. . . Thinking man

. . .

Hotsy-Totsy observer Curt Salada rightly took me to task for my rather casual dismissal of High Noon, adding, "Admittedly, I would rather have seen Grace Kelly keep on riding out of town."

As always, I blamed my aggressive stance on other critics' overratings; after all, an unnoticed entity does little harm: " slam is more due to the build-up it's always been given as 'the thinking man's Western.' Viewed from that seat, I thought it was as soppy as most 'thinking man's' things: full of self-pity and self-aggrandizing ideas of heroism...."

The astute Mr. Salada responded:

"Thinking man's" things might be a good avenue to explore further in the club (e.g., Uma Thurman -- pinup, Ayn Rand -- philosopher, etc.), though this kind of criticism may evolve into "how very bourgeoise," which is more distasteful than the things themselves.
... to be continued ...

. . .

While the rest of Webbed America focuses on Burning Man, we return to the thinking man's present participle:

I agree with Curt Salada; let's leave the bourgeois-bashing out of this. It took a lot of work for me to become bourgeois, and I have to say that it's even nicer than I imagined.

No, when I picture the Thinking Man, it's not with a particular type of residence or size of bank account. I picture Hugh Hefner on that TV show he had around 1960: knees pressed together, lips clenched around pipe, absolutely rigid with fear of embarrassment.

And when I picture the Thinking Man's much-prized possession, it seems always to be some "safe" instance of a Guilty Pleasure. E.g., "Westerns are a guilty pleasure," and then you get "the thinking man's Western." Or "pin-up," or "slasher novel"....

Now, I've never understood that phrase "guilty pleasure." Pleasure is good by definition, and how can anyone feel guilty about what's good? On close examination of particular instances, what's being talked about seems to be "inadequately analyzed pleasure," or even "unsatisfying pretense of pleasure," but mostly "potentially embarrassing pleasure."

For example, a Western is merely an example of a genre, and to place a work of art in a genre is to say absolutely nothing about the merit of that work: the qualities that make a movie good -- rhythm, grace, insight -- fit equally well inside any genre. But what a genre does say something about is marketing. And yeah, marketing can be kind of embarrassing. But rather than remembering that they're separable issues, "the thinking man's Western" attempts to deal with the marketing problem by pouring markers of high seriousness (many of which trip up all attempts at rhythm, grace, and insight) directly into the work of art itself. Like topping cheesecake with castor oil for the sake of digestion.

That seems to cover thinking man's Westerns and slasher novels, anyway; I don't know enough about pin-ups to be able to talk about 'em. (This parenthesis is dedicated to Frank Tashlin: It's true that a photo of Jane Russell hangs in my office, but that doesn't count because it's only a bust.)

. . .

In "The Humble Genre Novel, Sometimes Full of Genius," David Mamet notices that all interesting literature has been genre literature, and still goes on to make a condescending ass of himself.

Only someone with genre-blinders firmly set could call Patrick O'Brian's elaborately archaic prose more "simple and straightforward" than Raymond Carver's or E. L. Doctorow's, or claim that the tedium of MFA fiction results from its "artiness" rather than its pointlessness, or publish their praise of happy genre peasants (too delightfully unselfconscious to realize that they should be devoting their intelligence to SOUNDING JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE) in the New York Times. (Link via Juliet Clark, who adds, "In the same hard-hitting issue: 'Has the End Finally Come for the Old Wooden Barn?'")

. . .

My favorite statement on life after death, from "the suicide club" by archy the cockroach ("The Thinking Man's Charles Bukowski"):
i can't say that i
had any good reason for
slaying myself i had done everything
else at least once i was a
young man possessed of a
considerable fortune which it was my only
occupation to dissipate when
everything else palled i
took up theology i made a bet
with another student that the soul
was not immortal the only way to
settle it was to die and find out we both
did well fellows we both lost mine
proved to be immortal for here i am but his
was not it completely disappeared and
has never been heard of again
which shows you never can tell and
yet i am still interested in
games of chance
Caption Contest!
Man O'Sorrows
1. Oh, rocks!
2. So I'm a little late....

(Speaking of "games of chance," the least-likely-to-gain-credit-except-from-me Web reference to Ulysses and "metempsychosis" and Molly's "Oh, rocks!" comes from tiddlywinks champ Gavin Keyte, who I hope to meet at a tiddlywinks pub some Bloomsday.)

(Speaking of Google, its most interesting response to "life after death" + "cockroach" is this vicious attack on Islam from some old-fashioned cracker barrel atheists, and believe you me it's hard to maintain faith when you're living in a cracker barrel.)

(In second place, a legally-ambiguously-exhaustive set of quotes from a novel by Terry Pratchett is upsy-downsy entertaining, but suffers my wrath for using the same set-up without coming near the punchline of a National Lampoon writer during Michael O'Donoghue's reign of morbidity: "Dying is just like going to sleep. Only it hurts like a bitch.")

(And in third, "Mystory" has a pink sky background and claims that "me" was to "Happydiculous World Of The Upsey Downsies" as "a Muslim" is to "Jihad.")

(And though neither placing or showing I have to agree with Kathleen's premises about "the deck is stacked against all of us," and each of us being "a hopeless sinner," and "infinite human potential" being "whatta crock!" Can't say the same for her deductions, though.)

Tomorrow: Google search on "immortality" + "piglet"!

. . .

Willie McTell

Genre is the kind of second-hand tourist guide that gets you excited about a place, then gets you completely lost once you're there.

I remember Peter Guralnick saying somewhere that when he first started researching the blues he liked Willie McTell a lot, but then sort of didn't, he wasn't sure why.... And John Lomax seems to've been put off by McTell's bend-with-the-wind facility and refusal to complain about oppression, like he was some kind Sammy Davis Jr. or something....

Trouble is, as fans get to know a genre, they start to think of their generalizations as rules instead of descriptions and start to think of the genre itself as some sort of honor that has to be won, instead of what it is. After all, they worked hard to learn those generalizations, and the least the artists can do is follow suit. This gets specially nasty with genres like blues, folk, and hip-hop, where built-in assumptions about race and class invite the question of "authenticity" in to murder one's nearest and dearest.

  Willie McTell

. . .

A letter excerpt that I don't mind you guys seeing, about audiences mocking older movies

It's not like the struggle of quivering sensitivity against heartless philistines can be called new -- in 19th century fiction, for example, I remember accounts of the (slow but eventually successful) boosting of "primitive" Renaissance painting over "high" Renaissance painting -- but there does seem something extreme about the case of movies. Or maybe it's just that we love movies special?

There's the usual problem with any "popular genre" that postdates the creation of a "high mainstream," where the "popular" work is somehow supposed to speak immediately and directly to us, cooperating with all our current preconceptions like a perfect little gentleman's gentleman, or be dismissed as a laughable (or worse, dull) failure. We're familiar with that from science fiction, comics, and thrillers, and there are plenty of people who treat all of film the same way.

And there's the way that any photograph or film, no matter how staged, eventually becomes "documentary." For those who are more used to thinking art-historically, I guess the same is true of other forms. But it seems so clear with movies that these are images of real people (or at least made by real people) from a different time, and so there seems something even more heartbreaking about the refusal to enter into the world uniquely documented by that movie -- as if lifetimes were being thrown away instead of just a few weeks or months of work.

Not that any of this suffering seems called for when I don't like the movie myself.

You know the scene of Anna Karina watching The Passion of Joan of Arc in Vivre Sa Vie? I remember it with a long shot of all the people around her laughing, like a reverse of that Charles Addams cartoon. I guess that's more likely to happen to Godard's own films, though.

. . .

