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Note on Advent

Parishioners at my church were asked for Advent reflections, which are being emailed around each morning as we march toward Christmas. The following is my contribution for week three, and in the internet-driven and slightly self-indulgent desire to log every piece of writing published in any way, no matter how tiny, I am posting it here.

We’ve entered the season of paradoxes. It’s the time of year when we celebrate everything shutting down, the long grey trek before springtime renewal. And though in the South all of our reactions to a potential change in temperature are mostly gestural, the leaves still turn. The change still happens. It’s the time of year when we bring a green tree inside our house and light it up to compensate for the growing darkness outside; it’s the time of year when we celebrate nature’s impending hibernation by talking about a baby being born in a barn; it’s the time of year when we pretend an obese lush breaks into our houses to give presents to our children. It’s beloved but absurd, holy but chintzy, overwhelmed with sacredness and alcohol, equal parts childish greedy joy and adulthood’s cultivated disappointment, an annual season of overdoing it in every direction. And this excess of meaning is embedded within the Christmas holiday itself; it both means too much and not enough. It’s spiritual and materialistic, pagan and Christian. And it annually tests our capacity for ambivalence and contradiction.
And I personally am not looking forward to it. This year has already outdone itself in the paradox department, as far as I am concerned. We live in a Bizarro World, where friends you know and love behave in ways totally antithetical to human decency. Where a third of the population isn’t paying attention and the other third has lost its ability to discern good from evil, even in the most cartoonish of forms. This fall I’ve made a harvest of being appalled at my fellow man, and now look at my overflowing cornucopia: rage, disappointment, vague loss of faith in our shared decency, doubt at my ability to effectuate change. These ingredients don’t make much of a meal, or make me much fun to be around.
And yet, the paradox of society — of living in semi-steady cordiality with large groups of people who annoy you to no end — must continue. How do I live through not just the paradox of changing seasons but the paradox of this particular season? How do I meet the seasonal obligation to love everyone with my whole mind and my whole heart and not yell at them like the traffic I think they are? Aren’t these people the least in the kingdom of heaven? Or is that me?
I can recognize the oncoming paradox of our shared existence, but that doesn’t make it any easier to live through. But live through it I must, because the days are getting shorter no matter how I feel about them. Days are like that. We’re all about to be stuck inside this winter darkness together. Who’s going to plug in the lights?

In hindsight, my contribution seems a little strained, overdetermined with unseen expository baggage. But rather than re-write it for this blog post, I’m just going to riff a little more, try to aerate the waters a bit.
One of the guiding texts of this small bit, and of my thoughts about Christmas these past few years, has been Adam Gopnik’s book Winter: Five Windows on the Season. It’s a collection of speeches he gave for the 2011 Massey Lectures put on by the CBC.
The guiding light here is of course the lecture on Christmas, where Gopnik details its modern transformation over the past 150 years. Before reading this book, and generally before having children, I was steadily growing to despise Christmas. I won’t list the reasons. They were not particularly original; feel free to supply your own. This dam of cynicism was broken first by children, whose enthusiasm is irrepressible and contagious. Their enthusiasm is not just for the annual raining down of presents but also for the high theatricality of the whole season. To them, Thanksgiving is fine, family and a big meal and a TV parade, but Christmas is fun. It accrues excitement as it moves along, like a giant snowball of wonder, and the theatricality pervades every aspect of their lives. This moves in contradistinction to my own holiday feeling that Thanksgiving is the grown-up holiday, the logical, rational, mature holiday. If we can dispense with the grade-school Puritan Thanksgiving origin myth and culinarily outmoded turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, then Thanksgiving is great. A couple of days to stop time and attempt to appreciate one’s historically absurd first-world bounty. No prayers, no religion to fight about, above all no gifts to contaminate the symbolism, just a shared meal, a brief respite of community.
(Of course, if we really want to improve Thanksgiving, we should introduce some restrictions: no stuffing, no travel, and your nuclear family must eat with strangers. No extended sub-family reunions, and you must make the meal with these strangers. The main problem with Thanksgiving, as with all holidays, is the encrusting of tradition, which always kills the germ of fun in the end.)
But what Gopnik’s book taught me was how the children were onto something, namely that Christmas feels fun to them in part because it’s such an emotional and symbolic mess. Gopnik unpacks the mess: Santa is a clear descendent of the Saturn figure in Saturnalia festivals from ancient Rome; cultures throughout history (especially in cold climates) marked the winter solstice with trees and lights; our modern conception of Santa Claus primarily derives from Thomas Nast cartoons. Coincidentally, and interesting given our current historical situation, Gopnik points out that the Nast cartoons of Santa were quite similar to his caricatures of Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall infamy. So, our contemporary notion of Santa is also at the same time a caricature of unrestrained capitalistic corruption. Stick that in your war on Christmas.
The other bit that bothers me about Christmas is the desperate yoking together of the Christian birth of Jesus narrative with the elf-driven night of debauchery. (One might call this the fundamental bipolar quality of our contemporary Christmas.) This yoking together manifests itself via the relentless literalization of Jesus, which begins with Christmas and reaches its apotheosis with Easter, with people acting out the Stations of the Cross, and passion plays, and extreme, Mel Gibson-style sadistic descriptions of violence. Forget the presents under the tree; this is the childish part of Christmas, this blind heedless baby talk. At times it feels like everyone needs to go back to school: the surface stuff is not what the Bible is about, or not only what the Bible is about. It’s like a quality quiche: the good stuff is what’s on the inside. There are layers of meaning, for pete’s sake. Getting caught up in the literal surface details, in the quality of the hay in the manger, in aspects that are completely unverifiable in terms of history, misses the point. Perhaps my Unitarian slip is showing too forcefully here, but God talk makes me queasy.
My other main beef with Christianity — you’ll have noticed by now that I am not a deep religious thinker — is the relentless Protestant emphasis on belief. So much time is spent trying to coerce people into believing all of this stuff. What about the old-fashioned utilitarian value of showing up and doing good? Or just actively avoiding doing bad? Let’s save fewer souls and fill more sandbags.

