11 September 2016

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: Preliminary Notes


Whenever I write about a new Coetzee book, I am wary. I think back to what I wrote in 2005 about Slow Man when it was new, and I cringe. On the one hand, I'm glad to have this record of a first encounter; on the other, the inadequacies of a first encounter with a new Coetzee novel are immense. (With Slow Man, I learned this vividly a few months later after the book wouldn't stop haunting me, and I reread it, and it was a different book, one I had learned to read only after reading it.) The first sentence of my 2008 Diary of a Bad Year post is: "This is a book that will need to be reread." For the next book, Summertime (2009), I didn't write anything until I could spend time thinking and re-thinking it, particularly as it was the final part of a trilogy of fictionalish autobiographies; I first wrote about it in my Conversational Reading essay on Coetzee and autobiography.

For The Childhood of Jesus (2013), I returned to recording my initial impressions, but clearly labeled them as such. I will do the same here, with Childhood's sequel, recently released in the UK and Australia (it's scheduled for release early next year in the US).

Some preliminary, inadequate notes on The Schooldays of Jesus after a first reading:

08 September 2016

Of Moral Panics, Education, Culture Wars, and Unanswerable Holes

via Wikimedia Commons

I demonstrate hope.
Or the hope for hope. Or just more unanswerable holes.
Mary Biddinger, "Beatitudes"

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

I thought I knew what I felt about the academic controversy du jour (a letter sent by a University of Chicago dean to incoming students, telling them not to expect trigger warnings, that academia is not a safe space, that open discussion requires them to listen to speakers they disagree with, etc.) — but I kept writing and rewriting, conversing and re-conversing with friends, and every time I didn't know more than I knew before.

Overall, I don't think this controversy is about trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Overall, I think it is about power and access to power. But then, overall I think most controversies are about power and access to power.

Overall—

The questions around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers are complicated, and specific situations must be paid attention to, because universal, general statements are too distorting to be useful.


(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

Of Moral Panics, Education, Culture Wars, and Unanswerable Holes

via Wikimedia Commons

I demonstrate hope.
Or the hope for hope. Or just more unanswerable holes.
Mary Biddinger, "Beatitudes"

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

I thought I knew what I felt about the academic controversy du jour (a letter sent by a University of Chicago dean to incoming students, telling them not to expect trigger warnings, that academia is not a safe space, that open discussion requires them to listen to speakers they disagree with, etc.) — but I kept writing and rewriting, conversing and re-conversing with friends, and every time I didn't know more than I knew before.

Overall, I don't think this controversy is about trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Overall, I think it is about power and access to power. But then, overall I think most controversies are about power and access to power.

Overall—

The questions around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers are complicated, and specific situations must be paid attention to, because universal, general statements are too distorting to be useful.


(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

06 September 2016

Why I Am Not a Poet


I have a brief new essay up at The Story Prize Blog, "Why I Am Not a Poet". Here's a taste:
I care about words, structures, rhythms, resonances, patterns, allusions, borrowings, sentences, images, emotions, voices, dreams, realities, fears, anxieties, failures, yearnings, and much more, but I don't really care about telling stories. The story is a kind of vehicle, or maybe an excuse, or maybe an alibi. The conventions of the story can be followed and forsaken in ways that get me to the other things, the things I care about.

All of those things I care about are things common to poetry — some more common to poetry than to prose, I'd bet — and that is why I read poetry, but even though I read poetry, I write prose because I just don't know how to do those things unless I'm writing prose.

(I think I would rather be a poet, but I am not.)

21 August 2016

The Pleasure of the (Queer) Text



I returned to the WROTE Podcast recently for a 2-part discussion of reading and writing queerly with Dena Hankins, SA "Baz" Collins, and moderator Vance Bastian. (Previously, I did a solo conversation there.)

