling, the old lady is about to light a cigarette, the young woman wears jodhpurs and a monocle, and a pavement artist is arguing with his brother-in-law over the merits of a greyhound.
This goes on for a few pages, until the chapter ends with: "Something must be wrong, but something has been and will always be wrong, with the faces round the Arch." The next chapter introduces us to Tony Hart, recently arrived in London from Lancashire. He is starving on the streets, but he rejects charity. He feels watched, judged. One day, he helps a stranger who has fallen on the steps of a tube station. This is Nigel. Tony trusts Nigel for some reason, lets him buy him some food, and Nigel offers to try to find some work for him at Uncle Maurice's house. Soon, we slip into Nigel's point of view, and see him at home with his uncle and cousin. Nigel yearns for a bit of subversion:
"I read in the paper this morning," said Nigel, "that there's an international group which does nothing but smuggle people into countries that won't allow them to come in straightforwardly. They fake passports, provide disguises, teach the elements of conversation in various languages, bribe the captains of coasting steamers, and so on. Of course they do it for profit, but I wouldn't mind doing it for pleasure."
"Oh, simply as a protest against the way the modern world is arranged."
"So you're becoming an anarchist?"
"It looks rather like it, doesn't it?"
"He's only teasing you, father," said Frances. "Don't take any notice of him."
"I'm worried to see him getting more subversive," said the Colonel, speaking of NIgel as if he was not present, "instead of taking things as they are and making the best of them." (33)
Tony comes to clean the windows of the house and meets the new maid, Mavis, herself only recently arrived in the city (seeking to escape a boring rural life, to make her fortune, etc.), and soon enough they fall in love. Eventually, Mavis's brother, Chick, stops by, as he's in the military and based in London. He and Nigel pass each other on the steps, and Nigel is immediately taken with him, even more than he was with Tony. They visit with each other a lot, have long conversations, stare deeply into each other's eyes. (Chick was based on one of Plomer's lovers, a trooper with the Royal Horse Guards.) Tony remains as steadfast and decent as ever, but Mavis is greedy and ambitious, and ends up involved with Tony's felonious brother, Len, an involvement that concludes with a robbery, with Len going back to prison and Mavis realizing the errors of her ways and returning home, where she seems to belong. Nigel's affair with Chick falls apart when Nigel feels that Chick has not entirely honest and has not been paying enough attention to him — Nigel seems to suspect that Chick might prefer being with a woman. (Poor, not-so-bright Chick seems rather blindsided by Nigel's jealousy and his curt dismissal of him.) Nigel goes on holiday to the south of France. He disappears one night, and his proper, married, middle-class friend, Robin, traces him to a seedy bar:
The dancing was going on behind a second bead curtain at the end of the room. Together with the stridency of the gramophone could be heard the sibilant steps of the dancers. Robin strolled over to have a look. There were four couples dancing. Two women were dancing together, and so were two men. One of them was Nigel, the other a working man in a blue shirt. Nigel was so engrossed in the dance that he did not notice Robin for a moment or two.
"Hullo, Robin," he said suddenly.
Robin felt a little uncomfortable.
"I hope I don't intrude?" he said.
"Well, I wasn't expecting you," said Nigel with a smile, "but it's very nice to see you. We'll have a drink."
He came out with his partner, and all three sat at Robin's table. The partner had an amiable face, Robin thought, but rather beady black eyes.
"I came along," he said, "because Yvonne was worried about you. She made me come. I don't think she trusts you to look after yourself."
"What a sweat for you," said Nigel. "I am sorry for dragging you out."
"It's all right. Glad to see you enjoying yourself." (274-275)
Then follows a long paragraph from Robin's point of view — he finds the atmosphere in the place "oppressive and uncomfortable", and the various elements and people combine to "produce a distasteful, an almost horrible effect on him. There was an air of rhythm and ritual, of acceptance and celebration, that made him long to escape" (275-276). Nigel is perfectly happy, and was thinking of spending the night, but decides that he'll go back with Robin and set Yvonne's imagination at rest. The chapter ends:
"Phew!" said Robin. "It was stuffy in there."
"I like that place," said Nigel.
This, in many ways, is the climax of the novel. After it, there's fewer than 30 pages left, and they're mostly devoted to tying up loose ends. Nigel returns to London and his job, and he thinks for a moment that he should perhaps marry Frances. (Plomer himself had recently been wondering if he should get married.) He decides not, as their friendship might be ruined, and he clearly isn't really interested in her in the way a husband should be. He wonders if his desire for marriage is a result of the "emancipation of women" and a feeling of the loss of male power and privilege. The thought is not concluded. The brief final scene of the novel begins: "The invaders had gone" (304). Tony shows up at Nigel's apartment (mid-way through the novel, he decided to move out of his uncle's house) to see if the windows need washing. They chat, then the novel ends with Nigel making a proposal:
"Well, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to lend you your fare home. I think it's time you had a holiday. Mind you, I said 'lend', not 'give'. You can pay me back when your ship comes in."
Tony's face grew brilliant with pleasure.
As for Nigel, it was a long time since he had felt the wound in his head. He felt calm and resigned, and hopeful about the future. He did not know why he was hopeful, but he felt that a phase of his life was ended. He felt as if he knew where he was. (304).
It's a strange ending — one in which people return to where they "belong", and in which Nigel has gained a mysterious sense of peace. What is the "phase" of life that has ended? His attraction to working class men? He feels as if he knows where he is ... but where is that? London, his apartment, the modern age? He is no longer possessed with the subversive/anarchistic desire to help immigrants get to London, but instead with the (conservative) desire to help people go home. He is full of hope, but it can't be the hope of a heteronormalized life, because he's rejected that. Somehow, in rejecting Chick, in dancing in a gay bar in Nice, in sending Tony home, he has found the balance and meaning of his life. He is no longer invaded.
When The Invaders
was published in 1934, Plomer's friends and some of the reviewers tended to refer to its presentation of sexuality as "ambiguous". This is true to some extent, but it would be difficult to argue that Nigel is not a gay man — he is clearly attracted to Tony and infatuated (for a time) with Chick, he goes to the bar in Nice, he's threatened with blackmail (by a lackey of Tony's brother Len). He never quite identifies himself as a homosexual, an invert, a man of the "Oscar Wilde type", etc., nor the does the text ever say that he wants to have sex with the men he is drawn to, but it's not hidden. Where Plomer's narrative reticence in Sado
can seem coy, even annoying, in The Invaders
it seems to me a useful technique for showing these characters and their world — some of the scenes with Chick are charming, the scene in Nice is marvelous (mostly because of just how comfortable Nigel is there, and how uncomfortable Robin grows), but there is
ambiguity, and it's the ambiguity we see in that ending, an ambiguity that seems to defeat a lot of what's going on in the rest of the book (unless we read it ironically, which is certainly possible — after all, the first paragraph of the novel established "you" [which may be us, the readers] as Tony. And indeed, with the story ending, we are being sent home). The chaotic threat of homo-pleasure is defeated and order is restored, with everyone going back to where they belong.