Anyway, that’s the religious disposition I was coming from when writing this bit, moving away from hating Christmas by recognizing its culturally mongrel and incoherent nature. And then, of course, the Disaster occurred, and you see the result. About that Disaster, I don’t have anything else yet to say, nothing worth printing at least. I’m still looking for someone to plug in the lights, or hoping to acquire the ability to see in the dark.
I’m not sure if any of this rambling has clarified my Advent reflection. But nonetheless it feels good to blog about it. Worth remembering, that: blog’s an ugly word but a good feeling.

Can walk, chew gum

When I was in fifth grade and about to join middle school band, the band director at the time was trying to dissuade me from being a percussionist. “Anyone who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time can play drums,” he said.

Now, being the son of a drummer, this was like being told you came from a blighted people — a hunchback-and-boil–type people. The band director needed trombonists, and I admittedly didn’t have the lip fortitude to handle the trumpet, which I’d been eyeing. I stuck with drums.

But these many years later I still have a hard time walking and chewing gum simultaneously, which is my roundabout explanation for why I haven’t posted any writing here on this international website of text for months and months. I didn’t intend to stop posting (at too long a length, somewhat monthly); it’s just that I’ve been over here chewing on some Wrigley with great intensity.*

I realize no one cares about this. At all. That was one of the painful yet freeing discoveries recently, made in private, worth nothing to no one. No one cares if you don’t update your blog. Consequently, no one cares if you start updating your blog again. You don’t even need a reason!

So here I am, again.

*And by chewing Wrigley I of course mean working on a novel.

D.G. Myers, RIP

I did not know D.G. Myers personally, and except for a couple of twitter exchanges, I never communicated with him directly. I knew him only via his writing, which I read with steady attention for approximately the past six years. I can’t remember now what link pushed me in his direction, but after reading just a little bit of his literary criticism, I had the singular question that so much good writing throws off: who does this guy think he is?

I was in my first year as a “visiting writer,” teaching various creative writing courses to undergraduates, when I found his A Commonplace Blog, and I was immediately taken — his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the novel, his generosity toward various writers I knew nothing about, his hostility toward political correctness and fashion, his sense of literary standards in a standard-less world. One of his ideas in particular has become lodged within my own life so much that I quote it to myself almost weekly. Here is the long version:

Literature is just the writing that arouses the impulse to preserve it and pass it on. (I call that the “canonical impulse.” Canons are inseparable from literature. To call something literature is to start a canon.) “When an inability to stay interested in Sappho lasted longer than the parchment she was copied on,” Hugh Kenner says, “the poems of Sappho were lost.” There are many reasons to keep something from being lost, however.

