Coincidental Religion

I originally wrote this over on Medium a while back, but for reasons too boring and idiosyncratic to go into, I wanted to post it here as well.

Last spring I finished Libra, Don DeLillo’s novel that imagines the unfolding of the JFK assassination. I read it in disjointed chunks, covering the first half over a couple of months, the second half in one huge gulp. Consequently, the emotion it contains was held somewhat at arm’s length, as if I were growing myopic while reading.

But then, the following Thursday, I came home and followed the police chase of the Tsarnaev brothers in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. I followed the mayhem — this incident seems actually to earn the word — via Twitter: journalists on the ground, galloping after Cambridge sirens like hounds; police scanner DJs, EQing the static; and the real-time TV critics, embroidering (and eviscerating) the ongoing cable news coverage.

I’ve often thought that Twitter is the ultimate Modernist novel: an ungraspable fragmented mound of human utterance, revealing the consciousness of a culture in the crevices between tweets. And here, during this unfolding terrorist incident, was one of Twitter’s “best” moments, at least in terms of generating (spontaneously, collectively) a real-time Modernist thriller. The event was large enough on a national news-crisis level to magnetize and collate the million shards that is Twitter.

All of this unfolding meta-reality added a ghostly echo to finishing Libra. One of the key formal distinctions of the novel is the way that it unfolds in two simultaneous time frames: the slow accrual of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the much-faster unfolding of the plot to assassinate the president, orchestrated by former CIA operatives, disgruntled after the blundered Bay of Pigs. It’s a weird narrative tango for the first hundred pages or so, but you eventually adjust to the rhythm and by the end of the novel, you see what DeLillo is up to: how Oswald is both the agent of his own destiny and simultaneously a cog within a vast plot machinery, how the JFK assassination is an uncanny collaboration between circumstance and the will of various individuals.

And that is what the Boston Marathon and its thrilling boat-in-the-backyard finish felt like — a story of personal grievance that fits within the larger Narrative that None of Us Control.

It’s a cliche at this point to say that DeLillo has predicted what life feels like now. I haven’t read enough of him to argue about this sufficiently. However, I can say that DeLillo is a master of the List: the agglutination of seemingly disconnected, often repetitive detail. Here’s an example from the consciousness of Win Everett, a former CIA analyst forced into pseudo-retirement after the Bay of Pigs and one of the principal architects of the assassination. Here he’s imagining creating someone like Oswald:

An address book with ambiguous leads. Photographs expertly altered (or crudely altered). Letters, travel documents, counterfeit signatures, a history of false names. It would all require a massive decipherment, a conversion to plain text. He envisioned teams of linguists, photo analysts, fingerprint experts, handwriting experts, experts in hairs and fibers, smudges and blurs. Investigators building up chronologies. He would give them the makings of a deep chronos, lead them to basement rooms in windy industrial slums, to lost towns in the Tropics.

What’s fascinating, on a simply novelistic construction level, is how dense the novel feels, how fortified it is with matter, both “real” and invented. One reads the novel with a growing admiration not just for DeLillo’s vision in tackling the material but simply his relentless diligence with the detail.

There’s also a novelist figure within the novel itself — Nicholas Branch, a retired CIA analyst who has been tasked (again here the weird verbed word seems earned) with writing a history of the assassination. He sits in his home office, under daily assault of data sent by the Curator:

Branch sits in his glove-leather chair looking at the paper hills around him. Paper is beginning to slide out of the room and across the doorway to the house proper. The floor is covered with books and papers. The closet is stuffed with material he has yet to read. He has to wedge new books into the shelves, force them in, insert them sideways, squeeze everything, keep everything. There is nothing in the room he can discard as irrelevant or out-of-date. It all matters on one level or another. This is the room of lonely facts. The stuff keeps coming.

I bought Libra last January during a trip to Boston. It was one of those rare brief spans of time where I was unencumbered by work or children or the little horizonal clouds of impending obligation, just a free afternoon in a strange city covered in snow, walking until my feet got sore, ducking into shops for warmth.

When the bombings occurred, their location made immediate sense. My winter walking had unknowingly encircled the blast site. One floats into coincidence, both historical and trivial, like a kid swimming in a river, as unseen pockets of coldness envelop your legs briefly and then drift away.

There were too many ironies and coincidences. A shrewd person would one day start a religion based on coincidence, if he hasn’t already, and make a million. Yes yes yes yes.

Relevant tweets picked up speed when Boston police released the suspects’ photos after 5 p.m. ET on April 18. A time zone and several states away, I began following the tweets intently via my phone, on the way home from work, while letting the dog out to pee, while prepping my children for bed. After dinner, I checked back in, and there had been a mysterious shooting of an MIT police officer. I followed the tweets for the next few hours, giving up shortly after midnight and the climactic Watertown shootout.

Various journalists get re-tweeted from the scene and are subsequently followed, like Seth Mnookin. What gets reported is ad hoc, invaluable, flawed, riveting. You can feel the exponential unknowability of the moment, the JFK-ification of historical record.

Was it three shots or four? Was there one shooter or two? Did Oswald act alone or was he part of a larger conspiracy? The answer to each is both. And (so it seems) it will always be both, the gears grinding against one another, the friction of data generating narrative heat. A definitive event occurred, but we will never be able to define it, and the more information we accumulate about it, the more unknowable it becomes. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is this way.

He takes refuge in his notes. The notes are becoming an end in themselves. Branch has decided it is premature to make a serious effort to turn these notes into coherent history. Maybe it will always be premature. Because the data keeps coming. Because new lives enter the record all the time. The past is changing as he writes.

When people discuss — I admit few people discuss this — the future of the novel and what comes next after post-modernism (itself a highly dubious term), I think: there will be no next step; the authorship and reading of such a novel has collapsed into the same individual. We are all Nicholas Branch now, all connected to some Curator who is constantly sending us more data to process, and we are all fashioning our own disparate and repetitive novel from the data of the day. Sometimes these factoids magnetize around an event, and sometimes it’s just the ongoing flow — endless and contradictory, collected and composed by us, individually and collectively, simultaneously, every day. Each day we renew the personal conspiracy theory that is our own Twitter stream.

Sometimes he looks around him, horrified by the weight of it all, the career of paper. He sits in the data-spew of hundreds of lives. There’s no end in sight.

Strangers in the night: A note on agents

A couple of months ago, Stephen Akey wrote an amusing riff for the New Republic’s website about literary agents and the weird control they exert over what gets published now. The premise is that Akey has been shopping around a collection of linked essays about poetry and having absolutely no success at it. As someone who sometimes accidentally forgets to procrastinate and actually writes short stories, as well as the occasional literary essay, I was extremely sympathetic to his plight. And as my little rantlet on behalf of J.C. Hallman’s latest book shows, I tend to enjoy books whose location on the shelves of your typical airport bookstore aren’t immediately apparent. We should have shelves and shelves of books we don’t know where to shelve.

Akey says the sad truth seems to be that unless a book has the broadest appeal possible or comes attached to one’s already-cemented, celebrity-level reputation, most agents are not interested. Now I haven’t had many interactions with agents, but even my scant anecdotal data bears this out. Anyone who’s sat in the audience for one of those agent panel presentations — where they talk about how they charmingly wandered into their current gig, how much they love literature, etc. — knows just how quick the whole talk can turn grim. In my limited experience, it seems like what most agents want are, to borrow a quip from Lorrie Moore, abbreviated film plots — a book that is easily summarizable, with well-delineated genre signposts (literary or no), and above all an easy sense of taxonomy. What they want is a novel that has the easy conceptual grip of a piece of nonfiction, something that can not only be discussed as a marketable entity but in a way comes predigested, pre-understood, pre-sellable because already sold. 

A synecdoche of this phenomenon is the activity of pitching your novel to an agent, something I have only done a couple of times and an activity at which I am (admittedly) atrocious. What’s interesting in the lit agent woo-o-sphere is how each interstitial bit of copy is its own genre, with its requisite learning curve. Pitching a novel is exceedingly different from writing a novel. (Personal aside: I still find it hard to pitch something I’ve written without feeling like I have also simultaneously turned into a gigantic human booger.) After another failing attempting at pitching my novel, it’s difficult not to craft pitches for various canonical works of literature:

Absalom, Absalom! is a riveting story of a boy, confused about his station in life, who returns to have a heart-to-heart with his old man, an old lady, and a room full of dust motes. A searing portrait of a family, a region — a world! Also, there’s an unexplained Canadian roommate. Sequel potential!

If a pitch sounds like jacket copy, then all the better because what it is (again: I’m guessing!) is pre-written jacket copy. How would I sell this, the agent wants to know, not entirely unreasonably. How will this be packaged? 

Of course, as a civilian reader, I never read the jacket copy, that distracting, wet mound of verbiage second only to blurbs in its manipulative uselessness. In my dream world of book publishing (eerily like France), there would be no jacket copy at all, no blurbs, no marketing, frankly. Just the author’s name, the title, and no more than three words of taxonomic information. I liked it when books just included a nice fat representative paragraph on the back cover. If this little glop of words rings your bell, then you might like this book, which you can also open and peruse even further right here in the store — still after all this time the best way to ascertain if you’re going to like a book. But all of this other marketing copy is just word noise. The single greatest benefit to buying hardback editions of books is unpeeling that noisy cover off and lining the recycling bin with it. Yes, yes, I realize that we are paradoxically in an era of unprecedented book cover mastery (Mendelsund, Kidd, et al.) But still, nothing speaks better than the mute opaque dignity of a clothbound book. 

Of course the larger problem here is that I’m thinking of this endeavor as an English major, and in some ways a major in English is the worst thing one can get if you want to write contemporary novels. I’m including the MFA degree in this as well, though I don’t want to rehash the whole To MFA or Not To MFA debate — surely the Coke v. Pepsi of the literary world. What I mean is that what you end up studying in your English lit class/creative writing workshop is not the most representative American novel from the 1930s, but the most exceptional novel from the 1930s. That’s what the canon is: a litany of exceptions, a library of shaky notions that for some reason sing to the culture. In fact you could argue that many of our greatest novels work despite the fact that in many ways they are hot steaming messes, in terms of being immediately comprehensible narrative devices. You don’t have to reach all the way back to Melville to see the inverse ratio between novelistic and/or historical greatness and total commercial nightmare, as far as a publisher is concerned. And so after several years of studying the exceptions to the rule — despite the fact that Faulkner or Melville or Munro or whomever would get totally murdered in workshop — you as a writer want to write something that is also exceptional. Nicholson Baker said it well. What you are trying to do, as a writer, is be as completely different from everyone else as humanly possible. But this is precisely what literary agents are not interested in. This to them is commercial suicide (and they’re right!), and they don’t want to assist you. Because of the way agenting works, there is no path to success except to acquire clients along a conservative aesthetic trajectory.

What does this mean? In terms of fiction, this means they are interested in big chunky novels that can be labeled “literary thrillers.” They are not interested in metafiction, short stories, essays, poetry, fiction that eschews plot, anything that tries to address the history of the novel, etc. (Though Hallman’s book found a good home, so I very well might be totally bats.)

Which again, all of this would be fine as wine except for the fact that all of the major publishing houses are inaccessible unless you already have an agent representing your work. They simply won’t accept unagented submissions. And so what happens is that literary agents become subeditors before the great gods of the publishing houses. I’ve heard of writers whose agents go through multiple revisions of a manuscript before sending it out, all of which is fine, good lord one wants to be edited, one needs the help, but what is interesting is that these agents are acting as editors without access to a publication. If your story is edited by an editor at a literary magazine, it makes sense. You are both collaboratively working on the manuscript to make it better for eventual publication in that editor’s periodical. Same thing with an editor at a house. But the agent is an editor without an outlet and no real control over whether or not any house will publish it, so he or she is editing it not to any kind of house’s vision of excellence (or even marketability or commercial viability) but to their imagined chimera of commercial viability . . . somewhere. It’s a weird declension of the editorial function.

But the disintermediation first of manuscript acquisition and then of initial editing from the publishing house to the agents seems like an unfortunate historical accident. Amidst all of the Harper Lee brouhaha over her “sequel” recently, there was a nice long investigative piece about the book, and it showed the editorial records of how To Kill A Mockinbird went through several versions and how the editors at Lippincott helped her revise the book. I was amazed at the level of energy they expended on Lee’s as-yet-unrealized novel. All of this happens now at the agent level, though to be honest I have no idea if it still happens at this kind of back-to-the-studs renovational depth. 

Another consequence: I’ve known writers who have done the agent revisions dance and had the novel submitted only to have it rejected by the houses, after which the agent shrugs and asks when he will have an entirely new book manuscript ready to go. That is, the manuscript goes off to agented-but-unaccepted limbo, like all the babies who died before being baptized. The only person who has lost here is the author, who’s spent four years writing the book, then another two revising it, then another one waiting for people to respond. And that’s a sad situation. It’s a situation that could easily waste someone’s life. The only solution then is to remove the book from the agenting universe and send it yourself to the markets that the agents aren’t interested in — the university presses, the small presses — to try to give your book a life. The agent isn’t interested in these markets because the money’s not big enough. Suddenly the prospect of selling your book is like working with a trial lawyer. Unless he can get a large sum of punitive damages, your case is not worth it to him.

Akey is not against agents. He says they serve a crucial gatekeeping function and that there’s a lot of hokum out there to sift through. (This blog post is probably a prime example.) I see his point; my historical query is why the houses outsourced this gatekeeping function to agents. It seems like the logical next step would be for agents to start publishing writers themselves. If they do indeed already do the heavy editorial lifting and if they do indeed have the keys to the marketing kingdom, then why don’t they call up a printer? They would seem to have more leverage than the behemoth publishing houses. 

But then again, in terms of the business transaction, the agent doesn’t put forth any risk, at least relatively speaking. The agent didn’t take the time to write the book and the agent isn’t going to put $40,000 down to market it, and the agent isn’t going to make the trains run on time to have it in stores on the designated day. The agent is merely the conduit for two insecure and bewildered parties who for some unforeseen reason can’t find each other on their own in this contemporary cultural megalopolis. The agent is a pimp. 

It seems as if publishing houses could acquire new books and their authors more cheaply without agents, since using them drives up the price, though I’m sure there’s a PowerPoint presentation somewhere showing how in the long run it’s cheaper to do it this way. Why else would the publishers do it? But despite this numerical advantage, it distracts from the unseen cost of eroding the publishing house’s editorial authority, which in the end is the only authority it has.

Once, at another entirely different panel discussion, I heard an older, more successful writer quip that agents need writers more than writers need agents; it just doesn’t feel that way. And really that’s about the most intelligent statement I’ve ever heard regarding the agent situation. I wonder if it would make Faulkner feel any better.

J.C. Hallman on Nicholson Baker

I’ve got a review of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal in the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation. The book is an exploration of Hallman’s infatuation with Nicholson Baker and is similar but meaningfully different from Baker’s own book, U & I, which chronicled his infatuation with John Updike.

Hallman describes what he’s up to better than I can:

What needed to be done, I’d been saying, what no one had ever done, was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception, from that moment when you realize that there are writers out there in the world you need to read, so you read them.

The resulting book is totally, enjoyably, maddeningly nuts and I couldn’t put it down. Before you read the review, just go ahead and buy it. Here is a link.

