pseudopodium
. . . Eggers

. . .

Irony Watch

Chris Ware - art = Dave Eggers ?
'Cause I remember that comic Eggers did for the SF Weekly, and -- hoo boy, he sure ain't Chris Ware!

Among other equations derivable from San-Francisco-to-New-York transformation functions (well, more like Berkeley-to-Brooklyn, but you'd hardly expect a bohemian spokesperson nowadays to admit to being from Berkeley, would you?), we find that old favorite:

Snob + hypocrisy = Times rock critic

. . .

In (guarded) praise of irony

A couple months back, a reviewer of that Dave Eggers book wrote something about how she'd never seen such emotional material treated ironically.

That's very sad (sad ha-ha, not sad strange), because the only possible excuse for irony is emotion, and too much of it. "The world is a comedy to those who think; a tragedy to those who feel"; and irony's all that's been left to the softhearted analytical human being since Socrates at the latest. That's why stupid irony is exactly the same thing as unfeeling irony.

:) I regretfully admit that there's plenty of stupid irony around these days, probably because irony is the easiest thing to fake, its "Oh, I didn't really mean that" an easy refuge for the cowardly fool.

But beware, brother, beware: to don a suit of armor when you're just planning to wash dishes or go shopping is to invite great expense. If not injury. If not both (e.g., "Seinfeld"). Use only as a last resort; believe me, you'll get to the last resort soon enough.

I also admit that at first (or at disgusted and exhausted) glance, irony seems utterly antithetical to art ("art" being best described as "No, I meant to do that").

The trick is to stand firmly behind your transparently hollow words and (except of course when evading legal action) cheerfully admit to fully believing each and every empty idiocy you've recorded.

If you can call that a trick.

For those who have been made self-conscious of hubris in the mere act of expression, irony is pert near unavoidable. Thus, most of the women writers on my shelves are masters of the form in all its moods, from Behn and Austen through Bowles and Barnes to Russ and Fowler, criminy, Brontë & Brontë & Brontë & Olive Moore & Patricia Highsmith & Flannery O'Connor & Edith Wharton, it gets kind of creepy, doesn't it? Thus also the tactic's popularity with such resigned-to-failure types as Stendhal and Flaubert, Romantic rapscallions like Byron and Pushkin, and most sane twenty-somethings.

Here, for example, we actually witness the most beautiful of Nature's tender miracles, the birth of an ironist:

"It is wonderful -- stupendous to consider, how a man who in his own mind is cool, witty, unaffected and high-toned, will disgust and mortify himself by every word he utters or act he does, when he steps out of his skin defenses." -- Henry Adams, age 25
So don't let anyone tell you that irony isn't hip anymore. It's as hip as it ever was.

. . .

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.

. . .

"a specialized shop, department of a store, etc., usu. catering to fashionable clients"

On Best Behavior Pamphleteer Juliet Clark writes:

Re the Salon.com Guide to Feeling Hip Because You've Heard of John Updike:

I'd like to point out that Eggers misspelled "aficionado," and the copyeditor didn't catch it.

I think your copyediting/programming analogy is apt in a lot of ways. In fact the whole Salon Guide reminds me to a painful degree of startup culture: young people who won't be young much longer demanding to be taken seriously for not being serious; seeking the Big Time while clinging to a fantasy of countercultural identity; using strained irony, self-created urgency, and an excess of spin to mask a fundamental laziness.

All I can suggest is that you sell your author copy and use the money to buy a good book. Wouldn't that be, like, "ironic"?

And David Auerbach weighs in more fatalistically:
I do think that the Salon guide fills a void. We currently have no one to tell us which of the many, many idiomatically similar novels are the real thing and which are the product of overheated middle-class ramblings. The academics can't be bothered with it, since they're too busy keeping their own little flame alive. People like Lewis Lapham hate it all, and people like Michiko Kakutani are either indiscriminate (if you agree with them more often than not) or too harsh (vice versa), and they lack consensus-building skills. The remainder of the book-reviewing populace don't have enough credibility to be reliable. So I think contemporary mainstream book reviews, if there's a strong enough drive to hold people's interest, will go the way of movie reviews and devolve into capsule reviews, top ten lists, and "personality-based" reviewers. I don't think I can blame anyone for this process; it just happens when the collective standards of the producers and the consumers are low enough that the work being produced becomes undifferentiated.

