Wednesday, March 07, 2018

From the Archives: William H. Gass on Rilke

Here's the audio of a fascinating conversation about Rainer Maria Rilke, with KCRW's "Bookworm" host Michael Silverblatt and American novelist William H. Gass, author of Omensetter's Luck. Gass discusses his nonfiction work Reading Rilke. The discussion was recorded in 2004. I wouldn't put Rilke's art in the crass, somewhat oversimplified biographical terms that Gass sometimes does, but it's great fun to listen in as he and Silverblatt talk about Rilke's life and work.
A snippet:

Gass: [Rilke] is trying to do something in one sense impossible, and that is to make a verbal object into a thing. And Rodin is teaching him--not only to make works of art from the ontological view, from the point of view of creating being and placing it in the world as solidly as a statue -- but also to give it a kind of almost impressionistic, multilayered, multisurfaced effect
that Rodin was getting in his sculpture. But it is also, of course, for Rilke an enormously important time psychologically, because The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is to write about a failed poet. And Rilke is seeing himself for the first time as a failure, as someone who is risking a failure, and while he's courting, in order to stay alive (he's getting paid for this monograph on Rodin) -- he's courting genius, success, overwhelming success that Rodin is enjoying at this time. Moreover, Rodin is in a sense, from [Rilke's] point of view, coarse, sexually on the rampage... And there's this little Lord Fauntleroy type watching all this, who then goes back to a little squalid room in Paris and can hardly make ends meet, and who is also feeling an enormous amount of guilt, because he has in effect left his wife and small child. It's a mess. And that very mess is something that Rilke was able to make a capital of.

And here's a little bit from Lost Son dealing with these same critical Paris days in Rilke's life. The poet is standing before Notre Dame Cathedral at twilight:

"The cathedral is perhaps the greatest of all this city's things, and it unifies all that surrounds it...What beautiful power it is that this Notre Dame in its grand thingness can take such discordant elements and draw them all into a pure harmonic. Rodin's body of work has a similar power: his sculpture seems to have gathered everything, everything into itself. And Rainer wonders now: How may a poet acquire such ingathering power? How not merely understand the power but acquire it? How construct as the Master does?

Rainer knows he's nothing like Rodin--no sculptor, no craftsman. Enormous hunks of stone arrive frequently at Meudon. The Master orders the stones set down on the lawn that he may circle them with his thoughtful topheavy stride, his hand wandering in his beard. The poet has watched his eyes and seen the visions kindling there. In blocks of intransigent stone, fragments of mountains that move only with the strength of several men, Rodin gratefully receives the heaviness of his work.

Rainer, though, is no sculptor. By what handcraft, then, could he possibly make work of this city's things? -- of this city's fear, even, which stands three-dimensional amongst the things? The fear, he sees now, could be a unifying power should one muster the strength to make it such. But what immeasurable quantities of strength would be required? How might he get outside himself and make of himself a hand to grasp Paris and everything Paris stirs up inside? -- to give it all a form, a shape?"

This post originally appeared on this blog on June 25, 2007.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

New Novel Arrives September, 2018. Pre-Orders Open Now.

Learn more / pre-order HERE

The Jacket Says:

The author of the much acclaimed #1 Indie Next Pick The Green Age of Asher Witherow returns with a riveting historical mystery about a family shaped as much by tumultuous world events as by each of its members' unspoken decisions.

Epic in scope and yet intimate in its emotional power, Perpetua's Kin moves across several generations and much of North America, from Pennsylvania and Iowa in the 1820s, through an American south embroiled in the Civil War, and finally to World War II San Francisco. What emerges is a profoundly contemporary exploration of the American experience as one family embodies it: our heritage of violence, our chronic restlessness and desire for regeneration through technology, and the impossibility of escaping the history that forms us and, always, demands a reckoning.

Early Readers Say:

“With Perpetua's Kin, M. Allen Cunningham once again demonstrates he is one of the bravest and most talented novelists writing today.His prose sings with a rare kind of poetry, even as the story sweeps you along with its dark mystery and heartbreaking tension. With each page we gain the greatest gift of fiction: an insight into our own trembling humanity. into our own trembling humanity.”
-Eowyn Ivey, author of To the Bright Edge of the World
and The Snow Child, Pulitzer Prize Finalist

“A novel in conversation with Faulkner and Melville and possibly even Robert Louis Stevenson. … A writer both original and well aware of the writers who have come before him. Cunningham’s writing, like the scope of his novel, is bold and ambitious.”
-Peter Turchi, ​author of A Muse and a Maze, ​and judge for the Oregon Literary Fellowship

"Perpetua's Kin is beautiful, reminiscent of The Green Age of Asher Witherow in that it has the cadence I remember that takes the reader right in ... M. Allen Cunningham gives us a book to savor -- a fulfilling, substantial book, and a joy to read."
-Janet Boreta, founder of Orinda Books (CA)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Unconventional & Essential: David Thomson's Television: A Biography

More than a year ago I first read film critic David Thomson’s large new book Television: A Biography. Since then I've returned to its pages often, reveling in Thomson's essential insights and savoring his unconventional approach to his subject. Far from being a dry historical account, a cerebral work of cultural theory or sociological documentation, or a fluffy entertainment chronicle, Thomson’s tome is a remarkably free-spirited (and freewheeling) series of reflective essays on the cultural, existential, and psychic impact of that problematic household fixture: the small screen.

