$3 cover charge

Recently, I finished up an essay and sent it out into the world — that is, launched it into the galaxy of literary magazines that might hopefully publish it one day. It had been a while since I’d submitted something, but not that long, and I was surprised by how expensive it’s now become to submit.

Here in wonderful 2015, most literary magazines use Submittable, an online submission manager. It’s basically a great big Google docs folder in the sky where you upload your story or poem or essay. There are a couple of different incarnations of these managers, but it seems like in the past couple of years Submittable (which was formerly called by the marble-garble name Submishmash) has cornered the market in this little pass through filter of the lit mag-o-sphere. All of which, from a technical aspect, is fine and dandy. I am old enough to remember collating all of the various ingredients in a hard copy submission, making sure that the SASE had an actual stamp on it, and had one’s return address, and perhaps some indication of which literary magazine was responding with their form rejection. Back then, submission day was an event. You needed an assembly line mentality to get everything ship shape and out the door. Now, as with with most modern web-based conveniences, you can basically do it anywhere you have a wi-fi connection, in any state of professional togetherness, or lack thereof. Which is, again, great. Submittable has a built-in tracker so you can see where you submitted and when they rejected you. It makes everything easier.

The bummer angle is that some magazines, at first just a few, were charging people to submit via Submittable, typically about $3. This was to “defray costs,” which I think means a) the cost of implementing the service itself and b) whatever printing of submissions the magazine conducts. When it was just a few mags, fine. They were easy to avoid. But in the not that many months since the last time I went through my little lit mag submission square dance, it seems like almost everyone is now charging. And this will just not do, for a variety of reasons.

First off, let me say that I am sympathetic to literary magazines: every day they push the boulder uphill and it never gets any easier. The people who run literary magazines — these people are basically saints. Because while the agents are taking lunches and thinking about whether or not zombies are still a thing, these people are out there finding actual literature and giving it a home, over and over and over again, for almost no reward and in the face of near constant societal indifference.

What’s more, I get that in general literary magazines are simply inundated with submissions, a prospect which is only made worse by the convenience of moving the process online. And I get that the economic prospects of all journals would be much better if just 25% of all submitters subscribed to the magazines that they sent their stuff to.

Defensive digression: I have and do subscribe to several lit mags. Never as many as I should, but there’s always next year. And I try to follow the general rule of submitting to places I actually read and enjoy, not just hitting on any warm body crossing the dance floor.

And I get that under some economic lights, charging for submissions makes sense. It helps raise much needed money, on the one hand, and it helps discourage submissions on the other. It acts as an impulse-checker, a seriousness threshold. And I should admit that some of the lit mags that charge for online submissions still allow old-fashioned print submissions for “free.”

I put “free” in scare-quotes because one of the arguments pro-fee is that in the olden days, when you mailed in your submission, you were still paying for it. It’s just that the fee went for postage and for the costs of printing out and putting the submission in an envelope. That is, the fee went toward intermediary logistical forces. However, I still think charging for submissions is skeezy, and wrong, and will be the end of “independent,” “literary” “magazines.” (Let’s thumb-wrestle over these terms another day, shall we?)

First, my most trivial objection: using these fees to print out submissions. The lit mags should not be printing out these online submissions. Yes, I realize reading on paper heightens concentration, but if you’re dealing with a large volume of manuscripts, the majority of which will not be read all the way through because they are not remotely appropriate for a given publication, and you’re receiving those manuscripts in a digital format, why on earth would you then print those manuscripts out? In this day and age of ereaders and tablets and Dropboxes? In this environment, it seems like you would print out only those stories that you, as editors, were emphatically serious about.

Second, to defray the costs of using the service. Just how much does it cost to subscribe to Submittable? Is it that much? (Update: see blow.) If it was that onerous, it seems like one could bootstrap a version with a little Gmail, some incoming message rules, shareable Google docs, and a well-maintained spreadsheet. I realize these places receive thousands upon thousands of submissions, but the technology component isn’t that difficult. What’s difficult is the unrelenting labor of staying on top of it.

In terms of throttling the amount of submissions, it seems like a better way would simply be to close submissions when the fridge gets too full or to have clearly delineated open/closed seasons for submissions. (But please not the tax-code level difficulty of Glimmer Train, which necessitates a writer building her own software just to track what door is open when.)