Plomer's quiet approach to writing about gay characters was not in step with the times, as his biographer Peter Alexander
...writers such as Rosamond Lehmann had dealt explicitly with homosexuality, and Plomer's publishers actually encouraged him to be more open about the matter in The Invaders, Rupert Hart-Davis [director of the Jonathan Cape publishing company] writing that the one criticism he had of the manuscript was that Plomer had been vague about the scope of Nigel's relationship with Chick: "You don't say, and hardly even infer, whether they went to bed together or not." But Plomer declined to expand the passage. (194)
The overlaps of class and sex in The Invaders
are ones that will be familiar to anyone who has read E.M. Forster's Maurice
. It's possible, in fact, that Plomer himself had read it when he wrote The Invaders
— Forster tended to share the manuscript with gay friends (sometimes as a test of their friendship); Isherwood read it in 1933, and Plomer introduced Isherwood to Forster. (Naming Nigel's conversative old uncle "Maurice" might have been a little in-joke.) But Plomer certainly wouldn't have had to read Maurice
to decide on the theme of inter-class relationships, for during this particular era of English gay male history, such relationships were the most common ones upper-class gay men would have, as Alexander notes:
One of the curious features of English homosexuals of the upper class at this period was that as a rule (though with notable exceptions) they did not regard each other as potential lovers. Spender was to remark years later, "It would have been almost impossible between two Englishmen of our class ... Men of the same class just didn't; it would have been impossible, or at least very unlikely." This behavior may have originated in the English public schools in which so many of them had been educated, where a senior boy often chose a younger boy as a "friend", and tended to avoid his equals in the school hierarchy.
Certainly Plomer had always been attracted to his social inferiors, if only because this gave him control over the relationship. ... With the younger writers, Spender, Auden, and Isherwood, the impulse to choose working-class partners was reinforced by left-wing political views. (180)
Plomer wasn't politically committed in the way his friends were, but he detested the English laws regarding homosexual conduct, and he seems to have shared at least some of Nigel's occasionally subversive inclinations. From the time of Turbott Wolfe
, he'd seen sex as a solution to political problems, and it's certainly possible that he thought homosex was a path toward dismantling the class system. But he was no class warrior (even if he was more active, in every sense, than Nigel).
One of the reasons that The Invaders
may have disappeared from even the most inclusive of gay canons is that it was a bit old-fashioned even for its own time. Where writers like Isherwood and Spender delighted in pushing the edges of what was acceptable, Plomer was far more comfortable in a more liminal space.
In a letter to Plomer dated 26 September 1934, E.M. Forster expressed a criticism of The Invaders
What seems to [be] not satisfactory in the book is a thing which I find wrong in A Passage to India. I tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplained muddle — Miss Quested's experience in the cave. When asked what happened there, I don't know. And you,
hoping expecting to show the untidiness of London, have left your book untidy. —Some fallacy, not a serious one, has seduced us both, some confusion between the dish and the dinner.
I'm all for these London books of yours. They seem to me about a real town.
Forster is insightful here. (More insightful regarding Plomer, I think, than about his own novel.) The Invaders
fails to be a great novel at least partly because Plomer couldn't let Nigel become ... something. In the end, his sense of peace rings false because it is so random and so against all the facts the book presented up to that point. If the novel had ended with Nigel and Robin walking out of the bar in Nice — if the last line had been, "'I like that place,' said Nigel", it would have been far more effective, even though lots of loose ends would have still been left untied. But Plomer's instincts (and, perhaps, fears) led him to squeeze Nigel into a form that does not follow from the rest of the book, that makes no sense — that
, and not so much Nigel's homosexuality, is the muddle. It's not so serious a fallacy for Forster's work because A Passage to India
is actually strengthened by the ability of readers to make their own sense of Miss Quested, but it is a failure for Plomer's novel because while we have enough information to make sense of him as a gay man who genuinely likes (and is also sexually attracted to) working class men, we cannot make sense of him as he is in the final scene. Nor, I suspect, could Plomer.The Invaders
was Plomer's last novel until his final one, Museum Pieces
, was released in 1952. I haven't read it, but Alexander praises it as Plomer's most accomplished fiction, and also says, intriguingly:
In essence it is the story of [Plomer's friend] Tony Butts's life, told by a young female narrator. What Plomer had done in Turbott Wolfe, in making it possible for his hero to fall in love with another man by slipping the loved one into a dress, he did at much greater length, and with greater success, in Museum Pieces. (266-267)
While it may be true that Plomer was most comfortable, and most successful, when writing about men from a female perspective, it would be a shame for the world to completely forget his efforts in Sado, The Case Is Altered,
and The Invaders
to write, however quietly, however reticently, about gay desire.
"I like that place," said Nigel.
One reason I Can Give You Anything But Love
is marvelous is that Gary Indiana plays the role of the Bitchy Queen with aplomb. It's the sort of thing he enjoys
in the diaries of Richard Burton, who, he says, "cuts brilliantly through the grease in his desultory observations." The same could be said of Indiana, though we'd have to add that he's even better than Burton:
"His self-involvement was hermetic and vaguely reptilian. ... He was boastful, stupid, pathetically narcissistic, and sad, but such a deluded asshole it was impossible to feel sorry for him. I liked how he liked how I looked looking at him, that was literally all we shared."
"If the Tom of Finland types aren't stupid as boiled okra, they give that impression in conversation."
"I made the mistake of ferrying a frowzy, unlovely couple named Joni and Hank to Ralphs several times, creating the false impression that I enjoyed their company. They described themselves as sex addicts. Soon they considered me their friend. They began suggesting nauseating three-ways while piling giant bags of Cheez Doodles and cases of Coca-Cola into their shopping cart. They had a trailer park greasiness I associated with Charles Manson. Joni and Hank's dream was to 'break into show business,' a dream so remote from plausibility that it might have been touching, if they had been less needy and mentally dim."
"Notable figures graced our lobby. Anjelica Huston. Tony Perkins. I sometimes asked for their autographs on dispenser napkins, then took somewhat childish pleasure in using the napkins to mop up Coke spills."
Each chapter is filled with such passages. But if that were all, this would be one of those books you read just to feel superior to most of humanity (a useful antidote for self-hatred and depression, but cheap and nasty porn is more noble).
What makes I Can Give You Anything But Love
more than merely marvelous is that Gary Indiana isn't just the Bitchy Queen. Indeed, by the end of the book I began to suspect that he, like so many, assumes that role as protection against the pain of being alive. That we see both the role and the pain — as well as the fierce intelligence framing both — is what is so special here.
For instance, the book has received some notice for its short, lacerating portrait of Susan Sontag. As a piece of writing, it's a tour de force of apparently long-festering bitterness, delightfully nasty. A small sample:
I was regularly exhausted by her limitless capacity for admiring things. She was perpetually "moved" by this Japanese film director, "exalted" by that lesser-known Janáček opera, "besotted" by the contortions of some ballerina. When the pleasure of her company segued into pedantry, I usually glazed over. I could be pedantic too, but... I once told her bluntly that this need to be exalted every minute of the day was terribly draining for people who had to pretend to be exalted along with her. Susan took, as was her wont, umbrage. It wasn't her fault if people were lazy and unadventurous, didn't care to eat a hundred-year-old egg or plod through a thousand-page Hungarian novel, though for the life of her she didn't understand why people were so lazy, though no doubt it had to do with television coarsening their sensitivities.
