In episode 2, Todd, Paul and I discuss Raymond Chandler and his novel The Long Goodbye.
Episode 2 of Bad Business will drop tomorrow, November 6th.
In episode 2, Todd, Paul, and I discuss Raymond Chandler and his novel The Long Goodbye.
Writing & Submitting:
In October I started working on revisions to Far Nineteen again. I’ve kind of lost track of how long I’ve been working on this story. I think I might have written the initial pages for it (all revised or cut away by now) a year or more before I began work on The Palace of Winds. I’ve sent Far Nineteen out a few times, with no responses. That’s why I’m revising it again. I’ve been doing some work on expanding and refining an old essay on the place of fiction in society, but it’s gestating after finishing some new reading that I need to synthesize in the old noodle.
I think it’s time to stop sending out The Palace of Winds. I’ll put it in the file with the other failures: The Cinnamon Girl, and By The Still, Still Water.
I also hacked out about a third of the material I’d written for the new project. It had taken a wrong turn somewhere. After letting it set for a few weeks in October, I realized kind of where it broke and performed surgery to remove the offending outgrowth. On the surface, I suppose, it’s a rather simple love story, but for me, once I peel back that first layer of simple there is a labyrinth of human desires, fears, and regrets. And within those desires, fears, and regrets there are more labyrinths and spider’s webs.
For me, as a writer, the problem has always been narrowing the scope. I think that’s why all of my short stories always feel incomplete, or too big for their confines. It’s why I’m always a bit disappointed when readers pass cruel judgement on my characters and write them off. It means I failed to convey the internal personal agony, shame, regret, desire, and fear that ultimately drives someone to be selfish, or cruel. I don’t expect people to like my characters—they often do horrible things to each other—but if fiction is an engine for the empathetic imagination then somethings not firing right if readers aren’t conflicted about the trouble causing catalyst characters.
Let me see if this helps explain it. I went to high school with a young man who had a reputation for being a bully. Some of my friends had been bullied by this person for most of their childhood. I only suffered his wrath during high school, but I too came to hate and fear him because of his meanness and violence toward others. A few years after high school, this young man was murdered in a street brawl. When I told a friend of mine about it, a friend who had been a target of this bully since early in grade school, my friend’s response was simply to say “Good.” In that moment, in the bitterness I heard in his voice, I understood a whole host of things: my friend’s lifelong pain at having been repeatedly bullied; the sense of karmic justice he felt that someone who’d been cruel to others for so long had a cruelty returned. I heard also a release of fear. This friend, a grown man with a wife and kids, I believe, still feared this bully would be able to hurt him the rest of their lives and this death erased that fear for my friend. And then came all of the thoughts about the bully. I never liked this young man, he was cruel and violent to people he chose as targets. His cruelty and violence made him a popular athlete and so much of the cruelty and violence he displayed off the field was ignored, downplayed, brushed off. But what was he hiding? What was he scared of? Who made him scared of the things he was scared of? What was his cruelty a mask for? What kind of boy had he been before he learned to be cruel? How did he suffer? If all the fear and rage that made him cruel could be stripped away, what would he have become?
I write in order to try to explain the world to myself because, ultimately, it is a deep, deep mystery.
There have been some technical delays with the six part Bad Business series, as well as some scheduling and timing problems. So, episodes aren’t coming out as planned. Episode 2 and 3 are on the way, and if I schedule their release properly, we should have enough of a cushion to ensure the last few episodes come out as expected and without any delays.
We’re planning a second Outrider Live show for December. We’ll have two readers for that show, Shawn Craver and Michelle Barrett. We’ve not finalized the musical act yet. The live shows are at a small, private venue. So, if you’re in Wichita for Dec 8 and would be interested in attending, let me know. Seating is limited.
The Altar of the Only World by Sharanya Manivannan (finished)
Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers (reading).
I always feel like I should read more, but then there’s the writing, the day job, the desire to just sit and stare at the wall so that my brain can just process and purge and knit. For the first time ever, I’ve been keeping a reading “diary” of sorts. Not recording thoughts or perceptions, but just keeping a list. Up to 22 books read this year. By the time December finishes off I should be around 25 or so. That’s about two books a month. I’m sure someone out there is letting out a snide chuckle, and reciting some obscene number of books they read this year and thinking I’m a lazy reader for a fucking writer. It’s not a competition—and my number might be higher, but I spent the first part of the year reading Ulysses and talking about it on the podcast.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. Sharanya Manivannan’s collection The Altar of the Only World is beautiful, and highly recommended. Here in the states you’ll have to order off Amazon since it’s not actually published here. It’s published by Harpercollins India. But it’s worth the effort and bit of money that Bezos gets to suck out of your pocket. Hopefully, she’ll land an American agent or publisher and we can start clamoring for her books in independent bookstores. She has her first novel coming out, I believe this month (again, India only) called The Queen of Jasmine Country. I first encountered Sharanya back in my early blogging days while I was putting out the DIY journal The Project for a New Mythology. She’d posted a comment on something I wrote about Michael Ondaatje and we chatted over email for a while. I was all set to publish one of her poems in the journal when she had to pull it because, well, there was someone willing to pay her more than contributors copies for it. I was disappointed, but ultimately happy for her because, I think, that poem helped her get her first book, Witchcraft (2008), published. Her writing is so very sensuous, compassionate, and wise. I’ve been buying multiple copies of her book The High Priestess Never Marries—like some black market importer—and giving them away to fellow writers and literary minded friends.