There’s a meaningful distinction to be made between a place like Glimmer Train, or The Missouri Review, or Subtropics, whose issues are composed mostly (I assume) of material submitted blindly by writers versus magazines like n+1 which are written by contributing editors or a cadre of pseudo staff-writers. There’s even a good distinction to make between “little magazines” more collectively and their reliance on content written almost entirely on spec versus the New Yorker or other glossier publications that subsist on queries. Much of this editorial/authorial headache comes down to writing on spec versus writing on query, which is to say writing that’s “art” (or aspires to be) versus writing that is journalism (or aspires to be). Of course these teams overlap, but it’s these conceptual premises that are important. You can pitch the New Yorker nonfiction, but you have to submit an entire piece of short fiction, and that’s because most journalism is conceptually driven or angle driven and can be course corrected (to an extent) along the way, while fiction (to an extent) is a cake that only exists after it’s fully baked. You can do the icing and trim the fondant together but it doesn’t make sense as a cake until it’s already in existence as a cake. And because all of this material has to be written on spec, it takes much longer to evaluate it.

Furthermore, I realize that literary magazines need money, but this little corner of American literature is already rank with contests and their “prizes” and their entry fees, which of course go toward a subscription to the magazine and toward the prize money itself. Once a year, more or less, mags solicit an esteemed author to be a judge and charge everyone $20 to enter. Meanwhile, at least in the past, you could submit “regularly” to the magazine for free. These contests always felt like a scam and an admittedly shameful method of generating money. You could quickly go broke submitting your dinky little story to magazine contests. (The book contests conducted by university presses are only a slightly less problematic, yet more interesting, sibling to this problem.)

But fine, one could avoid the contests and vow not to enter them. But now the fees have trickled down to regular submissions. I realize that $3 is not a lot of money to submit an essay to a literary magazine, but it’s the principle. It’s like paying the bar for the privilege of playing music there on Saturday night. I realize that the magazine needs more paying readers but that in part is what a magazine is about — what a magazine is for. As a magazine, you are the magnetic force that attracts readers to your collated, curated, bundled goodness. That’s why we, blind writers, come to you — not just for your editorial wisdom, your “acceptance,” but also because you’ve got the readers! You’re where the party’s at! But by charging the writers to submit, by saying, “You must support us economically,” magazines seem to be forfeiting that obligation. I am not speaking of one lit mag in particular. I am trying to generalize from my ether-stream feelings. If in the past, the writer and the lit mag worked collaboratively in the spirit of the gift to create not just literature but a context for literature, that gift exchange has been converted into a market exchange where the lit mag is now selling access, is selling its attention, selling the reader the statistically slim opportunity of publication.

How can this turn out well for either writers or lit mags? How, especially in this day of free online distribution of one’s digitized words to friends and family, can lit mags survive this exploitation of their oldest collaborator? And how can the world of lit mags not turn even further inward, turning basically into a closed respirator of work by graduate students, for graduate students, and for their nominally sponsoring institutions? It makes the whole endeavor feel like writing for the high school newspaper. It doesn’t purport to reach an audience or a public. It only seeks to perpetuate itself in a pseudo-imitation of literary scholarship, which is by design only intended to be read by a handful of professional specialists. In this world, literature ceases to be an oblique strategy of communication and becomes merely a credentialing gesture, a cheesy certificate of accomplishment. Publication becomes not also but only an avenue of professional distinction, not an instantiation of anything someone off-campus would actually read. No wonder Medium is so tempting.

Update: I heard from an editor friend, and she said that depending on the number of submissions a magazine receives per month and the number of accounts one needs for various editors, the cost is not inconsiderable. Perhaps I’ve been so thoroughly wooed by my free Gmail that I assume all shiny computer applications are free — obv not the case.

Dear Diary: A Note

Zadie Smith has a post up at Rookie Mag about her inability to keep a diary.