Chronology, thankfully, is out the window here. Instead of a banal blow-by-blow of television’s development from the 1930s onward, Thomson lets the theme of his thoughts be the guide. He riffs, and his riffs cover just about everything interesting, disturbing, and outright surreal relating to this taken-for-granted medium: the TV as precursor of the ubiquitous and entrancing handheld screen; the fallacious nature of TV ratings systems; the subliminal polarities of 1) The Fugitive, which extolled chameleon-like freedom and the excitement of being on the run, and 2) The Donna Reed Show, which extolled domesticity while hinting at the eroticism underlying suburban decency; the behind-the-scenes marital dysfunction of Lucy and Desi; our Pavlovian consent to the eternal “on-ness” of the tube; the mesmerism of the laugh-track; the lethal constancy of commercials and the failure of Mad Men, as an ad-supported show on an ad-dependent network, to live up to its own potential; the sweet depressive allure of “channel-surfing”; the “Gong Show” as a postmodern theater; and on and on. He’s a fantastically intelligent and appealingly “fizzy” writer, and many of his observations here hearken to Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death or Marshall McLuhan in The Medium Is the Massage.

 “The medium had another role,” Thomson writes, “all the more powerful because it was never intended or organized: It promoted the principle that it was sufficient for the world to be witnessed, or to have it pass by. It did not require the effort of understanding or criticism. Its ‘on-ness’ was paramount, just as our participation began to be offset. This was a new solitude, not just that of living alone: You could be in a crowd, but you might not matter.” 

A little further on, he writes: “You know this is true: Television is not for attention; the ads trained us in not watching. … The mainstream of the medium clung to the idea that everyone can understand everything — but that can slip into the delusion that no one needs to understand anything.” 
And Thomson ties together the generational overrating of screen media -- first in our passive fixation upon the original living room screen, and now in today’s obsessive fixation on handheld screens: “Television wasn’t just an elephant in the room. It became the room, the house, and the world. … The deepest nature of television is to be reassuring. That may be the most frightening thing about it… our making our way by watching screens, or by having them on, hardly aware of how the television screen has trained us for the computer screen, the iPad, the iPhone, or the iI (coming so soon I wish I had invested), and the assumption that because information is carried in those ways so knowledge must exist there.”

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

New Novel Perpetua's Kin Will Appear in 2018

Begun back in 2007, my novel Perpetua's Kin will finally see the light of day in 2018.

Have a listen to an audio excerpt, and read some nice things that have been said about the book HERE.

Listen to "Perpetua's Kin: The Harvest Taught Him" on Spreaker.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Ali Smith & the Art of Novelizing Now

Ali Smith’s new novel Autumn has remained in my thoughts in the weeks since I finished it. I’ve been following Smith’s output since her 2012 book Artful, which is a vital and unclassifiable work of narrative, literary reflection, and aesthetic philosophy that I return to frequently. To read Smith is to read a reader as much as a writer — or to read the readerly imagination in action: her work demonstrates the symbiotic nature of literary appreciation (or better, osmosis), emulation, and outright invention. Her books are as transparently and blatantly inspired as they are infectiously inspiring. They make you want to read more, and with greater curiosity; they make you want to write more, and with greater freedom and immediacy.

Autumn,­ a fairly short novel printed in fairly large type, is pleasurable in no small part because of the swiftness with which the reader turns its pages. It’s a book I’m sure I will re-read soon, but as I continue to think about my first swift experience of Autumn, what fires my imagination is the work’s incredible promptness (“timeliness” would be too weak a descriptor). This must be Europe’s first “Brexit novel.” Although I’d hate to see it reduced to mere topicality (its themes and concerns, like in all of Smith’s work, are vast), the fact that Autumn handles — and handles with such emotional and existential deftness — an event so recent, is a kind of literary/artistic miracle. Here’s a book — a genuinely beautiful, mournful, philosophical, emotionally awake book — that responds with alert sensitivity to our now, and does so through a narrative set squarely in our now,  rather than by relying on a historical setting, political hindsight, a retrospective narrative framework, metaphor, or synecdoche. And yet also, much as in her other books, Smith’s literary allusiveness, her delightful readerly intelligence, is at work here in every part.

Autumn opens with the words: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.”  Later on, in a perfect distillation of this novel’s profound immediacy, Smith writes:

            “All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.
            All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roof, the traffic.
            All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications. All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. …”

This passage continues, and constitutes a 3-page stand-alone chapter. This is literature that is alive and resonant and reckoning with lived experience. Smith is documenting, inhabiting, reporting on, existentially novelizing a crucial present moment that will, as we all can sense so clearly, become a signal historical moment whose lasting consequences, though we can only predict them while in the thick of our now, will be plain to see from the future.

