Friday, March 29, 2013

Prime Passage: Self-Consciousness by John Updike

“My first books met with the criticism that I wrote all too well but had nothing to say: I, who seemed to myself full of things to say, who had all of Shillington to say, Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America to say, and who had seen and heard things in my two childhood homes, as my parents’ giant faces revolved and spoke, achieving utterance under some terrible pressure of American disappointment, that would take a lifetime to sort out, particularize, and extol with the proper dark beauty. … What I doubted was not the grandeur and plenitude of my topic but my ability to find the words to express it; every day, I groped for the exact terms I knew were there but could not find, pawed through the thesaurus in search of them and through the dictionary in search of their correct spelling. My English language had been early bent by the German locutions of my environment, and, as my prose came to be edited by experts, I had to arbitrate between how I in my head heard a sentence go and how, evidently, it should correctly go. My own style seemed to me a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is exactly what it wasn’t — other-indulgent, rather. My models were the styles of Proust and Henry Green as I read them (one in translation): styles of tender exploration that tried to wrap themselves around the things, the tints and voices and perfumes, of the apprehended real. In this entwining and gently relentless effort there is no hiding that the effort is being made in language: all professorial or critical talk of inconspicuous or invisible language struck me as vapid and quite mistaken, for surely language, printed language, is what we all know we are reading and writing, just as a person looking at a painting knows he is not looking out of a window.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Prime Passages: Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, and Ben Okri (impromptu)

from Vila-Matas's Dublinesque:
“He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies. … The same skills needed for writing are needed for reading. Writers fails readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it.” (New Directions, 2012; p.51)
Ben Okri, speaking at the World Writers Festival in Edinburgh, 2012:
“My brothers and sisters in Africa, we feel that our stories have still not been told. We feel that the form of the telling of those stories has not yet been found and articulated and evolved in a way that, as it were, can be appreciated round the world. We feel that the novel is still very young. … I seem to be hearing about the exhaustion of the novel. I find that very puzzling, personally. Because I think that the novel is only 350 years old. It’s not as old as painting. It’s not as old as sculpting. And as an art form itself, I think maybe the real future of the novel lies with the fact that we, the writers, have not issued the fundamental challenge to the perception of the novel as a form. What do I mean by that? In almost all the other forms—in music, and certainly in art—the narrative tradition, the naturalistic tradition of painting, has been superseded by abstract, by many other kinds of media. And I think that we have accepted too much, as it were, the definition of the limitation of the novel. I think the real challenge is to change the form of the novel in terms of how we read it. I still think that we accept too much the beginning, middle, end.  Even where we have experiments, we have not managed, as it were, the kind of Duchampian change of game. I feel that the novel is not dead yet. I just feel like I’m at a funeral here, really. I feel like speaker after speaker has given a kind of oration to the end of the novel, as if the novel has yet begun to express all the different possibles, all the different ways in which reality can be expressed. I don’t think that reality is as homogenous as that. I think each person carries within them a special way of seeing and perceiving reality, and I think that’s what the novel does. The novel constantly challenges us to say that the way that we’re told that the world is, is not the way the world is. The world is much more mysterious than that, is much more elusive than that, and is much more magical and more challenging, and possibly even more fragmented. I just would like to propose that we talk about where we can go as novelists, where we can go as writers, and whether we accept the fact that we are really totally determined by the marketplace, which I don’t accept.”  
(Okri's remarks are transcribed from the dazzling 2-hour discussion on "the Future of the Novel," involving 50 authors from all over the world, which can be viewed in its entirety here.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Did You Just Call Me a "Content Container"?

The amazing Melville House blog gets better and better. For a few years now I’ve greatly appreciated their relentless resistance to the civic and cultural irresponsibility, rapacity, and general megalomania of Amazon.

Now we all owe further thanks to Melville House, and to their blogger Dustin Kurtz, for brilliantly resisting “the propagation of [a] powerful and quite dangerous idiocy, the irruption of the language of venture capital into the province of the book.”
Kurtz cites Tim Sanders, of the “team publishing” website NetMinds, speaking to the New Yorker: “We believe a writer is not necessarily a writer. They are content containers.” And Peter Armstrong, founder of Leanpub, who states: “a book is a startup” and who equates the long, solitary process of writing to the “stealth mode” that precedes an entrepreneurial launch.
NetMinds and Leanpub both aim to provide writers (via social network) with early audience critiques of works in progress, in order to maximize the mass appeal/profitability of those works; i.e., to help the writer “pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”   

Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen, to the brave new world of book-via-virtual-focus-group, where the sins of idiosyncrasy, subjectivity, or good old-fashioned style are, if not expurgated altogether, then "remixed" to the mercenary end of mass appeal. (I’ve touched on aspects of this subject elsewhere. See: “There’s a Crowd on My Desk” or "Why It's Desirable to Be Eccentric".)
“[Armstrong] talks about the ‘success’ of a book. What he means is that the book pays out. Many publishers might agree with that standard, but how many authors?  And that phrase ‘stealth mode?’ Are we to the point where the act of being alone, writing to an imagined audience and not a real responsive audience is akin to hiding?
“As for the real winners, the claims that made me actually clench my teeth and take a deep breath when I read them—Armstrong and his phrase about creativity, Sanders and that terrible terrible terrible sentence about ‘content containers’ what’s to be said? Anyone who could think such things is quite specifically part of The Problem in the starkest sense.”
For me, all this brings to mind these words of Stephen Spender, written back in 1949:

The general effect of increasing commercialization and of the compulsion to sell ever larger and larger quantities of a few books to a public which does not really care about them, must surely be that the position of the writer who writes as well as he possibly can ‘to please himself’, becomes less tenable. … The American malady is a spiritual one, the commercialization of spiritual goods on an enormous scale, in the same way as material goods are commercialized. … In the country where culture is ‘sold’ enormously, it is sold as something other than culture and tends to become something else in the process.”
The slogans and euphemisms that characterize what I recently heard dubbed "dot-communism" are the latest symptoms of our long-standing American malady. Kurtz beautifully articulates what's at stake when we embrace such ways of talking about creativity:
These guys are not harmful, as I say, but the spread of this type of jargon is. Language shapes, language is, thought, and the more comfortable we grow talking about nascent books as ‘content’, about drafts as ‘iterations’, the more we trivialize those books that don’t benefit from focus groups. These guys, this language, is hurting literature by changing how we think about books in general. It is a spreading disregard, not even conscious or apt enough to be malign. And I don’t think it likely to stop.”
Read the Melville House post here. And consider adding the Melville House blog to your list of essential web-reading.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013


1. Last spring I picked up this copy of Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for around a dollar and a half. Only when I got home did I discover the former owner's inscription inside. As an exhibit of a peculiarly enduring stylistic mode that might be dubbed 'Teen-Scourge,' it caused me such absurd delight that I believe it's worth sharing.
(NB: If you happen to have small children at hand, you may wish to refrain from reading aloud.)

"Annie Dillard is the anti CHRIST!! Come Fucking On the Birds Prompt?!? What the Hell. The shear (sic) horror of this bullshit. Fuck McClure for not only making us read this shit, but write on it as well. Fuck Annie Dillard and her in tune with Nature bullshit. [heart] the haters of Annie Dillard"
2. A recent purchase of Six Nonlectures by e.e. cummings included the bonus, on the book's final page, of an autobiographical prose meditation in a style emulating cummings' own syntactical eccentricities -- and making explicit reference, in at least a few places, to the content of the book. As book-scribbling goes, here's an entry on a more epic scale than 'Teen-Scourge.'
What to make of both of these entries? Maybe the weird readerly proximity they offer is an end in itself. The transcribed outrageousness of 'Teen-Scourge,' the vulnerability of the scribble, the messy, unguarded reflexivity of the thoughts -- these are yet a few more things e-books cannot give us.   


"Here I am and I'm fairly sure I wish I wasn't. But where then? It is what it is. There are no mistakes. How can I expect those around me to grasp that when my own Is and Now seem like mistakes to me -- he who reassures myself with this Zen-ism. One minute I am the only sane/capable human in sight. But since/if that is so, then it's wrong in that sanity is an agreement -- a consensus. But what about the individual. The Who? Not the band. don't mean to babble, but I always have. Babbled or meant to? Don't know. Fuck, now I'm interrogating myself. "Finished too much for what they did." Is playing disappearing? Am I working toward playing? Does that even make sense? to Me? to the consensus? Fuck them! They do it and die unhappy. Am I sitting still to have or because I have to? Time will tell. But it whispers. And stutters. And often informs to late [sic]. Work time.
"I always wonder if I'm an individual or half a pair. Can one really be both? Here? Now?
"I've been working and waiting toward joy (?!) and now power/vengeance. Are these worthy? Or are they just them? Where does Being fit in? I haven't observed myself/felt myself doing that in so long. Is there a conflict between Being and Achieving? Happinesss [sic], Power, Contentment, Peace. Surely not but possibly so. And probably yes? Who said that?"   

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Letterpress Business Cards!

Because Old-Fashioned is the new New!

Created on a Kelsey tabletop press with reflex blue ink.
Typeset in Corvinus Bold 24 pt, Cheltenham Bold 72 pt, and Spartan Heavy 14 pt (with accidental italics!)