Friday, April 29, 2011

In which I argue with the Bookslut

When Henry James minted the phrase “loose baggy monsters” he was referring to 19th century Russian novels. Which ironically, are less loose and baggy than most of his own work, The Golden Bowl, for example. But “loose baggy monsters" really best describes some blog entries (my own included), which being not subject to any editorial (or generally renumerative) forces, are free to wander all over the place. Such is the case of Jessa Crispin’s recent column in The Smart Set (she's the book slut, apparently, of Bookslut).

Whole article here:

Reading a loose baggy monster puts a lot of pressure on the reader to ferret out what’s interesting. But mostly a loose baggy monster will just send a reader to another link, or, optimistically speaking, to a physical text.

Crispin’s “A Sea of Words” is about a lot of things, among them: a complaint that there are too many books, a snarky review of Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness, as well as various books about writing, a complaint about the MFA degree, a complaint that people don’t read enough, a complaint against the work of writers who have an MFA.

It’s a depressing damned piece of writing. Why do I respond at all? Unfortunately the truth within it compels me to weigh in on her more ludicrous statements.

Her first paragraph is absolutely sobering: she lives in Berlin where she receives 30 books a week, unbidden, for review. Down from 15—30 per day. “Now,” she says, “they have landed here with a clip-art book cover, a cheap binding, and a $12.00 stamp to send it to critic who doesn’t even review fiction anymore.”

I return often to this line from Walden, usually in reference to some undertaking of my own: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?”

In fact: I myself had been looking at clip art for an idea I had for a cover of one of my own books. When I read that line, I felt that I recognized my own desperation. And I didn't like it. I hereby renounce desperation.

Further on Crispin observes:

“The books disappear as quickly as they are released, unable to cut through all the noise. And there are those that might not even bother anymore. Does one dare to raise one’s voice above the commotion, try to draw some attention away from those taking up the spotlight? Who gets in that rarified space is still determined by the writer’s gender, connections, beauty, nepotism, youth, or “platform.” Not even the most idealistic among the cultural critics bother to argue that the system is merit-based.”

(Well, Prufrock may not have dared, but it's a rhetorical question and the answer is "yes.")

Thinking about it, that’s an interesting, and sort of uneven, list. Gender–we’re given (although some even mess around with that); connections–well, actually you make those yourself; beauty–yeah, it probably helps, I wouldn’t know; nepotism–see connections; youth–arguable; “platform”—completely self-determined. I think her list is not so depressing as she is (to paraphrase Thoreau again).
But it is definitely true that the system is not merit-based. Yet by complaining about this she is implying that it was merit-based at some earlier un-debased time. Not. Same as it ever was.

Nonetheless, talk about an example of a bestseller not being merit based: when I learned (i.e. became obsessed with) the Greg Mortenson fiasco, all I could dwell on was the fact that his donation financed non-profit spent 1.75 million in the year 2009 promoting his book Three Cups of Tea. Oh! So that’s how you stay on the NYT bestseller list for over four years. Now I get it. (The pisser is that the profits of the book went to GM himself, not to the non-profit. Oy, what a mess!)

I won’t comment here on what Crispin actually says about the books she purports to be reviewing, except to say, she’s probably right about them.

I am moving to the red cape she has waved in my face. I must charge. “ . . . because everyone is now invited to be a writer we have an industry built up to teach writing to the masses. I’m not alone in thinking of the MFA industry as predatory.”

First, of all: she can’t really be aware of how elitist that first part sounds, can she? Secondly, “predatory?” Please. She seems to base this on unstated assumptions about what an MFA “promises” its students. Her assumptions, whatever they might be, are wrong.

We don’t promise publication, or employment. We only promise to improve a students’ writing as much as it can be improved in whatever amount of time it takes to get the degree. Fuzzy, I know. But that’s the “contract.”

Furthermore, I would like to point out that basically MFA degrees are only predatory in the way that any university humanities program is predatory. Does she really think less literacy is a preferable state of affairs?

She makes me laugh (with her, this time) when she asks, “what could the appeal possibly be? Writers are the social embarrassment in our culture, generally portrayed on television and in movies as sexually hapless, overweight, balding, constipated bores who can’t dress themselves properly.”

That cracked me up, although I have absolutely no idea to what portrayals she refers.

She concludes: “Those taking their money [MFA programs, presumably] probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them in on all the other ways to go about things.”

And that’s where I think she exactly does not know of which she speaks. We do exactly what she thinks we don’t.

Dear Jessa, we are sorry you’re depressed. Why don’t you take break from your blog and read a book for pleasure. Or get way from language for a while (even though watching television and movies don’t seem to be working for you either). It’s spring in Berlin, right? Get out of that apartment, take a walk, it might do you some good. Peace--ds

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"I am a strange trio": Shields, Hofstadter, and de Chardin

Secret Practice

from David Shields: The culture disseminates greater and greater access to the technology that creates various forms of media. The “ordinary” person’s cult of celebrity is nurtured by these new modes of communication and presentation and representation. We’re all secretly practicing for when we, too, will join the ranks of the celebrated. There used to be a monopoly on the resources of exposure. The rising sophistication of the nonexpert in combination with the sensory overload of the culture makes reality-based and self-reflexive art appealing now. There are little cracks in the wall, and all of us “ordinary people are pushing through like water or, perhaps, weeds.

