Friday, September 14, 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Meine Wörter auf Deutsch

I'm very pleased to see an excerpt from Lost Son, my 2007 experimental biographical novel about Rainer Maria Rilke, included in the new issue of the International Rilke Society Journal.

Mit Dank an Erich Unglaub.




Monday, August 06, 2018

Perpetua's Kin: Early & Late, Pt. 2

Early & Late" is a series of posts featuring texts and images that document the process of writing Perpetua's Kin, from manuscript to finished novel. 

Perpetua's Kin appears in September, 2018, but you can secure an early copy now by ordering HERE. (Orders ship within 24 hours.)

Early:
Manuscript page, 2007/2008


Late:
Final version, 2018


Friday, August 03, 2018

Perpetua's Kin Elicits Early Applause from Booksellers Across the U.S.


"Cunningham has once again raised the bar on the art of the novel...exceptionally rich...a distinctly American portrait, but the overarching themes are universal. I walk away from a reading like this ruminating on the largeness of life and the lasting influence that novelists can have on every one of us." 
- Nancy Scheemaker 
NORTHSHIRE BOOKSTORE, Saratoga Springs, NY

"Beautiful...takes the reader right in. Cunningham gives us a book to savor -- a fulfilling, substantial book, and a joy to read." 
- Janet Boreta 
founder, ORINDA BOOKS, Orinda, CA

"I very much hope Perpetua's Kin reaches as many readers' hands as possible...expansive in scope and ideas...enchanting." 
- Hans Weyandt
 MILKWEED BOOKSTORE, Minneapolis, MN

"A poetic, kaleidoscopic look at intergenerational pain, love, longing, and restlessness, through the lenses of war and telegraphy." 
- Carolyn Kulog
 BETTY'S BOOKS, Baker City, OR

"Expertly imagined...from the battlefields of the Civil War to Ocean Beach in 1940s San Francisco ... Much to contemplate in this thought-provoking novel." 
- Marion Abbott
 MRS. DALLOWAY'S BOOKSTORE, Berkeley, CA

Perpetua's Kin appears in September, 2018, but you can place your order now through your nearest independent bookseller, or secure an early copy through the publisher (orders ship within 24 hours)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Perpetua's Kin: Early & Late, Pt.1

"Early & Late" is a series of posts featuring texts and images that document the process of writing Perpetua's Kin, from manuscript to finished novel. 

You can pre-order Perpetua's Kin HERE.

Early:
Manuscript page, 2007/2008








































Late:
 Final version, 2018

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Green Age on "A.Word.A.Day"

This week I was delighted to see that The Green Age of Asher Witherow, thanks to its use of the word "saprogenic," earned a citation in Wordsmith.org's popular "A.Word.A.Day" feature. 

The New York Times has called A.Word.A.Day "the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace."


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

How to Publish a New Novel in 2018

My fourth novel, Perpetua’s Kin, will appear this September. Those who know me know that this book has been a long while coming. For most writers of new literature, these are strange, hungry, inhospitable times. In this post I want to share why it’s taken so many years to publish Perpetua’s Kin and why I hope that if you appreciate literature, you will read this novel.


I believe Perpetua’s Kin offers a uniquely affecting and surprising reading experience. And let me be clear. when I say I believe, I’m not talking about stubborn, run-of-the-mill confidence or defensiveness (e.g., “I think it’s good!”). No, I’m talking about belief that comes of having paid the existential costs of the book’s composition and editing process.

You will know what I mean if you’re a novelist and you’ve undergone a sacrificial, years-long dedication to a book, i.e., to the act of writing, rewriting, effacing, writing again, shaping, and drastically reshaping a raw mass of words until it becomes a novel. Becomes is the keyword here, for you do not make or even write a novel so much as suffer its convulsions, confusions, and convolutions until it emerges into clarity all its own and becomes. In other words, the novel becomes an artistic creation thoroughly and surprisingly itself — a creation apart from you, which has answered to its own demands, and therefore, in some mysterious but unquestionable way actually surpasses you: speaks in ways you don’t know how to speak, knows more than you know, feels more than you feel.

All this may seem esoteric to non-novelists, but some years ago, watching as my agent sent this novel out among the “decision-makers” of the publishing world, watching as it came back again and again, I began to understand that rather than some innate problem in the book, it was the book’s essential literary merit — its autonomous completeness as an artistic creation — that prohibited it from finding an advocate in mainstream publishing. This kind of paradox is all too common in today’s publishing industry.