A bit later I tried again, this time concentrating only on school, like a Judy Blume character, detailing playground incidents and friendship drama, but I was never able to block from my mind a possible audience, and this ruined it for me: It felt like homework. I was always trying to frame things to my advantage in case so-and-so at school picked it up and showed it to everybody. The dishonesty of diary writing — this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself — I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts. Or maybe it’s the other way ’round: Some people are able to write frankly, simply, of how they feel, whereas I can’t stop myself turning it into a pretty pattern.

The same childish questions get to me. Who is it for? What is this voice? Who am I trying to kid — myself?

I realize I don’t want any record of my days. I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it. I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened — and I like it that way.

At the end of the post, Smith says that the closest artifact she has to a diary is her email account.

As I read, I found myself agreeing with escalating intensity. I’ve never been able to keep a diary for longer than a day, but I’ve always felt that a diary, or a semi-disciplined journal at least, is simply something I should do. (Cheever did it despite pickling himself for decades!)

The difficulty of figuring out who the diary is written for is a pertinent question, one which reminds me of the predicament of blogging (or at least, my predicament of blogging). Of course, many early blogs functioned like diaries with daily entries about what went down. But a traditional private diary is a kind of talking to oneself, as opposed to the potential void of everyone/no one that the internet generously provides. One problem I have with blogging, such as it is, is that I can’t quite ascertain my audience. There’s no context for it. Or more precisely, a good blog creates its own context by virtue of the subjects it cites, the links it includes, and the regularity of its appearance. It both gloms on to some pre-existing context and creates its own.

But without this pegging — if your blogger infrequently updates the site with no real throughline in subject matter, if the only common element in all of the disparate posts is that they were written by the same person — then what do you have? A bad blog? A blog that can’t get its act together?

Which could be one reason why I’m essentially trying to fortify my blog posts into brief stand-alone essays. Or “notes.” With a lack of constructed context, the lack of an ongoing entertainment enterprise, the posts (optimistically) have to be polished enough to make some sort of independent sense, and not to embarrass me overmuch, and to keep you coming back.

Crack that whip

I’ve got a new essay out in the world. “Portrait of Bullwhip” was published yesterday over at BULL Men’s Fiction. Yes, I realize that the essay is actually not fiction, but there is more to BULL than meets the eye.

Anyway, the essay is about Indiana Jones, and bullwhips, and trying to be manly. Well, sort of.

In addition, BULL has conducted one of their one-question interviews with me, which you can read here.

The New York Review of Notebooks

I like reading a sneer article as much as the next person but it stings when the article sneers at something you actually enjoy. So I read this article by Caroline O’Donovan at the Baffler about Field Notes, the brand of tiny pocket notebooks that are styled like props from some as-yet-unmade Wes Anderson film, with increasing levels of wincing.

Here is the crux of O’Donovan’s argument:

Obviously, people may record their thoughts on whatever brand of bound paper they want, and pay whatever sum and wait whatever length of time for that bound paper to arrive that they wish. That some paper goods inspired by labor ephemera have come to stand in, not just for a personal aesthetic, but for a bygone way of life, seems inevitable.

But the transmogrification-by-design of cultural history into brand into profit that’s being perpetrated by Field Notes and celebrated by AdWeek as a victory for capitalism is perturbing. And the seeming interchangeability of “design,” “brand,” and “lifestyle” — as though there was no difference between the object a company is selling, the illusion surrounding that object, and the human being they’re selling it to — is simply baffling.

And she does have a point. The notebooks are absurdly, pretentiously detailed with a certain amount of baked-in nostalgia for a time most users would only know about via nostalgia. The notebooks are a stylistic spoof off of the “vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books.” But what O’Donovan doesn’t allow in her analysis is any kind of humor on the part of Aaron Draplin and Jim Coudal, the two people who came up with and make Field Notes. O’Donovan assiduously interprets the Field Notes marketing copy and the related AdWeek article without ever admitting that this is marketing copy, i.e., a shtick, and a shtick that I would argue is firmly articulated with tongue in cheek. It’s shtick-in-cheek!

Though both have roots in advertising, Draplin and Coudal are neither rubes nor slick manipulators. I’ve seen Draplin talk in person and I’ve watched Coudal talk in an online lecture, and as people, as entrepreneurs, they seem extremely interesting. Yes, there’s a lot of intentional Americana in the Field Notes marketing, but if you see Draplin give a presentation you see that he is genuinely enthused by American vernacular graphic design. And so while his project in part is an expression of nostalgia, it’s also a gesture of preservation, of highlighting and promoting what were good cultural expressions and products in the past, and redeploying them today. He’s just trying to keep the goodness going.