These many reasons cannot be contained by a list of genres, no matter how long it is extended; nor by distinguishing fiction from non-fiction (because there are whole literatures, of which Jewish literature is only one, to which this distinction is an utter stranger); nor by “privileged criteria” like sublimity or irony or artistry or “stylistic range” or “bravura performance” or anything else that can be humanly imagined (because exceptions to the rule will immediately suggest themselves).

Literature is simply good writing — where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.

I often want to emblazon that last line in my office — perhaps scrawled onto the surface of my desk with a knife. What it did when I first read it, and what it does now, is relieve me from the narcissism of minor differences that so much contemporary American literature finds itself embroiled within. Is it realism or magical realism? Is this novel thoroughly postmodern enough? Is this “experimental”? Are fairy tales de-facto bad and non-adult? Does this novel contain just the right amount of autobiographical confessionalism? Does this novel attempt to contain all of contemporary American culture? Is this novel new and different according to these obscure criteria?

Furthermore, Myers definition of literature forces me to come up with my own definition of what “good” is — articulate it, defend it, proclaim it, try to manufacture it myself.

I resolved to read Myers book, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, during my first summer break from teaching. It was a revelation. It made what I was doing — pretending to be a Writer, so that I could fund my own attempt to write — historically coherent within the broader institution of American higher ed. I had come to the book with a short, convenient notion of creative writing’s history: that it was begun after WWII and the GI Bill in order to deal with the flux of students, some of whom wanted to be poets and novelists, etc.

Myers wrote that there was an increase in creative writing as a consequence of the GI Bill but that the pedagogy had begun much earlier, at the beginning of the century at Harvard, and was a manifestation of the broader impulses of progressive education: the idea that every student had something to express and that part of education was providing the means and the context to express it. The book also taught me that poetry and fiction, sequestered at the high-art end of the hall, were above neither freshman composition nor literary scholarship. (I heard one senior professor refer to comp once as the “gutter of the profession.”) Freshman comp was the moat you had to swim through to get to the castle of courses that “counted toward the major,” and I had finally made that transition, or so I thought. But Myers showed that in the beginning the courses came out of the same philosophical impulse, and that the subsequent battles were over turf and prestige, and that I should be much less cavalier in my pose of artistic importance. All of us teaching creative writing were merely teaching comp’s kin.

Myers didn’t take away my gargantuan level of self-satisfaction at being a visiting writer, but he did build a lot of context under my feet, and he made me a better teacher. I began to tell every student who approached me about going to graduate school to read Myers’s book. It’s one of those brief, historically stuffed books that makes sense of an entire cultural phenomenon and relieves the amnesiatic MFA vs. NYC debates of most of their self-puffed importance.

If he had only written that one book, I would have reason enough to be grateful toward Myers, but I had the regular appearance of his prose to contend with as well. Lord knows I didn’t agree with all of his literary judgments (no patience for or inclination toward DFW), or agree with his politics (extremely conservative), or agree with his religious beliefs (Orthodox Judaism), or not think that at times he was just being cranky (which of course I am never), but the cumulative effect of reading his prose over several years was unambiguously inspiring. I began to read him the way I have come to read the essays of Cynthia Ozick — as a balm and a provocation. When I am feeling down, either about the literature I’m reading or the literature I am trying to write, I go to Ozick and now Myers to be reminded why I’m doing what I’m doing, and to see an eloquent encounter with literature in action.

Not only was Myers’s writing motivational and provocative in its discrete installments, he was also a model of how one might write today. As a professor who stood in opposition to almost all of the directions of contemporary academic scholarship, and as writer who had written for various publications but who was eventually fired from his blog and regular review slot at Commentary when he published “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” after the 2012 presidential election, and as someone who in his last year did not have his teaching contract renewed at Ohio State, so that he became a teacher without a classroom — as all of the institutional contextual girders that supported his regular writing fell away — Myers still continued to write. He showed what one person with a library card, a Blogger account, and an internet connection can accomplish.

And what did he accomplish? Well, he became a permanent fixture in my literary sensibility, and he did the same for several other writers out there currently working. You don’t have to do much detective work to find a wide swath of contemporary writers and academics who read Myers avidly, who not necessarily agreed with him but recognized the excellence he embodied.

Myers wrote that “the sum and substance of what it means to respect the institution of literature” was manifested in the “moral obligation to write well.” What’s so burdensome about this obligation is that it must be born every time you set down a sentence. But Myers bore that burden as if it were a blessing.

