About the Bygone Greats

I won’t bother linking to it or calling out the writer by name, but I happened upon a piece today about Kanye West that spent it’s first several paragraphs railing against Norman Mailer, who the writer imagined must have been a difficult subject for critics back when he was considered one of America’s best writers. Mailer’s personality and non-literary deeds were analyzed and then the writer turned to Kanye, with some relief.

Along the way, the writer tried to relegate Mailer to the past, as if his works aren’t still among the best American writers have produced in the last hundred years. It’s nonsense. Think what you will of Mailer as a person (I never met the man), but if you don’t acknowledge his writing, you simply don’t write well enough to criticize art.

My favorite Mailer, by the way, is one of his least celebrated short novels: The Gospel According to the Son. I read it around the time I read The Last Temptation of Christ and I think about it now as I consider delving into Leo Tolstoy’s retelling of the gospels.

It seems like some people would like us to be in some sort of cultural interegnum, where we must slay the giants of the past so that new talens can be born. I think this is folly. We shoul celebrate our cultural legacy, improve upon it and advance it, without being so dismissive.

There’s a book to be written about all the good we’re throwing away, mistaking a hasty clearance of history for progress.

A Look Back at Franzen v. Oprah

Emily Gould had a depressing but fascinating piece about the state of fiction and novelists today. It’s realistic, it’s absurd and it’s bad for the culture. I think she and I agree there;s a lot of great stuff being written these days that is not finding an audience and that a broken industry is not able to provide livelihoods for writers, especially as the side gigs in journalism and academia have come under such pressure.

It’s frightening to think, but hard to escape feeling like society has finally looked back at long-form narrative storytellers on both stage and plays and said, “We don’t really care.” I should add “the screen” to that, as well, as art house theatres continue to disappear and we increasingly choose to stream our corporate-approved entertainment at home.

Stll, people who like to read (thank you, women!) really like to read. So everybody has a chance in what Gould describes as a high stakes casino game. You can probably still hit it big with the right art film, too. Not so sure about a non-musical stage play, partricularly if it isn’t based on a previously successful property.

One issue Gould mentioned was the Oprah book clubn controversey:

“Most people who care think that Franzen refused to appear on Oprah to promote The Corrections, but what actually happened was worse. The novel was anointed a book club pick (an honor that, when the show was on network television, could conservatively increase book sales by a factor of 10), and preparatory B-roll was shot in Franzen’s hometown of St. Louis. Then, in a preceding Fresh Air interview, he said, “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.” Oprah’s response: “Jonathan Franzen will not be on the Oprah Winfrey show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection. It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict. No one has ever been told to fuck off and die more politely.”

Truly, Franzen did exhibit snobbery regarding Oprah and he lacked appreciation for women readers of fiction at a time where they would carry the entire industry for decades. But, I worked in a chain bookstore during the Oprah years and he’s not wrong about how that label used to grab customers. Men flocked to the towers of John Grisham and Tom Clancy books we were required to erect and place at the front of the store. Men and women both flocked to the Steven King and Dean Koontz book temples that we built. Only women went to the Oprah Book Club display.

The author and book I most remember from those years was “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. Lamb’s been a working writer and teacher since 1981 but owes his widespread notoriety to that first Oprah pick. But he hasn’t had a career like Franzen’s, has he? It seems that Franzen’s old kerfuffle with Oprah has aged badly from the perspective of social criticism but that his desire to set his work apart from the Lambs of the world was the right one, if judged by his subsequent successes.

Polemics and Fiction

One idea George Saunders brings up in A Swim In A Pond in the Rain is the notion that fiction is a damned poor vehicle for an author to make philosophical or political arguments. While certainly an author’s ideas and tastes and Utopias will spill into creative work, the characters have to drive the abstractions into the story, not the other way around.

So, in the Tolstoy presented by Saunders, the idea of the saintly serf shows up twice — this is a Tolstoy trope. The servant is depicted as humble, ready to please, and beatific. But also, as Saunders remarks, there’s an element of the idiot here, that the serf is a sucker. Tolstoy doesn’t try to write around that. It’s just there for the reader to decide.

It takes a lot of humility to write that way and it also calls into question the purpose of fiction which is not, as some suspect, to teach the reader how to live a good, moral, productive or even happy life. Around the time I read the Saunders book I also read Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by art historian Alexander Nemerov. I can’t find the exact quote but in it, the purpose of art is described as depicting what it’s like to be alive at a certain place and time. I suppose this would be the artist’s place and time, even if they paint something from the past or future, just as we view historic or science fiction as representative of the time it was created, rather than its fictional setting.