Compare the Sontag here with the far more affectionate (and insightful) portrait of Sontag that he created in an obituary in the Village Voice in 2004
What's his true take on Sontag? I don't care, really. The obituary is a fine example of the obituary genre, and the bitchy portrait of Sontag in I Can Give You Anything But Love
works very well within the structure that Indiana sets up in the book, the persona he creates for the narrator. The kind of nuance he displays in the obituary would be out of place in the book, because the book needs room for other nuances, ones in fact that rely on a contrast between the world of the successful and famous with the world of the ordinary, the struggling, the forgotten, the hopeless, the doomed. Again and again, the book shows us that the quest for fame, fortune, success, love, etc. is mostly a fool's errand.
(Perhaps that explains the strange opening to Chapter 6, an apparent diary entry about Indiana's inability to write about his friendship with and love for the film director Werner Schroeter. The short section is set in a different font from the rest of the book, and it does feel like it belongs elsewhere, somewhere outside this narrative, and yet also needs to be here for contrast, for a bit of reminder: not every successful person is a schmuck.)
Almost every chapter opens in Cuba, where Indiana lives off and on. It's a place of struggle, a place full of annoyances and injustices, and yet it also possesses (or exudes) something like grace, even authenticity (whatever that is). Nobody Indiana interacts with there is likely to become famous, nobody there is likely to become a world-renowned artist or writer or filmmaker or whatever. Cuba, as Indiana portrays it here, is the antidote to celebrity culture. His writing about Cuba and the Cubans he knows is more often affectionate than barbed. The Bitchy Queen is not the right role there. Instead, he's more playing the role of the Weird Foreigner and living, as best he can, for as long as he can, outside of time.
Consider what Indiana says about Hemingway and Cuba (first published at Vice
, recontextualized here):
Most Cubans have never read Hemingway and never will. In fact most Cubans have no idea who Hemingway was, and only recognize the name as that of the marina, or, in some cases, the famous daiquiri. The myth of Ernest Hemingway as a Cuban national idol has not enjoyed much traction since the very early 1960s, when Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro were often photographed smoking cigars together or sharing a comradely embrace.
There, it seems, lies one of the attractions of Cuba for Indiana: the bullshit so perfectly represented by Papa Hemingway has no way to be mistaken for gold and jewels.
Indiana immediately follows that paragraph with a contrast that brings us back not just to the United States, but to one of the most venerated contemporary writers about US culture:
Now that Norman Mailer has joined the shades of ancient evenings, the only American writer who still carries a torch for Ernest Hemingway is Joan Didion, upon whom the influence of Hemingway has not been entirely wonderful. The irksome repetitions and overly precious one-line paragraphs in Didion come directly out of Hemingway and the pregnant white space he famously left around his sentences. The tough, laconic, manly men who serve as fantasy heroes in Didion’s fiction have the unmistakable Hemingway touch. So do the shrieking pansies and suicidal homos she scatters through her books for spice, like pineapple rings on a Christmas ham.
(He qualifies his dissection of Didion a little bit: "If Didion did not have the mind of a steel trap up her sleeve, she would be
Ernest Hemingway, much to the detriment of American letters," but that sentence seems to me halfhearted, as if the Bitchy Queen was worried by some sotto voce
grumbling from the more sensitive members of the audience.)I Can Give You Anything But Love
is (among other things) a memoir, and Indiana gives us a lot of what we expect from the genre: drugs, sex, abuse, travel. What he doesn't provide is what makes so many memoirs both insufferable and bestsellers: redemption, salvation, and the good ol' voyeuristic pleasures of a tale of trauma. There's a brutal paragraph describing Indiana's rape by a Hells Angel on meth, and though the experience is of course awful and has some immediate consequences for him, that and other terrifying experiences are not brandished as wounds for us to admire: "After the second sexual assault that I was supposed to feel less manly about having been the recipient of, turning both events into an ugly comedy was the only way I could deal with them."
After a friend tries to take responsibility for allowing one of the rapes to happen, Indiana writes:
"You know something," I said when he finished flagellating himself, "I wasn't as traumatized as you seem to think I was." ...
"Really?" The slightly sunken, drooping eyelids that gave him his Baudelairean aura flipped up in surprise.
"Oh, go ahead, asshole, you were about to say what a relief it is to hear it when you realized what that would sound like."
In some ways, I Can Give You Anything But Love
is an anti-memoir, because a more conventional (and popular) example of the genre would invert that entire passage to give us a narrator more
traumatized than anyone could ever be sensitive enough to understand. Such a scene in a conventional memoir would be designed to elicit our emotion, our sympathy. No need for sympathy here. But also no relief. The third paragraph there is the real genius, though, the little twist of complexity and nuance so rare in other writers, so common throughout this book.
I could say much more, but there's no need. This is an extraordinary book — sharp, surprising, funny, scary, moving, and beautifully written throughout. (And not only at the sentence level. There are, indeed, some scintillating sentences, but Indiana's real skill shows itself in the arrangement and rhythm of sentences in his paragraphs.) It's a book to give to people who are fun to shock, and it's a book to cherish if you are beyond shock, beyond needing a fortune-cookie meaning for life, and beyond being impressed by the ever-so-well-crafted, ever-so-forgettable prose that gets marketed to "serious readers" these days. Throughout his career, Indiana's writing has stood as a bulwark against the bullshit bromides that our culture machines spew over the world, the meretricious stuff that is not fertilizer but smothering goo.
I could leave you with all sorts of examples. Here's one that especially struck me, from late in the book:
Events, or a lack of them, have instilled in me an unshakeable sense of utter insignificance. I am too peculiar to figure importantly in anyone's life, including my own. Even years later, when the idea that I exist can be asserted with external evidence — books I've published, films I've acted in, plays I've directed, friends who can confirm my physical reality, passport records of countries I've visited, bank statements, dental records, blood test results, psychiatric files, hotel registers, airline ticket stubs, old photos, bales of early writing archived at a major university, and other documentary proof — I will continue to register as a blurry human smudge in my mind's eye.
Or maybe this:
"I'll tell you a better story," she said. "A famous soccer player became very depressed and one day he threw himself in front of a bus. The driver of the bus was a big fan of the soccer player. When he found out that he had accidentally killed his idol, he went into a depression and jumped off the roof of a building. Then the bus driver's wife became depressed. She went to a psychiatrist, but her life was ruined so she swallowed an overdose of pills. The psychiatrist felt like a total failure when he heard about this and hanged himself in his office."
"How much of this is true?"
"Maybe none of it is true, but it's a better story, isn't it?"