I started reading Derrida immediately after taking a class on Nagarjuna's masterwork, Codependent No More. It's always pleasant to fantasize that autobiographical accident somehow counts as critical insight, and so my rolling bloodshot eyes paused over Curtis White's latest confident assertion:

Anyone who has taken the trouble to understand Derrida will tell you that this putative incoherence was the discovery that the possibility for the Western metaphysics of presence was dependent on its impossibility, an insight that Derrida shared with Nietzsche, Hegel, and the Buddhist philosopher of sunyata, Nagarjuna, who wrote that being was emptiness and that emptiness was empty too.
And I don't care much what club is used to belabor Harold Bloom so long as he gets lumpier.... But White's unadorned Adorno is not much more palatable:
"Aesthetic experience is not genuine experience unless it becomes philosophy."
An ambitious mission if taken seriously, but a terrible guide if taken as Adorno does (i.e., "Art that is not easily explained by my philosophy does not count as art" -- if Adorno was doing philosophy of math, he'd declare that 5 wasn't an integer because it's not divisible by two). Aesthetics is empirical philosophy, and if pursued without attention to particulars, you quickly end up with nonsense like using a single-dimensional scale of "complexity" to ascertain "greatness." (Scientific attempts at researching "complexity" make for amusing reading, given the muddling ambiguity that attentiveness brings in, and the inevitable toppling over of increasing perceived complexity either into perceived organizational structure -- i.e., greater simplicity -- or into perceived noise -- i.e., greater simplicity.)

More pernicious, and indicative of why smart lads like Derrida avoid the whole question of "greatness," is White's contrast of a "simple folk tune" with what "a Bach or Beethoven will then make of this tune," the former being prima facie non-great and the latter being great. Note the indefinite article: we're now so far from particulars that we're not even sure how many Bachs or Beethovens there are.

And note the isolation of the tune, floating in space, divorced from performer or listener: no wonder the poor thing is simple. Why doesn't White contrast "a simple folk singer" with "a Beethoven" instead? How about with "an Aaron Copland"? Or with "a John Williams"? Is Skip James's 1964 studio performance of "Crow Jane" less complex and therefore less great than a slogging performance of an aria from "Fidelio"? How about if the former is given close attention and the latter only cursory? Is study of a printed orchestral score somehow more aesthetically valid a response to music than, say, dancing?

I'm pretty sure how Adorno would answer all those questions, to give the dickens his due. White, I think, would rather avoid them.

I owe 'im, though, for providing the following lovely quote from Viktor Shklovsky, which for some reason makes me think of The Butterfly Murders:

"Automization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war."
(The site also includes this less comic bit of Shklovsky.)

. . .

Curtis White has pointed out (quite correctly) that his Context piece didn't dwell on "greatness" and "complexity" to the extent that I implied. In context, both concepts play fairly minor roles (and are therefore left unargued with) in what's basically a worthy protest against Harold Bloom's vision of art as a narrow lineage of antagonistic wankers and a worthy defense of the notion that art serves a social purpose which is also irreducibly aesthetic.

But just as constellations can be picked out of the teensiest weensiest stars, those minor points sparkled out with some others (the unargued-with citation of Adorno, Bloom's unargued-with dismissal of "the race-class-gender axis," and White's opening hook: the unargued-with "tautology" that "the great works" are (particularly) "great")1 into an arrangement of negative space that I found irresistibly arguable. (The problem with hooks is people get caught on them.... An awful lot of Rushmore viewers never understood that the movie had opened with a dream sequence, and kept wondering why this supergenius kid had such crummy grades.)

Which just goes to show again that even if art isn't often produced by willfully antagonistic wankers, criticism often is.

1. Addendum on those other minor points, bearing in mind that I'm not arguing against White's piece so much as arguing against what it didn't choose to argue with:

Shklovsky's notion of "recognition" helps to explain how the notion of a canon is destructive -- canonized art is automatized art -- and why works from uncanonized points of view deserve to be pushed forward -- unfamiliar expressers are likely to provide unfamiliar expressions.

To put it another way, the problem with the "dead white male" canon is not that the works are all mediocre (although many seem so to me), but that to be trained exclusively in any established canon is to join a club with easily parroted and not very strenuous rules, including rules for "complexity." If the same set of "complex" formulas is repeatedly used, they become through habit not so very complex any more (viz. John Updike). A whirlpool bath is complex but also somnific.

. . .

The Blasted Stumps of Academe

Lawrence L. White simultaneously kicks off our end-of-school special and continues our previous thread in high style:

I spent several days composing a response to your comments re Curtis White, but couldn't make sense in my own head. As Adorno also says, the aesthetic is inarticulate. Though he claims philosophy is necessary, he recognizes that the artwork always withholds its best part. It's a perfect marriage: one party claims the other can't live without them, the other party knows it.

One of the few ideas that have made sense to me in this dreadful canon debate is John Guillory's suggestion that instead of thinking of canons we should think of syllabi. It's an inescapable fact: only so many books can be assigned for the term, or, for those who have survived their educations still reading, only so many books can be read. (Mr. Bloom acts as if he has read everything, which is his claim to greatness, 'cause none of the ideas he's had about these books amount to squat.) You have to make choices, though you don't have to, or may not be able to, explain them.

Just as there is are Great Works syllabi out there, so too are there Race-Class-Gender syllabi. & both can be automatized. Try to get an American Studies PhD w/out reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. & try to read any of this stuff the way someone like Spicer would read. I bet my copy of Aesthetic Theory (w/marginal notes throughout to prove I read the whole thing) someone out there is doing a Race-Class-Gender critique of Updike, & is thorougly kicking old Johnny-boy's ass. Yes, he deserves it, but aren't there better things to do w/your time?

I want to read books that are smarter, truer, more beautiful (&, as Adorno & Stein point out, beautiful can be ugly) than I am. Criticism that's superior to its object is masturbation. & as my pa told me, beating off is a fine hobby but you don't want to make it your life's work. One of my fellow students did a master's thesis on Fern Gully. Kicked its ass up one side & down the other, undoubtedly. (Which reminds me: Derrida can avoid the topic of greatness because it goes w/out question in France. The question on the bac is about Rimbaud, not Asterix.)

The example of Spicer's reading -- wide, idiosyncratic, passionate -- shames me when I think of all the time I have wasted in graduate school.

  Bent over the old volume

. . .

The Customer Review that they don't want you to see

The Library of America did an excellent job with its Raymond Chandler volumes, which lacked only the stories that Chandler had "cannibalized" into novels, but I can't say the same for its second (and final) volume of Dashiell Hammett, edited by Steven Marcus.

Of the three Hammett short story collections on my shelves, this $35 book replaces one: The Continental Op, edited by the same Steven Marcus. It includes only 5 of the 20 selections in the recent Nightmare Town repackaging; from The Big Knockover it leaves out "The Gatewood Caper," "Corkscrew" (the Continental Op goes cowboy), and, most unforgivably, "Tulip," an autobiographical meditation on storytelling which is the only sizable chunk of Hammett's postwar writing ever to surface. It does include "Woman in the Dark," currently in print as a thin single volume, dropping its subtitle ("A Novel of Dangerous Romance"); there may be good textual reasons for that decision, but they aren't described in this edition's notes.

Nice to get this work on acid-free paper, but the Library of America is intended to produce authoritative editions. It's unfortunate if predictable that this goal is forgotten when the series takes on the genre writers who need such attention most.

On the other hand, the complete novels of Dawn Powell!

. . .

Movie comments

Some writers like to write about food, or about sexual experiences, or about how tough they are or how sorry we should feel for them (usually in combination), or they try to make a person's life into a narrative. Critics are writers who like to write about artifacts. And that's about all there is to criticism.

You'll note that the job description doesn't explicitly require an attitude of jealous spite or a habit of sneering. Sure, reviewers, like students, can permanently lose their appetites due to force-feeding, but burn-out is possible in any genre. And sure, the dialog-from-a-distance nature of such encounters overly encourages l'esprit de l'escalier. And of course some combinations of personality-and-artifact (e.g., morose loner meets rock band) are more optimized for envy than others...

Well, OK, I guess critics are messed up.