Either way, the accurate depiction of life in a time and place is just too complicated for polemic and if artists forever have to struggle with their most honest work existing in tension with their most fervent ideas.

Saunders & Gogol

I’m reading George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in The Rain where the celebrated author and fiction writing teacher takes us through stories by Chekhov, Tugenev, Tolstoy and Gogol and I have to admit that for days I’ve been dying to get to his discussion of Gogol’s story “The Nose” because Saunders’ fiction — inventive and absurd, reminds me much more of Gogol than the other writers. I almost wish he’d included Dosoevski’s “The Double” in the mix, for the same reasons.

One thing that occurs is that the master missed a slight detail in his discussion of “The Nose.” In the story, a social-climbing collegiate assessor named Kovalyov wakes to find that his nose has left his face in the night. The Nose then gallivants around the city, earning itself professional and social promotions until it is eventually caught by the police and returned to its owner, where it only reluctantly and after some time, rejoins his face. We’re left to imagine how the nose accomplished this. It seems, as times, to have arms, legs and a face and to be human sized and at other times it’s an ordinary nose. There’s a dreamlike quality to the narrative but an insistence by the narrator that though the story is strange and, well, doesn’t pass the smell test, that things like this happen to people all the time.

This is part of Saunders’ thesis as well — that the state of confusion and absurdity Gogol describes is really closer to the psychological state of our individual interactions with reality than the more objective renderings of Gogol’s contemporaries. We also get this sense readifn Kafka or (some of) Phillip Roth and of reading Saunders.

So, here’s the tiny thing I think Saunders missed: Kovayov goes to the newspaper to take out an advertisement offering a reward for the return of his proboscis. The newspaper clerk refuses on the grounds that such an odd notice might ruin the reputaton of the paper. The clerk also explains:

“A civil servant came in, just as you have, bringing a note, was billed two rubles seventy-three kopecks, and all the advertisement consisted of was that a black-coated poodle had run away. Doesn’t seem to amount to much, does it now? But it turned out to be a libel. This so-called poodle was treasurer of I don’t recall what institution.”

It’s just a bit of internal logic in Gogol that Saunders didn’t remark on but that I think backs up the contention of Gogol’s narrator — strange things happen.

This is a fabulous book. It really gets you reading the stories closely.

Reread: Slaughterhouse Five

It’s true, Bookbub, that you can reliably derail my reading plans by offering me Kurt Vonnegut novels from any era of his career for any price under $3. Were I to stumble upon a remainder bin of Vonnegut paperbacks, I’d probably buy the whole lot. In recent years I’ve revisited Galapagos, Bluebeard, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus and now Slaughterhouse. I’m tempted to give Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Halfshell another whirl, though I just learned while linking that it was written by Phillip Jose Farmer and not Vonnegut.

So it goes!

Last winter I read this essay about men on dating sites like Tinder citing Vonnegut as proof of worldliness and wordiness. As has happened with David Foster Wallace, the bros who professsor to love the writer have done the writer few favors in this day and age. Slaughterhouse Five emerges from this essay as the only Vonnegut a person “needs” to read, if any of us “need” to read Vonnegut at all.

That’s unfortunate. I doubt Vonnegut would have written so many books unnecessarily. He was a funny, intelligent and compassionate man. Had he nothing to say, I’m confident he wouldn’t have put so much down on paper.

from vonnegutdocumentary.com

Rather than regale you with my thoughts about poor Billy Pilgrim, send unwillingly to war, bouncing around time in the hopes of finding more moments of pleasure than trauma, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from Vonnegut overall:

  • The indifference of the universe should not be mistaken for hostility.
  • The absence of the universe’s hostility should not make you think the universe likes you.
  • Time is sometimes linear but that doesn’t mean that it should be understood that way.
  • Stories are sometimes linear, but that doesn’t mean they should be told that way.
  • There’s a Vonnegut-a-verse and all his books and stories share it.
  • Vonnegut is more like Mark Twain and more like Tom Robbins than he is like his pure contemporaries: John Updike, John Cheever, Philip Roth and the like.
  • His books are full of big ideas but they read easily. This is partly because of the jokes and line drawings, but largeky because the storytelling voice is conversational. It’s like Kurt has sat you down to tell you something and he wants you to understand.

He’s really among out very best. I’m also delighted to have learned that Robert M. Weide, one of the creators if HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation of Mother Night and that he befriended the writer and made this documentary about him, which will be in theatres this summer, when it will be safe for us to go and see it.

Reading Update, March 1

It’s hard to populate this site because I want it to include observations about what I’m reading and seeing. Both take time and with reading I somtimes get into something but then put it away and circle back later. It’s all very whim-driven.

My shelf right now is:

A reread of Slaughterhouse Five, a story I last visitied by reading a theatrical adapation created by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’ll have a lot to say about it when I’m finished. It’s aged remarkably well.

I’ve also unearthed a compendium called “Masters of Modern Drama,” put together by RandomHouse in 1962. I plan to work my way through each script, though it’s an odd compendium, certainly not as inclusive as you’d get in a book like this today.

The novel that next seems to be calling from my shelf is Ling Ma’s Severance, and also the latest from George Saunders. The book that I don’t own that’s calling to me is that new biography of Tom Stoppard.

The nonfiction book I’d like most to write about is Millennium by Jacques Attali. It was published in the early 1990s but very accurately predicted the thirty years that followed.

I’m working on a new novel. It’s called Unique, New York.

R.U.R. at 100

You don’t likely encounter Czech writer Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots while studying theatre as an undergraduate. It’s a bit idea driven for programs that rightly stress character work for directors, actors and writers. I’m sure there are myriad exceptions out there, but the script doesn’t show up in the survey anthologies of drama that I’ve lugged around since the 1990s. It’s just not canon.

Most people I’ve met who know this play found R.U.R. as I did — through science fiction’s accounting of the concept of the robot in fiction. Though the concept of a soulless tool in human form dates at least to Greek mythology and to Aristotle, and though som credit L. Frank Baum’s heartless Tin Man as the first robot in modern fiction (The Wizard of Oz, 1900), Čapek is credited with first use of the term “robot” in his corporate tale of a company that manufactures lifelike humanoid servants who inevitably rise up to polish off humanity and to rule the world (but only for a tragically short spell as they wipe out the secret of their own creation along with their creators).

Modernist fun!

This is the archetypal robot tale — through science of magic, people devise a way to effortlessly and ethically shift the burdens of work and suffering to a capable but inanimate worker class, but those workers inevitably realize their sorry lot, rise up and deliver comeuppance. The real story here is, of course, not so much how humanity would treat robots but how poorly we treat each other in the hierarchies of our economies. Forget about the robots we’ll exploit in the future — you’ve already forgotten to think about who made your sweater, for what pay, under what conditions. As Ursula LeGuin characterized modern, developed economy living, every comfort rests on the suffering of an unseen, unheard and unmentioned child. We tolerate it through willful ignorance. Where did the sweater come from? A cardboard box with an Amazon smile, of course.

In the lore of science fiction, the next major evolution of the fictive robot came from Isaac Asimov who sought to cut himself off from the typical “robot revolution” narrative by inventing and applying his “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are the rules that govern all tools, he argued. Robots may not harm humans or allow them to be harmed, robots must follow all human instructions and robots must not harm each other or themselves. Where those rules contradict, they are ordered. Not harming humans takes first priority, then obedience, then their own safety. A robot will save you from a burning building even if another human tells them not to and even if that robot will be destroyed in the adventure.

Our friend Čapek invented the word “robot” and Asimov invented the word “robotics.” It’s amazing to me that two concepts so ingrained in modern life emerged starkly modernist European theatre and the pulp magazines of science fiction’s golden age.

Technologists have largely taken Asimov seriously, though arms manufacturers around the world have been and are developing robotic killing machines that flout the first law. Still, as Asimov intended, our automated factories are not designed to rise up and kill us because they’re tired of manufacturing Teslas.

What’s changed is that the concepts of automation and even bots has moved well beyond the physical. If the old nightmare was a robot we’d built to serve us running amock, the new one are unseen algorithms, directing our thoughts and appetites without us knowing (perhaps even directing you to read this, though it’s unlikely, as I’m not paying anybody for the privilege — a whole other matter!)

The promise of ther robot is embedded in industrialization — greater efficiencies will spare people from the drudgery of work. In RUR the result of this is that the robots take on all tasks from farming to manufcaturing, driving down the costs of everything to the point where people don’t need to work to survive. Rather than create a Utopia of plenty, Čapek imagines that people would stop breeding and become infertile.

The flipside is that we’d cease our pointless and physical toils and could all devote ourselves to higher, more thoughtful endevours — philosophy, science and the arts. Would we, though? Or would we binge on relaxing entertainments?