The strength of the discussion is also what makes it sometimes awkward and even contentious: we all have utterly different tastes, touchstones, and experiences. I'm not a natural fit for such a conversation, as I don't think of myself as a "consumer of queer content", but rather as a reader/writer who sometimes reads/writes queer stuff. I hardly ever seek out a book only because it's about a queer topic or has queer characters, and I only ever set out to write such a thing if I'm writing for a specifically queer market, which rarely happens.

As I say in the program, if a book's not trying to do something new and different, and if it's not aesthetically interesting to me, I'm unlikely to read it. Why bother? I've got more books than I have time to read already, and I'd rather read an innovative and thought-provoking hetero book than a familiar, conventional queer book.

Barthes gets at this in The Pleasure of the Text, presenting a fairly familiar Modernist case, one that describes well my own textual pleasures and (very occasional) moments of bliss:
The New is not a fashion, it is a value, the basis of all criticism.... There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it: every old language becomes old once it is repeated. Now, encratic language (the language produced and spread under the protection of power) is statutorily a language of repetition; all official institutions of language are repeating machines: school, sports, advertising, popular songs, news, all continually repeat the same structure, the same meaning, often the same words: the stereotype is a political fact, the major figure of ideology. Confronting it, the New is bliss (Freud: "In the adult, novelty always constitutes the condition for orgasm").

...The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions — these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning. [trans. by Richard Miller]
This is not, of course, what most readers want, and what is New to one is not New to another. My pleasure is your boredom, my bliss your pain. Nonetheless, I wish more queer writers today were more interested in finding new forms and shapes and styles. I mention in one of the episodes Dale Peck's new anthology, The Soho Press Book of '80s Short Fiction, which is queer in that it is not heteronormative in its selections, putting Dorothy Allison, Robert Glück, and Essex Hemphill alongside Raymond Carver in a way no other anthology I'm aware of has done. What the anthology also does is show that many American queer writers were, once upon a time, interested in a truly wide range of aesthetics. Peck's anthology can only gesture toward those aesthetics, since it has to fit many different purposes between two covers, but it made me think about the ways that queer artists have for so long been the ones to embrace vanguards. (Queer Modernism is often the most interesting Modernism, for instance.) To be queer is to be outside the norm, and thus to be outside the norm's language and forms.

I ended the first episode with a point that right now seems to me the most important one: If we want to identify as a queer community (I'm not sure I do), and we really want to do something for the queer world generally, we should be advocating for queer writers from outside the U.S. and other relatively safe, progressive places. The two books I mentioned in the last moments as ones I'd be reading if I had time to read stuff other than things for my PhD are Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta and Guapa by Saleem Haddad. There are likely many others I don't know about.

If there is a value in queer reading communities, then those communities must not replicate the insularity of most American readers. If you want to be a politically and socially intentional reader, as describing yourself as a queer reader (or consumer of queer content) suggests you do, then your political and social intentions as a reader can't begin and end with you staring at a mirror.

Finally, I got into a bit of a disagreement with Baz Collins about Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and for my perspective on that book, my initial post about it remains my most substantial declaration of love.

28 July 2016

Reality Affects


Bonnie Nadzam's recent essay at Literary Hub, "What Should Fiction Do?", is well worth reading, despite the title. (The only accurate answer to the question in the title [which may not be Nadzam's] is: "Lots of stuff, including what it hasn't done yet...") What resonates for me in the essay is Nadzam's attention to the ways reality effects intersect with questions of identity — indeed, with the ways that fictional texts produce ideas about identity and reality. I especially loved Nadzam's discussion of how she teaches writing with such ideas in mind.

Nadzam starts right off with a bang:
An artistic practice that perpetually reinforces my sense of self is not, in my mind, an artistic practice. I’m not talking about rejecting memoir or characters “based on me.” What I mean is I don’t have the stomach for art that purports to “hold up a mirror to nature,” or for what this implies, philosophically, about selfhood and the world in which we live.
This is a statement that avant-gardes have been making since at least the beginning of the 20th century — it is the anti-mimetic school of art, a school at which I have long been a happy pupil. Ronald Sukenick, whose purposes are somewhat different to Nadzam's, wrote in Narralogues that "fiction is a matter of argument rather than of dramatic representation" and "it is the mutability of consciousness through time rather than representation that is the essential element of fiction." Sukenick proposes that all fiction, whether opaquely innovative or blockbuster entertainment, "raises issues, examines situations, meditates solutions, reflects on outcomes" and so is a sort of reasoning and reflection. "The question," he writes, "is only whether a story reflects thoughtfully, or robotically reflects the status quo with no illuminating angle of vision of its own."