But my point was that, in fact, plenty of critics prefer enthusiasm to contempt: enthusiasm is what revved up their motor-mouths in the first place. Paying-and-drawing attention to what one loves seems like the best deal all round, and that's certainly the writing I'm proudest of.

Critics are no stabler than anyone else, though. And just like the artists themselves, even if it is special nice to be like all life-affirming and shit, sometimes we're too depressed to handle the job. When you're feeling awkward, a kneejerk seems much more manageable than an interpretive dance. Thus:

In the Bedroom

I was hoping that the title referred to the fortune cookie game, but the first disappointment of the movie was its lickety-split explication as Symbol: "For all you Academy voters in the audience, this means your wife is like a big bug."

Watching this passive-aggressive argument for crush-'em-before-they-crush-us vigilante class warfare, it's hard to believe that the comparatively well-balanced Dirty Harry was once decried as fascist. But all movies occur twice (not counting sequels): first as genre trash, then as Oscar fodder.

In correspondence, David Auerbach, as always taking the high road, hopes it's a phase we're going through:

"In the Bedroom" was fairly anemic, "subtle" because it uses clicheed psychological signifiers without any direct reference to them, "moving" because it takes the shorthand of expecting the audience to settle on the obvious feelings rather than broadcasting them, "profound" because it has a young man's death in it. My optimistic stance is that Americans may be getting to the point where the signifiers are so codified that they become treatable as objects to critique rather than hash over for the umpteenth time. On the other hand, if Jon Jost is heralded as "the Ernie Kovacs of modern drama!" (Sure, his stuff didn't always "work", but...) twenty years from now, I guess it won't have played out so well...
If you want to see Sissy Spacek switch from nice to nasty in a pretentious film, I recommend 3 Women, which has many more laughs, having much more Shelley Duvall.
Gosford Park

Speaking of Altman and Oscar-grasping, you'd think that his high old web-of-caricatures approach would work wonders on this Upstairs-Downstairs material, and I'm still inclined to blame the specifics of his script more than the general notion. The only specifics that work, though, are closer to Beyond the Fringe than to Merchant-Ivory, and they aren't allowed much time. As for the remainder, the gasps of surprise we heard at the ending's "revelations" (Cecilia, or the Coachman's Daughter) could only be explained by bad sound engineering in the earlier part of the film.

And The Rules of the Game has been around for 63 years now. Isn't it about time everyone realized that they're not going to improve on its hunting party scene?

But I will say, with admiration, that Clive Owen is one hunky English guy.

Monster's Ball

Another misleading title (I was expecting Fuzzy Lumpkin maybe -- to be fair, it does have the most embarrassing Hollywood sex I've seen in a couple of years). And another Sundance-ruined genre: Prison movies nowadays are all about redemption, and sure enough, Billy Bob Thornton starts off like Spalding Gray trying to act macho, and ends up like Spalding Gray trying to act sensitive. [Digression: For years now, I've suffered false memories of a movie preview where Billy Bob Thornton intoned, "This is a pungent story...."]

And what a redemption! It turns out that the solution to American racism is for the middle-aged white men to 1) kill the young black men, 2) kill their male children, 3) kill the young white men, 4) put the old white men away, and 5) fuck the supermodels. Shit, we're halfway to Utopia already!

In short, the civil rights equivalent of American Beauty.

. . .

From an interview with Richard Butner:

I once had a creative writing teacher tell me that he didn't understand why authors used science fiction or magical realism to tell a story or impart a theme. Why do you think we do, when good old realism might do the trick?

"I sit with a philosopher in a garden; he says again and again 'I know that that is a tree,' pointing to a tree that is near us. A second man comes by and hears this, and I tell him: 'This fellow isn't insane: we're only doing philosophy.'"
--Wittgenstein, On Certainty

. . .

"Utopia Parkway" by Carter Scholz

The ambiguitities of genre and the literary class system are a bit of an obsession with me. They instigate many of my essays; they were the foundation of a monthly column and of a public debate; when other web writers stray into the topics, I leave comments of unneighborly length on their sites....

But my obsession is a reader's. For a working writer, those fascinating spurs are more like barbs on a wire fence, and nowhere more tenaciously lacerating than round the S-Bar-F-Bar-F Ranch or is it a Corral?— plateaued between the Universal Studios Plunge and the DeLillo Decline, divided and frequently flooded by the River Jordan. The communal aspects of independent science fiction are about the only thing sustaining it as a healthy independent genre these days, but human beings, no matter how slannish, seem unable to sustain community without insularity.

Knowing my readerly obsession, writer Carter Scholz was kind enough to send me a preface he'd drafted for his recent short story collection The Amount to Carry. As a corrective and an addendum, I'm pleased to post it here.


John Gardner, who of course had an opinion on everything, did his part to champion SF in the hallowed halls; in On Becoming a Novelist, e.g., he lauds "...the fiction of Samuel R. Delaney [sic], some of Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Isaac Asimov, and, when he holds in the fascism, Robert Heinlein." Etc. But writing teachers who will Xerox half of The Art of Fiction for their students never seem to mention this. Maybe they consider it an anachronism of the times. Like Nehru jackets, or Robert Coover.

. . .

On the Internet, No One Knows You're an Ex-Abstract-Expressionist

An American 1 grid, two by two, class by medium.

  Eye Word
High Painting Poetry
Low Comics Science Fiction

By "class" I don't mean to imply financial security or inherent merit. It's more an institutional distinction. The lowbrow is subject to cultural and economic pressure en masse; the highbrow is sustained largely by individuals' nostalgia for roles which are (now) free of such pressure. No one talks about a painting or a poem outside the brand of its creator, whereas comics and science fiction packaging may barely register the authors' names. Training in the highbrow tends to be academic; training in the lowbrow tends to be vocational. It's all business, of course, but the rhetoric of the businesses differ.

Although love is blind to such divisions, who we love is at least somewhat influenced by who our neighbors are and which strangers we most resent. And so it seems to happen that painters know poets and science fiction writers know comics artists.

When they start out, that is. While no one has money. Before the business side of the business becomes too apparent. As we've touched on here and there before, if the rows split by rhetoric, the columns split by business relationships.

Notoriously, a great many purchasers and publishers of poetry are or want to be poets to such an extent that contemporary literary journals cynically count on receiving more prize contestants than subscribers. The positions of consumer and producer within science fiction fandom are almost as fluid: critics regularly become authors; authors regularly become editors.

On the other column, in both brow levels of visual arts, the most powerful influence isn't the wannabe but the collector, who's very rarely any sort of producer themselves. And here's where economic class becomes explicit.

High Art, being about individual taste, individual genius, and the glamorized pre-industrial, requires the personal touch. Only the rich can collect art because the valued artist can only hand-craft a limited number of products. Even when the artist's product could be (or clearly is) factory produced, scarcity is enforced. During a painter's lifetime, the dealer may take a sizable cut, but the painter still profits from profitability. Commissioned works are not yet extinct.

Low Art, being the art of our own culture, openly depends on mass reproduction. In the comics world, work tends to be for hire, copyright owned by the syndicate rather than the artists. Creator, customer, and the financial exchange all become abstractions managed by The Company, or a series of companies. Meetings are awkward. Even when brought face to face with collectors, the good cartoonist is liable to stay with communal gift ethics rather than advancing into capitalism. Unsurprisingly, the comic book portrayal of comics collectors is less flattering than the typical patron's portrait in the high arts: grubby, infantile, tasteless.

Artists' personal inclinations and illusions aside, the businesses of visual art pander to the collector and the connoisseur. That's what they were made for. This can lead to a closed-room-where-something-died atmosphere that we outsiders find offputting. You don't get to be (or enjoy) Alan Moore or Grant Morrison unless you're comfortable with Silver Age superheroes, and you don't get to be (or enjoy) a San Francisco Art Institute graduate unless you're comfortable with bullshit "Statement"s. Not that I'm any fan of wall labels, but this attack on gallery pretensions by someone who's done a Spider-Man comic made me feel a bit queasy.