Fast on the heels of that, I’m reading Shaindel Beers’ new collection Secure Your Own Mask. This is her third collection, and I’ve fallen in love with it as quickly as I did the other two. Shaindel’s poems strike a very familiar emotional and cognitive chord with me. I suspect she sees the world tinted with the same colors that I see the world with; however, those colors and the knowing that comes from them are just different enough, perhaps because of gender and experiences, that I seem to see things I thought I knew with a renewed mystery. Like Ms. Manivannan’s work, you should go pick up some of Ms. Beers’ and share them with friends – just like you would with beers. Hell, share Ms. Beers’ poetry with friends over beers. I think she’d approve.
Let’s see. For classic movie night in October, I watched Creepshow, which I don’t think I’d seen since I was a preteen. Went out to see The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I’d never bothered to see before. Other than that, I’ve been catching up on the Marvel TV shows on Netflix, specifically the most recent season of Luke Cage.
I finally got around to restocking some of my Red Hot Chili Peppers catalog that got lost way, way back in the mid 90’s when a case of cassette tapes got stolen out of my car. Repurchased Mother’s Milk.
After listening to Marc Maron talk with Sir Paul McCartney I’ve started sorting through his catalogue and making a list of stuff to get. So much of it is in my head, put there by my father, that it’s hard to decide where to start. The Beatles, Wings, his solo stuff—every time I put on a McCartney song I feel as if I’ve slipped out of the timeline, stepped into some limbo where I’m all of my assorted, cast off selves from childhood to now. I can remember the thin green carpet in our house in Dodge City, the sloped back yard, and the rude, abusive odor from the feed lots around town. And I can remember that young version of myself, naive, gentle, open to everything, especially the slights and pains cast out by others.
I feel all over the place with things right now. Stuff from my day job is crowding in on the rest of my life, and I don’t want it there. I want the day job to stay in the confines of the fucking building where I do it, not leeching into my writing time, my reading time, my quiet daydreaming time.
There’s the impending election and my dark and hopeless fears that we’ve lost the impetus for peaceful change and that come November 7th, I will have witnessed the destruction of my country’s democratic experiment. Between Russian interference, right wing fear stoking, and plain old GOP corruption and election rigging, I fear that the fascist leaning GOP leaders will either steal the election from the majority of Americans, or they’ll react violently when the shear weight of pro-democratic, progressive action overwhelms the voting system regardless of all they’ve done to suppress the non-white, non-republican votes.
I’m worried about loneliness, and certain physical limitations and impairments that I’m struggling with and how those will impact my future hopes and desires around that loneliness and its elimination (how’s that for vague?).
I’m worried about money.
I wonder if I’ve reached the limit of my talent, or that I used it all up writing The Evolution of Shadows. I fear I’m finished as a writer and that all that stuff above is simply the universe, which is infinitely more patient and powerful that the will of any human, finally grinding me down into the nothing.
There are two great episodes of the Outrider Podcast available now.
First is Outrider Live: Words and Music. It’s my first attempt at hosting a live event. It features me reading some poetry and a section from a novel-in-progress. My reading is accompanied by local Wichita band The Ezras. Here’s a link.
Second is The Outrider Podcast: Bad Business. It’s the first of a six part series I’ve done with two writer friends, Todd Robins and Paul Fecteau, talking about crime and noir fiction. In episode one, we get a little background on Todd and Paul, and discuss the email exchange between them that started it all. Here’s a link.
The Outrider Podcast is available on iTunes and Stitcher where you can still get the six-part series on James Joyce’s Ulysses that I did with my friend and poet Delia Tramontina, as well as conversations with, Duncan Barlow and Caitlin Hamilton Summie. You can also download older episodes at https://jquinnmalott.podbean.com. Back in the day, I had conversations with the likes Emily St. John Mandel, Laird Hunt, Taylor Mali, Pauls Toutonghi, Shaindel Beers, and Troy James Weaver.
In this, the first part of a six part series on crime and detective fiction, I get to know my two guest hosts, and friends, Todd Robins and Paul Fecteau. We discuss the inspiration for this series as well as some of the upcoming books we’ll read in future episodes.