He died last Friday after living with prostate cancer for several years. He was married and a father to four children.

A re-design is afoot

Sometimes I endeavor to explore the magnitude of my own ignorance. Hence, I have started to fiddle with the look and feel of this website. How should one tweak the most obscure corner of the Internet?

The previous theme for this site was a riff on the Marber Grid, a graphic design schema used in the old Penguin paperbacks, and I admired its thorough bookishness. But this current and most likely temporary theme is “responsive,” in the lingo of the day, which means it will fluff your pillow and serve you tea no matter what kind of screened device you use to visit A Public Address System.

We’ll see how it goes. Progress will no doubt be almost invisible. Which is all for the best, because I think I pulled a muscle in this last iteration.

The Portable Son Pre-Order

The Portable Son by Barrett Hathcock

I happy to report that my upcoming story collection The Portable Son–about which I will increasingly make myself a nuisance–has recently received a starred review by Publishers Weekly. To read the review in its native web state, go here. But since it is so compact I’m just going to paste it all here:

Peter Traxler is missing something. Ever since he left his family, his friends, and his adolescence behind in Jackson, Miss., he’s feeling lost. Despite the outward appearance of success—job, acquaintances, girlfriends—Peter is melancholy, his thoughts returning often to the past: “cotton diving” with his best friend Jeremy; sexual encounters with the local girls; the loss of his father and its impact on his mother; teenage angst bubbling over into semiviolent outbursts. His connection to his old friends is growing weak and distant; “when you’ve been on party manners with so many people for so long, it’s hard not to growl,” he says. Hathcock’s captivating debut collection of nine closely linked stories reads much like a novel. While many take place in the 1990s, the powerful Mississippi setting often feels akin to the American farm culture of the 1950s (at least until Jeremy dresses up like Ricky Martin for Halloween, or Peter’s Dad watches Nash Bridges on TV). The ghosts of the Old South are present throughout, even while the main character’s struggles are distinctively contemporary. It’s all here, the awkwardness of reconnecting with childhood friends, the impossibility of integrating your youth with your adulthood, the longing for home when home is a time and not a place: Hathcock writes haunting, unforgettable stories.

This is my first book, so I am slowly learning the cruel art of publicity. For instance, when this review came online early last week, I set my shirt collar on fire and ran around my neighborhood screaming joyful gibberish. But then someone told me I should just go post it on Facebook already, which I did. And now, a week later but eons in Internet time, I post it here. Please stay tuned for remarkably out-of-date updates on the book’s progress in the world and whatever else comes my way.

News you can use: Book will out at the end of November. Available at Barnes and and and at Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS and Burke’s in Memphis, TN.

But if you like to be ahead of the game, the book is available for pre-order right here.

Is there a neat independent bookstore in your town where you would like to buy the book? Is there a book club that might like to read the book? Please let me know.



Losing Faith with Fiction

I have been mulling over the news that Philip Roth no longer reads fiction. In a profile in the Financial Times, there is the following exchange:

As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended. Half a century of celebrity, since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 brought him money and a turbulent kind of fame at the age of 36, has made him a master of the polite no-go sign. The conversation I’d longed to have with him since I first read him many decades ago, a conversation about fiction itself, died an early death.

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

How so?

“I don’t know. I wised up … ”

And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: that’s what I want you to write down.

So what did he wise up about? On a superficial level, and probably long ago, about the inadvisability of giving anything away when answering journalists’ questions, that’s for sure.

Aside from this moment, the profile is otherwise redundant. All of the information has been so thoroughly catalogued before that the accumulation of words seems unnecessary. No wonder that this statement by Roth received the most attention. But aside from this fleck of gold in an otherwise dry creek bed, the statement seems, if not declared, at least edited to be supremely tweetable. That is, mildly scandalous, gnomicly brief, invested with the shelf life of organic yogurt. And it dutifully sprouted its week’s worth of online mold.

But I’ve kept thinking about it because I think, in its truncated outlandishness, it so disregards Roth’s actual writing. He may no longer read fiction; he may in fact find reading fiction a waste of time. (Geoff Dyer has a great line somewhere where he says that all men eventually only read military history.) This statement actually isn’t that much of a surprise. In interviews over the past several years, as Roth has become an old man, Roth’s said that he’s rereading the classics, perhaps for the last time. A premonition of death seemingly haunts every move he makes–the books he writes, the ones he reads, the plots of his novels, etc. So one doesn’t really expect for Roth to have an informed opinion on that story collection by Miranda July, or the amount of depth to be plumbed in Téa Obreht’s novel.