I've been meaning to catch up with Ali Smith's novels for a while now, having previously only read Hotel World
, and so when it came time this summer to formulate reading lists for my PhD qualifying exams, I stuck How to Be Both
on the fiction section for the Queer Studies list. (This also explains why I was writing about The Invaders
recently...)How to Be Both
turns out to be even more appropriate to my Queer Studies studies than I'd suspected from reading reviews, and it shows how the structures of fiction can be at least as provocative and productive as certain types of social and political philosophy. How to Be Both
is generally a very readable, enjoyable book — in some ways deceptively so. In that, it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's best books, which manage to play with some complex ideas in light, entertaining ways. (Smith's novel would make a marvelous companion to Vonnegut's Mother Night
in a course on the novel and history...) How to Be Both
does quite a lot to challenge ideas of time, history, language, and various normativities, but it does so without collapsing into vagueness, abstraction, or pedantry; quite the opposite. It bears its own paradoxes far better than many works of vaunted critical theory, which end up, at their worst, sputtering out in abstraction and self-parody, like a Mad Libs version of an Oscar Wilde epigram.
Over the last ten years or so, there's been discussion among Queer Studies folks of queer temporality and historicism — the effect of contemporary vocabulary ("queer", "gay", "lesbian", "homosexual", "transgender") on a past that used different words and ideas; the relationship of past behaviors and ideas to present ones; the political power of the past for the present; the similarity or difference of past worlds to our own; how we express such similarity/difference; the experience of history as a queer person; etc. (Of course, the roots of this conversation go way back, but there have been particular spins on it recently.)
In 2013, Valerie Traub published a significant response to some of the more prominent discussions of these ideas, particularly among Renaissance scholars: "The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies"
(to which there was more response later
), which is a relatively accessible entry point to some strands of discussion. Here's a bit of Traub:
Rather than practice “queer theory as that which challenges all categorization” ... there remain ample reasons to practice a queer historicism dedicated to showing how categories, however mythic, phantasmic, and incoherent, came to be. To understand the arbitrary nature of coincidence and convergence, of sequence and consequence, and to follow them through to the entirely contingent outcomes to which they contributed: this is not a historicism that creates categories of identity or presumes their inevitability; it is one that seeks to explain such categories’ constitutive, pervasive, and persistent force. Resisting unwarranted teleologies while accounting for resonances and change will bring us closer to achieving the dificult and delicate balance of apprehending historical sameness and difference, continuism and alterity, that the past, as past, presents to us. The more we honor this balance, the more complex and circumspect will be our comprehension of the relative incoherence and relative power of past and present conceptual categories, as well as of the dynamic relations among subjectivity, sexuality, and historiography.
Ali Smith's novel explores and even embodies this discussion, and does so in many ways that both the unhistoricists and the historicists seek to valorize. And it's more fun to read than their essays.
First, there is the form: The book tells two different stories, with one being the first half of the text and the other the second half. Which is which depends on the particular copy of the book you get — half of them begin with the story of the painter Francescho [or Francesco] del Cossa
, the other half begin with the story of George (short for Georgia), a teenager in contemporary England whose mother has recently died. (The e-book apparently allows you to choose which order you want.) The copy I have out from the library begins with George, which seems to me to be the friendliest, easiest entry point, because the Francescho section begins much more lyrically, and it takes pages to get your bearings. It all makes sense once you know the situation and various references, but you don't really get to know those until later, so for a while the Francescho section just seems like rambling nonsense. (It is rambling; it isn't nonsense.) The opening of the George section is, on the other hand, quite marvelous and engaging. I zoomed through the whole 186 pages of that part quickly and with pleasure. It took longer for me to get interested in the Francescho section, but in some ways that one proves to be the richer and more satisfying, which is another reason I'm pleased to have read it as the second half rather than the first.
Some reviewers have speculated about the different ways readers could interpret the texts based on which they read first, but I'm not sure the difference is so much in interpretation as it is in expectation and in the reading experience itself. The pacing of the two sections is different, and so the book will feel different if you read one first rather than the other. There are connections you'll make differently based on which you read first, but I'm not sure how much that really matters except in the moment of reading, since once you turn the last page, you've got all the information as a set in your mind. For instance, the Francescho section gives us the story behind some paintings that are speculated about in the George section, and so reading the George section second would cause you to compare the speculations to the story you know from the Francescho section. I didn't feel it was a significant difference to encounter those stories second, since they are already presented in the George section as speculation, so I didn't read them as anything except the guesses and imaginings of the characters, which is what you still read them as even when you know other stories behind the paintings.
One thing uniting the academic historicists and unhistoricists is a sharp suspicion, and sometimes outright rejection, of teleology. (Traub: "Since around 2005 a specter has haunted the field in which I work: the specter of teleology. ... A teleological perspective views the present as a necessary outcome of the past—the point toward which all prior events were trending.") This is a problem for anybody writing a narrative, because narrative is purposeful, and most narratives are aimed toward their conclusions. For a long time, the whole idea of a well-wrought story has been one where, in fact, the conclusion is indeed "the point toward which all prior events were trending." A carefully constructed plot is, pretty much by definition, teleological.
Various Modernist writers tried to escape the teleological properties of narrative through disjunction, juxtaposition, impressionism, and surrealism, but teleology proved hard to escape except in the most abstract writing, or in works where it literally doesn't matter what order you read things in (e.g. Hopscotch
or The Unfortunates
) — although even then, in the assembling of meaning, the reader is still likely to impose a teleology at the end, even if the author has used a form that itself makes no such imposition. We want, as readers, to say that where we ended up is a direct result of where we began. It's a pretty unsatisfying story if the conclusion isn't in relationship to what came before, and preferably a relationship of causality and purpose. Even if the narrative itself works hard to escape teleology, there's still the matter of the writer's purpose in constructing that narrative.
In the early 20th century, a lot of the more avant-garde writers sought to create works that did not promote a particular moral idea or lesson (one hallmark of teleology), but more often than not this led to a new sort of purposefulness embedded in the text (if not a chronological text, then a chronological reading experience infused with a sense of purpose). (For more on this, see "Modernism and the Emancipation of Literature from Morality: Teleology and Vocation in Joyce, Ford, and Proust"
by David Sidorsky. It's from 1983, but I haven't seen anything more recent that does a better job of really digging in to the question of Modernist narrative and teleology.) How to Be Both
doesn't escape teleology, but it does play around with it, creating anti-teleological effects that work beautifully because they're embedded like booby traps and surprise parties in the narrative. We get the anti-teleological effects and
we get the inescapable, purposeful, and even linear, movement inherent to storytelling.
Additionally, How to Be Both
manages to question identity categories without pretending that identity is an unimportant concept. Past and present become interestingly different and similar, readable and prone to misreadings. In that, it's perhaps squaring some of the circles proposed by queer theory in the last ten or fifteen years.