Writing & Submitting:
Fired off a submission to a small press, and that’s been the only activity for a while as I struggle with my confidence in the manuscript, and as a writer.
I’ve started another revision of Far Nineteen, the book inspired by the Tulsa Race Riot and the city’s buried Plymouth Belvedere.
Work has paused on the new project, and things are slow and, as with all rough drafts, it’s—well—rough. A lot of my time is spent on what, for me, amounts to research. Time is always a consideration when it comes to this. In a way, I’m jealous of those writers who have the time and, more importantly, the resources to do a lot of detailed research into things that, in the final draft seem kind of insignificant. A lot of my artistic decisions arise out of a need to work fast, in small chunks, and around gaps in knowledge and so my research is often limited to what I can accomplish on the cheap, online, and at the library. I don’t have the money to travel and spend months plodding about foreign cities to get a feel for how life “actually” feels there. I suppose that’s why my fiction often feels unmoored from place in the way that other writers aren’t. My fiction is deeply internal. I’m kind of jealous of how some of my favorite writers can get that deep sense of place along with that deep sense of people. I feel like my work is crippled by my socio-economic limitations, and the fact that place often seems interchangeable to me: Dodge City, Wichita, Manhattan (KS), Oklahoma City, Tulsa, El Paso, Juarez, Boulder, Denver, Chicago, Kansas City, New York—it’s all just scenery and weather. I sometimes think that for “place” to be a thing certain writers really concern themselves with, even those who are immigrants to the country where they write, there has to be some place where they feel they belong, or once belonged—a place to yearn for. I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere, even the places where I spent a decade or more. I suspect this is one of the biggest weaknesses in my fiction.
I’ve discussed a non-fiction project with some friends, and I’ve begun work that here and there. It’s built on a long essay that, for years already, I’ve been tweaking and revising. It made a brief appearance on the old Project for A New Mythology site as a free e-book. That went away and I’m expanding it, refocusing it, and doing some more reading and research to support my arguments. It’s kind of an aesthetic manifesto, and I’m seriously considering going the self-publishing route for it. If I had more than the one novel published by a traditional press, I’d probably be able to find a traditional publisher for it since it falls into that category where you might find Ben Lerner’s tract “The Hatred of Poetry,” but since I’m a one-book-schmo, I’m sure no press would care. I think the idea is sound since I do encounter a lot of people appearing to think along the same lines. It’s just none of them are synthesizing the material as fully as I think they should.
I plan on organizing a kind of peer review and editorial review among my literary friends so they can challenge it and make sure it’s sound. If I’m finally going to break down and self-publish something – even if it more or less amounts to a chapbook manifesto, I’d better do it right.
The first ever live event episode of The Outrider Podcast is available (link). I paired up with my friend Shawn Craver and his band The Ezras for a small performance. It’s kind of a proof of concept show, and Shawn and I plan on organizing a few more of these featuring Wichita area writers and musicians. I’ve got some people already on the list for reading and I need to reach out to some more musical acts.
It took a little longer to get this show posted than I’d hoped, but I’m not troubled by it. I’ve been working with an actual audio editor and producer and we’re still working out our system. I’m immensely happy with the final product, and excited to see what new things I can try with Heather Eden’s help.
The Bad Business Series should start dropping sometime in October, so look for that. This series is a six part discussion of crime and detective fiction. My co-hosts for this series are a couple of crusty old writer friends, Todd Robins and Paul Fecteau.
After the Bad Business series, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Maybe the book and movie thing with Julianne. Certainly another live show.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (read)
A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics by Donald Richie (reading)
The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall (reading)
The Altar of the Only World by Sharanya Manivannan (reading)
Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers (reading).
Now that I’ve finished up the crime podcast series, I’m back on my personal reading schedule. I’ve already knocked out Michael Ondaatje’s new book that’s been sitting on my shelf since its release date. Most books, for me, are a one-and-done thing. I’m not a big re-reader, and I don’t consider it a knock against a book’s quality to read it only once. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson is a fantastic book, and it’s a book that is pivotal in my literary biography, but I’ve only read it once. Ondaatje, along with John Berger and Jack Kerouac, are the only writers—so far—who’ve written books that I’ve read more than once (Ondaatje leads the way, with Coming Through Slaughter, In The Skin of a Lion, and The English Patient all being read several times. Berger has two: To the Wedding and Ways of Seeing, and Kerouac has Big Sur).
Warlight is excellent, and I took particular joy in recognizing certain recurring motifs from earlier books. I almost expected to see a small cameo by the thief, Carravagio, the way I did in Divisadero since this was treading in similar World War II territory. Instead it was simply some echoes that reminded me of the Carravagio’s assorted high wire acts like the prison roof painting scene and the falling nun scene in Lion, or the wire walking in English Patient. I’m always enamored with the language in Ondaatje’s stories and how it manages to reveal the humanity of a situation and a character. I generally fail at writing reviews of Ondaatje’s books because descending into me writing about all the things I wish I did better in my own writing and no one really wants to read that.