Commentary regarding secret practice: When we were seniors in high school, we won our league title in football; actually, I think we “won” the tiebreaker. The prize for this was a game in the Catholic League Playoffs against, a powerhouse school four or five times the size of ours. During the week of preparation for the game, which would be sort of close at halftime, but not for much longer, the coaches devised a plan whereby the team would load up from the locker room into a gigantic Awry’s bread truck and be driven to a secret practice facility. Thereby, eluding Brother Rice’s spies (real? wishfully imagined?) who would be staking out our practices at Ford Field. It was a strange exercise, but it helped us to believe that Brother Rice had something to fear in us (they probably didn’t) and, indeed, for a week, we were oddly “celebrated.” A few days later, our senior year of football would end and we would taper off to June, trying to ignore the likelihood of being drafted to serve in Viet Nam.

Commentary number two, concerning the ordinary person’s cult of celebrity: mountaineering. Ordinary people climb Everest now, which sort of defeats the purpose. If you can pay the $65,000 guide fee, and you are fit, and the weather is okay, and you don’t succumb to edema, pulmonary or cerebral, you can climb Everest, with all the others who are able to manage these criteria. The primary hurdle would seem to be cash, which, back when climbing Everest meant something other than what it means now, was not in and of itself the primary criterion.

Kilimanjaro, is somewhat worse in a way. It is relatively high, over 19,000 feet and must, by local law, be guided. It is often done by non-climbers. Esquire magazine, just this month, has included an article about an everyman’s ascent of Kilimanjaro, editorially forgetting that they published almost the exact same article on the topic about five years ago. I’m not speaking to actual people , friends of mine even who have done, or aspire to do the actual climb. I’m speaking to its symbolic value, which must necessarily shrink, as more people ascend, as, in fact, the fabled snows melt away under the magnifying glass of global warming.

Anyway, I thought the point was to be a climber, not to “have climbed Everest. Or Kilimanjaro, or whatever.

I am a paradoxical level crossing feedback loop

From Douglas Hofstadter: And yet when I say “strange loop,” I have something else in mind—a less concrete, more elusive notion. What I mean by “strange loop” is––and here goes, a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit, but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.

Commentary on loopiness: Well, T.S. Eliot beat Hofstadter to this concept by about seventy years in the Four Quartets, particularly the oft-quoted lines from "Little Gidding" (although it’s conceptually present from the very first (obscure) lines of "Burnt Norton":

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I was thinking of the strange loop effect last weekend as I topped out on Peak Three for the third time in three weeks—I am strange loop, I thought, and here I am back on top of Peak Three and it’s always new, the experience always fresh. I am never bored. I always enjoy, as Emerson had it, “a perfect exhilaration.” There is this here-I-am-on-the-summit feeling, where I always am.

Everything that Rises Must Converge

From Teilhard de Chardin: Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.

Commentary on rising and converging: Flannery O’Connor is amazing, as I was reminded again last week on reading “Everything that Rises Must Converge” for the uncountable-eth time.

Consider her on the sentence level:

The sky was a dying violet and the houses stood out darkly against it, bulbous liver-colored monstrosities of a uniform ugliness though no two were alike.

This, I fear is the site of the convergence to which she alludes: may we decline the invitation? Thank you very much all the same.

I can never disentangle her religion, her illness, and her early death from her writing and in fact Everything that Rises Must Converge (the book) was published in 1965, just after her death (the same year Eliot died, though the span of his life was, of course, much greater). I was shocked to learn that O’Connor’s mother died in 1997. Her writing lives in that timeless space occupied by the kind of Truth reserved for classic stature.

Even though she took her title from Teilhard de Chardin and even though he was a Jesuit theologian (although censured) and she a devout Catholic (why is it, by the way, that the word devout is hitched almost exclusively to Catholic?) it is impossible she did not mean her title ironically. For de Chardin it seems a literal joyous vision, for O’ Connor, the rising is more of a “leveling,” the point of convergence, is rather . . . uh, low. O’ Connor’s Catholicism and the subject of her writings have always seemed somewhat perplexing, if not disconnected.

I think de Chardin did not quite take note of (conveniently ignores?) the fact that not everyone rises, a fact which O’Connor can never forget. We recognize, live in, O’Connor’s world, but aspire to the dream world of de Chardin in which mankind is the collective Christ (was he censured for fuzziness?).

Now, in the new electronic leveling, in which everyperson has an equal voice, everyperson a celebrity (and not just in the Warholian 15-minute sense), in which every moment is both the beginning and the end, we most definitely have convergence, but who wants it on the terms it offers itself?