Here's a key passage from one of the essays that Traub responds to most fully, "Queering History" by Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon:
...the challenge for queer Renaissance studies today is twofold: one, to resist mapping sexual difference onto chronological difference such that the difference between past and present becomes also the difference between sexual regimes; and two, to challenge the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present. Even if the model of past alterity were to be replaced with a model of past similarity—sodomy is similar to rather than different from current regimes of homosexuality—that similarity should lead not to identity but rather to the non-self-identical nonpresent. To queer the Renaissance would thus mean not only looking for alternative sexualities in the past but also challenging the methodological orthodoxy by which past and present are constrained and straitened; it would mean resisting the strictures of knowability itself, whether those consist of an insistence on teleological sequence or textual transparency. This version of homohistory thus does not necessarily refer to homosexuality at all. Rather, it suggests the impossibility of the final difference between, say, sodomy and homosexuality, even as it gestures toward the impossibility of final definition that both concepts share. Paying attention to the question of sexuality as a question involves violating the notion that history is the discourse of answers, a discourse whose commitment to determinate signification, Jacques Rancière has argued, provides false closure, blocking access to the multiplicity of the past and to the possibilities of different futures.Gesturing toward the impossibility of final definition
is one way to express some of what How to Be Both
is up to. The past in this novel is full of multiplicity and there's very little closure of any sort, whether "false closure" or not — even death is not closure, because a ghostly consciousness survives to narrate.
I haven't done a search of the text, but I don't think any words for sexual identity appear in it (if they do, they don't do so in a memorable way, at least for me). It's a small item, but an important one: what we make of the relationships in either story is up to us, and so the characters' identities remain more conceptually open in our minds than they would were they even to be labelled as queer
— unless, of course, we impose our own labels on them, which is a move the text itself playfully parodies in the Francescho section, where Francescho's gender bending is accepted and explained by saying "he's a painter
", with the word painter
easily standing in for whatever deviation from social norms is discussed.
Francescho, for instance, is morphologically female, but functions socially as a man by wearing men's clothes and working in a male profession. How to Be Both
is one of the more interesting accounts of historical cross dressing that I've read because it is generally so blasé about that cross dressing. (And by "historical", I don't mean "historically accurate" — hardly anything is known of the actual Francescho del Cossa, and there is no indication that he was identified as a woman at birth. More on this in a moment.) Francescho becomes Francescho after her mother's death, when her father proposes that she could wear her brothers' clothes and thus go to school and eventually apprentice to an artist. She shows great talent, but as a woman would have no possibility of training or opportunity to get art commissions. The solution to that problem is to stop being a woman. This has little to do with the body and everything to do with clothing and presentation. This is clearest at the moment where Francescho's best friend, Barto, is told that Francescho is a woman. His surprise and feeling of betrayal is a surprise to Francescho (who has the annoying habit of using "cause" for "because"):
Cause there'd been many times when Barto'd seen me naked or near-naked, by ourselves swimming, say, or with other boys and young men too and the general acceptance of my painter self had always meant I'd been let to be exactly that — myself — no matter that in 1 difference I was not the same : it was as simple as agreement, as understood and accepted and as pointless to mention as the fact that we all breathed the same air : but there are certain things that, said out loud, will change the hues of a picture like a too-bright sunlight continually hitting it will : this is natural and inevitable and nothing can be done about it...
Here, the speaking of difference creates the difference. Barto only becomes angry with Francescho for "lying" about gender when he is told by someone else that Francesco has been "false":
Is it true? he said. You've been false? All these years?
I have never not been true, I said.
Me not knowing, he said. You not you.
You've known me all along, I said. I've never not been me.
You lied, he said.
Never, I said. And I have never hidden anything from you.
This is not a moment in which identity is obliterated or even especially fluid, and yet it's also far more complex than one in which a contemporary category is imposed on the past. Identity exists in various forms: "my painter self" is not a false self, but a modified, incomplete self (incomplete in that it is not the whole self, which is probably unutterable if not inconceivable). A good friend, such as Barto here, is going to know a person in a way that moves beyond categories, but also in a way that is constrained by circumstances, experiences, and assumptions — just as our own knowledge of our self is constrained by circumstances, experiences, and assumptions. In the brief bit of dialogue above, knowability is both asserted and shown to be inevitably incomplete. What is "natural and inevitable and nothing can be done about it" is not identity or sexuality or self or other, but rather the effect of what is spoken about identity, sexuality, self, and other. Words create worlds.
The George section approaches all this in an entirely different way. It's set around 2014 in Cambridge, and it tells a variety of stories, including the story of George's mourning for her mother, who was an economist, writer, and internet provocateur. George's memories of her mother are memories of conversations that often involves words and meanings. (George is an aspiring grammar pedant, which both riles and amuses her mother.) It also tells the story of George's awakening desire for her friend Helena (whose friends call her H), a precocious, lively young woman who opens other worlds to George.
Again and again throughout this section, words and their meanings flow and shift playfully. George
is a nickname for Georgia
, and there's a wonderful perceptual effect to reading a story in which a rather male name is attached to a rather female character — by the time she's called "Georgia" by someone, it seems awfully formal and in many ways just plain wrong.
Time and perception are slippery throughout the novel, and they are slippery because of the effect of time on living. The George section begins:
Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George's mother says to George who's sitting in the passenger seat.
Not says. Said.
George's mother is dead.
What moral conundrum? George says.
The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side the driver's seat is on at home. This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.
Okay. You're an artist, her mother says.
Am I? George says. Since when? And is that a moral conundrum?
Ha ha, her mother says. Humour me. Imagine it. You're an artist.
This conversation is happening last May, when George's mother is still alive, obviously. She's been dead since September. Now it's January, to be more precise it's just past midnight on New Year's Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George's mother died.
Look at all that! All the doubling, all the slippage, all the revising of perceptions! We start reading with, probably, the reasonable assumption that George is a boy, and thus the "You're an artist, her
mother says" comes as a surprise and makes us, perhaps, reread the first few lines, or at least reconfigure the image (however tentative) of George in our mind. (The exact same thing happens, though for different reasons and different assumptions, with Francescho's ghost, who is the narrator in the other section. The ghost sees George in a museum and, for reasons of changes in fashion, etc., assumes it's a boy. "This boy is a girl," Francescho writes at the beginning of the second chapter of the section.) Then there is the struggle with tense: present goes to past, and the final paragraph I've quoted adds (vertiginously) more precision, though the effect on the tenses is even more twisty: the conversation is (present tense) happening in the past. Twisty, too, is the effect of imagination, which, as a companion to words, creates worlds: George as artist, George as driver.
Twisty: It's a recurring idea in the book, most heavily but not exclusively in the George section. There's the song and the dance of The Twist
. There's also DNA: George's home of Cambridge is also home to the Cavendish Laboratory
(The book notes that the twisty structure of DNA was not just discovered by the famous men, but also by Rosalind Franklin
). Ideas, identities, worlds twist and interrelate.
Here we have, then, not teleology so much as interrelationship. Not linear progress, but temporal parallels. Not an arrow from the past pointed at the future, but a dance of partners. Perceived separately, they are one thing. Perceived together they are one thing else. Separate, yes, but also together. Different, yes, but also a same. Both.