How astounding — astounding and instructive — to watch literature at work in this way.

More from M. Allen Cunningham on Medium.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Words in Themselves: A Letter to the New York Times Book Review

April 19th, 2017

To the New York Times Book Review,

In her review of Brian Doyle’s novel about Robert Louis Stevenson, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World (April 14th), Jenny Davidson uses the phrase “abuse of the dictionary” to deride Doyle’s stylistic choices. It’s funny that Davidson’s jab should involve reference to a bound volume of meanings, for “abuse of the dictionary” has hardly any meaning at all. I don’t think she’s saying that Doyle burned his dictionary, or tore it up, or stabbed holes in it with a sword, or threw it at someone, or used it in some other perverse physical way. If Davidson’s phrase is meant as a quip, it’s an oddly joyless one — especially when aimed at a fellow writer whose medium is, well, words. She swipes at Doyle for daring to perpetuate Stevenson’s dictional excess (i.e., permitting “perspicacity,” “assiduously,” and “parsimonious” to occupy a single sentence). She seems to be alleging that Doyle has shamelessly, joyfully deployed vocabulary. Maybe Doyle did look to a dictionary, or maybe he just relied on the lexical databank in his own head, but why should a writer be held under suspicion of using a reference book that is a tool and inspiration for those who live and work in words?

Davidson’s professed annoyance raises questions about dogmatic attitudes and perceived mandates in book reviewing. For example: where’s the statute, in New York or anywhere, against a writer’s exuberant love of language? And why do we insist, every season or so, on forgetting that the finest writers have always been, as Cynthia Ozick noted, besotted with words, words in themselves? Stevenson was among these, and if Doyle is besotted too, may the great ghosts of literature bless him.

—M. Allen Cunningham
Portland, Oregon

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Always, John: In Memoriam John Berger 1926-2017

Photo: The Guardian 
“A presence, a visible presence, is sometimes most eloquently conveyed by a disappearance.”— John Berger 

In the spring of 2015, by the good graces of mutual friends, a small parcel traveled from my home in Portland, Oregon to John Berger’s home in France. Included in the parcel was a brief letter:

“Because I have read, admired, and drawn immense inspiration from your work for many years now, I feel I have simply too much to say to you — and hardly know where to start — so I will let the enclosed book do the saying, mostly. … There are some few glistening gossamer threads linking this work to yours. Without those strong fibers, I’m not sure the book would ever have been imagined.”

That book was Partisans, a philosophical novel in which Janos Lavin, the main character from John’s own debut novel A Painter of Our Time (1959), is referenced as a real artist. But that’s just one point of connection. John’s body of work inspires Partisans throughout and I wanted him to know this. Since I’d published Partisans myself in samizdat fashion — there would be no promotion and no reviews — he would only know if I told him.

At first I wasn’t sure how to address my letter. We’d never met, but “Mr. Berger” wasn’t right, nor was “Dear John.” After much thought, I settled on “Dear John Berger.” It felt most natural, finally, to rely on the name’s printed incarnation, the name as it appeared in all those books I’d been reading for so long.

John’s reply arrived a few weeks later, a handwritten note in a small white envelope. He’d signed himself “Always, John.” That’s how I think of him now, so that’s how I write of him here.

Continue Reading "Aways, John" HERE

Friday, November 18, 2016

Cunningham's Funny-Ass Thoreau Featured on Lit Hub

Coinciding with the release of the newest Atelier26 title Funny-Ass Thoreau, edited by M. Allen Cunningham, Lit Hub is featuring Cunningham's full introduction to the book.

Here's a snippet:

When I was fourteen my mother, exasperated by the onset of my teenage angst, handed me a Penguin paperback of Thoreau’s Walden and said, “Read this. The guy who wrote it was a rebel like you.” For some reason, I did as she suggested, and in Walden’s transcendental rants I found all my angsty teenage convictions gloriously and authoritatively ratified. Institutions were bad: they wanted to straitjacket my thoughts and crush my creativity; my elders were either corrupt or absent-mindedly hypocritical, either tyrannical or brainwashed, tragic or just pitiful; the dictates of fashion and good form were stifling and almost always ridiculous; money was a golden calf, prosperity overrated, and “making a good living” was a fool’s errand; as for our so-called government, it was just one big immoral business. ...
For me, Thoreau’s writing was a drug. It knocked my neurons around. It worked me over completely, induced a sort of insanity, and actually changed the course of my life forever. And still, until quite recently, I did not get the jokes. Had you taken the pains to point out to me, at fourteen, the extent of the levity that permeates Walden and much of Thoreau’s writing, I might have punched you in the nose. ...
 Visit Lit Hub to read the rest
And get your copy of Funny-Ass Thoreau right here, or ask for it at your neighborhood bookseller.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

From the Archives, Reposted for November 9th, 2016: "Optimism"

[This post originally appeared on this blog on Nov. 11th, 2008]

"Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning he had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen. … And yet I was aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.”
– James Baldwin, "Sonny’s Blues"

Last week’s election was an event of such exultant transformation for Americans everywhere (and even non-Americans in countries all over the globe) that I, like most who witnessed it, experienced a rare emotional mingling of passion with politics.