Also, given the fact that both Draplin and Coudal have worked for ad agencies in the past (or in Coudal’s case, run an ad agency), it’s not like these people wouldn’t bring a grain of self-awareness to the product, or that their customers wouldn’t bring it as well. O’Donovan writes as if both parties — notebook producer and buyer — are corrupt consumerist fools who thirst for a false past they’ve never actually experienced. Well, maybe a little. But also at the same time I’d argue that they thirst for a ridiculously well-made notebook, a notebook with a Stanley Kubrickian level of excellence.

I, of course, don’t know Draplin or Coudal’s intentions. I do think that Coudal Partners, Jim Coudal’s eponymous company, is quite interesting in how it functions essentially as an ad agency without any clients. (Coudal makes this quip in that presentation I watched.) That is, they went from creating marketing materials on behalf of some other client’s products to making products themselves. They began creating products that they themselves needed, which came from their own necessity and conformed to their own aesthetic. And this is what makes them so interesting, qua products. Though I am buying a product (a notebook), the effect is not only of buying a product that is being sold to me, but buying a product that was made for some other unknown person who has extremely good taste, and getting the benefit of both.

Besides, they are good notebooks. They fit just right in almost any back pocket (whereas the Moleskine notebooks of similar size are a hair too long). They are well built, standing up to whatever level of ass sweat I submerge them in. They are easy to use, easier to use right now than even the phone, which has to be retrieved, unlocked, notifications dismissed, app located, opened, loaded, etc. Plus you can get barbecue sauce on it without triggering a budgetary and/or hygienic crisis. They strike just the right balance between being completely ephemeral and being potentially archivable, which is just what one wants in a small, pocket-sized notebook. It’s not too precious. It’s just precious enough.

Perhaps all of this is just me rationalizing my own use of these notebooks. For the most part, I use the standard small notebook offerings. I haven’t fallen off into the more esoteric editions, such as the subscription colors series or the one with a cherry wood cover or the new gilt-edged one. I readily admit that these are ridiculous, but I would say that they are knowingly, intentionally ridiculous. What you have, I think, with Draplin/Coudal is a duo that’s on the avant-garde of notebook production, just the way that McSweeney’s for a time was on the avant-garde of literary magazine production. The line of notebooks exemplify the Platonic ideal of a notebook while at the same time pushing the outer limits of what a notebook can look and act like. If we were talking about chairs, we could say that some editions are Stickley-level notebooks, while others are Saarinen-level notebooks. And this intentionally ridiculous exploration of notebook possibility is good for human culture, frankly. It’s true we’re all now leashed to a screened device that tracks our GPS location at all moments, and that on these devices one could, as O’Donovan describes, make lists or notes of almost infinite length. But if paper books are going to remain in use, if magazines, if newspapers, if notebooks are going to remain in use in any appreciable numbers in light of the (also rampantly consumerist but not tainted with some nostalgist impulse only the impulse toward a technocratic progressive utopianism) encroaching computerification of everything, then these media will need to explore what they can do that the new technology can’t. And so paper books will need to discover what only paper books can do. Books, magazine, and notebooks will by necessity become more iconoclastically themselves to earn their place on the coffee table or the back pocket. And that’s what Coudal is up to.

Of course what this article highlights, I mean aside from the fact that O’Donovan obviously hates me, is just how ridiculous it is to make a really excellent version of anything. It is inherently stupid to make a really great notebook, guitar, car, ham sandwich, novel, computer application. The act is by definition pretentious and ripe for ridicule because it betrays an aesthetic on the part of the person making it. And yet while we all can’t have the perfect guitar, notebook, ham sandwich all the time every time, it still feels good to know that there are people out there trying to make them.

Cross-posted here.


Just the other day, I was bellyaching about wanting a book by Mark Greif, one of the founding editors of the literary magazine n+1. He was, as far as I could tell, the only remaining founding editor who hadn’t published a book, and since he always was my preferred Beatle, I wanted to read his book most of all.