Now, as a thought experiment, drop the economic barriers even lower than pulp. Imagine vastly increased distribution for a vastly lowered cost. Community and collectors would no longer be in conflict except as copyright makes them so. Comics could be sold directly to customers. High art might rub elbows with low. Poets might associate with fanboys. Hell, fangirls might get a chance to be heard.

In some ways it's not so bad to live in interesting times.


American comic books, comic strips, and science fiction are all explicitly (if sometimes misleadingly) rooted in juvenile pulp, whereas European comic books appear to carry more genetic material from middle-class nineteenth century albums of engravings. European science fiction publishing seems to maintain some continuity with furrowed-brow Edwardian futurologists. I don't know from manga.


A concerned reader informs us:

neighbor saw me in my boxers, I FEEL VIOLATED

Atomized junior properly ties class to collection management. The canon and the blockbuster determine what's most likely to be preserved and passed along; as barriers to transmission grow ever higher, less of the "uninteresting" non-canonical non-blockbuster survives to refresh future stagnant water. Again, web publication might work as a counterbalance but only if left to its own indiscriminate and promiscuous devices.

. . .

The Launderer's Hand

Continuing the discussion:

As has been pointed out many times before, "genre" is not a simple compound, or even a clear formula, and its assorted aspects of publishing, writing, and reading are only loosely interdependent. Some writing, it's true, affirms generic coherency, snug and compact in a neatly labeled bundle. But much of what I'm drawn to seems badly wrapped, corners rubbing against frays and duct tape.

It always comes marked, however. No matter how much writer or reader idealizes invention from whole cloth, there'll be some natural discoloring, someone to see a pattern, and someone to apply a dye. Even the launderer's hand grows red with wringing.

To drop the metaphors:

  1. My favorite writing is sui generis.
  2. It was (and is) all published (more or less antagonistically) within a generic context.
  3. Assuming that one particular genre has special access to the sui generis greatly reduces the chance of actually finding it.

Which is why, as I wrote earlier, plowing cover-to-cover through some 19th century volumes of Blackwood's or Harper's, or High-Modernist-era New York Times book reviews or High-Hollywood-era movie reviews, would be salutary for most English and creative writing majors. Someone who refused to look at smut would have missed Lolita (fittingly, Nabokov himself first received Ulysses as an exemplar of smuttiness); someone who refused to look at sea stories (or flop gothics) would have missed Melville; someone who refused to look at cornpone humor would have missed Twain; and so on. And someone who refused to read academically canonized writing would miss all the same books now. For we who love to be astonished, it's worth attempting to read Hammett's and Thompson's (or Fitzgerald's and Faulkner's) prose the same way whether behind pulp covers or a Library of America dustjacket.

To take a limit case, there are (and have been) an astonishing number of readers who treat everything written by women as its own genre, resulting in a comedy of re-interpretation when misattributions are corrected and as the purported "genre" is denigrated or celebrated.

All this from publishers and readers. For a writer, genre may considered a conversational context, with one's social circle not necessarily restricted to one's neighbors, or even to the living. Since the literary mainstream's "discovery" of Patricia Highsmith began, I've seen a number of bemused references to the influence of Henry James, but this isn't an unusual phenomenon. The work itself is always more (or less, if truly "generic" work) than whatever genre it's in.

Carol Emshwiller, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Jack Womack, and Kelly Link write the sui generis they write and publish in whatever genre welcomes (or allows) them. But a contemporary may find it useful to learn that they all began publishing within the context of the science fiction genre, whether they themselves started as genre readers or not. And although I seek out Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press spines in the bookstores, I enjoy knowing that the past decade of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has shown more lively variety than any university-sponsored or trust-funded fiction journal.


Lucius Shephard also

God, yes. There are, oh, let's not start feeling guilty about not mentioning M. John Harrison, there are lots more. And then all the great writers who are publishing mysteries, thrillers, romances, Y/As, and including, sure, the literary mainstream and the poetry presses, but all of them, now ignored or long forgotten or even deservedly noticed, should get more than just a for instance, and I just meant for instance.

A welcome update, fourteen years later, from Josh Lukin:

Well you know my fave bemused reference to the influence of Henry James . . . although I'm sure Baldwin's Jamesianity too incurred some bemusement (to say the least) in his day, of the "'Notes of a Native Son'? What does this guy think he is?" sort (I don't at the moment have the wherewithal to turn to my Marcus Klein and Maxwell Geismar and Irving Howe and see if that was among their beefs).

I've been reading some James stories and am struck by their reliance on Ideas (pace T.S. Eliot). And I mean Ideas in the way SF writers mean Ideas: premises that one can quickly pitch to an editor (or to a writer, if one is that kind of editor I did have a pair of cats named Horace* and Campbell). It's an unoriginal insight that post-Chekhovian litfic doesn't make for good log lines the way that older stuff does; but I wonder whether pitchability has an economic origin or not: did Maupassant**, whom James might have gotten it from, write for magazine editors?

*Horace is still with us, but he doesn't like me to read the New York Edition. He will plop himself on it or gently close it or try to eat "Daisy Miller." I had to get hold of the first book editions of the stories so he'd leave me alone.

**Did anybody else pan their influences as interestingly as James? Not Wilde, not Nabokov, not Alan Moore . . . the list isn't as long as Harold Bloom led me to believe . . .

. . .


(Pumped out for the sake of The Valve)
The use of the essay, for example, a kind expressing liberal interest at first, began with Humanism in the sixteenth century; and one of its forms, the miscellaneous familiar essay, ceased to be popular after the crisis of Humanism in the 1930s.
- Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature

At 9 PM on Saturday June 18, the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley is showing a revisionist Western from 1972, Dirty Little Billy. All later muddy streets seem thin in comparison: puddled with New Age puke or John Ford horsepiss. Given its timing, a few of the Billy demythologizers may have benefited from personal experience of frontier communes.

Was the movie intended as history or satire? To some extent, whether you're mocking or creating is decided later, by who notices what and how they respond. Artmaking is largely about being distracted from your original purpose; sometimes you even wake up in a new neighborhood. If you want to explain Robert Browning's influence on Ezra Pound, you could start worse than with a Browning parody like "The Cock and The Bull":

I shoved the timber ope wi’ my omoplat;
And in vestibulo, i’ the lobby to-wit,
(Iacobi Facciolati’s rendering, sir,) ...

That's a recent addition to an ongoing retrospective of a Century of Imitation, along with Calverley's "Proverbial Philosophy":

A maiden’s heart is as champagne, ever aspiring and struggling upwards,
And it needed that its motions be checked by the silvered cork of Propriety:
He that can afford the price, his be the precious treasure,
Let him drink deeply of its sweetness, nor grumble if it tasteth of the cork.

Also Thomas Hood Jr.'s Poe, worthied by its expiring exclamation!, and Swinburne's "The Person of the House", which literalizes Victorian reticence as "That Only a Mother" later literalized pulp science fiction reticence and to similar effect, as well as another online copy of Swinburne's magnificent "Nephelidia".

In other serialization news, Paul Kerschen has just begun serializing a free translation of Franz Kafka's diaries, alongside the original German. And if you aren't already following the lifework of W. N. P. Barbellion, 1910 is the year his journal completes its transition from dissection of other species to vivisection of our own. As the few remaining years go by and he consults and reconsults his own archives, we'll see Barbellion develop a craving for precursors or peers. He'll read Portrait of an Artist and decide he and James Joyce have struck the same vein independently. Later still he'll excitedly decide he's just like Marie Bashkirtseff.... "Is there one who understands me?"