Here in Portland, on the moment the election was called, a crowd of strangers downtown erupted into a spontaneous chorus of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” From the looks of it, most of these celebrants were too young, as am I, to have ever witnessed such a grand and exuberant historical moment, or to have been inspired to such emotive patriotism by a political event. Like me, most were too young to have lived through the blood-bright tangle of tragedy and social progress that was the 1960s.

I was born during the Carter administration and came of voting age just in time to cast my ballot in the Clinton/Dole contest of 1996, whose outcome sustained an era of blasé prosperity and kept the partisanship pendulum swinging for years. They seemed, those years, to be all politics, little more. Aside from silly extramarital scandals besetting the White House, it was a period almost ahistorical in its uneventfulness. Bombs fell in Kosovo, and important things happened in Ireland, but those were overseas events, and did not substantially reverberate in our national character. Here at home we hummed along — or maybe droned.

So during my lifetime I’d never had the pleasure to witness how the national political stage can, on rare occasion, furnish a scene of monumental drama and beauty. I had never — I might as well admit — experienced that glorious swelling in the breast which some of my elders proudly referred to as “American optimism.” Quite the opposite, sadly, for the true defining national events of my lifetime were all squeezed into a single fatal day early one September. The world-splitting consequences of that day — ideological wars within wars at home and abroad — only degraded my faith in the course my country was taking.

But now, after years of allowing the box-cutters of the 9/11 terrorists to scar our hearts with divisive fear, after years of accelerating our aggressions abroad instead of nurturing optimism and coming together in spirit at home, we Americans have finally embraced renewal. And I have learned, for the first time in my life, what the old proverbial American optimism feels like. At last, I understand it to be profoundly alive. Cynical politicking, lobbyists, or a disaffected citizenry cannot squelch it; despite such corrupting influences, optimism is implicit always in the self-correcting genius of our democracy. While it may lie dormant in certain periods, still, even after the gloomiest epochs, this fundamental spirit can be revived. It awakens through the people whenever the people give sway to their higher instincts. And how refreshing, now, to think that our new president may strive to govern much the way he campaigned — by inspiring the people to rise to the beckons of their better selves.

Here’s part of what he said in his speech in Grant Park on election night (the whole remarkable speech merits close reading):

Let us summon a new spirit — of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look not only after ourselves but each other. … In this country we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that have poisoned our politics for so long. … As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection.’

To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too. And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled behind radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular but our destinies are shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. 

To those who would tear the world down, we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security, we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright, tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope. 

That’s the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. 
We all know Obama ran a masterful campaign. But perhaps “Hope,” “Dreams,” and “Change,” despite being politically serviceable, despite their repeated, calculated deployment from the campaign stump, really are more than mere buzzwords. Perhaps they are genuine emblems of a spirit that America was once celebrated for — and which it may yet personify.

On NPR’s Fresh Air on November 5th, journalist Bill Moyers reflected on the events of the previous night:

Joseph Campbell, the popular scholar of mythology once said to me, ‘Moyers, if you want to change the world, you change the metaphor.’ And yesterday America changed the metaphor. It was a symbolic moment for a country whose whole history has been pinioned by race. I just felt a great stone lifting from our neck. … Now, yesterday did not end issues of race in this country. … The realities are going to be with us, but …symbolically, metaphorically, and politically, I think race is not going to have us by the throat the way it has for so long now.

I was struck, too, by these eloquent words in an Oregonian editorial on November 5th:

Every president takes office promising to make the United States a different country than it was. Few succeed, and Obama’s White House plans, like those of any other president, deserve to be viewed through the prism of improbability. But through this historic campaign, and his impressive, once implausible triumph, Obama has already done something that few presidents manage during their entire term in office. He has shown us that we are closer to becoming the country that we hope to be.

On the night of Tuesday, November 4th 2008, I learned first-hand how an external, seemingly remote political event can become internal, emotionally relevant, and even intimate to the masses. As Anna Quindlen observes at the back of Newsweek’s special Elections Issue, Obama has, if only for a moment at the start of his presidency, “made the political spiritual.”

For me, that’s the astonishing essence of this turning point in the history of our nation: The collective soul of a people truly can be transformed. I don’t mean to say it happened all at once last Tuesday. It’s only beginning, and it may take generations. But it’s possible. Call that American Optimism.

(P.S. Take a moment to check out the President-elect’s new web-page soliciting your vision for America.) 

November 9, 2016

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Rodin & Rilke

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"Sometimes I Bought Books Instead of Food."

Until my recent visit on the occasion of the 40th annual PEN/Hemingway Awards, it had been eighteen years since I was last in Boston. I’d lived in the region for several intense months at age twenty, having relocated alone from California to begin my writerly life in the neighborhood of the American transcendentalists. 
Skyline from the Boston Common, Tremont Street
I’d wanted to live near Walden Pond and commune daily, in nearby Concord, with the wise ghosts of Thoreau and Emerson. The closest I could get was the city of Lowell, birthplace of the American industrial revolution — a ramshackle town cluttered with eerie decommissioned factories and mills and shrill with sirens day and night. But from Lowell I could get to Concord by train as often as I liked.

At twenty in Boston,
I'd had no proper
coat and couldn't
afford one. Sometimes
I bought books
instead of food.

I set up my new life in a 275 square-foot studio apartment 15 miles from Walden Pond as the crow flies. My sole furnishings were an inflatable mattress, a plastic patio chair, a small lamp, a pile of books, and a radio/cassette player. In a cardboard box I had packed the essential kitchen wares: a can opener, a spatula, two plates, two cups, two forks, two knives, two spoons, and a frying pan. More importantly, I had packed a word processor and a ream of paper. Amid my studio’s “furnishings,” with my plastic chair jammed up against three cardboard boxes stacked to serve as a makeshift desk, I sucked the marrow out of my single-minded days, tapping and tapping at the keys.

The following few months were nothing less than an artistic coming-of-age. If I was not yet exhibiting in my work anything even remotely resembling artistic maturity and I wasn’t I was getting clear, very clear, on what a life dedicated to art would require. The constant sacrifice, the humility, and yes, the fairly constant whiff of humiliation. I see in retrospect that I was meanwhile developing the first foundational aspects of a vision, or, to use an even more outmoded turn of phrase, I was honing a sensibility

I spent a good deal of time in Concord, I haunted the woods of Walden, and I wandered all around the streets and quarters of Boston, occasionally temping in the city or across the river in Cambridge. Beyond the random people of the business world with whom my sporadic office jobs brought me into contact, I spoke to hardly anyone in the course of my several months striving to survive and become a writer. A memorable exception was one gray, bitterly chilly afternoon in Boston. I sought out the offices of Houghton Mifflin on Berkeley Street. As I remember it, the imposing Houghton Mifflin building yes, it’s an entire building still bore the famous dolphin insignia in the pavement before its doorway. I recall traversing the dolphin, riding the elevator upstairs, and walking straight up to a young woman at the front desk to announce that I would like to apply for a position as typist. 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Building, photo courtesy of Wikipedia
 Somehow I’d gotten wind of the job opening and had convinced myself that this would be my entrée to the mystery and glamour of the larger literary world. From the first rung of typist, I would steadily scale the ladder toward editorial authority. It would be the fabled American climb via bright ambition from obscurity and poverty to having a say in the way things worked — to being a verifiable part of the literary/artistic universe. I came by this fantasy honestly, and approached that front desk with no sense of entitlement; what motivated me was a wishful belief in meritocracy — I would be the best and most loyal goddamned typist they’d ever had, and from there, rung by rung, my dedication and service would be recognized and rewarded with gradually improving status. 

Hey, I was twenty.

Do I need to tell you that I descended in the elevator that day without so much as an application? The receptionist, I recall, was very gracious — but it wasn’t Houghton Mifflin, it was me. The problem, probably, was my immoderate joy at being “inside the fortress,” my unstudied way of carrying a sense of my own destiny so visibly on my shoulders as I showed up for the role. Here I am! 

Who wants to be a typist as badly as that? I probably wouldn’t have hired me either.

Almost twenty years on,
I’m still a believer. I read
and write and edit and publish
because I believe as much as ever in the intangible value of literature

Fast forward eighteen years. With six published volumes to my name as an author, I’ve evolved into the founder, editor, and publisher of the small literary press Atelier26 Books. What brought me back to Boston this month was the news that Margaret Malone’s People Like You, a fantastic story collection I’ve had the privilege to publish through Atelier26, had won finalist for the 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. The award ceremony was to be held at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on April 10th, and Ms. Malone would be honored with a citation awarded by Patrick Hemingway, son of Ernest Hemingway, and author Joshua Ferris, one of this year’s judges.
Left to right: PEN Hemingway Award Finalist Margaret Malone, Patrick Hemingway, winner Ottessa Moshfegh, finalist S.M. Hulse. 

The PEN/Hemingway Award, administered by PEN New England, is a prestigious national literary honor (past honorees include a number of writers who went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur grants, etc). Award recognition of this caliber is a big deal — especially so for a very small press like Atelier26. 

To understand the above statement, consider the following: Atelier26 has no offices (a spare bedroom in my small home serves as World Headquarters); since its inception in 2012, Atelier26 has published 8 titles (1 to 2 per year); while mission-driven much like the finest nonprofit publishers, Atelier26 is not officially non-profit and therefore has no funding source beyond book sales and occasional treasured donations by generous literary believers; much as I wish it were possible to do so, Atelier26 does not pay advances (again, a question of funding), and I myself earn zero income from my more than full-time work as editor, publisher, shipping clerk, bookkeeper, webmaster, social media chief, sales rep, and general pavement-pounder. It’s all what they call a labor of love.