And then today some random internet gardening revealed that Greif has a book coming out this very month! It’s called The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973. I made this discovery while skimming this essay by Leon Wieseltier, whose name is quite difficult to spell, which I found via Nick Carr’s blog Rough Type.

So: mad props to Mark Greif, and mad props to myself for having book dreams come true.

Notes on Notes

I was in my first job after grad school when I discovered Gawker, which in turn helped me discover n+1. The two publications have always seemed like each other’s evil twin. I mean this as a compliment.

I went on to subscribe to n+1 and have been happily almost continuously subscribing ever since. I flaked at one point. (Come on: treat yourself.)

So I am extremely happy that my annotation of last issue has been picked up and condensed into a letter to the editor in this month’s newest issue “Throwback.” There’s a lot more interesting stuff to read in that issue of course than my handful of paragraphs, but still: it’s nice to be there. Happy winter solstice festival of your choosing!

Now: where is the Mark Greif book I’ve always wanted?

Review of ‘Loitering’

I’ve got a review of the new Charles D’Ambrosio essay collection Loitering in today’s new issue of the Quarterly Conversation. It’s been a while since I’ve had a review in QC and it feels great to be back.

Are we living through some kind of surprise golden age of the personal essay, or at least the book-length collection of personal essays? Beats me, but after reading books like D’Ambrosio’s, it sure feels like it.

Kitsch Revelation, Pt. 1

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on kitsch. (Hopefully.)

The man and woman appear on stage like a couple cast out of time. She wears a dress — call it a prairie dress — with cowboy boots, a look so incongruous it must be deliberate. The man wears a grey suit without tie. The top and bottoms match but they look well rumpled, thoroughly slept in. They carry guitar cases and set them down at the rear of the stage. There’s a table on which they place a small, narrow case. It looks like a little suitcase, except tall, like it might contain a dollhouse or a couple bottles of wine. It has rounded corners and a handle on top. They unlatch the front of the case, which swings open door-like, and inside are four shelves. It’s a miniature cabinet of curiosities. From my position in the crowd I can’t see what’s in those little shelves though I’m terribly curious. These two people have walked out on stage and promptly turned their backs to us, to tune up and explore their tiny wardrobe.

For early May in Alabama, it’s strangely cold. No one is properly dressed for this festival. It’s only in the 40s, but we’re all in flip-flops and jeans, T-shirts and mini-skirts. The shivering crowd is ready for some serious entertainment.

Eventually they turn around and make preliminary sidelong glances to one another. She plays a big-bellied sunburst Gibson acoustic. He plays a much smaller archtop, a nameless, historically vague instrument, like something retrieved from a junk store. These festivals always occur in May, just before the pestilence of summer. But today it might as well be February. We add to their strumming the percussion of our chattering teeth.

I don’t remember the first song they play. Let’s say it’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” the mid-tempo, drunk-a-loping ballad from their (at that point) latest album Time (the Revelator). The song begins, “I was thinking that night about Elvis, the day that he died . . .” and the singer’s voice — her name is Gillian Welch — breaks like it’s sliding off key, but as she gets the motor of the song running and reaches the lines “he shook it like a chorus girl, he shook it like a Harlem queen,” her companion — his name is David Rawlings — slides under her with his sympathetic harmony, and the song hits this weirdly soothing glassine lilt. I am unprepared. I’ve stopped paying attention to my girlfriend, to whom I’ve promised a sweatshirt. I’ve forgotten even that I’m cold.


I had first heard about them from my girlfriend, who in her first year out of college had become a sponge for new music. It was a fortuitous situation because my acquisition of new music had completely atrophied. I had made it to Aimee Mann, I had made it to Radiohead, but then I had surrendered. My tastes had been set, like an aesthetic Jello mold. But my girlfriend was then like a miniature A&R person. That year she was in a valley of roots music — mandolins and crooning backwoods harmony, delicate finger picking and strange, moonshiny lyrics. Bands she brought in included Welch, Hem, Alison Krauss, Nanci Griffith, Nickel Creek, Wilco (whom she hated), Emmylou Harris. . . She was a bit evangelical as well, buying CDs for everyone for Christmas. I remember when she gave the Welch CD to her parents and her mother called it mournful, which I thought was accurate. The music seemed bleak and scrabbled, dustbowl sad and not, you know, sad in a deep way. Like Radiohead was.