But once your isolating eccentricity does turn out to be a community, new issues arise. I believe Djuna Barnes said everything worth saying about surveys: "I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public." Yet since Mr. Waggish is a compatriot to whom I owe the deepest respect, if Mr. Waggish requests something, I must assume Mr. Waggish has good reason, and therefore:

Total number of books I've owned: I buy books because of not always having had access to a good library ("I will never go stupid again!"), but I winnow them because of moving fairly often in the past, but I still want to re-read more books each year so the collection does grow, and because I've lived in one place with access to a good library for a while I've been buying fewer books but unread bought books are piling up. So maybe four times the number of books I have now? Roughly. Within a factor of ten.
Last book I bought: It was a group. A translation of Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, the new Hans Christian Andersen translation, Ron Silliman's Under Albany, and Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness.
Last book I read: This must mean what I'm in the midst of reading since the next query is the "Last book I finished"? Mostly right now Kinds of Literature by Alastair Fowler.

It's free of nonsense, and, for all its easy style, extremely concise: virtually every page of this library volume is mostly underlined, the table of contents bears a jot by each chapter title, and I found there a improvised torn-paper bookmark with the scrawled note "BUY WHOLE BOOK?" (It's out of print, of course.) Two-thirds of the way through and Fowler's heroic attempt to revive the form of the Anatomy became a worthwhile drama of its own.

In 1982, I would've argued against Fowler's low opinion of the works recovered by feminist critics, but, hey, by 2005, I bet he might argue against himself. I'm possibly more skeptical that something fixedly "literary" can be found in all the works that drift in or out of literature, but that disagreement means less in practice than I thought at first. I may know a bit more about contemporary American genres, but that's to be expected; Fowler is sensible with the parts he knows, and he has a far wider and more detailed grasp of literary history than my autodidacticism has managed. His biggest difficulty may be the usual academic one of distance from working artists. Genre doesn't just happen between books; it's also a way for the author to feel less lonely for a bit (before feeling betrayed). Publishing isn't just to make money; it's also to make contact (before getting an unlisted number).

Fowler's book was recommended to me by Wendy Walker. If Wendy Walker is a new name to you, for the love of god, drop that copy of Emma Brown and hie ya. I'd like to tell you how I came to get a book recommendation from Wendy Walker. I commuted daily between Nashua NH and Cambridge MA, and I read something about Samuel R. Delany appearing at some convention between, so I stopped there. Formal emphasis was placed on the most ambitious class of science fiction and fantasy, but participants also included small press publishers, readers of contemporary poetry, and listeners to contemporary music. Our conversations were intriguing enough to bring me back the next day. I kept in touch with some of the people I met that weekend, and one of them, Don Keller, kept suggesting I write down some of what I spun in conversation. I started doing so, and the practice eventually became habitual.

Wendy Walker's work is sui generis. But some genres are friendlier towards the sui than others. Her novel The Secret Service seemed to me one of the great books to be found in the 1990s, but who would find it? I browsed shelves randomly and was fortunate enough to live by shelves which included Sun & Moon Press, most of whose other contemporary authors were poets poets I admired, but whom I knew to be a sadly insular group. I gave copies to friends, recommended it, and wrote about it. Independently, so did Henry Wessells and Elizabeth Willey. Walker's cult was small but fervent, and, fearing that neither the writer nor her publisher had any clue as to its existence, I dropped him a note to suggest that an audience awaited.

The note was passed along. In a few weeks, Wendy Walker will be attending that uniquely ambitious conference in Massachussetts. It's a small world.

Or a big sign.

. . .

A Generic Response

At The Valve
"It is worth adding a few notes about how early modern critics thought about genre. Most importantly, they defined many kinds at least partially by their forms, but their dominant tendency was to define kinds by their social functions."
- Matt Greenfield

That still sounds right. Genre is what we call it when function is perceived to delimit or prompt form. The difficulty is that functions vary over time while texts stay set.

Since literary scholars by definition have greater access to texts than to writers, editors, publishers, or audiences, some confusion is inevitable. I've heard academic responses to genre range from puzzled to puzzling to apalling. (English department head to Samuel R. Delany: "I don't read that science fiction shit.")

But the problems can be worked against. In a less moribund genre, the scholar can actually seek out its social context, at the risk of being absorbed.

Even in historic genres, it's possible to make a conscious effort to switch imaginative contexts. I'm guessing that's what Matt wants to do with his class. Along those lines, I liked Fowler's book more than I expected. Genre markers are (sometimes unintended) signals to a community. Spotting the markers isn't enough to tell us what they're doing there. Fowler seemed to get that.

A more recent good example is Richard A. McCabe's "Annotating Anonymity" in Ma(r)king the Text. Rather than just describing the archaisms and explanatory apparatus of The Shepheardes Calendar as pastoral conventions, McCabe shows how they took advantage of (and sometimes had to work against) the specific model of Servius's Virgil commentaries.

I'm now finishing Memory in Oral Traditions by David C. Rubin.1 (Thank you, forgotten person who recommended it to me.) Rubin explains certain generic conventions of epic, ballad, and counting-out rhymes as directly molded by the mechanisms of multi-generational verbal transmission, and backs it up with evidence.

On a more negative note, Franco Moretti's "Graphs" and "Trees" are strictly parasitic on texts which he keeps strictly at arm's length. Not what I'd call a healthy relationship. More successful2 interdisciplinary materialist approaches go beyond the confines of the English department. And although the nora project limits itself to textual analysis, it's with the reasonable aim of noticing textual aspects missed by received opinion.

Books don't compete with each other in a closed bibliosphere. Popularity and genre are social, not strictly textual. They can only be understood by looking outside a text itself. And when you do so, I think you find something more like chaos theory than like biological evolution.


Although Rubin acknowledges that his book's body can get a bit dull and repetitive, he has a winning way with an endnote. Here's my favorite from Chapter 9: "The one inconsistency in order indicates that the pattern was not always followed. It is not an error in the epic. The claim of a fixed-order script is mine, not the poets'."


"More successful" by my lights, that is; obviously not more successful in terms of public attention.

. . .

What We Genrify When We Mean to Talk

Aimed squarely at The Valve, but what the heck

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes
by David C. Rubin

I'm no blurbing brook I think all a publisher ever fished from me was "... courageous ..." but I'm tired of writing about stuff I can't recommend, so here goes: Memory in Oral Traditions is as good as interdisciplinary scholarship gets. That is, Rubin has shown how the mysteries of one discipline mutually solve the mysteries of another. The peculiar traits of his three poetic forms explain how they were carried across time and space, which in turn explains how we come to find the peculiar traits. And he demonstrates this correlation with full self-deprecating awareness that the job of a historical scientist is not to manufacture just-so stories but to anticipate and meet objections.

Rubin's admirably cautious with the "E" word, but what he describes and documents (through folklore collections, Homeric scholarship, field recordings, surveys, and lab experiments) can be fairly compared to Darwinian selection. Given an initial varied population, a means of reproduction, and death, natural criteria predictably influence which variations survive into the next generations, leading to local pools of convergence.

Darwinian evolution doesn't winnow the biosphere down to a single perfect specimen of a single perfect species, and Rubinian evolution doesn't reduce oral culture to a canon of one unforgettable jingle. (Although the worldwide ascendency of "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo" now seems to me one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.) There'll always be variation, outliers, imperfect local attractors and opportunity for competition.... And, as with reading Darwin, most of the pleasure of reading Rubin comes from seeing the traits and selectors described and watching the contraption's assembly.

But prior to any notion of variation or selection, the contraption depends on reproduction and death.

Reproduction: Darwin didn't know about Mengelian heredity or DNA, but he could be fairly confident that sex was involved. We don't know much about the workings of mind, but one thing that's become clear is that behind all mental activity, including the sliver we name "consciousness", behind all human accomplishments and blunders, lies the emergence of pattern. In human culture, repeated encounters with performances drive (re-)emergence of patterns called genres. Replication of a single performance relies on those generic patterns for implicit support and implicit betrayal.

Death: As Rubin writes, "verbatim recall" without literacy just means no one notices the changes. What lasts over time aren't the most brilliant and original performances, but what's transmittable. "Oral traditions maximize memorability so that information can be stored without external memory aids for long periods of time. The cost of maximizing mnemonic efficiency, however, is in not maximizing for other purposes."