So I’m releasing Perpetua’s Kin through Atelier26 Books, the nationally recognized literary press I founded some years ago in order to lift up good literary work. As the editor of Atelier26 I’ve had the privilege of helping a number of marvelous authors bring their books to readers. I believe deeply in the beauty and power of each Atelier26 book I’ve edited and published, and I can hardly describe how gratifying it’s been to watch a few of these titles receive prestigious award recognition. I’m proud to see Perpetua’s Kin join the company of all the excellent works at Atelier26.

While some of my own prior books have borne the Atelier26 logo, I’ve never actively promoted any of them. Mainly they’ve served to bolster the Atelier26 catalog and generate some extra proceeds for the press as a whole, while I’ve poured most of my energy and focus as a publisher into supporting and promoting my other authors. Perpetua’s Kin will be different, which brings me to confront anew that stamp of contempt used by so many literary folks who wish to stigmatize and dismiss a book without even looking at it: self-published.

What does self-published mean anyway? 

I almost made that the parenthetical subtitle of this post, because part of what I’d like to do here, in providing my own professional history and personal perspective as an artist, editor, and publisher, is to complicate in some small way the stubbornly prevailing, mostly snarky understanding of “self-published author.” 

Again, maybe you’re a literary author yourself. Maybe, at this moment in your life you’d never dream of self-publication. Maybe at this moment you’re riding high, perhaps with your own work of new literature hot off the press from an established commercial publisher big or small. Maybe your work has been well-reviewed but not particularly hot in sales. I have first-hand experience of those circumstances. You may find my story interesting.

So, with Perpetua’s Kin as a case in point, here’s one way to publish a “new” novel in 2018: 

  • Between 2004 and 2007, publish 2 well-received novels with an established small press; 


  • watch as booksellers champion your novels (#1 Indie Next selection; Best of Indie Next; Indie Next Book of the Year Finalist; staff picks); 

  • in what will become the busiest 6 months of your life, fly from Oakland to Minneapolis, from Oakland to Memphis, from Oakland to Seattle, from Oakland to Los Angeles on a bona fide author tour through more than 15 U.S. cities, meeting lots of folks who have read your book(s) or are buying a copy in order to do so;

  • speak publicly before thousands of people collectively; lecture; teach;

  • start that “new” novel (novel 3) in February 2007, a year before your son’s birth;

  • immerse yourself, as you’ve always done, in novelistic research (in this case the history of the telegraph; Civil War campaigns and prison camps; the geography of the U.S. south) & travel from your home in Oregon to Missouri and Iowa for this research;

  • complete novel 3 & receive a publisher’s offer in 2010; 

  • decline the offer; 

  • wait, while your NY literary agent submits the novel to other parties; 

  • undertake your first Yaddo residency & start writing another novel (your fourth);


  • continue writing like hell, still awaiting responses to your agent's submissions of novel 3;


  • receive the news that the publisher of your first two books is cutting its operations way back;

  • watch the whole publishing ecosystem falter; 

  • watch newspapers & magazines vanish & with them scores of book review outlets; 

  • watch, dismayed, as independent bookstores (many of those that hosted you on tour) go out of business;



  • notice that online star ratings & customer reviews now stand in for literary criticism; 



  • continue writing like hell;

  • meanwhile you are your son’s primary at-home parent: he is an infant, he is a toddler, he is in preschool, he is in kindergarten... ; 

  • establish a publishing house called Atelier26 Books & try to help other writers by editing, publishing, & promoting their work (you will devote your more-than-full-time labor to this for years); 

  • return to Yaddo, still writing like hell, and start your fifth novel;

  • receive grants & fellowships; 

  • learn that your NY literary agent is retiring — you are now sans publisher and agent;

  • teach & lecture widely;  


  • rejoice to see the rise of innumerable new & viable small presses & the opening of many new independent bookstores;

  • marvel that your son is in 2nd grade ... 3rd grade ... ;

  • earn an MFA in Creative Writing after 7 books & 20 years as a writer; 


  • entrust that “new” novel — yes, novel 3, the one you started in 2007, a year before your son’s birth — to Atelier26 Books in 2018, your son’s 10th year.