Saw A Simple Favor with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in September. I had no idea what I was walking into with this movie. It was something that Julianne suggested we see, so we went. It was quite the surprise. Finally sat down to watch John Wick with Julianne. It was fun, but like most of these types of movies, action, comic-books, gun-fu, etc. I’m getting a bit tired of them. Maybe it because it feels like our day-to-day world is already too hyper-saturated with people wielding guns in our faces.
I’ve been leaving this out for some reason. I usually write to music, look to it for inspiration—all the usual stuff. Mostly I’ve had my playlist for the new project in heavy rotation. It leads off with a collaboration between Olafur Arnalds and Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir (from Of Monsters and Men) titled Particles.
In the recent purchase department, I picked up the 2001 release Things We Lost In The Fire, by Low, and Shawn Craver’s 2017 EP When the Sun Shines (Shawn’s band The Ezras can be heard on the Outrider Live show on the podcast).
Other recent pick-ups include an EP by Wichita based Carrie Nation and The Speakeasy called “Gnosis” and By the Grace of God’s album Three Steps to a Better Democracy (my grad school acquaintance Duncan Barlow is one of the founding members and you can hear our conversation from back in December 2017 on the podcast).
I need to get back to listening to KEXP’s Song of the day podcast. My jones for new music is kicking in. Whenever I feel like I’m having a bit of a FOMO moment with music, I have to remind myself that, like books, there’s no expiration date on music.
Most of September was spent keeping tabs on the Supreme Court nomination drama, and the complicated, dangerous repercussions of putting someone so unqualified and partisan on the bench. I feel like the fate of our country is teetering on the brink of a fast and immediate slide into totalitarianism—all because a bunch of entitled old white men, their racist proteges, and subservient women are scared of other people gaining the kind of social, economic, and political power the old white men have. By the time this gets posted, Kavanaugh may already have been confirmed, and our country will be on the precipice of collapse.
Although I am not a politically or economically powerful white man, I’m still a white man. I’m still a beneficiary of white male privilege. I’m not followed around department stores by security personnel. I don’t run the risk of dying while getting my automobile registration out of the glovebox during a traffic stop. I don’t have to thread my keys between my fingers to protect myself while walking across a parking lot in the dark to my car. I don’t have to fear a verbal or physical assault for refusing to accept a date. Rich old white women aren’t trying to pass laws attempting to control what I can and cannot do with my penis.
There was an essay I read a while back by Jennifer Wright titled Why Conservative Women are OK with Harassment. The opening sentence got my attention: “You hear a great deal about feminists being man haters. However, it appears that conservative women have a lower opinion of men than most liberals would ever dream of.”
The essay goes on to point out that the general opinion of most conservative women seems to be that all high school boys attempt rape and that it’s fine or at least something that shouldn’t be counted as a black mark against their character. It’s a view that says males are by their nature sexually violent and aggressive and it’s the woman’s responsibility, from a position of diminished power, to control them or tolerate them if they can’t be controlled. That view of males is appalling.
Wright explains it this way: “If the way you [a woman] have worth amidst a group is to exist in relation to a man, then one way you can ensure that you are well liked by men is to set your expectations of male behavior so low they’re essentially non-existent.”
It’s appeasement, pure and simple. Conservative women believe men can’t or won’t change, are incapable of NOT behaving badly, so, to keep the peace, conservative women will allow men to get away with—quite literally in some cases—murder. The Tumblr When Women Refuse is a litany of women being beaten, raped, and murdered for not giving men what the men want. This appeasement tactic, this tolerance of bad behavior in the hope that by letting men have whatever they want when they want it (a woman’s body, a supreme court seat) will keep women “safe” or “protected” or “liked and loved” is borne out of that assumption that all men are violent animals, and that it’s an exception—a pleasant surprise—when or if they behave well, so best give them whatever they want so they don’t hurt you.
But what happens if you give even a nice guy everything he wants when he wants it? Well, the first time you tell him no he may just get angry and take it . . . Yeah, no wonder conservative women have a lower opinion of men and agree with the idea that it’s the victim’s fault. They’ve bought into a socio-political system that says everything is about personal responsibility, until a man rapes a woman. In that case these male bastions of personal responsibility are absolved of any responsibility because the desire any woman inspires a man is too great for him to resist.
As a man, I’m not ok with being thought of as a barely contained animal. It’s degrading and humiliating. It suggests that it’s somehow an innate and uncontrollable fact that men will do something horrendous, and that it’s impossible for them to change, to become better men. Personally, I expect better behavior from myself, and I expect better behavior from the men around me. If men can’t control themselves around women, then perhaps they shouldn’t be viewed as the epitome of humanity and given the socio-economic powers that patriarchy bestows on them.