Recording changes everything. Once performance becomes artifact, it remains fixed while social context flows around it, prods, tastes, absorbs, mimics , rejects it, returns.... What was only knowable as forest becomes a collection of trees, and genre becomes the unsteadier partner in this dance.

[Shift to Jon-Stewart-end-of-interview voice:] The book is in print, in paperback. The bibliography is eclectic and deep; the endnotes hold sweet marrow. I guess I could find something to grouse about, but I don't really feel like it. If you're the author and want to know what some shlub thinks of something you wrote over a decade ago, drop me a line.

. . .

Hard-on in the Cathedral

Oh, I suppose I must realize having been told often enough that the music of late Beethoven and Schoenberg and Webern, like vermouth and Campari and orange bitters, were in some sense concocted to seem medicinal. But so help me Panurge I swear I consume them all with pure hedonistic intent, solely to wallow in flavors otherwise unattainable, and you can call my taste "academic" when you pry it from my cold dead tongue.

And so, alongside the usual populist reactions against Adorno, I have this: he mistakes erections for mortification of the flesh. (Literally so when he writes of Garbo.)

The task, I suppose, would be to learn to appreciate our mutual disdain as an otherwise unattainable flavor of its own. Is that how Benjamin coped?


Josh Lukin kindly answers my question:

Yeh, probably. When I or my roommate (in my second and third year of college) came home groaning, "Jesus. Jesusjesusjesus. Lord. Jesus," the other one of us would join the first in his frustration, saying much the same thing. For either to articulate the *source* of the frustration and despair would have risked turning commiseration into disagreement.

Sherlock Jr. corrected my spelling, but not before it led one reader on a fruitful web search:

Compari? --Oh!
All late Beethoven is, is music for grownups. But the music industry specifically, and people generally, don't want to grow up.

Really? In the world as I know it, between job(s) and commute and dealing with the kids, few grown-ups can spare enough time or focus to listen to late Beethoven.

All the grown-ups that surround me love Beethoven. They worship him and celebrate his birthday with huge festivities.

Plus the Great Pumpkin arrives night after next!

That well-read well-spoken gentleman atem cites:

"Had Mr. Hardy discovered the pernicious truth that whereas children can only take their powders in jam, the strenuous British public cannot be induced to devour their jam unless convinced that it contains some strange and nauseous powder?"

Havelock Ellis reviewing Jude the Obscure, 1896

. . .

Reference Work, 1

For JL & JL

Two artists in dudgeons, one low, one high:

And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that's why we make our films the way we do. Because you don't have the freedom, you don't have the integrity, you have to remake everything we've done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don't you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you're remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you're going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck! What the fuck is this about? I mean, come on. In other words, if you read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then you'd actually have a very clear idea [laughs] about what's really happening in the U.S. right now. So what do we do? You tell me. [...] If Martin Scorsese can make a piece of shit called The Aviator and then go on to remake a Hong Kong film, don't you think he's lost the plot? Think it through. "I need my Oscar, I need my fucking Oscar!" Are you crazy? There's not a single person in the Oscar voting department who's under 65 years old. They don't even know how to get online. They have no idea what the real world is about. They have no visual experience anymore. They have preoccupations. So why the fuck would a great filmmaker need to suck the dick of the Academy with a piece of shit called The Aviator? And now he has to remake our film? I mean this is bullshit. This is total bullshit. I love Marty, I think he's a great person. And the other one is Tarantino. Oh yeah, let's appropriate everything. Are you lost? Yes, you are lost.
- Chris Doyle
Let's see, if we chide the writer who makes reference to low-brow material, who appropriates cultural material because appropriations are a bit like sampling in rap, really borderline plagiarism, everyone knows this we'll have to roll back to T.S. Eliot. Oops, we have to throw Eliot on the scrap heap, too apparently he risked some high-low mixing, and some appropriations. Forget Joyce, of course. We'd better go even further back. Once you begin looking at the underlying premise a blanket attack on the methods that modernism uncovered the kind of bogus nostalgia for a pure, as opposed to an impure, literature, what you really discover is a discomfort with literature itself. [...] It's not about reading. That's the problem. It really is about I'm repeating myself class anxiety. Once you have an eye for this you spot it in odd places. I read a review in Book Forum where a critic, quite incidentally, in attacking Michel Houellebecq, said in an aside, "But then again, the French regard Hitchcock as art." Well, now, wait a minute! These battles were fought and won. These victories were decisive ones, fifty years ago. There's no rolling that back. Hitchcock is art. So if you pin Hitchcock's scalp to your belt: "Not only have I seen through Michel Houellebecq, the charlatan, but in fact I'm going to tell you that the auturists were wrong and Hitchcock is low-brow and unsavory," you've discredited yourself so absolutely that you deserve to read nothing but Trollope for the rest of your life.
- Jonathan Lethem

OK, first, Trollope worked a day job for the fucking post office, so let's leave Trollope out of this fight.

Otherwise, it's a fight I felt like starting myself when I read this shallow attack on shallowness two years ago. (Why didn't I? Well, I work a day job, see....) For John Leonard, the difference between profundity and immaturity comes down to name-dropping:

Is it so unreasonable to want to know more of what he thinks about Julio Cortázar and less of how he feels about Obi-Wan Kenobi? [...] Superpowers are not what magic realism was about in Bulgakov, Kobo Abe, Salman Rushdie, or the Latin American flying carpets. That Michael Chabon and Paul Auster have gone graphic, that one Jonathan, Lethem, writes on and on about John Ford, while another Jonathan, Franzen, writes on and on about "Peanuts," even as Rick Moody confides to the Times Book Review that "comics are currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is," may just mean that the slick magazines with the scratch and sniff ads for vodka and opium [sic] are willing to pay a bundle for bombast about ephemera.

This approaches J. Jonah Jameson levels of wrong-headedness. As if Ulysses would've been improved by more of Lohengrin and less of "The Low-Backed Car". As if John Leonard ever actually took time to honor Alfred Bester for referencing Joyce or Patricia Highsmith for referencing James and Camus.

He asks me, "Do you care how many times I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or what's going on in my head while I watch Sara Evans sing 'Suds in the Bucket' on the country music cable channel?" And I answer: "No more than I care what's going on in your head while you watch Carol Burnett. I don't even care what you think about books. Moreover, if you were a movie critic or a music critic, I still wouldn't care about your renting a Demy video or your pseudo-ironic celebrations of Evans but you'd tell me all the same. What matters in our relationship isn't whether I care; all that matters is what the NYRB and New York Magazine will publish."

In Leonard's horror at public lapses of taste, this professional book-and-televison critic failed to notice that his subject is not a professional critic of anything and The Disappointment Artist is not a collection of criticism: it's a linked collection of autobiographical essays whose hooks happen to be American cultural artifacts. Lethem could hardly have been more explicit about it. In his long tribute to the The Searchers, the "critical" argument is confined to two paragraphs terminated by the sentence "Snore."

Sure, some generic ambiguity exists: there's that strain of criticism-as-New-Journalism which was domesticated down from mutants like Meltzer and Bangs into the cage-raised free weekly strains. But those conventions presume a like-minded community, whereas Lethem peddles his wares to a middlebrow camp unlikely to have any interest in his ostensible topics. Therefore the focus stays on Lethem-as-character.

So let's imagine our successful young novelist writing a similar autobiographical essay about reading Kafka or Cortázar:

"And suddenly I realized: I write fiction too. Just like him."

Yeah, there's news.

Equally newsworthy:

"Professional pundit publishes asinine remarks; bloggers rant."

But god damn it, I can't seem to let it rest at that. What irks me is the feeling that I share some aspect of some response with Leonard and, in a different way, or a different aspect, with Lethem, too. And again, Lethem's admirably blatant about it: he put Disappointment right there in the title for us.

... to be continued ...


Even if you don't care for my stuff, I recommend this essay by tomemos which starts from Leonard but goes in a very different direction.