20 July 2016

Reading, Writing, and Living Through the AIDS Crisis


Literary Hub has published one of the most personal essays I've ever written, an essay about growing up as a reader and person during the AIDS crisis.

The original title, which doesn't make a good headline and so wasn't used, is "A Long Gay Book, A Life". (I'm always happy for a Gertrude Stein allusion. And quotation, as you'll see in the piece.)

The piece is fragmentary, like memory. It roams across the page, probably an effect of my recently revisiting some of Carole Maso's writings. (Also, reading Keguro Macharia's elegant essays and blog posts.)

Here's an excerpt:
When I was in the eighth grade I wrote a story about a vampire. He was young, roughly my age, entering puberty, entering vampirism. He ached to touch, to kiss, to drink in the loveliness of what he hungered for, but to do so was to admit his monstrosity and to kill what he loved. He feared himself and hated himself.

I don’t remember anything else about that story except how terrified I was to show it to anyone, lest they notice what I was saying about desire between the lines.

But I did show it to my English teacher. She had been sensitive and supportive of the stories I’d written, no matter how weird and violent. We talked about the story for a while. Now, more than 25 years later, all I remember is that she spoke—casually and not in any way judgmentally, without lingering—about the vampire’s desires being a powerful element of the story because they could also be read as sexual desires.

“No,” I replied quickly, lip trembling, “he’s just a vampire. Vampires have to drink blood or they die.”

She smiled and nodded. “Of course, of course,” she said.
Read more at The Literary Hub.

Blood: Stories Playlist at Largehearted Boy


One of my favorite sites on the internet is Largehearted Boy, which brings music and literature together.

A core series at LB are the Book Notes: playlists of songs to accompany books.

Huge thanks to the Largehearted Boy proprietor, David Gutowski, for inviting me to participate and create a Book Notes entry for Blood: Stories.

The The, David Byrne, Cowboy Junkies, Washington Phillips, Arvo Pärt, and many more...

12 July 2016

"Perfect Day" at Cold Takes



When Kelly J. Baker put out a call for essays about music albums and emotions, I knew immediately what I would propose: An essay about The The's Soul Mining and what it meant to me as an adolescent.

Now, that essay, "Perfect Day", is available on Kelly's site, Cold Takes.

Here's the opening:
That moment: album — book — car ride.

How long ago now? Twenty-five years? Something like that.

It was (roughly) sometime between 1988 and 1991, which means sometime between when I was (roughly) 12 years old and 16 years old. Most likely 1989 or 1990. Most likely 14 or 15 years old.

Interstate 93 North between Boston, Massachusetts and Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Blue Toyota Tercel wagon, my mother driving.

Mass market paperback of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner tie-in edition).

Black Sony Walkman cassette player.

Soul Mining by The The.
read more

Nonfiction for Fiction Writers


I'm just back from Readercon 27, the annual convention that I've been to more than any other, and for which (a while back) I served on the program committee for a few years. At this point, Readercon feels like a family reunion for me, and it's a delight.

Here, I simply want to riff on ideas from one of the panels I participated in.

Friday, I was on my first panel of the convention, "Nonfiction for Fiction Writers", with Jonathan Crowe, Keffy Kehrli, Tom Purdom, Rick Wilber. It was good fun. I'd taken lots of notes beforehand, because I wasn't really sure what direction the panel would go in and I wanted to be prepared and to not forget any particular favorites. Ultimately, and expectedly, I only got to mention a few of the items I was prepared to talk about.

However, since I still have my notes, I can expand on it all here...