But seeing them in concert was entirely different. There was something in the simplicity of Welch and Rawlings standing alone singing and playing, the utter starkness of it, the utter lack of equipment and gear that was pleasant and challenging. As the son of a musician, a drummer no less, I’ve always been obsessed with how much material stuff it takes to create the simplest pop songs, not just in the studio but also when replicated live. And here were two people with no more gear than what many people have in their closets. They had an intentional primitivism that excited me.

But I had been down this road before. I had seen many a show where the act was interesting live, invigorating, and then I bought their CD — this was, yes, during a time when one still bought CDs — and over the next week or two was slowly educated about my misspent enthusiasm. What happened under the veil of performative darkness was all well and good, transfixing in its seeming excellence, but in the cold harsh light of the morning’s car stereo, the songs didn’t sound nearly as alluring.

But what happened was that when I went back to Time (the Revelator), it only got better. Perhaps it’s because the record is so close to their live performance — still just two guitars and two voices. But this still doesn’t make total sense since an audience always overcompensates. So many concerts can reach lift off merely from the cushion of an audience’s sympathy. But this record rewarded obsessive re-listenings. Like Radiohead did.

I was living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, fifty miles away from Birmingham, and I would commute over to see my girlfriend several times a week. I don’t think at any other point in my life had I spent as much time alone in the car. I would listen again and again to Time. And Time incidentally stopped time in that car, turned it into a moving box of air that Welch and Rawlings strummed. And yet listening to the record was like going back in time. I wasn’t sure what the lyrics referred to but it was odd, non-pop song territory: Oakies and Casey Jones and John Henry.


In the decade-plus since then, the album has only gotten better, historically deeper. It’s one of those albums that comes with hidden hooks that tug at you at least once a year, reeling you back to deal with it again. And I realized that Time came out at the end of July 2001, just before 9/11 happened, and in one of those historical shiverings of coincidence and premonition, the album now seems to be a comment upon 9/11.

First, the album seems obsessed with American myths: in the course of its songs Welch mentions Elvis, the Titanic, the Lincoln assassination, rock and roll, the “road” as mythic and existential stage, etc. The repeated allusions to various American disasters makes one think that the album in particular, and American history more broadly, is just one long string of intermittent catastrophe, a graph of history plotted along points of public violence. So that even though the album of course couldn’t possibly “mention” 9/11, the almost simultaneous occurrence of the two events makes room for the album to be about 9/11 without ever saying it. 9/11 is just another dark dot on the slowly escalating graph of national carnage and despair.

At the same time, the album is soaked in Americana. Though it came out just before 9/11, the record received its primary promotional push from the Coen brothers movie O Brother Where Art Thou. Welch was one of the neo-Appalachian singers who contributed to its soundtrack, and it was the popularity of the soundtrack as much as the movie that helped spread the word about Welch. The old master of American folk music on the soundtrack is Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass singer, who sings an a cappella version of “O Death,” and Stanley is himself like the grim reaper. Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Welch sing “I’ll Fly Away” together like country music’s new muses. They will resurrect the tradition.

But Welch and Rawlings also benefited from a more general resurgence of the traditional white male, both in music and in culture, which occurred in the wake of 9/11. President George W. Bush’s west Texas disposition, the mustachioed firefighters of NYC, New York Governor Rudy Giuliani, the phrase and sentiment behind “let’s roll,” the general post-catastrophe grip of fear and paranoia that often manifested itself in an old-fashioned jingoist racism — all of this was the historical context for the renaissance of rootsy American music, which is, it must be said, the music of old white people, a pre-rock and roll, which means a kind of music prior to the mass cultural miscegenation represented by rock and roll. It’s a more purely innocent, more purely rural type of music. I’m not saying that Welch and Rawlings in any way tried to co-opt this sentiment, merely that this was the sentiment in the air when they hit public consciousness in a larger way. This brief stretch of “roots music” could possibly be seen as the last truly popular efflorescence of white Americana, a ballad with which to end the Empire.