Can't speak for Leonard but my celebrations of Evans are strickly appreciations of artistry.

My guess was that Leonard admired Evans but threw "the country music cable channel" in for distancing thus the "pseudo-" of his irony.

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

. . .

Reference Work, 3

Jonathan, if you're reading this -- rather than ask you to back out of a business commitment, rather than deprive the fans of what will probably be an excellent story, I propose that you simply retitle the story and rename the characters. "Omega The Unknown" has little or no commercial cachet, so call the book something else. Call the kid something other than James-Michael Starling. Make the book your own, and I'll have nothing to complain about.
- Steve Gerber
If I'd wanted to make a comic book that had no connection to anything anyone had ever done before, that didn't utilize existing characters, I likely wouldn't have been talking with Marvel in the first place. The allure of working with Marvel was to take something that existed and repurpose it, give it a different spin. After all, I work with solitary materials all the time.

And it seemed, of course, that Gerber, like so many of the comic book writers that I'd so admired, had himself done so much of this kind of repurposing and knitting in to the collective tapestry. So I couldn't imagine there being a reason not to do it. I was quite disconcerted when his reaction was so unhappy.

- Jonathan Lethem

The levelling of cultural class distinctions was before anything else a fact of consumption, celebrated by consumers: '60s postmodernists pigged out on several civilizations' worth of colorful munchies, and eventually we reached the boys-must-have-their-toys retail world of Nick Hornby.

Commendably, Chabon and Lethem have kept content-producers in mind and on the page. What impressed me most about Kavalier and Clay's reception wasn't its Pulitzer Prize but its approval by comics professionals. The Fortress of Solitude doesn't just reference soul music and graffiti to gesture at its protagonist's inner life: it includes soul musicians and taggers as characters, and its turn away from them created genuine reader distress a rare formal achievement in the high-mainstream.

Still, even the well-wisher can be blindsided. "It's all folk music," and folk will insist on fussing over their quaint differences.

* * *

Restricted to graphic evidence, a Martian researcher would conclude that cartoonists have bullied high artists pretty much since comics began. For every ambiguously dismissive Roy Lichtenstein or Mike Kelley appropriation, there must be dozens of gag panels about Manet, Renoir, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Moore, Rauschenberg, or, well, Lichtenstein.

So why's so much offense expressed by the aggressors?

Money's the obvious answer. That's supposed to be the reason we do everything, right? We're freakin' on rational gameplay! When Rolling Stones asserted copyright on a cover version or a Beatle repurposed a song structure, it can't be compared to the credits we find on rural blues 78s or to retitled bebop permutations of "I Got Rhythm": raising the stakes changed the game.

But these financial differences seem more justification than explanation. As Lethem's rightly pointed out, most high-mainstream fiction writers aren't awarded MacArthur Fellowships or big Hollywood pay-offs: the midlist's dying everywhere. Most attempters at high art have to live hand to mouth, or on someone else, or by not-so-highly-artistic labor. Similarly, not all SF and fantasy writers or comics professionals can be fully described as class-traitor hacks pumping out propaganda for the Man.

Even if the income discrepency was real, there'd have to be more behind this inter-genre hostility and defensiveness. Otherwise, we'd see the same intransigence within the genre. Instead the temporary setting aside of such distinctions is a characteristic pleasure of any living art: Will Eisner chatting at the convention; F&SF pages shared by Neil Gaiman and a first sale; Ian McKellen drinking with the stunt crew....

Noncombatant Eddie Campbell suggests that the comics world's exaggerated concern over Roy Lichtenstein's "plagiarism" springs from the same source as the high art world's unconvincing defenses of Lichtenstein's "originality":

And that is the problem with art today: the artist believes he must find a style (or a schtick really) and defend it with his life. And if all the schticks are already taken, he must pull one out of his ass. He must find one, invent one, fabricate one, for he can be nothing if he cannot be original. It's what I once saw termed 'the neurosis of innovation'.

But given its studio labor hand-offs, house styles, ghosting, and swipes, the comics world must have appropriated that neurosis from the high art world which seems odd if it's meant to explain hostility towards the high art world.

My guess is that on both sides of the Lichtenstein line, resentment came first as that fine young critic Dennis P. Eichhorn said before he threw up, "This is WRONG!" and was then intensified by embarrassment over the resentment's irrationality.

What is WRONG depends on conflicting unexamined notions of what's right.

The markets for literary fiction, paintings, and sculpture came over time to center on The Artist: the artist is the guarantor of value; value increases with proximity to the artist; the "property" at stake is the individual masterwork and the master's name. Kurt Vonnegut was willing to lend out the "Kilgore Trout" character only until he feared it threatened the more important Kurt Vonnegut franchise. Even if Lethem would be fine with a band naming itself the Subtle Distinctions or Monster Eyes, he might not feel flattered by a political blogger assuming the pseduonym "Jonathan Lethem".

In more openly collaborative arts, the big return came from cross-media cross-laborer merchandising. Whether financial or emotional, the stablest investment was in a recognizable character or setting. No matter who wrote the book, if it's Superman it's DC's. And the self-evidence of "creator's rights" isn't just a side-effect of employee exploitation by particular employers: Vaughn Bodé's lack of full-time legal staff made Ralph Bakshi's Wizards no less vile a theft. If Steve Gerber ran SG Comics, he'd have a staff of artists and writers; if someone lifted a gag or a layout, water off a duck's back. His desire to protect "Omega"-as-name is generically as one with Lethem's desire to re-write "Omega"-as-name.

Continuous copyright extension, pushed by corporations but justified by individuals, ratchets mutual befuddlement into pandemonium. The collision of these two contexts bruises feelings, threatens litigation, and brought on much of the shock and/or awe of post-WWII high art.

On the other side of what used to (before the train wreck) be the tracks, studios feel compelled to signal closure ever more vehemently, then to repress the memory. The star system was once a way to let contract players like Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. rise and fall and rise again; "Leon Schlesinger"'s Elmer and Daffy would exit stage up or down, and be back for the next matinee. But with every movie a blockbuster and every director an auteur, the most exploitable "property" becomes the individual work, and contemporary Hollywood prefers remakes to series or reissues. After losing the groove it lost the plot.

Freed of fleshy wear and tear, pledged to continuity, superhero series exhibit the syndrome most starkly: the big narrative statement kills, the trademark resurrects. For the smartest producers, apocalyptic death and painful rebirth convey the horror of our quotidian nightmare: our economic house of bubbles; our self-help books that change lives like socks; our sin-again-born-again spiritual amnesties; our flips from force-fed to famine.... The weaker producers merely participate.

... Next: The Startling Conclusion! ...

. . .

The Plight and Troth of a Groove Artist

Critical discourse crowds around Romantic tales of the heroic artist, and don't think the artists don't notice. From a conversation between Jaime Hernandez & Zak Sally:

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, in the back of my head I'm thinking about where I stand in the world. Like is this stuff still worth doing? Is anybody listening any more? That kind of thing. I'm always thinking of that, but in the end I win. At the end I go, "Ah. I did the story I wanted to. Ha ha." And you gotta get that thick skin. 'Cause I've got years of ups and downs of people liking the comic when it's new, and then it's old, and it's useless you know, a lot of that's my paranoia, but it's sometimes nerve-wracking. But I just gotta keep my mouth shut. Keep working. Oh, I just gave away my secret.
I don't mean to be offensive. I just think it's a real talent.