What does self-published mean, anyway? Different things in different contexts.

I think of Virginia Woolf. Was she self-published? 



Woolf founded The Hogarth Press in order to publish works of prose or poetry “which could not, because of their merits, appeal to a very large public.” Through Hogarth, Woolf published other authors in addition to her own books. 

I think of Dave Eggers. Is he self-published? Eggers founded McSweeney’s Books, which publishes other authors in addition to Eggers’ own books. "McSweeney's exists to champion ambitious and inspired new writing, and to challenge conventional expectations about where it's found, how it looks, and who participates."

I think of James Laughlin, poet and founder of New Directions. Was he self-published? From the start, New Directions was "dedicated to publishing quality works with little regard to their chances for commercial success." Laughlin published his own work and others, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack Up and the reissue of The Great Gatsby when it went out of print. He also published work by Henry James, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh at a time when other publishers wouldn't touch them.

And I think of other purportedly self-published authors. Among them are…Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, James Joyce, Laurence Stern, Jane Austen, Benjamin Franklin, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Beatrix Potter, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe …

This list is far from exhaustive.

Am I self-published? There was a time when this question might have worried me, but no more. I recently turned 40 and I have too much work to do.

But I identify strongly with the author/publishers I mentioned above.

And as a publisher custodian of Perpetua’s Kin I’m also vigilantly aware of how problematic the perception and reception of literary work can be, especially when that work is subjected to a loaded catch-all like “self-published.”

So while I realize that the reactions of readers and critics belong to the department of things one can’t control, still I’m compelled to ask questions. My questions are much like those asked by C.S. Lewis in his wonderful and wise 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism. How should we judge the quality of a book? How might we assess literary merit and literary taste? Despite its turgid title, Experiment is written in a compelling, almost conversational way, and Lewis proposes sensible and humane answers. He writes:
“The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
What does self-published mean? Specifically, what does it mean to you as a reader, reviewer, bookseller, award judge, fellow writer — or whoever you may be in the literary community? Is a self-published book simply a book you can more easily and justifiably ignore? Are you allowing labels — or stigmas — to obtrude upon your reading process and preempt the recognition (and celebration!) of quality in works of new literature?

These questions fall to each of us. Especially in these times of instability, confusion, and loss of morale in mainstream publishing — which are also times of countervailing independence, innovation, and vivacity among individual authors and very small publishers — it falls to each of us to bear in mind what Lewis puts this way:
“We can judge any sentence or even word only by the work it does or fails to do. The effect must precede the judgment on the effect. The same is true of a whole work. Ideally, we must receive it first and then evaluate it. Otherwise, we have nothing to evaluate.”

Dear reader, it’s up to you.

And I’m looking forward to sharing Perpetua’s Kin with you. I believe it’s something special.

I’ll be writing more about Perpetua’s Kin in this space between now and the novel’s September 4th release. Meanwhile, Perpetua’s Kin pre-orders are open at the Atelier26 webstore.

{See my full author history HERE}

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

American Book Review

I'm pleased to contribute a review of Julian Barnes' novel The Noise of Time to the new issue of American Book Review. My review appears in the special section on biographical fiction guest edited by Michael Lackey.

A snippet:
There survive a few minutes of film footage from 1974 Leningrad. Dmitri Shostakovich, 68 years old—his pale, nerve-wracked face sunken behind bulky black glasses—watches a rehearsal of his opera “The Nose,” a work suppressed in Soviet Russia for nearly half a century. He is a man aged beyond his own years (and he will be dead within twelve months). The camera holds him in close-up. Off-screen, the orchestra plays, the singers sing out, while the music—the inflection of every note—trembles visibly across the composer’s face. He shifts in his seat but the camera clings to him. His mouth and chin quiver uncontrollably. The tendons seem to spasm in his neck. He’s agitated, at points almost gasping. He’s in agony. He’s awash in pleasure. His eyes, hooded for decades and no longer capable of shedding tears, never leave the stage. Finally, finally, this music has its freedom—but Shostakovich the man and artist has never been free.
Reverse the footage. Watch it again. Is this the image of one soul’s tragedy, or its consolation? Has the poor man triumphed at last, or is there some level of suffering beyond which no triumph is possible? In The Noise of Time, his new biographical novel of Shostakovich, Julian Barnes takes up questions like these. 

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.)