Consequently, tho, Carol Emshwiller will certainly be ignored, and even someone like Disch, who has needed to work his material into ostensible potboilers for the last 20 years. There is a need for something of a unified conception, and Carol Emshwiller may as well be Les Blank for all they care. (Which might make Michael Brodsky Kenneth Anger.) There definitely is a "celebration of shared limited knowledge", but who were the Salon editors to deny those who looked towards them for guidance?

Oh, I don't really blame the Salon editors; I imagine it's pretty hard to resist the temptation to milk the cash cow when it's looking up at you with those big brown eyes. I just wish I hadn't seen the result. And I probably wouldn't have if the usual uncentrifugeable muddle of curiosity, vanity, and sense of responsibility hadn't talked me into becoming a contributor.... Being a critic, of course, although I blame myself, I attack them.

If Auerbach's right about the editors' ambitions, the match was doomed a priori, since I'm even less of a consensus-builder than Michiko Kakutani. (Case in point: For the last twenty years every single time I've tried to read the NYTBR I've ended up throwing it across the room, and so I didn't even recognize her name.) When it comes to art, I don't see that consensus is necessary, or even desirable. That's probably what attracts me to the subject: I wouldn't be so exclusively an aesthete if I were a more enthusiastic politician.

One clarification / pettifoggery as regards "personality-based" reviewing: It's true that I believe a critic can only speak as an individual, and that criticism is most useful when individual works receive close attention as individual works. That means that I consider generalities issued from a presumed position of consensus to be bad criticism. It doesn't mean that I consider class-clown-ism a guarantee of good criticism. In my Salon.com tantrum I emphasized voice because voice was being emphasized by the book's publicity and reviews, but what really set me off was the 400-page-long lack of new insight into individual works: a generic free-weekly voice was just the means to that dead end.

In my own practice I use an overtly performative voice only because I have to. When I attempt a detached tone, I become too stumble-footedly self-conscious to move; when I do the jutht a darn-fool duck shtick, life seems better. That's a personality flaw, not a deliberate choice. Behind the Dionysian mask, I'm ogling those Apollonians plenty: I empathize with Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism but I'm in awe of Eric Rohmer's; Lester Bangs is a role model but I'd be so much more uncomplicatedly proud of something like Stephen Ratcliffe's Campion; my favorite Joycean is eyes-on-the-page Fritz Senn; my favorite historian is no-see-um Henry Adams; I loathe the bluster of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia....

What matters is whether you communicate anything of what you see. If you don't have to keep twitching and waving and yelling "Hi, Mom!" while you do it, all the better.

. . .

Meanwhile, some excellent object lessons in how not to handle transitions between the urgent and the mundane are being provided by the East Bay Express. (For those outside the area, the Express is a even dumber, even uglier sibling of the SF Weekly. Way back in olden times, when Dave Eggers was just a lousy cartoonist, the SF Weekly and East Bay Express were separate, independent, free weeklies. Then free-weekly-conglomorate New Times bought the SF Weekly, dropped most of its strongest points, inflated most of its weakest, and otherwise New-Times-ized it. And just this year, New Times went on to do pretty much the same to the East Bay Express, which, being a slightly weaker paper to begin with, now plays UPN to the Weekly's WB. I can't imagine why they bothered -- they'd already inundated the East Bay with SF Weekly boxes -- unless for the sadistic pleasure of firing Lynda Barry one more time....)

