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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Reading Trilling

“The situation,” wrote Lionel Trilling in his book Sincerity & Authenticity, “in which a
person systematically misrepresents himself in order to practice upon the good faith of another does not readily command our interest, scarcely our credence. The deception we best understand and most willingly give our attention to is that which a person works upon himself.” (Italics mine.)

I first jotted this quote in my journal a few summers ago while reading Sincerity & Authenticity for the first time during my earliest stage of work on my new novel. I’d originally come to Trilling seven or eight years before, after finding him invoked numerous times in the iridescent essays of Cynthia Ozick. This month, as I occasionally do, I’ve been revisiting Trilling’s work. In part this reading is research. In greater part, my revisiting of Trilling is purely inspirational. How could passages like the following, for example, fail to inspire a serious writer?
“A primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture in the environmental sense and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment.” (Preface to Beyond Culture)

“Literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” (Preface to The Liberal Imagination)

“Whenever we put two emotions into juxtaposition we have what we can properly call an idea. …The force of such an idea depends upon the force of the two emotions which are brought to confront each other, and also, of course, upon the way the confrontation is contrived. Then it can be said that the very form of a literary work, considered apart from its content, so far as that is possible, is in itself an idea.” (“The Meaning of a Literary Idea”)

“All literature tends to be concerned with the question of reality — I mean quite simply the old opposition between reality and appearance, between what really is and what merely seems.” (“Manners, Morals, and the Novel”)
Trilling’s observations bring me to reflect on the nature of the insincerity and inauthenticity we find all around us today. Aren’t these qualities, thanks to the almost total invasion of media into personal life, thrust upon us all with a new force? Due to something in the construct of our new media formats — their portability and total ubiquity, but also the sensibility behind their function and design — we do not first choose to be inauthentic but find ourselves, within these systems and environments, and amid these tools, being so almost reflexively (Facebook profiles, self-promotional webpages, blog posts, tweets, etc.).

Alongside Trilling’s texts from The Liberal Imagination and the selected essays in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent edited by Leon Wieseltier, this month I read for the first time Adam Kirsch’s book Why Trilling Matters, in which Kirsch shows so eloquently how Trilling embodies a total faith in literature, a faith that looks more and more passé. 

“The best way to describe Trilling’s uniqueness as a critic,” Kirsch writes, “is to say that he was always less concerned with writers than with readers, less interested in the way novels work than in the way we put them to work in our lives.” 

And later: “This way of thinking about artistic vocation, not as a withdrawal from the common life but as a tool for confronting that life, is fundamental to the way Trilling reads literature. … To Trilling, literature was above all the medium in which he made himself, and his essays, with all their dignity and vulnerability, are the record of a soul being made through its confrontation with texts. … [Trilling] speaks directly to our current loss of faith in literature—which is, as he understood, fundamentally a loss of faith in a certain ideal of selfhood.” 

For Trilling, Kirsch says, “the demotion of literature is part of a larger demotion of the self. … And the attenuation of the self will inevitably have consequences that go beyond the literary.”

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Monday, November 09, 2015

Totality of Vision: John Williams' Stoner

I first learned of John Williams’ Stoner the same way most of this novel’s contemporary readers have: by noticing, in many different places, the peculiarly ardent recommendations the book inspires. I liked the cultish quality of many of these recommendations, and the recurrent phrases employed: “under-appreciated”, “well kept secret”, “neglected masterpiece,” etc. Having read Stoner’s rear cover synopsis more than once, I was finally drawn by the book’s academic milieu, thinking that Williams’ treatment might somehow inform my own approach to 1950s academia in my novel-in-progress. So I bought a copy. Still, though I kept it at hand for several months, I never managed to read past the opening 10 pages or so. In those 10 pages I could see a narrative clarity at work, but somehow I resisted it, dipping into multiple other books instead. 