The book is way more fun than whatever exercise in cultural sensitivity is currently being given the critical thumb job. For instance, while I’m just being recklessly opinionated here, instead of buying Ishiguro’s latest bland beast, save those hard-earned bucks and get this book instead.

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In related matters, my one small teensy beef with the Hallman book is what I’ve come to call the Bluets Problem. That is, an illusory commitment to full disclosure on the part of the nonfiction author, which then gets elided at some point of ultimate narrative convenience. Certain details one has come to expect are withheld from the reader. It’s the false promise of total honesty, which on the one hand totally makes sense. No author can or should tell you everything. But this completely reasonable sentiment is trapped within the autobiographical confessional mode, which subsists on the promissory premise of “I’m going to tell you everything.” What happens is that by the end of these books I feel chagrined that I’m not told more about these characters’ lives, and then I feel guilty for wanting to know everything, and then I feel like I’ve been manipulated into being a voyeur.

This also goes into my personal file of what fiction can get away with vs. what nonfiction can get away with, and actually a useful insight into this comes from none other than Jonathan Franzen.

Quick aside: I know, I know. “Jonathan Franzen, blah blah blah.” I’ve given up on the mission of having an opinion on everything Franzen does or says and whether or not he is Good or Bad for literature. Seemingly, a whole generation has substituted having a ragey opinion about Franzen in place of being well read. Love him, hate him, I do not care. (But props where props are due: the first section of Freedom is a magnificent panoramic Steadicam of novelistic goodness, even if you don’t dig that kind of thing.) (Update: See below.)

Susan Lerner: Given that you’ve written novels as well as personal essays, do you find these two forms suited to different types of exploration?

Jonathan Franzen: I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive. And it’s true that in journalism and reported essay I am exploring something. I go to China because I want to know what the environmental situation is like in China. But for internal investigation there’s nothing like fiction, because you have so much more freedom to go to places that would be too personally compromising either for yourself or for other people. You’re essentially putting on a mask, various masks, in the form of these characters. The demands of a novel are so much greater in terms of narrative propulsion, that you are really forced to poke around deep inside yourself to find strong enough emotional drivers to get you through five hundred pages of the book.

The emphasis is mine (obv).

Now, lord knows I’ve had my own critical beef with some of Franzen’s nonfiction (short version: much of the time it reads like a failure of narrative persona), but this idea of fiction as an arena that allows you to mercilessly explore what would be too compromising to explore in nonfiction — isn’t this just the essence of my Bluets Problem? Because aren’t the rocks that these nonfiction books run up against actually the shores of fiction? Isn’t the solution to the convenient narrative blurring that happens at key points in these types of books — sort of like narrative blind spots — for their authors either to throw caution to the wind and fully exploit their friends and family, or to fully fictionalize their experiences and thereby discard the booster rockets of the factually verifiable and either make up or mine and shape experience as needed? Where “need” is defined here by the necessary steps that a book has willed itself into taking? Isn’t this similar to what Lorrie Moore said in her essay a while back in the New York Review of Books, where she reviewed three memoirs and did a sort of punchy eloquent shrug at the contemporary memoir as a phenomenon and said that the books under review acted like they wanted to be novels but didn’t give themselves over to the full reckless imagination of becoming novels? In other words, these works of nonfiction come across as somewhat post-novelistic but their apparent limitations paradoxically point back to the benefits of fiction. There’s gold still in them thar hills.

Of course all of this is in my wheelhouse of self-justification because I’m constantly looking for some kind of genre legitimacy for my own work. But my main point is that authenticity, full disclosure in prose, is always a pose. And a pose is the beginning of a mask.

Update: Today, March 19, 2015, FSG released the book cover for Franzen’s next novel Purity, which won’t come out until September 1, and people are losing their everloving minds.

Come on, people. We’ve got bigger Franzens to fry than this.

$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.

OMG!

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?