This week's letters pages were filled with long angry reactions to last week's cover, which showed the late Judi Bari wearing an "Earth First!" T-shirt and holding an Uzi ("The article is a wretched, wretched mess"), closed off by the following:

CORRECTION

Last week's cover story ("The Unsolved Mysteries of Judi Bari") misidentified Brian Willson as a former Beach Boy. The Brian Willson that Judi Bari was referring to is a peace activist who had both his legs severed by a train during a protest.

While this week's cover manages to be even more tasteless:

Fig. 3: East Bay Express, Sept. 19
Best of the East Bay

(On "Page 9," by the way, the reader will find only an editorial -- not even a "Long-Time Berkeley Resident Feared Missing" headline.)

. . .

Salon's IPO lies a-moulderin' in the grave but its soul goes marching on

A newspaper points to good online literary writing.

How do they know it's good?

Because it's just like what you find in newspapers!

There aren't enough urban weeklies and Sunday supplements and soft-spoken NPR shows and Eggers publications to contain all the English majors who've realized that they can easily mimic the non-reportage of urban weeklies and Sunday supplements and soft-spoken NPR shows and Eggers publications. But having been given all the freedom in the world, we're able to play columnist just as if we were fortunate enough to have real editors asking us to dumb material down for a pathetic amount of money which gets sent tardily.

And what else would anyone do, given all the freedom in the world?

. . .

To The Happy Tutor, in continuation and continuation

Wish I could locate our disagreement, if any, so we could keep up the conversation.
Your question inspires you to look for an answer; your question inspires me to look at the question. Naturally that leaves us not quite disagreeing.

Blake found America in his imagination and so he etched it, but not in a way that would influence British colonial policies. He might be suprised to find his visions yoked with Swift's polemics. What conceivable writing would take both as role model? That, I'd submit, is the question you're really wrestling with. (And the obvious answer would be "Your own.")

Having assumed some commonality among such public-domain genre workers as Swift, Blake, Goya, and Dickens, you go on to extend it to the insularities of the contemporary high art world rather than to contemporary genre workers. From such a hodgepodge of heroes, the only moral I can abstract is the one I drew before:

To my mind, a person, whether "artist" or not, produces a positive political effect by engaging honestly with the polis. By being attentive to human experience and humble about preconceptions, and by working as one worker among many. Basically by not being a dope or a jerk.
But "not being a dope or a jerk" seems enough non-goal to keep anyone busy for an difficult lifetime. Reinforcing prejudice is good business; good citizens rarely retire in comfort.

Repeatedly since the New Deal, we've seen the knowledge that the personal is political diverted into a fantasy that the individual is the political, as if the goal of political action is to feel good about oneself. If the goal is instead to change (or defend) government, that goal can only be achieved by explicitly political work. It may mean diverting a little money or time from more enjoyable parts of our life, or, as things worsen, distributing reportage or joining an army or hiding fugitives. It rarely means a clean conscience. It certainly doesn't mean issuing the fraudulent papal bulls of "political art."

Similarly, the knowledge that art is personal has been diverted into a fantasy that the individual is the point of art. As if a human being's profoundest goal should be to attain the status of Brand Name, trademarked into immortality. "Have you seen the new Star Wars?" "No, but have you read the new Dave Eggers?"

Art isn't politics. But bad art and bad politics have this disengagement in common.

Philip Guston re-engaged in the mid-1960s:

"The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything -- and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"
And he changed his art to fit his knowledge.
"I have never been so close to what I've painted. Not pictures -- but a 'substitute' world which comes from the world."
Where "the world" is decidedly not "the art world" (or so the art world decided) and what he's painted is not quite "political art."

Nick Piombino (poet) and I (fanboy) have recently exchanged email about poetry and politics: the easy slide from "politics" (as in government policies) to "politics" (as in intragroup grudges, snubs, and favoritism); the pressure to confuse internecine warfare with craft. In the egalitarian world of weblogging, even poets can experience non-competitive non-solipsistic give-and-take. Although hit counts and blogrolls comfort those who can't picture life without zero-sum games and contested territory, I think Nick has good reason to hope for more positive engagement, especially given dedicated cross-community linkers like yourself.