What finally brought me back to Williams’ book, what finally “hooked” me and got me to commit to the full experience of Stoner, was my frustrated reading of a highly lauded contemporary novel. This other novel was a massive critical success, a prize-winner, and had come to me with the glowing praise of a reader I respect. But as I proceeded through the book’s first third, I felt myself to be constantly at arm’s length from the narrative, unable — or not inspired — to get any closer, unlikely to “sink in.” I don’t simply mean that the book’s characters, events, or voice did not absorb me. I mean that there seemed to be something in the book’s narrative execution that actively repelled me, making real immersion impossible. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The writing was respectable, intelligent, perhaps even graceful, and the narrative events were clearly heading somewhere. Still, I couldn’t help feeling the book wasn’t for me. One evening, after reading for an hour or so, I shut that book and picked up Stoner. The contrast could not have been more dramatic. Suddenly, after my months of poking noncommittally into the novel’s opening pages, Stoner was alive to me, and I was sunk. The narrative clarity I had idly admired before seemed now to be just one element of a magnificent authorial command. 

I read the book’s whole first half that day, and afterward I couldn’t stop dwelling on the contrast between the experience of reading Stoner and the experience of reading the contemporary novel. I jotted a few notes: 
Stoner: lucidity and totality of vision. Descriptive, authorial, authoritative — but always insightful rather than explanatory.” 
That seemed right, but I didn’t yet know exactly what it meant. “Explanatory” was a reference to that prize-winning contemporary novel where, in a meaningful moment, one character smiles at another. Something in the author’s treatment of this moment had rendered it, for me, not illuminating but simply too well understood. With reference to Williams’ writing, what did I mean by “totality of vision”? And how did this quality differ from, say, the clumsy handling of that smile?

Stoner is the concise life-story, birth-to-death, of William Stoner, a child born to stoical Missouri farming folk in 1891 who by seeming accident attends university and is educated out of all meaningful connection to his kin. He falls in love with learning, trains to become a professor, marries a woman beyond his social rank, suffers her manic-depression and growing animosity, has a passionate affair with an ex-student, is exposed publicly and ends the affair on the threat of losing his career, becomes increasingly alienated from his colleagues, former friends, and daughter, and later, following several dispirited years of doing paces in an academic post long since drained of passion, becomes ill and dies sometime after World War Two. Early in the book, Williams describes one of Stoner’s professors at the university as having a disdainful, contemptuous quality, “as if he perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it.” This could just as well describe Stoner for much of the book, and it’s a kind of key to Williams’ own narrative approach in the novel, from the first pages to the last. The novel’s most excruciating scenes are those in which Stoner is subjected to his mentally ill wife’s cruelty, manipulativeness, and coldness, and even here Williams’ narration never breaks tone, never detours into semi-rhetorical, analytical, or speculative perceptions. Instead, we’re held — enthrallingly — in the emotional immediacy of one profoundly knotted moment after another, well before each moment has slackened and become interpretable. In fact, these moments are never interpreted for us, even afterward. Instead we’re invited to live them alongside the characters and make of them what we will. This is what I would characterize as a totality of vision: Williams’ narrative voice never deigns to be wiser than the narrative moment itself.

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about — brooding about — how in the current publishing industry the forces of consumerism and the lingo of commodification are so often applied to the reading experience. It’s widely taken for granted that the reader, who is essentially viewed as a consumer with glasses, should become an insatiable subject, a billable creature always wanting more: the next plot development, the next page, the next installment in a series. More and more. But reading is not consumerism. And the cool mastery, lucidity, and totality of vision in John Williams’ writing reminds me that what I treasure most in my own reading is the experience of coming to the end of a sentence, of a page, of a chapter, and thinking: This is perfect just as it is. This is just enough. I wish to exist in this awhile, because clearly this accommodates that kind of pleasurable loitering. Clearly, to wish for more would spoil this.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

Three More Days! Every Pledge Counts.

The Atelier26 IndieGogo fundraising initiative closes on Monday, August 31st. That's three more days to make a pledge and/or to help us spread the word to potential supporters (those other avid readers in your life).

If you've been meaning to pledge, there's never been a better time. Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Your pledge is tax-deductible (and brings you beautiful books)
  • The use of all funds is overseen by our fiscal sponsor, an external nonprofit arts organization
  • Your pledge will go directly to the up-front expenses of reprinting and promotion necessitated by our new national distribution
  • Your pledge will have a direct impact on the size of the initial People Like You print-run (we want to go big!)
  • Your pledge will allow us to make the most of the opportunities before us and sustain our place in the lives of readers.
Thanks to 77 generous donors, we're at 26% of our goal and will have the privilege to send out many books, including scores of Margaret Malone's brilliant debut People Like You. We'd love to send out even more!  Click over to see the literary goodies we're offering and the deductions that come with them, and help us make the most of these final three days.