Still, there on the list of 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award honorees, alongside 4 other titles all issued by major publishers (Penguin; Little, Brown; Bloomsbury; and, yes, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was a book bearing the Atelier26 colophon. And this was not a fluke. People Like You could not be more deserving of this nod from the literary cosmos — I’ve believed that about Margaret Malone’s work all along, and it’s why I first sent her a letter asking if she had a manuscript, and why I have (so far) devoted more than a year and a half to working on and promoting People Like You (more recently with the invaluable assistance of publicist Diane Prokop). 

Margaret Malone with her PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist citation for People Like You.
Malone is a brilliant writer whose career will be a pleasure to watch, and seeing People Like You lifted up and championed in this way restores my faith a little in that elusive meritocracy that so entranced the twenty-year-old kid who first came to Boston to be a writer all those years ago.

On the first day of my return to Boston, while walking to Copley Square, I happened to turn my head and find myself outside of the Houghton Mifflin building. I stopped on the brick sidewalk (where the dolphin insignia has been replaced by the “HMH” of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and gazed up at the massive fortification. The place is still imposing. And there I was again, eighteen years older and wiser but no less impassioned a reader and literary soul. Almost twenty years on, I’m still a believer. I read and write and edit and publish because I believe as much as ever in the intangible value of literature, from the capacity and nobility of the human imagination all the way down to the pure small pleasure of a well-turned sentence. I’ve tried to infuse everything I do at Atelier26 with a sense of this belief. 

At twenty in Boston I’d had no proper coat and couldn’t afford one. I remember the constant aching chill in my bones. I remember the excessive financial indulgence that a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee seemed. Sometimes I bought books instead of food. Now, well-fed and snugly bundled in a good jacket while the cutting wind whistled around me but never got through, I nodded up at the high office windows. I was still here, still on the outside looking in, but now I was also something like an old familiar, a peer, a friend.

-M. Allen Cunningham, April 2016

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Friday, March 18, 2016

Defending Joseph Campbell: How to "Follow Your Bliss"

— Contrary to popular opinion, it’s about more than doing what feels good —

Recurrently I notice Joseph Campbell getting bashed because his scholarship is so frequently misappropriated and his "follow your bliss" is so often quoted out of context. The man was brilliant, and his insights into creative and human struggle were not the syrupy feel-good stuff of New Age self-help books. So today I'm revisiting this post I originally wrote back in 2008.

minotaurlabyrinth_pshrink.JPGIn a powerful lecture entitled “Mythic Literature,” recorded in the 1960s, the noted scholar of world mythologies, Joseph Campbell, said:
Every now and then, you will face the great mysteries that mankind has been facing. The mystery of death, when it eats into you. The mystery of the magnitude of the cosmos and your own place in it and all. And the imagery that will be coming up then will be imagery that will be matched in the mythologies of the world… Abraham Maslow [a psychologist and a spokesman of the “positive psychology” movement]…published a little paper in which he discussed the values for which people lived. He named five:
Personal Relationships
And I remember when I read that, I thought those are exactly the values that go completely to pieces when one is seized with a mythological zeal. If there is something you are really living for, you will forget security, you will forget even survival, you will forget your prestige, you will even forget your friends, and as for self-development, that’s gone. When Jesus said ‘He who loses his life shall find it’ he was talking about this. And it’s that jump, from the thing that animals live for, to the thing that only a human being can live for, that is the jump [into the Heroic Journey]…
Over the past ten years or so, I’ve done a good share of reading into world religions and mythologies. These age-old story patterns and images have taught me much about the art of writing (my first novel used a mythic structure of sorts). Naturally, as any inquiry into mythology will do, mine led me to Campbell, and his powerful ideas have had a lasting impact on my life.

For the last twenty-odd years, Campbell has been criticized as a guru of the New Age movement. He was nothing of the kind, however misappropriated some of his ideas have been. Quite to the contrary, he was an eminent scholar — and certainly one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth-century.

Campbell came to public attention in the mid-1980s, thanks to the wildly popular six-part PBS series, The Power of Myth, in which he was interviewed by Bill Moyers. But Campbell’s career as a mythographer had its truer, more auspicious beginning a full three decades earlier, with the 1949 publication of the groundbreaking book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

In its pages, he presented a comparative study of mythological stories and belief systems from all over the world, and demonstrated the universality of many symbols (or archetypes) mankind has used for ages. He called this the “grammar of symbols,” and argued that every world culture produces a “mono-myth” in which the journey of a hero figure is marked by certain clearly distinguishable stages, such as: Thehero-with-thousand_cover.jpg Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Crossing of the First Threshold, The Belly of the Whale, The Road of Trials, Atonement with the Father, Refusal of the Return, Crossing of the Return Threshold.

The Heroic Journey, found in so many different myths, reveals a psychological reality common to all human beings, and Campbell showed how modern psychology can shed light on the symbology of these diverse myths.
Each of us is born, confronts life’s mysteries, enjoys its graces, suffers its blows, and must eventually face death. That experience, being universal, is a “mythic” experience. We all share it, and we all look to stories, images, and belief systems to better understand it. That’s what Campbell’s work explored. In his preface to that 1949 book, he wrote:
There are of course differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about the similarities; and once these are understood the differences will be found to be much less great than is popularly (and politically) supposed. My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to … unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding. As we are told in the Vedas: ‘Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.’
And being a passionate humanist, and believing that his scholarly studies could be deeply relevant to the wider culture beyond academia, Campbell did not shy away from speaking in very personal terms about the “Heroic Journey” as it applied to everyone, even in modern life.

“The final secret of myth,” he said, “[is] to teach you how to penetrate the labyrinth of life in such a way that its spiritual values come through.”

odysseus-sirens_pshrink.JPGIn Campbell’s view, recognizing the mythic forces at work in one’s life could deeply enrich that life. He was at his most outspoken about this in The Power of Myth. And it was there, while talking about the Heroic Journey, that he used a phrase that has almost single-handedly popularized him among New Agers: “Follow Your Bliss.”

Frankly, I cringe whenever this phrase gets invoked in a twinkling, wind-chimey, neo-mystical manner, because all too often it’s being appropriated to justify self-indulgence or shallowness (it’s used in just this way by a character in the recent film, The Namesake, adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel).

I believe Campbell’s maxim is most meaningful — and useful — when placed firmly in the context of the man’s serious thought, and his lifelong work. “Following your bliss,” as Campbell means it, requires more than doing what feels good at any given moment. Being a matter of “mythological zeal,” it might require a confrontation with a dragon or two, a painful sacrifice or an embarkation into loneliness — in short: a parting with one or a few of Maslow’s Five Values. Here’s where bliss comes up in the conversation with Bill Moyers:
-Moyers: How do I slay that dragon in me? What’s the journey each of us has to make, what you call “the soul’s high adventure”?
Campbell: My general formula for my students is “Follow your bliss.” Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.
-Moyers: Is it my work or my life?
Campbell: If the work that you’re doing is the work that you choose to do because you are enjoying it, that’s it. But if you think, ‘Oh no! I couldn’t do that!’ that’s the dragon locking you in. ‘No, no, I couldn’t be a writer,’ or ‘No, no, I couldn’t possibly do what So-and-so is doing.’
-Moyers: In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we’re not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.
Campbell: But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and to become alive yourself. … There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.
The idea that following one’s bliss, finding one’s own heroic path, requires sacrifice and the abandonment of “security” or “prestige” or “self-development” rings very true with me, and I think it’s unfortunate that this elemental, recurring aspect of Campbell’s thought does not come out clearly enough in this oft-excerpted part of the Moyers dialogue (read closely, though, and you see it embedded in that last comment about not “getting any money”) .

Still, as a writer of stories, I identify strongly with the vision in Campbell’s lifelong work: the recognition of a universal human narrative, a Heroic Journey through life’s frightful and glorious moments alike, a constant adventure that demands we remain on the path which will best allow us each to confront our fears and fulfill our potential. As Campbell reiterated throughout his career, the journey may be hard, the road may be narrow, the destination obscured, but we mustn’t refuse the “call to adventure.”
I hope I’ll be brave enough, always, to make the most worthy sacrifices, to go toward the dragon if that’s what’s most necessary, to seek spiritual adventure over stagnant convention. I want to recognize true and enduring fulfillment.
Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world. — Joseph Campbell

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Latest Atelier26 Release Receives Prestigious PEN/Hemingway Honors

For immediate release: March 15, 2016

PORTLAND, OR — Atelier26 Books is thrilled to join PEN New England in announcing that Portland writer Margaret’s Malone’s short story collection People Like You has been named one of two finalists for the 2016 PEN/ Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. This puts Malone in a distinguished list of previous honorees that includes Junot Diaz, Elizabeth Gilbert, Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson, and George Saunders. In addition to the national notoriety that comes with PEN/Hemingway honors, Malone will be given a one-month residency at Wyoming’s legendary Ucross Foundation.

People Like You, a collection of nine stories all featuring female protagonists, was published last November in trade paperback original by Atelier26 Books, a Portland literary publisher with a staff of two.

“Margaret’s work in People Like You is so brilliantly crafted, moving, and witty,” said M. Allen Cunningham, who runs Atelier26 Books from his home office, “that it’s an incredible pleasure to see it recognized by such an illustrious award. I can’t help thinking that this is exactly how a high-profile literary prize should work. I hope other very small presses will take heart from this. So many are doing such excellent books, and yet many deserving authors fly under the radar.”