(Incidentally, I have’t read either of those authors either, but I feel the atmospheric contemporary pressure to have done so.)

But the statement seems to negate what he has done with this life, the way that the news Salman Rushdie is going to work on a TV show and that he thinks TV can be panoramic and sociological in ways the novel no longer can (old news, that), somehow seems to negate the very validity of fiction.

But Roth’s fiction is thoroughly devoted to the fictional, to the idea of the fictional. Or to be more clear: his works are all about making stuff up and about characters who make stuff up, or read books and try to live according to those books, and suffer because of the miscalculation. So much of his mid-career work (the three novels and one novella that comprise Zuckerman Bound) are about the life of an accidentally celebrated author. And his late work takes on various American totemic myths and braids them with individual lives. And one of his best books, The Counterlife, is all about lives re-writing each other, except here it’s not new characters corrupting other characters, but the same characters re-written in multiple ways. The book is a novel bursting into several different novels, characters playing out different versions, different fates. That is, his fiction has been primarily dedicated to this kind of energy, a character’s ability to fictionalize. All of which is a long way of saying that Roth himself may no longer read fiction but the fiction he’s actually written is argument enough for fiction’s value. And not just because it’s “good” fiction, but because the novels argue on behalf of the inescapable need for people to fictionalize. It’s metafiction in the deepest way. It’s not the lighter John Barthian side of fiction, purely investigating the structural conventions of narrative.

I would say that Roth treats fiction on a religious level if he hadn’t stated so clearly that he considers God himself the most supremely harmful fiction.

Reptile Time

Here is Michael Chabon, substitute blogging for Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic, blogging about blogging:

Novelist time is reptile time; novelists tend to be ruminant and brooding, nursers of ancient grievances, second-guessers, Tuesday afternoon quarterbacks, retrospectators, endlessly, like slumping hitters, studying the film of their old whiffs. You find novelists going over and over the same ground in their novels—TNC was talking about Gatsby last week, Fitzgerald’s a prime example—configuring and reconfiguring the same little set of preoccupations, haunted by missed opportunities. That may be because getting a novel written, or a bunch of novels, means that you are going to miss a lot of opportunities, and so missing them is something you have to be not only willing but also equipped by genes and temperament to do. Blogging, I think, is largely about seizing opportunities, about pouncing, about grabbing hold of hours, events, days and nights as they are happening, sizing them up and putting them into play with language, like a juggler catching and working into his flow whatever the audience has in its pockets.

That’s wonderfully said, methinks.

Greatest Movie Ever?

Today in class, after somehow the discussion had wandered into my thoroughly complex dissatisfaction* with the acting of Leonardo DiCaprio, one student asked if there was any movie that I actually genuinely liked. At the time I drew a blank. My head became that little Mac spinning beach ball of death. But if I had had my wits, I would have cited this movie.

Wampa goes out for lunch
Wampa goes out for lunch

The picture comes from The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back–the coffee-table sized documentary dork-a-thon that came out this past October and which would make a wonderful Christmas present.

But between this movie and, say, Bull Durham, what other filmic experiences does one need?

*and thoroughly justified

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Hello, hello, hello.

I am pleased to report that my review of Sam Lipsyte’s newest novel The Ask is now online at the Quarterly Conversation.

Please link right on over there and read it. However, if you are pressed for time now that we are in this Holiday Season, I offer you the abbreviated version of my review:

The Ask is a) awesome, b) a real thigh-slapper, and c) something you should buy right now, right now.

What’s more, it sustains the qualities present in Lipsyte’s last book, Homeland, which I remember buying at the Eliot Bay Book Co. probably around three years ago, while I was in Seattle on a business trip. I remember getting rained on during my long, long walk from my hotel downtown out to Pioneer Square, where the bookstore is located, and thinking that this was a very Seattle experience and that I should feel grateful. Homeland turned out to be one of those books that you start reading before you get off the property, it’s so good, and which I did down in the bookstore’s cafe basement, where I bought a complex brownie and a large coffee. It was all wonderfully warm and cozy.

As bonus, related content, here is a link to an article about that bookstore, which might be closing: The plot thickens for legendary bookstore. It’s from the L.A. Times.