Because Feminist women aren’t keen on appeasing men, they’ve actually encountered men who can, in fact, keep their hands to themselves, who gracefully take no for an answer, and who, quite simply, see women as individuals worthy of respect and as people who are not subservient nor defined by their relationship to a man.
We’re in for a rocky decade after this confirmation, especially those in marginalized communities hated and distrusted by conservatives. Women, LGBTQI, African American, Indigenous peoples, Latino and Hispanic communities, Asian Americans, non-christians, the poor of all groups, and even the disabled. If you’re not a wealthy straight white American male, there’s at least some aspect of your personhood that is at jeopardy. Whether it’s the right to control your sex life and how and when you become a mother, who you can love and have at your hospital bedside when you’re sick and in pain—and whether you can afford to be in that hospital bed at all—it’s all being swept up into this attempt by scared, old, hateful white men who want everyone not like them to live on the knife edge of their flighty, selfish, inconsistent sense of generosity. They want a new feudalism with them at the top and everyone who’s not a white male underneath them, bowing, scraping, and cowering in fear of offending them.
The first step to fighting back, quite simply, is a rule I’ve been following for years: vote with the Democratic black ladies and, when available, vote FOR the Democratic black lady. Once our society allows black women the same access and privilege as white men then there will be a truly equal and free society. If you’re a liberal white man and you’ve found ways to convince yourself and other to NOT vote for minority women in your districts, you’re doing a disservice to the cause of progress.
Want to know who’s in congress now? Here’s a list. Be wary of minority GOP women, you never know when they’ll act like Susan Collins.
You can find out more about your various representatives here at Open States.
This episode, Outrider Live: Words and Music, was recorded in front of a live audience and features poetry and prose by me, your host, Jason Quinn Malott, and live music by Wichita band The Ezras.
You can learn more about the musical performer at http://shawncravermusic.com
WRITING & SUBMITTING
I’m always a bit torn between keeping track of rejections and ignoring them. Rejection is a normal part of being a writer—something you have to toughen up and deal with. But, aside from keeping track of who I’ve submitted to in the past, I sometimes wonder what the point is to keeping that list around. I’ve occasionally used it as a marker, even publicly, of effort. The old “my novel was rejected fifty times before publisher X bought it” line. However, I always flash back on this piece of advice I read in someplace like Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, or maybe some book written by an agent on how to get an agent . . . Agents don’t want to hear how many times your manuscript was rejected before you sent it to them. That bit of advice was in relation to how to write query letters, but I wonder sometimes if it kind of applies in general to someplace like Twitter. Now, even though this old piece of advice seems like the literary business equivalent of the fragile boyfriend needing to believe that his new girlfriend hasn’t fucked other men (or even women) before, I do kind of get why it exists. The bigger that rejection number gets the wider the consensus is that it’s not very good, and in a sales driven environment the more people don’t seem to want to read something the less money it makes, etc. People love to trot out how many times Moby Dick was rejected and how it’s now a classic, but that’s usually the only example they have and, of course, no one knows anything about those novels that have been rejected even more than Moby Dick and were never published.
So, all that being said, the submissions of The Palace of Winds continue. Far Nineteen is on hold, but I may try sending it out again here soon, and I’m muddling about in the middle of the new project.
Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and Richard Brautigan’s Dreaming of Babylon were recently finished and will be discussed on the podcast. These were the lighter side of the detective, crime, noir genre. Up next is Lawrence Osborne’s Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel.
Outrider Live: Words & Music should be out later in September, and after recording the final episode the day after this post goes up, the Crime/Noir series will finished and we’ll (meaning me and Heather, my producer (!!)) start getting it ready. I hope to release episode 1 in October sometime. After that, I’ll be on a minor break as I work with Shawn Craver to organize the next live event with a writer and band.
Saw the 1944 version of Gaslight. Squeezed in Ant-man and the Wasp. Finished Ken Burns’ Vietnam Documentary. Still distracting myself with episodes of M*A*S*H when I should be reading or writing.
Near the end of August, the writer Timothy Schaffert posted a question on Facebook where it seems to be, aside from the podcast, the only place I have literary discussions. The question was “Are there sweeping, literature-altering literary “movements” anymore? Ones in which writers (somewhat) collectively speak in response to past movements, or in reaction to each other? Ala 19th-century Realism? 20th-century Modernism? Fin de siecle Decadence? (Asking for a friend.)” I sat down to write a quick response and it turned into the piece below. A lot of the responders to Schaffert’s post seemed to bring up Dystopian YA as a literary movement or they brought up the expanding awareness of readers and publishers of perviously marginalized voices as a literary movement. Anyway, there was so much to respond to a I couldn’t keep myself limited to a narrow scope.