The 2016 PEN/Hemingway Award judges were Joshua Ferris, Alexandra Marshall, and Jay Parini. Malone will collect her finalist citation at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston on Sunday, April 10th. Her fellow finalist is S.M. Hulse for Black River, and the winner of the 2016 award is Ottessa Moshfegh for Eileen. Karim Dimechkie (Lifted by the Great Nothing) and Chigozie Obioma (The Fishermen) receive honorable mention.

Margaret Malone is the recipient of fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission and Literary Arts, two Regional Arts & Culture Council Project Grants, and residencies at The Sitka Center and Soapstone.  Her writing has appeared in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Coal City Review,  Swink, Nailed,, and elsewhere, including recently the Forest Avenue Press anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River. A Dangerous Writers alumnus, Malone has a degree in Philosophy from Humboldt State University and has taught creative writing as a visiting artist at Pacific Northwest College of Art. She lives with her husband, filmmaker Brian Padian, and two children in Portland, where she co-hosts the artist and literary gathering SHARE.

M. Allen Cunningham, a novelist and editor, founded Atelier26 Books in 2011. People Like You is the press’s eighth release. Atelier26 specializes in contemporary literature in elegantly designed trade editions and its titles are distributed to the trade by Independent Publishers Group/Small Press United.

The late Mary Hemingway, a member of PEN, founded the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1976 both to honor the memory of her husband, Ernest Hemingway, and to recognize distinguished first books of fiction. The award is funded by the Hemingway Family, by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and by PEN New England.

For more information, contact Atelier26 HQ at

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why I Write

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Radio Prophecy with Fadiman and Barzun

The following is transcribed from a portion of a radio episode entitled, “What Inventions Have Benefited Mankind the Most?” broadcast in 1954 as an installment of the NBC Radio program "Conversation."

Host Clifton Fadiman is joined by radio personality Fred Allen, Columbia University professor and author Jacques Barzun, and inventor Alfred M. Goldsmith.

Readers/listeners will immediately recognize the now ubiquitous and baleful devices the speakers speculatively describe. 

(You can hear the whole episode HERE)

Clifton Fadiman: I want to get back to what we might expect in the realm of the future.

Dr. Alfred M. Goldsmith: Well, if you want to go to the communications field, of course you can go direct to the dream of person-to-person communicaton anywhere. Tesla expressed that back in the 1880s. He said a time would come when everybody would carry, presumably in his vest pocket, a little communication set of some sort which responded only to his personal signal much the way a telephone does.

Fadiman: Is that theoretically possible?

Goldsmith: (Emphatic) Oh yes. And he said that when that time came, if you wanted to talk to your friend you would call him on this device, and from the depths of a mine or the center of an ocean or the midst of a desert or the streets of a crowded city you would hear his voice answering. And he ended very dramatically: ‘And if you didn’t hear him answer you would know he was dead.’

Jacques Barzun: Oh no, no, that doesn’t follow. He may not want to.

Goldsmith: Well, he assumed that this thing would ring so violently that he would answer finally—

Barzun: Well then that’s not an improvement. That’s appalling!

Fadiman: You know Dr. Goldsmith, this is a very dismal picture that you draw. That means that I, in this future paradise of yours, am at the mercy of about three-and-a-half billion people who may want to phone me.

Barzun: That’s right. Absolutely. I’m busy!

Goldsmith: Not only can they call you and demand an answer. But still worse in this quasi paradise, they could even turn on their television attachment and see you at any hour of day and night.

Allen: Whatever you were doing? I think we’d better not go into that.

Fadiman: Better reform! Or declare this moratorium that Fred suggested.

Allen: That’s what I say. That’s the thing to do.

Goldsmith: I was waiting for Mr. Allen to tell us what he thinks about this idea of universal portable television/audio communication.

Allen: I think we’re worse off because today you can escape from the telephone. You can get out of the house. But if you’ve got the bell tied on you or built in you or growing in you or something—

Goldsmith: In your pocket.

Allen: In your pocket.

Fadiman: I’ve often been tormented by the vision of a future, Dr. Goldsmith, in which we have invented, uh, we have really perfected mass communication to the degree that it will be possible to bind together in one great instananeous network all the human beings of the earth, and that by a system of translation machine such as we have up at the United Nations, they’ll all be able to understand anything that’s being said. And they’re all tuned in at one moment to listen to a central message — and here are billions of people all listening — and the nightmare is very simple: What are they going to hear? Who’s going to say something worth

Allen: This sounds like George Orwell’s 1984, only on a worse scale!

Barzun: Yes, well here maybe I can introduce a hopeful note to take care of Mr. Fadiman’s trouble. As one who’s been teaching too many years, I can tell you that no matter what you announce to whatever group of people, there will be more than half of them not listening. 

Allen: You mean they’ll lower their earlids.

Barzun: Yes, exactly.

Fadiman: That’s consoling.

Barzun: And the other half won’t probably won’t get it quite straight. So that the pleasant diversity, which I think is what you’re aiming at, will continue.

Fadiman: Well, I’m all for the multiplication of mass impressions. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I just think that at the same time we ought to be trying to work out better and better things to say, as well as better and better ways of saying them.