Late in the Francescho section, Barto offers two cups of water to Francescho to help overcome sadness and anxiety: one cup, he says, holds water of forgetting, one cup holds water of remembering. They come from the same jug, which perplexes Francescho:
So it's the cups of forgetting and remembering and has nothing to do with the water?How to be both
No, it's the water, he said. You have to drink the water.
How can the same water be both? I said.
It's a good question, he said. The kind of thing I'd expect you to ask. So. Ready? So first you drink—.
It would mean that forgetting and remembering are really both the same thing, I said.
Don't split hairs with me, he said.
is what we need to learn, and what we need to learn to perceive. There's a certain monadism to it: everything is, ultimately, one ... and yet to survive, to make sense of the world, to function from day to day, to speak and dream and desire ... we have to have separates. The water is one, and it is not one.
Don't split hairs, though. Intention matters, reception matters, perception matters. Labels matter: This is the water of forgetting because we both agree it is the water of forgetting, not because of its origin or its biological properties. Barto doesn't pay close attention to which cup he said was which, and when he and Francescho can't agree on which was poured as the water of forgetting and which as the water of remembering, they have to start over. Which is which is a social fact, and that means they have to agree on which is which for the water to do what it is supposed to do, because what it is supposed to do depends on their mutual perception. Their perceptions must dance together, must twist and helix.
It isn't all just fun and games. Perceptions create realities, and not always good ones. Francescho is paid less than male painters by a Duke because the Duke likes male painters best and has found out that Francescho is physically female. He doesn't like Francescho less as a painter, but instead values him less as a him. (This whole incident is then perceived differently by George and her mother — it is the moral conundrum of the opening, but it is not
the moral conundrum it was in Francescho's time because George and her mother do not know that Francescho was perceived by the Duke as a woman painter, and thus less captivating to his desires. The moral conundrum of payment, self-worth, ego, and skill is, though, one well worth thinking about and talking through, even if it is not the one that Francescho was thinking about and talking through. It is both.)
This brings us then to the question of what we do about the past. What can be known, and what do we impose? Is Smith wrong
about the real Francescho del Cossa? Yes, no, neither, both. Anything said about del Cossa beyond the very few known facts is wrong, or at least fictional, a matter of speculation. To speak is to create a story, to impose a viewpoint on the past, no matter how objective you try to be, because to speak the past is to narrate the past, to move from isolated facts to connected history. Speculation may not help us know the past, because the past may lie beyond knowability, but speculation can help us know ourselves as we imagine we know the past, and there is value in that.
Knowability isn't only a matter of the past, as How to Be Both
shows. We perhaps assume we know the present and the people close to us, but strangeness (even queerness) is everywhere. This is what I take to be the purpose of the mysterious character of Lisa Goliard, whom George tries to fix an identity on: Was she her mother's friend? A fan? A lover? The book never answers these questions definitivey. Lisa Goliard remains a free-floating signifier from George's mother's life. She can be seen, even surveilled, but not known. Her story is outside George's story, no matter how much George wants to twist it into her own. She is what can't be known, what can't be pinned down, even in the present. History knows more of Francescho than George is able to know of Lisa Goliard, a living woman whom she's able to spy on. But seeing — perceiving — is not the same as knowing. The two sections of the book have icons, and the icon for the George section is a surveillance camera. The icon for the Francescho section is del Cossa's own drawing of eyes on flower petals. Sight via technology, site via nature, art, and whimsy. Both forms of sight are incomplete mediations.
Perspective, too, matters: "It's as if," George thinks after looking a long time at a painting, "just passing from one side of the saint to the other will result if you go one way in wholeness and if you go the other in brokenness." She adds: "Both states are beautiful." It's a theme throughout the book, expressed again and again: doubleness, perception, beauty. It's the twistiness encoded in DNA and in art. The book itself is like a fresco that has been painted over or a canvas that has accumulated multiple pictures. Francescho learns this lesson early when watching a master painter work:
and from looking at whose works I learned
the open mouths of horses,
the rise of light in a landscape,
the serious nature of lightness,
and how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up-rising through the skin of it
Prose struggles to tell a story more than one way at once, since we read linearly. But that idea of a story underneath another story, rising up through the skin — that idea is woven into this book's form, a book that suggests the idea is also woven into the form of our selves, if we take the time to look. Art and life do not need to be separate:
I like very much a foot, say, or a hand, coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world and this shift is a marker of this reality : and I like a figure to shift into that realm between the picture and the world just like I like a body really to be present under painted clothes where something, a breast, a chest, an elbow, a knee, presses up from beneath and brings life to a fabric : I like an angel's knee particularly, cause holy things are worldly too and it's not a blasphemy to think so, just a further understanding of the realness of holy things.
The ideas, though, continue to twist, because to Francescho, these are just "mere mundane pleasures", and what really matters is (of course) a matter of "2 opposing things at once":
The one is, it lets the world be seen and understood.
The other is, it unchains the eyes and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both.
And there we have it. How to Be Both
is, in fact, both.
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A writer recently wrote a blog post about how he's quitting teaching writing. I'm not going to link to it because though it made me want to write this post of my own, I'm not planning either to praise or disparage the post or its author, whom I don't know and whose work I haven't read (though I've heard good things about it). Reading the post, I was simply struck by how different his experience is from my own experience, and I wondered why, and I began to think about what I value in teaching writing, and why I've been doing it in one form or another — mostly to students without much background or interest in writing — for almost twenty years.
I don't know where the quitting teacher works or the circumstances, other than that he was working as an adjunct professor, as I did for five years, and was teaching introductory level classes, as I continue to do now that I'm a PhD student. (And in some ways did back when I was a high school teacher, if we want to consider high school classes as introductory to college.) So, again, this is not about him, because I know nothing about his students' backgrounds, his institution's expectations or requirements, his training, etc. If he doesn't like teaching writing where he's currently employed, he shouldn't do it, for his own sake and for that of his students. It's certainly nothing you're going to get rich from, so really, you're doing no-one any good by staying in a job like that, and you may be doing harm (to yourself and others).
Most of the quitting teacher's complaints boil down to, "I don't like teaching unmotivated students." So it goes. There are, though, lots of different levels of "unmotivated". Flat-out resistant and recalcitrant are the ultimate in unmotivated, and I also really find no joy in working with such students, because I'm not very good at it. I've done it, but have not stayed with jobs where that felt like all there was. One year at a particular high school felt like facing nothing but 100 resistant and recalcitrant students every single day, and though the job paid quite well (and, for reasons I can't fathom, the administration wanted me to stay), I fled quickly. I was useless to most of those students and they were sending me toward a nervous breakdown. I've seen people who work miracles with such students. I wasn't the right person for that job.
But then there are the students who, for whatever reason, just haven't bought in to what you're up to. It's not their thing. I don't blame them. Put me in a math or science class, and that's me. Heck, put me in a Medieval lit class and that's me. But again and again, talented teachers have welcomed me into their world, and because of those teachers, I've been able to find a way to care and to learn about things I didn't initially care about in the least. That's the sort of teacher I aspire to be, and occasionally, for all my fumbling, seem to have succeeded at being.