Viva Readers! Atelier26 HQ

P.S. Have you seen the advance praise for People Like You?
P.P.S Our authors are busy this Fall. Are they reading near you?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Going for 40% This Week! (New Bonus Perk = $20 Bookstore Gift Card!)

In the 17 days since our Next Big Chapter campaign launch, 60 of you have pledged your support and collectively brought us to the 22% threshold! Your pledges are matched by your moral solidarity in helping us get the word out about our quixotic literary mission. Thank you for your retweets, FB shares, and other links. For all of it, we’re more grateful than we can say. 

We have just 14 days to go, and we’re driving toward the 30% mark, but with your continued help in sharing via social media and word of mouth, we believe we can get to 40% funded by this time next week.

Here’s to maintaining the terrific momentum!

We've drawn a name from the hat: Congratulations to supporter William Summers, who receives this week's bonus perk, a stylish “Read Local” mug!

Each week we’ll send out one or more BONUS PERKS. If you’ve pledged $15 or more since our campaign launch, your name remains in the hat! 

A $20 gift certificate to your local independent bookstore! (Goodness, think of the paperbacks!)
PLEDGE BY: 11:59 p.m. PST, Sunday, August 23rd

I'm just back from the Catamaran Writing Conference in Northern California, where I had the opportunity to participate in a distinguished publishing panel and to share the values and vision of Atelier26 Books. It was my first such opportunity, and I spoke from the heart, outlining my idealistic reasons for founding this tiny publishing operation, and sharing the gratifications that come of forming nurturing relationships with gifted writers. What I said, in part, was that in founding Atelier26 I was seeking to answer a number of important questions, including: 
  • How to publish mindfully
  • How to publish, as much as possible, from the writer’s perspective
  • How to publish as beautifully as possible? 
  • How to be small, and still create meaningful, significant relationships with readers? 
  • How to be reasonable and sustainable in our aims, to grow steadily, to remain relationship-oriented, and to focus on culture (rather than a “marketplace”)?
I was unabashedly earnest and enthusiastic. How could I be anything else? It feels so right to share the good news of this press and its authors. And the coming chapters are so very exciting!

Yours quixotically, in gratitude,
M. Allen Cunningham, Atelier26

Atelier26 Next Big Chapter Funding Goal:
Amount Raised as of Today:
$2,590 (or 22%!)
Remaining Amount to Raise:
Fundraising Days Remaining:

Monday, August 10, 2015

You Can Help Us Push Toward 20%!

We’re ten days into the Atelier26 Next Big Chapter Campaign and 16% along, and we think that is tremendous! With three weeks remaining, it may be a photo finish, but we’re confident we can get to our goal. As we move further into this second week of fundraising, please help us spread the word about The Atelier26 Books Next Big Chapter Campaign, via links from our Facebook page, retweets from our Twitter account, or other shares from the sidebar on this page.

Thank you to all our awesome supporters!

OUR FIRST BONUS PERK RECIPIENTS!: We’ve drawn two names from the hat, and it’s our pleasure to announce that supporter Sarah Berry receives a copy of Kyle Minor’s acclaimed short story collection Praying Drunk, and supporter Tracy Burkholder receives Forest Avenue Press’sThe Night, and the Rain, and the River!

We’ll send your bonus perks out shortly, Sarah and Tracy. Congrats!

THIS WEEK’S BONUS PERK: Each week over the course of this campaign we’ll send out one or more BONUS PERKS. As long as you’ve pledged $15 or more since our campaign launch, your name will remain in the hat! This week’s perk is…

A stylish READ LOCAL mug! (Because authors, publishers, and bookstores in one's own community are where it's at, right?)

PLEDGE BY: 11:59 p.m. PST, Sunday, August 16th

A PREVIEW OF PEOPLE LIKE YOU: This spring, Margaret Malone’s short story “The Only One” appeared in Propeller Quarterly. Read the story entire online, and whet your appetite for the book's exciting launch! 

Yours bookishly, in gratitude,
 M. Allen Cunningham, Atelier26

Atelier26 Next Big Chapter Funding Goal:
Amount Raised as of Today:
$1,945 (or 16%!)
Remaining Amount to Raise:
Fundraising Days Remaining: