pseudopodium
. . . Chester Himes

. . .

The prole thrillers which came closest to the jokey splatter of neo-noir weren't from Mickey Spillane but from Chester Himes. I recently read the second volume of Himes's autobiography, which, amidst hundreds of pages of complaints about girlfriends, royalties, and his Volkswagen, revealed just how liberating Himes found the hard-boiled genre after a dozen years of working the Richard-Wright-defined mainstream:

I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild, incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americans, black or white, if it was bad enough. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one can not tell the difference.

.... I was writing some strange shit. Some time before, I didn't know when, my mind had rejected all reality as I had known it and I had begun to see the world as a cesspool of buffoonery. Even the violence was funny.... If I could just get the handle to joke. And I had got the handle, by some miracle.

I didn't really know what it was like to be a citizen of Harlem; I had never worked there, raised children there, been hungry, sick or poor there. I had been as much of a tourist as a white man from downtown changing his luck. The only thing that kept me from being a black racist was I loved black people, felt sorry for them, which meant I was sorry for myself. The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.

-- p. 109, 126, My Life of Absurdity by Chester Himes

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, but....is there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"

Meanwhile....

Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
 
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Salon.com Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. Salon.dot critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

Advertising Supplement

Jake Wilson resolves one old issue:

  I considered writing to you a couple of months ago when you were looking for sources of the Rotwang/Dr Strangelove archetype. I was going to suggest that one source might be the Poe tale The Man That Was Used Up, but then from your phrasing I wasn't sure if you'd already made that connection.
That damned phrasing stuff trips me up every time! I responded:

  That was, in fact, the grotesque that I vaguely thought might be Poe or (if post-Civil-War) Twain or even Crane. (When I browsed through Poe collections, I became distracted by "Maelzel's Chess-Player".)

And to balance things out, Jake Wilson introduces one new issue: Senses of Cinema No. 26, with excellent background on the Hong Kong woman warrior, a Stan Brakhage tribute appropriately split between formal and personal concerns, enticing overviews of Ned Kelly stories and Italian movies that I'd probably hate, a pointer to the near-future sf film None Shall Escape, and the usual much much more.

My other favorite web-based movie periodical, Bright Lights Film Journal, has also served up a fresh batch of fine reporting, reviews, and meditations. But would you think badly of me if I admitted that my favorite part was the Holly Woodlawn interview? 'Cause if you would, I admit nothing.

Elsewhere on the web, Dr. Justine Larbalestier has provided a preview of "A Buffy Confession," her spirited defense against (and equally spirited surrender to) nattering nay-Slayers. "For those who haven't seen the finale yet don't read the coda at the end."

And another of our favorite doctors, Josh Lukin, brings us the welcome news that paper-based periodical Paradoxa is finally unleashing FIFTIES FICTIONS: Chester Himes! Patricia Highsmith! E.C.! Richard Matheson! Samuel R. Delany! Judith Merril! People I don't even know! Get your order in early; you know how ephemeral paper-based periodicals are, and this looks like the best issue of Paradoxa yet. (I'd say "the best issue yet of any magazine ever," but I can't be sure till I track down a copy of that Vanity Fair with the picture of Tuesday Weld in the back. [Update: That Vanity Fair issue stunk.])

Yeah, I kid the academy (those nuts!), but when its component parts are given half a chance, the combination of publishing venues, deadlines, and job reviews can be mighty productive. Out here in the boonies, I've been blowing hot air about "doing something" on Highsmith for more than a dozen years; with sharp and decent folk like Lukin and Earl Jackson Jr. on the case, the world might live long enough to see some results.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.