It's nice to teach courses where everybody arrives on Day 1 with passion for the subject. I've taught such classes a few times. It can be fun. It's certainly more immediately fulfilling than the more common sort of classes where the students are a bit less instrinsically motivated to be there. But I honestly don't care about those advanced/magical classes as much. Such students are going to be fine with or without me. At a teaching seminar I attended 15 years ago, the instructor described such students as the ones for whom it doesn't matter if you're a person or a stalk of asparagus, because they'll do well no matter what. I don't aspire to be a stalk of asparagus.
There's another problem, too, and that's the problem of pedagogy. Many colleges and universities are terrible at providing training for teachers. There's an unspoken assumption that teaching is something anybody with an advanced degree can do. This despite the fact that anybody who's spent more than a few days in a college or university knows there are plenty of people with advanced degrees, people who may be brilliant at all sorts of other things, who can't teach at all.
Teaching writing is a particular skill, especially when teaching unmotivated students. I'm lucky to have spent some undergrad time and now some PhD time at the University of New Hampshire
, where the teaching of writing is taken really seriously because writing teachers at UNH have long been interested not only in writing, but in the art of its teaching. The ghosts of Donald Murray
, Donald Graves
, and Robert Connors
still haunt our halls. I continue to draw on things I learned in a Teaching Writing course in my last semester of undergrad. In my early years of teaching, I read every pedagogy book I could get my hands on. I still pick them up now and then, because I'm still learning to teach.
If you're struggling to teach writing, have no support from your institution, but don't want to quit, there are resources that can help you. (Though really, you should consider quitting, especially if they're not paying you well. Schools exploit people who they provide little support to because those people feel some sort of obligation to work for crappy wages and in crappy conditions. Say no! Or at least help organize a union.)
To begin, check out the National Writing Project
, Teachers & Writers
, and the NCTE
Seek out books for ideas and inspiration. First, put everything aside and read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary
. Then maybe a practical book like The Elements of Teaching Writing
, The Handbook of Creative Writing
, or Being a Writer
(which is overpriced; its predecessor, A Community of Writers
, is easy enough to find used for much less money).
If you're determined that you must fix your students' grammar, then start with Teaching Grammar in Context
and/or Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing
by Constance Weaver. (But a caution: Make sure you're not promoting myths
. Educate yourself. Read Stephen Pinker's A Sense of Style
, Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars
, and, if you're especially determined, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar
. Or, better yet, make a study of grammar ranting part of your pedagogy — see Grammar Rants
by Patricia Dunn and Ken Lindblom.) If most of your students seem to lack much preparation for college-level work, then investigate pedagogy for developmental writing
Don't just be a writer who shows up in a classroom. You've been hired to be a teacher who also knows something about writing. You need to see yourself in that role, or else you're just grossly stroking your ego in public. Develop a vision of yourself as a teacher, and read the works of writing teachers who inspire — Peter Elbow
is my go-to guy whenever I'm feeling bad about my teaching, with Everyone Can Write
as the key text (though I'm fond, too, of Writing with Power
and Writing Without Teachers
). Read Lynda Barry
. Read. Talk. Listen. Plenty of people have had all the challenges and disappointments and frustrations that you've had. Learn from them.
And yes, of course there are lots of frustrations along the way. Even the best classes will have bad days, and sometimes you'll have an entire bad term. That's the world of teaching. Analyze what isn't working and try to figure out ways to fix it; seek out other people's ideas when you're stuck. I hate the feeling of having been a bad teacher, but it also invigorates me, because it makes me determined to fix the problems the next time around. (It's when the problems seem utterly unfixable that you know you're the wrong person for the job. If nothing seems like it will get better and again and again you find yourself dreading the next class, the next term, then quit if you can. It's okay. You don't need to spend your entire life as a bad teacher. Create an exit plan before you kill yourself or one of your students. Seriously.)
I've been meaning to write about the most successful writing course I've taught, and so this gives me a bit of an excuse to do so. By "successful" I mean that the students' work and reflections on the course at the end of the term consistently met my goals for the course through multiple sets of students, both in face-to-face classes and online. The course is called Writing and the Creative Process, and I taught it at Plymouth State University. It's the lowest-level creative writing course the English department offers, and it fulfills a general education requirement, so typically it is taken by students will little background in writing and often not much interest in it. They arrive to the course because they need the credit, and many assume a creative writing class is an easy A or B.
My goals for the course are not for the students to become great writers. That's out of my control. Great writing is a mix of talent, practice, experience, circumstances. My goals are more about helping the students to overcome some assumptions about writing and creativity.
Most students arrive to my classes, whether writing classes or otherwise, with an idea that writing is about following rules and not making mistakes. They've lost all sense of play. I want them to be less afraid of playing with language. I want them to be less afraid of the unfamiliar. If I can do that, then a lot of what matters in writing will take care of itself. Of course, there are
rules and conventions. Writing is (usually) a form of communication, and communication requires some rules and conventions. But they can be learned, and if learning them is still beyond you for whatever reason, you can probably find friends who will proofread your work for you. (Many excellent writers are rotten with commas. And plenty else. Proofreaders exist for a reason. Research the manuscripts of well-known writers and you'll be astonished.) I love the intricacies of grammar, usage, and style, so I pay a lot of attention to it myself, but for me it's part of the essential play that makes writing a worthwhile activity for me. I try to impart that to students, even in the Writing and the Creative Process class, but I also don't expect them all to be like me.
After teaching the class a few times in a way that didn't thrill me, I finally came upon this progression of material, which seems to work:
Unit 1: First Things
Unit 2: Shaping Raw Material
Unit 3: Images and Senses
Unit 4: Words
Unit 5: Sentences and lines
Unit 6: Paragraphs and stanzas
Unit 7: Revision
Final Exam week: Portfolio
Lots of people teach the course by going through major genres, but I don't care for that approach because in my experience it's highly superficial to write essays for a week or two, poems for a week or two, stories for a week or two, etc. I sprinkle different genres throughout the term, but we never stick with any particular one. Learning different genres is not the goal. I want the students to play around, and I want them to think about similarities in different ways of writing rather than differences.
The First Things unit is focused on introductions, starting out, and beginning to forget the "rules" you think you know about writing. I think of it as the deprogramming unit. Especially given the mania for standardized testing in schools over the last 15 years, students arrive to my classroom with great anxiety about "proper" writing. They mostly think they're bad at it, and they're terrified of losing points. So I make a point of getting them to pay attention to themselves, to do things like stare at an object for 10 or more minutes and then write about the experience, to write a list of rules for good writing and then violate them all, etc. The basic theme might be able to be boiled down to, "Who are you? What do you know? How do you perceive things? And how might we expand/broaden/explode all that?"