Which is, of course, a lot to lay on an acoustic duo. I’m also not saying that I thought all of this at the time, while I was shivering out in the darkness watching them work their magic. It’s only in hindsight, with the accumulated grime of time, that this group and this album in particular seem so emblematic.


About two thirds of the way through their set, they acknowledge the cold. They blow on their hands in between songs and grin at one another. Rawlings cinches his coat tighter and Welch buttons up a jean jacket. They apologize for not playing more ballads, say they’re trying to stick to the fast ones to keep the blood going.

At one point, they return to their strange little suitcase. They open the drawers and rustle around inside. I still can’t see what the drawers contain. Then they return to the microphones, Welch holding a harmonica and one of those head-gear like contraptions that allows you to play the harmonica while still playing the guitar. So, it’s their small bag of tricks, their minimal haul of accoutrements. They suddenly seem to me like traveling salesmen, but like time-traveling salesmen, a musical American Gothic, salesmen who come back through time not to sell you goods, or even their music, but to sell you time itself, to sell you an idea of time, to reveal an idea of the past, which isn’t a true duplication of a past time but its bent reflection, a warped convex mirror version of the past, bent by their own two hands, own two voices.

Notes on the new DFW reader

Last week I noticed via Kottke that the publisher Little, Brown has just published a David Foster Wallace Reader. This makes me happy, as I’ve thought that since his death the two Wallace books that “needed” to exist were a) a collection of his nonfiction and interviews and b) a reader, so that he would be more easily teachable in college courses. This last idea came from my own teaching days, when I occasionally longed to include a kind of DFW Swiss Army knife on a syllabus.

Now that it’s out there and I can inspect the table of contents, I, of course, have opinions. Harumph, harumph. Why have they decided to include syllabi and teaching materials from the college courses Wallace himself taught? I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’ve often thought that one of the aspects that made Wallace so interesting and compelling a writer was that he was always himself, his sensibility burned through whatever genre he was working in, so that his fiction and nonfiction and even his interviews had the same grain of energy. And yes, even his syllabi. The ones that I’ve read online have the same level of wit and attention to language. It sounds weird — it sound kind of creepy, given his cultish status — but the syllabi are interesting in and of themselves as written artifacts.

As pieces of art? I dunno. That takes more interpretive energy than I’m willing to muster currently. But I’m not sure they really belong in a reader. It feels a little funny to re-contextualize them in this way, which is a kind of Whitman sampler of the Great Man’s Work. Reading his syllabi and class correspondence feels like it should be the next level of Wallace interest, for intrigued autodidacts to seek it out. Like the re-publishing of his graduation speech in book form, the class materials seem to sanctify the person, to burnish the icon. Though without the book in front of me and not having read the syllabi in question, I am merely blowing out thought bubbles here. I’m just being opinionated.

Which reminds me: is it possible to write online without falling back on opinion bubbles? The writer Paul Ford has said that the engine of all internet activity comes down to the self-righteous question “why wasn’t I consulted?” And you don’t have to do much exploring to see how online writing has degenerated into a series of “takes” on the subjects of the day. So how does one (or perhaps more accurately, why does one) write on the internet without devolving into an editorial writer hepped up on speed? Because quickly formed opinions on complex matters do not typically lead to graceful prose, or even just interesting prose, much less well-built ideas. It leads to a kind of performative morality, a kind of keyword call and response, rather than actual debate or searing sentence construction.

Reading and writing online, I’ve started to realize how tired I am of everyone’s opinions on everything. And I don’t exclude my own opinions from this. My own little thought bubbles are tired, slightly shriveled — like grocery balloons four days after the party, huddling in the corner of the dining room. They only float when kicked.

And yet here I am contributing to the very problem by having and now articulating my own personal bubble re: the arrival of this new collection of Wallace’s writing. I often wonder: if Buddhism is based in part on removing desire from oneself, then might a corresponding Buddhistic internet mode be something like removing one’s opinions from oneself. What if having an opinion were basically a manifestation of a desire? A desire to be consulted on a topic, and that internet writing was the rage made manifest of that thwarted desire? What if one could write on the internet without recourse to expressing an opinion about everything?

I’m not sure I’m strong enough.