I don’t think a literary movement can be contained within a single genre, like dystopian YA sci-fi, nor defined simply by the expansion of available voices to include more than old white guys – not if our reference points for defining a “movement” are things , like Modernism, the Beats, Post-Modernism, etc.
Literary movements are, fundamentally, centered on aesthetic concerns that address the way art of any variety is or should be philosophically perceived by the artist and how the artist uses those perceptions to challenge the status quo of the art form, correct? This is why literary movements are often intertwined with other art forms: Modernism wasn’t only literary, it covered visual art, music, theatre, and dance. Same with movements like Dadaism, the Beats, and Post-Modernism. Furthermore, even though those movements were dominated by white males, the aesthetic assumptions were available to be used by all artists – even if they were culturally marginalized and they had a hard time getting published. In this regard, “autofiction” isn’t really a literary movement (the combining of autobiography and fiction), and it’s hardly a new thing and, in fact, it has it’s roots in the Beat movement (Kerouac’s novels and a few of Burroughs early books fit into “autofiction”).
Dystopian YA sci-fi is more of an expression of social anxiety and not a new aesthetic approach to the literary art – even if the majority of “heroes” are now “heroines.” Also, simply expanding the variety of voices being read (a much needed thing, indeed) to include women of color, and other previously marginalized voices isn’t (necessarily) and aesthetic issue. In other words, genre and globalism aren’t by themselves, new ways of thinking about, perceiving, presenting, or refocusing the aesthetic underpinnings of an art form—although of the two, globalism is much more valuable in that it does expand the variety of interpretations of the prevailing aesthetic and could be the conduit by which a new aesthetic enters the literary landscape, but in and of itself, globalism isn’t an aesthetic and therefore not a literary movement but a social trend. Kamila Shamsie (Pakistan), Ornela Vorpsi (Albania), or Shahrnush Parsipur (Iran) are all fantastic additions to the American literary landscape that I’ve discovered in the last few years (although not “popular bestsellers”), but the aesthetic foundation of their work isn’t wildly different from, say, Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka via Canada), or Lawrence Durrell (England), or even, Italo Calvino (Italian).
I don’t see a lot of aesthetic experimentation going on in literature right now, but that’s not to say there isn’t any. It’s just not getting through the noise. This is, I suppose, where market forces come into play, but maybe not (more later). Experimentation, these days, doesn’t sell because we’ve over-homogenized literature and taught it badly in schools. The artist-originated movements of the 20th Century (movements that, I sometimes feel, drove homogenization and lended themselves well to being mis-taught) could, very well, have helped alienate the reading audience. If readers are rebelling against the literary establishment, then that’s a kind of movement that is a rejection of movements – a “non-movement-movement” if you want to call it that. I see it as the ultimate failure of Post-modernism: what started off as a rejection of Modernism and its tendency toward totalitarianism became a lowest-common-denominator democratization of artistic taste, it flattened everything via ironic self-reference. Henry Green became Kurt Vonnegut became Jonathan Franzen became fuck-it-all I’ll read whatever’s fun even if it’s not that well written (Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, E.L. James, all the dystopian YA Sci-Fi you’ve not yet heard of but is taking up space on the bookstore shelves). The reading public got tired of being handed a book by a white guy and told “this is great literature” and having it turn out to be slow, boring, over dependent on irony—and worse—condescendingly sarcastic.
As for the suppression or support that the market brings to bear on a literary movement, that might be the real question in relation to the life and reach that any kind of potential literary movement might have. Facing off against the Big 5 houses of Penguin Random House (Random Penguin or Penguin House), Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Harper Collins, all we have is a mass of small presses that are tenuously holding on to viability, and the dark netherworld of self-publishing. The Big 5 aren’t going to take the kind of deep risks needed to help launch a new literary movement. Even if by accident they do pick up a book by someone who is doing something aesthetically new or different or challenging—something that might shift the perspective or the philosophical concerns of the art form—they won’t stick with it if it fails to find a large enough audience. That writer will then be cast off into the abyss, and left to struggle to find a small press that won’t die, or spend their time dissipating their literary talents by having to learn how to be a book publicist and marketer for their self-published and hard to classify novel.
Then, because of the lack of review space, or more accurately because of the democratization of review space, there’s no longer a single, widely accepted “authority” that we trust to tell us what is good, or even what is new and interesting. Review spaces are now, more or less, extensions of the Big 5’s marketing departments, and so we can’t really trust things like the NY Times, or the NY Review of Books to tell us what is good because so many of the books they tell us are good, aren’t really as good as the reviewer says they are. The reviews are just marketing copy. And the stuff that does sell is even worse and it certainly isn’t going to take any kind of artistic or aesthetic risk. Also, the democratized review spaces, like Goodreads, are unreliable as well because we can’t really know who to trust. Is that 5 star review from a rando, or is it a friend of the author? And if it is a rando, how do we know this person actually has a good critical eye unless we track down their other reviews and, in an act of self-reference, compare that reviewer’s likes with our own? I want to read a good new book, not a ton of semi-readable reviews about a potentially good book.