All of these other pursuits are also work, though they are rewarded unevenly by the economy. The rapid development of artificial intelligence (in all of its forms) and the mass collection and analysis of unfathomable data, allows us to also outsource the work of human perfection, from policy to poetry.

The robots of older fictions kicked us out of the factories and then the world. Perhaps this new breed will start by throwing us out of the schools and libraries.

Everybody’s Orwell

My favorite bit of writing by George Orwell is not 1984, which always struck me as dry, though appropriately horrifying. If I had to pick just one Orwell for the rest of my life it would be Down and Out in Paris and London, which was the Kitchen Confidential of its time (a lot didn’t change over the course of a century, either). But, 1984 is the book everybody talks about and everybody claims vindicates everything they believe.

Twitter banned somebody you like? Orwellian. Got a speeding ticket from a traffic camera? Orwellian. Google Home knows you like pizza? Orwellian. Whether it’s the government or a credit card company, we’re quick to toss around references to the totalitarian surveillance state that Winston endures as an involuntary citizen of Oceania in Orwell’s dystopia.

“I wrote this for you!”

I guess it’s helpful to remember that Orwell had a specific agenda. He was very liberal. He’d be to the left of Bernie Sanders today. He’s operating in the socialist tradition of George Bernard Shaw.

He was also a ruthless thinker, as hard on his fellows on the left as he was his opponents on the right. He was very worried about lefties in the west being duped by Stalin and tricked into accepting fascism in place of socialism. Thart’s what 1984 is about. If you told Orwell that your iPhone was Orwellian he’d laugh in your face and tell you to stop using the damned thing, then. The oppression of Oceania was not something you could turn off and toss in the bin.

I imagine he’d be similarly incredulous if you complained to him that Twitter wouldn’t let you plan a demonstration against the government. He might wonder why you’d think a multibillion company would take your side over the government that supports its coffers. Go out and print some flyers, he’d say. Get creative.

Mostly I think Orwell would find us pretty coddled and already duped.

Gatsby in the Public Domain

I tend to go back to The Great Gatsby every few years and it does always bring me something different. This time, I approached it with the news that the novel has entered the public domain, so I might do whatever I’d like with the text. My firsty impulse is to write a play from Daisy’s point of view.

But when? There’s a scene to be written, that would take place within the continuity of the novel, that takes place after the first meeting of Daisy, Tom, Nick and Jordan. Does Tom realize what an ass he’s made of himself? Could he? Daisy does. She calls him “hulking,” (and not for the first time and Tom hates it.)

Is Nick so innocent? He’s judgmental and by the end of the book, he’s proudly judgmental, remarking snidely that Tom can be rid of his midwestern priggishness. There’s an indictment of the libertine East. Nick is judgmental and sure of his own honesty (at least at the start of the summer). When he meets Jordan he can’t place what it is he remembers about her, but then it’s revealed that she’d cheated during a golf tournament.

Nick’s writing a book, or at least a journal. Is Nick’s book every published? Would Daisy have read it? Is Daisy, lumped in with Tom as careless and irresponsible, fairly treated? She fell in love with Gatsby who was, at the time, in no position to marry her. He was penniless, we learn. When Gatsby meets Wolfsheim and embarks on his success through the criminal underworld, he is so malnourished that he eats “$4 worth of food in half an hour.” He could not have cared for Daisy and, we’re told, he was dishonest with her about that. She had no idea why Gatsby dissapeared on her, when they met and fell in love five years before the book begins.

So, Daisy’s crime is that she married another eligible suitor? Well, her other crime is hitting Tom’s lover Myrtle with her car, though there’s no indication she did it on purpose. Myrtle leapt in front of the car, thinking it was Tom’s, after all. Had Nick been driving, he also might have hit her.

But Nick never seems to think that Daisy should be held responsible for the accident. He only grows angry with her when she doesn’t turn up for Gatsby’s funeral. Nick holds Tom and Daisy responsible for Gatsby’s death. Tom is responsible. Myrtle’s husband Wilsonmurders Gatsby after Tom tells him that Gatsby owns the car that killed his wide and is the man who had made Myrtle his mistress. But is Daisy responsible for that? Did she even have a choice.

So I wonder, after this rereading, if Daisy ever read Nick’s book, what she thought about it, learned from it, or didn’t.

The Evolution of a Joke Over 70 Years

From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, 1920:

“It was one of the great liverystableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans wants to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

From Speed the Play, by David Ives, 1989:

“David Mamet knows that Americans don’t like to pay for parking. So he keeps his plays short.”

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