The Shaping Raw Material unit is exactly what it says. The exercises have the students write 5 versions of a short piece of writing, try out different points of view, rewrite a folktale, rewrite a partner's piece of writing, etc. Some of it is similar to Kenneth Goldsmith's "Uncreative Writing"
ideas, some of it isn't. The goal is to look at the different ways writing can be shaped, and the effects of different shapes. Again, it's about breaking out of a narrow way of thinking about writing, because narrow ways of thinking only lead to anxiety about "getting it right". Again and again, I say: There are no right answers, so stop looking for them.
The other units are exactly what they sound like: close attention to senses and images, to words, to sentences and lines, etc. It's good to be deliberate about these building blocks. Too often, we take them for granted. They're all fun to play with.
The Portfolio requirement at the end is this:
What your portfolio must include, at a minimum:
You are welcome and encouraged to include more than this in your portfolio, but this is the absolute minimum.
- Your own artist's statement / portfolio intro. Length: 114-119 words. (Yes, this number is arbitrary. Most rules are.)
- Examples of 3 different types/genres of writing, each with at least one revision included. (You will have done a lot of this work for previous units. Now you’re collecting it and polishing it.) Include all drafts along with a final, polished, proofread draft.
- A reflection of at least 500 words. This should be the last thing you write. After you've put the portfolio together, read it, then write this reflection.
All grading before the portfolio is purely on whether the students follow the guidelines or not. For instance, here's an assignment:
1. Go to the index at the website Worldwidewords.org.
2. Read around on the page. Click on words that grab your attention. Look for weird words.
3. Once you are familiar with the site and how it works, write a piece and use as many unfamiliar/weird words from the Worldwidewords.org list as you can -- at least 20.
GRADING: 6 points = 600+ words; 5 points = 500-599 words; 4 points = 400-499 words; 3 points = 300-399 words; 2 points = 200-299 words; 1 point = under 200 words
(Each exercise is worth a certain amount of points, and I just add them up for their exercises grade, so 95 points = a 95 (A), 84 points = 84% (B), etc. They have a number of exercises to choose from in each unit. All of the exercises together add up to more than 100 points, but I've rarely had students try to go beyond 100 points because I don't count anything above 100 and, in any case, most of the exercises are more complex and take more work than the one above, so if you do them all at the highest level, it's quite a lot of work.)
I don't evaluate their writing until the portfolio, and even then it's light evaluation of their progress more than anything. This has been crucial. The point of this course is discovery and play. That's what I want to encourage. I don't much care if their writing is great or terrible. I want them to improve, though, so we spend time at the end of the course working on revision, but only after we've spent the majority of the course playing around. I want the students to become more flexible thinkers and writers.
My paying no attention to whether they are writing well or badly is liberatory, and the effects are remarkable. The students discover skills and interests they never knew they had because they were so terrified of writing badly and getting low grades. They often struggle against the class in the first weeks because they think I'm going to trick them. They are conditioned to be graded and ranked and evaluated at every turn. They don't know what the freedom from grading, ranking, and evaluation feels like. It's terrifying at first. I must be a bad teacher, I must be a dishonest teacher, they must be doing something wrong
. It isn't until a handful of exercises have been graded and they realize they really are just being graded on output that most students begin to really free themselves.
The exercises are not small or easy, and numerous students have told me they've written more for this class than for any other. If I were trying to grade evaluatively, it would be an awful paper burden on me, but I'm not grading evaluatively. I'm mostly just counting words.
The students don't need me to read their work in any depth until the revision stage, and even then mot of the work is on them, as the revision exercises are designed to get them to look at their work in new, different ways. It extends the freedom to experiment to the revision process. Then they sift through everything and begin to put order to it and show off the work they're most pleased with, most proud of. They write about how they got there, and that reflection is vital — students need to think about the processes that allowed them to write in ways they see as successful, and reflective writing is key to helping solidify what they've learned. They reflect on what they've done and what they would like to do in the future.
Their final grade is ultimately not about them being a good writer, but being a writer who has 1.) learned how to play around and experiment; 2.) learned how to look at their work with a new and critical eye toward revision; 3.) learned how to extend what they've discovered to other realms of thinking and writing. If they've been able to do that, they do well.
Grades for the course tend to average around a B, a bit higher than my usual B- average for courses. Sometimes, a group really takes to the material and I end up with an A- average. I don't feel bad about that. Because the grade is based on how much they've written, to get an A- average, the students have written an awful lot.
When teaching more advanced courses, I tend to add in a bit more evaluative grading, I tend to do fewer exercises based on playing around and more toward specific skills and goals, then finish the course with one complete and revised piece of writing. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes not.
I don't much like the traditional writing workshop. Maybe it's fine in grad school, but I really dislike it for undergrads, as I think it wastes a lot of time and doesn't give them the tools they need. I've never much liked traditional writing workshops, myself, so maybe it's just a matter of my personality. I'm sure there are people who are great teachers within that structure at whatever level. Personally, as both a student and teacher, I prefer exercises, discussions of a wide variety of published writing (and by wide variety, I mean as wide as possible — true variety, not just Lishian stuff
), a focus on sentences and paragraphs, etc. There are plenty of ways to meld some of the virtues of the workshop approach with other structures. I haven't hit on a perfect solution yet, but I keep experimenting when I get the chance to teach an advanced course (which hasn't happened recently, as I'm only teaching one course per term as part of the PhD program, and mostly what I teach is first-year composition).
My goal is not to create professional writers. One or two of my former students have gone off to publish things, but they're really the outliers. I want to help students gain more confidence in their ability to use the language, and I want them to become more enthusiastic, informed readers. The reading part is important to me — I want more students to be delighted by the weirdness of Gertrude Stein, to be willing to try out complex and difficult and alienating texts, to not just seek out what feels most immediately "relevant" to them. Teaching writing is one path to that goal, because it lets students begin to think about how texts are constructed, and what writers think about. Reading like a writer is a good way to read. Experiencing writing as both and art and a craft helps, I hope, to overcome some of the prejudices that lead to writers and artists being seen as people who don't actually labor.
I also don't want to blame students for the failures of institutions. I'm skeptical of the recent discourse about whiny, overprotected students. I don't think teachers should be against students
. I think we should be against the neoliberal university that sees nothing but economic indicators. As teachers of writing, we have a special place in that struggle, I think. I take hope from Steve Shaviro's ideas about aesthetics and political economy
I think that aesthetics exists in a special relationship to political economy, precisely because aesthetics is the one thing that cannot be reduced to political economy. Politics, ethics, epistemology, and even ontology are all subject to “determination in the last instance” by the forces and relations of production. Or rather, if ontology is not entirely so determined, this is precisely to the extent that ontology is itself fundamentally aesthetic. If aesthetics doesn’t reduce to political economy, but instead subsists in a curious way alongside it, this is because there is something spectral, and curiously insubstantial, about aesthetics.
As teachers of writing, we can wield aesthetics as a weapon against the all-consuming power of neoliberalism — we can help and encourage students to revel in the inefficacy of our aesthetic projects.
Or, at least, in my more utopian moments I think we can. Right now I just need to stop procrastinating and go grade a pile of research papers...
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