So, if your big question is "What Is to Be Done?", I'm afraid my piddling answer is "Carry on."

Best,
Ray

. . .

M. John Harrison's "Getting Out of There" and back again

A year later and I keep re-reading this. Well, it's a pretty little thing innit? Gorgeous cover. Glossy paper. Fourteen pages of mouth-tested prose. Title chimes with an Alan Halsey. Proofreading! (You can't fully credit the omnipresence of typos till silence strikes.)

Maybe because I finished The Wine-Dark Sea right before the chapbook arrived, it reminds me more of Robert Aickman than any other Harrison story has reminded me of Robert Aickman. The soppingly grounded Englishness of it. Its protagonist of a certain age and dislocation and curiously libido-free urge to couple. Most of all its pacing: a determined no-nonsense but no-particular-tourist-destination-in-mind tramp into what critics call "dread" (the unaccountable corporate flight of nesting colonies of terns and gulls), not minding the gaps at all, or at least making only token efforts to fill them. This particular gap's as good as a nod to an Aickman influence:

‘That yellow lichen on the roofs down there,’ Hampson said, ‘I wonder what it is?’

She laughed.

‘I thought you were a local,’ she said.

Like all the best influences, Aickman's-on-Harrison was retroactive: verification rather than emulation. They'd independently developed an architecture of negative space.

Harrison, at least, consciously recognized and worked it. Here he explains how he wrote the story which first drew the comparison:

The way I started out, I asked myself a question: How would you write a horror story and take all the horror out of it? How would you write a ghost story and remove almost everything? a couple of sentences, a pair of sentences that would do the trick... "The Ice Monkey" was my first attempt at that. I wrote it as a normal horror story in which it's quite evident what had happened. And then I spent two or three weeks just removing sentence after sentence that directed the reader towards the normal ending, until finally you're left only two sentences in four thousand words which give you the clue as to what might or might not have happened. [...] Yeah, scraped it out. To see what would happen. I wanted to see where it would fall over. [...] After you've been doing it for twenty years, you put fewer of them in. When I started I had to throw out whereas now I know what not to put in.

But they differ in the thoroughness of their erasures. Aickman rarely sealed his unsettling build-ups without a deflationary appearance by crap F/X. Harrison's more likely to scrape away even that much comfort. His multi-volume fantasy series isn't threaded by hero's quest or cod-Gondal dynastic charts but by ways of not-knowing a city. Although some of us have always been creeped by roses, his dark occult novel horrifies mostly through absence. His macho sporting-life naturalism lacks self-pity, rivalry, the thrill of victory, or even the thrill of disillusionment.

Here are the dreadfully recurring associations of "Getting Out of There":

That last develops into the most blatantly anti-realistic aspect of the story, and it's hardly a Famous Monster of Filmland.

I took it because we have to take things somehow as a temporally-displaced dream-version of social media. I don't how you would take it; I'm pretty sure the bait wouldn't attract huge buzz from the buzzers of record. Very important novelists like Eggers and Amis (and Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair) are newsworthy because they're journalists; they're terrified of burying the lede. Whereas Harrison knows the lede's there to enrich the soil. Insofar as "Getting Out of There"'s bit of fantasy was ripped from today's headlines, it was then collaged into plaster-of-paris, and then painted over.

And then discarded for a vacuum-welded clampdown of the unutterably mundane. The twirly-shiny bit played misdirection in a sleight-of-hand maneuver which models our sleight-of-hand transfer from post-youth to pre-senescence. After which, as the poet sang, "You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" It wasn't where we were watching.

There's nothing jokey or puzzly about the gaps that bind this free indirect discourse. They're mimetic: deliberate sacrifices of discursive freedom for the respite of further indirection. A temporary but renewable respite. Renewable to a point.

Responses

tl;dr It's a horror story whose ultimate brain-melting horror is a happy ending.

Speaking of Harrison, "The Killing Bottle" is a fine fannish-vocational-scholarly analysis of his style.

 

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.