Consequently, I think this is why brick and mortar indie bookstores are surging right now. When your indie bookstore reviews a book you can go in and talk to the bookseller that wrote it and develop a relationship and, as those booksellers get to know their customers, they can pad their inventory accordingly, which brings us back to the audience for books – the demand source of the whole literary endeavor.
We as readers know what we like, we know what entertains us, but the only reason some readers think “entertainment” is a novel idea these days is because a certain strain of Post-modernism won the battle to make the meaningless, plotless 500 page navel-gazing epic somehow meaningful and that alienated everyone from the first rule of good literature, which is the same as the first rule of good storytelling: be entertaining. Dystopian YA has got this down pat, which is why it’s popular even among grown-ass adults.
Perhaps entertainment is the new “movement,” and we’re not seeing how that is an aesthetic because it appears too simple and obvious to be an aesthetic. Of course the big problem with entertainment is that, by itself, it’s empty, and dangerous. Alone, entertainment is not an aesthetic. Jerking off can be highly entertaining, but is that really something you should spend all your energy and effort doing? It’s the epitome of self-referential navel gazing, which is what a lot of readers think big L- Literature is all about.
But entertainment is a Trojan Horse. It’s there and necessary to get in past our defenses of cynicism, suspicion, and ignorance. An empty Trojan Horse is a failure because, well, there’s nothing there except the reader, which forces an unhealthy self-reference in order to satisfy our subconscious need for meaning. A Trojan Horse filled with the wrong things (racism, hatred, greed, exclusion) is dangerous for all the wrong reasons (see Ayne Rand’s novels, the Left Behind series, or The Turner Diaries—all “entertaining” but which promote, respectively, economic dominance by a self-selected, cruel elite, Christian totalitarianism, and white nationalism). Put the right stuff in the entertaining Trojan Horse and then, maybe, you’ve got a movement, but it won’t be limited to a single genre, or even art form, nor will it be available only to previously marginalized groups.
But who really gives a shit about literary aesthetics anymore? Aren’t we all more concerned with survival, which is basically, the biggest “market factor” pressing down on all of us? If taking an artistic risk sets one up to be abandoned financially, are you going to take that artistic risk? The writer Brian Evenson once said to me that young, unpublished writers develop rigid aesthetics because that aesthetic is the only thing they have to justify their existence to their parents, but once they get published their aesthetic becomes less rigid. Well, how rigid is your aesthetic going to be if holding to it jeopardizes your ability to feed yourself? When I look back at the literary movements of the 20th Century, I see a host of writers who, even after they published, held fast to a rigid aesthetic, thus making a movement possible by insisting on the validity of their vision of literature. It isn’t until the American economy began to shift itself into ever expanding conglomeration, and the writer moved more and more into either academic shelters to sustain their artistic output or into competitive bestsellerdom that Evenson’s accurate observation about writers abandoning their aesthetic became the reality—and literary movements died.
WRITING & SUBMITTING
Since the last report I’ve gone back through The Palace of Winds and tweaked it. There were some typos that had, somehow, survived all the previous read-throughs. I also rewrote and/or expanded some scenes here and there where I realized my previous overfamiliarity (and flat out exhaustion with the thing) had left some plot holes. Now, back to sending it out.
The new project is still on hold. I’ve been preparing some vignettes and poems for a performance coming up August 11th (more on that in the podcast section). I’ve been going through old files, folders, and notebooks looking for things that are roughly 500 to a thousand words or so and are in the vein of the kind of things Bobbie Louise Hawkins was doing in her book and one woman show Absolutely Eden and her pieces from Live at the Great American Music Hall with Terry Garthwaite and Rosalie Sorrels, and in Jaded Love with Lee Christopher (which is exceptionally rare and hard to find). What I find most interesting about the hunt for suitable vignettes is that most of the time I don’t think of myself as being very productive, and not much of a short piece writer. Then I go through all the notebooks that I carry around and scribble things in from time-to-time when I’m out in the world and there are all these pieces where I’ve made some half decent observation about the world, or playfully used language and made startling juxtapositions.
And now I’m back to wondering why it’s so hard to get that to happen in my intentional prose anymore. I managed (somewhat) it in The Evolution of Shadows, but it’s been a challenge to get it teased out of The Palace of Winds (but that may have been a result of intention (long story that)). Then there’s Far Nineteen, which I’ve not looked at in almost a year now and don’t recall how flexible or artful the prose was. I guess that’s next on my list of re-tweaks. Except I really want to get back to the new project.
My most recent reads have been for the Crime/noir/detective podcast series. Recently finished James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, and Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89. I’ll save the critique and review for now since it’ll all be in the podcast when those come out in October (tentatively planned for then, anyway). These days I’m reading Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and Richard Brautigan’s Dreaming of Babylon.
Honestly, I’ll be glad when I’m done with the crime/noir stuff so I can get on that new Michael Ondaatje book Warlight.
One thing I have been squeezing in when I can is reading The Altar of the Only World, a collection of new poems by Sharanya Manivannan. I hope one day an American publisher will sign her so that her work will be more easily available in the states. She’s with Harpercollins India right now, so it shouldn’t be too hard of a leap for Harpercollins to bring her here. Her writing is breathtaking and daring, and you should make every effort to read it. I would recommend getting your hands on her collection of short fiction The High Priestess Never Marries.
I’m finishing up the crime/noir/mystery podcast. Two more episodes to go. I’ve had a bit of technical snag with episode three (Megan Abbott and Charles Willeford), but perhaps my new “producer” can fix it. If not, we’ll come up with something.
That’s right, I’ve recruited a producer. We’re still negotiating compensation, but both excited to be working together on the podcast. I need the technical help and my would-be producer needs to build a post-radio days stuff for a portfolio. There may be some special content for sale, some begging for donations, or something along those lines to help compensate the producer’s time and effort, but it’ll be worth it for a better polished podcast.
I’m also prepping for the first live podcast. I’ll be working with a band called The Ezras to put on Outrider Live: Words and Music. It’ll be recorded on Aug. 11th and the show will released on the Podcast in late August or early September. If ti all goes well, Shawn Craver (of the Ezras and a writer) hope to do more shows with other writers and musicians.
I’ve started a classic movie night with friends, and so far we’ve done Breakfast at Tiffany’s (June), and The Thin Man (July), which I’d never seen before. Next up in August is Gaslight, I believe the 1944 version with Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton, but I’m not sure.
A number of my friends haven’t seen Time Bandits, which I find astounding and am oddly excited about sharing it with them.
There was a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain that got me thinking. It was called Rebel With A Cause, and it was about rule breaking—more or less—and the “curse of knowledge,” which basically means that experts sometimes forget what it’s like to be a beginner or novice and so lose the wonder, curiosity, and awkwardness that put a fire into their early forays into the field of their expertise. It put me in mind of a conversation I had with a friend not long ago about my own writing. This friend encouraged me quit worrying about putting all these elaborate requirements on my writing and just tell a story. In some ways, this friend was right.
I have been putting a lot of requirements on the projects I’ve been working on lately. My rationale has been that by putting a certain requirement in place—a limitation—it will force me to come up with a creative solution to get around that limitation. The problem, I think, isn’t the limitation itself, but how I’m responding to it. When I first started writing, and when I wrote The Evolution of Shadows, my limitations were largely unintentional. They were limitations of novice-hood and limitations born of a lack of experience as a writer. Since then, I’ve cranked out several manuscripts, even though none have been published. Each one has been a learning experience, despite their failures. Some of those manuscripts were, simply just too flawed to go anywhere, like the finished but unfixable novel By The Still, Still Water, and the 500 plus page epic conspiracy novel that ran out of gas called The God Tamers (title stolen from a line in “Silver” by Echo and Bunnymen), and the abandoned rock-n-roll serial killer novel Gravity Push (might go back to it). Then there are the finished ones that seem, at least for now, to be worthwhile—The Palace of Winds (a re-imagining of Jason & the Golden Fleece) and Far Nineteen (a story about deep-seated racial conflict and a dead body in a time capsule).
When I started out, I was fairly good at plot, dialogue, and point of view. Not a bad repertoire for a beginner, but my language as dull, functional, journalistic. There was not much poetry to it, and certainly no grace or personality. It was also missing that certain thing that comes from getting access to, and trusting, your native intelligence and the ability to tap into those truths we all know about what it means to be human and to suffer (or to be joyful, in love, etc.) and say something about those things in a new and artful way.
I think I let go of my beginner’s mindset too early. I went from asking “what do I do next?” to saying “this is what I do next” as if it was all understood now how I should apply my knowledge and proceed. I don’t like formulas, I don’t like formulaic writing, and although I enjoy various sub-genres of literature like Mystery, Sci-fi, Fantasy, etc. I don’t want to write exclusively in one sub-genre. My favorite books, and the book I’m always looking for but can’t find (ergo I then decided that I should write them), are ones like those written by Michael Ondaatje, John Berger, Lawrence Durrell, Jeff Talarigo, Emily St. John Mandel, Laird Hunt, Sharanya Manivannan, Italo Calvino, Jack Kerouac, James Tate, Michael Chabon, Alexs D. Pate, and others (William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow is astounding, Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish crushes me, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars breaks my heart). In effect, I’d built myself a formula without knowing and have been flailing about inside it, not breaking the arbitrary rules I’d set for myself, which were based on a desire to not follow the “rules” of a formula.
Now. . . to fix it.