SALLY: There's this band in the mid-to-late '90s era. They were great, they were from Washington, they were called Unwound. I was friends with some of them, and still friends with their drummer. They would keep putting out records, and with every record it would be great, but they'd sort of get less press and all that. And I just remember I was sitting down and having a beer and she was saying, "I don't know what's going on! We just busted our asses on this new record and we put it out, and I'm not hearing anything!" And I was like, "Ah, it's the Love and Rockets syndrome!" And she was like, "I hate that band!" And I said, "No!" After a while, if you keep being good, there's nothing interesting about that. You know what I mean? People are just like, "Oh, another Love and Rockets! It's great! The last one was great and it's been that way for twenty years, ho hum." Am I making sense here? Just in terms of what people get excited about; like, they would get excited if you started drawing stick figures.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. I know what you mean. People have asked me in the past. They go, "so, have you ever thought of doing something different?" And I would say, "Well, what do you want me to do?" They'd go, "I don't know, you're the artist, you should reinvent yourself. You should reinvent yourself." I go, "What, but, I don't wanna be somebody else." I imagine that's what that means. Just like all of a sudden putting yourself in a different body or a different art class.

Groove artists can sometimes be redeemed for Serious Consideration by casting them into narratives of heroically-endured quasi-pathological quasi-religious compulsion. And sometimes not:

Don't press the gas and the brake at the same time, Hopey.
My brother Gilbert's a madman. Crumb's a madman. Their shit just spills out of their comics, because they have to do it or they will die. And I wish I had that, and I have the feeling I have very little of it. I just draw comics because I can, because I know how, or something, you know? Sometimes I feel that way. So that's a scary thought.

But one time I mentioned that to Gilbert, I said, "I wish I was a madman! A madman cartoonist!" And he goes, "Don't forget a lot of pain comes with those madmen. A lot of those guys are unhappy people." And I said "OK, OK. I'll just continue to do it the way I do it."

[...] And the anger helps.

SALLY: I got that.

HERNANDEZ: Well, see, there you go. And if it comes out in the work there's good anger and there's bad anger. But I think you can pull off the good anger. In other words, things still suck out there, I'm gonna show you how it can be done good. That's all I got to say.

. . .


In post-Revolutionary America, slavery seemed antiquated and inefficient and unlikely to extend its reach. Cotton gins and English industrialization renewed its earning potential, and by the time Congress took over administration of the Mississippi Territory, the richest inhabitants owned plantations worked by slaves. And so, like the sensible Obama-and-Bush team members who protected corporate speculators because theirs was America's only thriving industry, and like the sensible doctor who refuses to excise a tumor because it's the only part of your body exhibiting healthy growth, Congress did the sensible thing.

Slavery was available, and so slavery was utilized, and so slavery became a necessity, and so forth and so on until push came to shove. Of course a banner like "Maintain My Position of Power" might not rally the troops, but by then the South's moneyed interests were old hands at shucknjiving:

Discarding elitist pretensions in the early republican era, alert office-seekers from the upper classes had learned to wear their oldest clothes to the hustings, affect rural accents, drink and fraternize with common folk, and fill their speeches with coarse humor and heavy-handed sarcasm in finely calculated appeals to those they ruefully called “the unterrified democracy.” Caldwell was particularly vexed by the prosperous local planter who affected poverty on the stump in order to demonize the prospect of higher taxes. The typical office-seeker in the rural districts, he fumed, was “one of these richer people, with a wagon and plenty of horses, and good houses and barns, and slaves too... and from five hundred to a thousand acres of land.” Despite his prosperity, such a man would claim in public that “he is a poor man.... He drives his own wagon, and has no pretensions to be a gentleman. If rich people want better roads, let them make them for themselves. For his part he has no intention of being taxed to gratify the rich and answer their purposes.”
- Harry L. Watson,
"The Man with the Dirty Black Beard: Race, Class, and Schools in the Antebellum South"
Journal of the Early Republic 32.1 (2012)

Populist democracy wasn't created as a capitalist tool, but when populism threatens money it's simple enough for money to take up populism. Simpler to campaign when you don't have to leave a day job, or when you can afford to make it someone else's day job.

Capital found benefits in emancipated Jews; antisemitism put nary a dent in capital. Feminism was mostly pushed by and mostly benefited well-off ladies; you can say pretty much the same for any identity politics, but I guarantee, speaking as someone who's seen before and after and beforagain, you won't strike a blow against The Man by resegregating.

Anything can be abstracted into a token, and any tokens can then be more-or-less randomly shoved around in hope of local maxima. That is what the little algorithms do: they float, fasten, inflate, collapse. But lungs are not mycobacteria's way of making more mycobacteria. We tokens have another life. We are fickle, but we are not as fickle as money: money's ways cannot be ours. It cannot render delightsome what is hateful; neither can it taint a known good.

You and I only saw great movies and heard great music as mediated or influenced by the culture industries, but that doesn't make their creators industrialists and it doesn't cheapen the human value (if you'll pardon the expression) of our boffo laffs or three-hanky tears. You'd rightly feel foolish if you'd convinced yourself you advanced the revolution by preferring one LP to another, but that was clear to anyone with a lick of sense even back in 1977, even back in 1968, even back when the very best class of emigrés soaked achin' feet in a seltzer bath of Schoenberg. Alienation will not liberate you; alienation will be sold back to your budget-starved library in $80 academic press editions. As the poet sang, "Hold on to what you got, don't let it go." What you got wasn't trickled down from any incontinent old prick, and our love is not beholden.

All of which isn't news but's easy to forget in the recurrent flush of disappointment. Since the first Bush administration, in the heyday of cyberpunk's hurts-so-good technophilia, I've taken comfort in the formula above. I offer it in hope it might find use on your own block of funky, funky Broadway.


Lawrence White alerts us:

"Bo Diddley Is a Communist"

That is always the responsorial that goes through my head, & for once it's appropriate.

If I were a useful member of society I would transfer my scratchy copy of Vermin of the Blues to mp3 & download it on YouTube. That way other people could use it as they see fit, to fill in the bare patches in their mental collage.

Dr. Shpamböt proclaims:

You can definitely see your skills in the article you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

Thank you, Dr. S. That means a lot coming from you.

From "Justice Deferred Is Justice Denied" by Jed S. Rakoff, NYRB February 19, 2015:

The analogy of a Fortune 500 company to a juvenile delinquent is, perhaps, less than obvious....

. . .

Writer-Response Theory

Karen Joy Fowler : Ever since I came into the field, there have been long discussions, sometimes in my presence, sometimes not, over whether I belong or not, with heartfelt decisions on both sides. And I'm happy to be here, so.... Often people ask me do I think I write science fiction, or do I think I write fantasy. In my heart, I think that's not my job to answer that question. So mostly I try to determine which answer is going to piss the person who's asked me off less. If you tell me I don't, I won't argue with you, and if you tell me I do, I won't argue with you. I do feel strongly, however, that whatever it is I am writing, the kind of audience I'm writing it for is the science fiction audience. It's a kind of reader that I see more inside the field than outside it, a reader who likes a challenge, a reader who likes to solve puzzles and problems, a very engaged reader. And so the most honest answer I can give is I don't know if I write science fiction or fantasy, but I'm writing for science fiction and fantasy readers.

- from "The Coode Street Podcast" Episode 94,
hosted by Jonathan Stahan & Gary K. Wolfe

. . .

Genre note

Although auteurs like M. John Harrison will always fit old clips into new montages, the all-out fixup novel served as loyal attendent to the commercial market for short stories and novellas and did not survive its patron.

While fiction magazines withered, academia doubled-down on publish-or-perish. Journal and books lists exploded, culture took its course, and for several decades humanities' new-book-shelves have been as loaded with fixups as a 1950s paperback rack.

Of course, not all the tactics of their original home were carted over. Lacking the pretense of organic character-focused narrative, no fixing-up scholar need attempt the reconstructive surgery of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Isaac Asimov's Foundation is the model: elucidation and proof of millenia-spanning psychohistory through chapters on Theocritus's Idyll 15, Eliza Heywood's Distress'd Orphan, and Grand Theft Auto V's soundtrack. As the man says, "ideal for tales of epic sweep through time and space."

. . .

Addendum to "Appearance of a World"

A [science fiction] wealthy with metaphors does not tend to constitute a world, but instead floats in its own air.
- adapted from Daniel Albright, Lyricality in English Literature


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.