This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Cole Lavalais’s debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, had me from page one; more accurately, page two. “She sharpened Cecilia’s preferred poultry knife until the mildest touch to its edge yielded a perfectly formed line of blood across her fingertip. The bathtub sat half filled with water.” What follows is a scene both graphic and spare, alarming and lucid. There is something awfully familiar about this opening scene, and yet somehow I knew I was about to read something I’d never read before, enter a world and encounter a character I needed to understand better. “Vi wasn’t a Carver, couldn’t care less about the interworkings of her high school or the leagues of Ivy that would follow. The only thing Vi cared about was Cecilia ..." Cecilia is Vi’s mother. Vi and Cecilia are very close -- in some ways troublingly close -- and yet deep secrets and misunderstandings separate them. Now, miles will also separate them as Vi -- who survives the first pages both scarred and reborn -- leaves her home in Chicago for college at Florida’s A&M, an historically black university. Writes Danielle Evans: “Cole Lavalais brings Viola’s journey to us with her gift for language that is at once sharp and soothing, asking from the very first page that we not look away from what hurts, and that we not stop asking what might heal it.” It’s one thing to “ask” the reader to not look away, it’s another to captivate us -- intellectually, emotionally, even physically -- with said gifts. Lavalais’s rich, concise, confident writing mesmerizes; and Vi’s inner world of truthful confusion and yearning, as she seeks to understand her mother’s trauma and her own emotional and historical untetheredness, seizes us wholly with its intelligence and honesty. As Lavalais drops the reader into the world of A&M, our immersion in Vi’s perspective becomes our lifeline. The Millions: I was so immersed in your prose style -- the voice of the novel -- which I would describe as “propulsive” -- compressed and staccato, while also densely imagistic and at times lyrical. For example, right from the beginning: The air in Tallahassee didn’t move. In Chicago she’d fought to stay on her feet. Lake Michigan’s winds blew hardest through the South Side, pushing one way and then the other, rendering movement agentless. But in this new place, nothing pushed. . . In this new place she would either be self-propelled or static. Her limbs chopped through the thickness like a toddler on new legs. Can you talk about literary influences that may have shaped or inspired this narrative voice? Who have you been reading throughout your formal literary education, and before that? Cole Lavalais: The first piece of literature I can remember reading is James Weldon Johnson's The Creation. The memorization and recitation of the poem was an integral part of my mother's Southern education, so it became a part of mine. I'm not sure how old I was, but I had to memorize and recite it for my mother. The poem was in an anthology called Black Voices, which was chock full of poetry, short stories, and essays by all sorts of black writers, so it really was my first lesson in the depth of black literature, and I instantly fell in love with Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks’s love letters to the black community. One of my favorite fiction writers is Gloria Naylor. Her novel Mama Day changed the way I read. The way she rendered multiple points of view, magical realism, and setting as character was genius to me. I would return to it time and time again, and always, always, the narrative would extend a new and glorious gift to me as both reader and writer. So very early on in my writing journey, I did my best to emulate her, even though I didn't completely understand how and why she made the choices she did. At some point while I was working on my M.F.A. at Chicago State University, my mentor and teacher, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, encouraged me to work to separate my own voice from my influence. I was finally able to do that, years later, while working on Summer of the Cicadas. My voice really was honed out of frustration in my Ph.D. writing workshops. I didn't feel heard, so I stopped needing to be heard, and thus was able to discover my own voice. TM: Can you say a little more about the nature of that frustration with those writing workshops? CL: You may have heard of night blindness. It's an inability to see in darkness or at night. Those workshops were night blind. Anything featuring black people, they reacted as if they needed a seeing-eye dog or special guide to walk them through it. It was really frustrating and tiring. The things I needed them to focus on -- plot, point of view, setting -- you know, the elements of fiction -- came second to their need to know about the "type" of people I was writing about, or the "type" of place. They refused to let themselves enter the particular "fictive dream" I was creating because they were unfamiliar with the surroundings. TM: You founded the Chicago Writers Studio: what do they do differently/better than the workshops you’d participated in previously? CL: The Chicago Writers Studio is dedicated to helping a writer fulfill his or her intention, not the instructor's. My job as a writing teacher is to help writers tell the stories they want to tell, not to censor those stories. No experience is treated as foreign or anthropologized. That doesn't mean we don't challenge writers to move past stereotypes and cliché. Those types of shortcuts don't get you closer to your intention; they move you further away. What it means is that we don't question use of another language because it's not English, and we don't demand explanation for cultural references. I tell my workshops if you don't need mashed potatoes and gravy explained, then don't ask for an explanation of eloté. Google is your friend. Use it and keep reading the story. TM: A central thematic and existential idea in Summer of the Cicadas is legacy. Your protagonist -- an African-American college student named Vi who was raised by a single mother -- is propelled by the question, Where do I come from? Who are my people? This question has been explored in stories about African-Americans before, but often in a white-America context, i.e. the legacy of fractured lineage via forced migration and slavery. Tell us about the decision to explore the people/no-people divide within an African-American context, via the varied backgrounds of students at an historically black university. CL: It really grew out of my tendency to explore the mother/daughter trope. It took me a while to realize how much of my work circled this relationship and the idea of a daughter's obligation to her mother. And I guess I just took that idea and worked the metaphor for all it was worth. At the center of it, that is what privileging history is, this belief that we owe the past something. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, but in reality, the jury is still out that knowing actually stops anything. And as a fan of Freud, I'm also really interested in repressed memories, why we repress memories, and our society's insistence on uncovering everything. And the HBCU just becomes the perfect lab to experiment in. History is like a God in African-American Studies and the HBCU. What the African-American people were before our "erasure" by the Middle Passage and everything that came after sits at the center of educated blackness. TM: What did you, personally, discover in the process of exploring head-on this question of whether knowing your history changes anything/prevents repeated mistakes? CL: I discovered that it is all very complicated, and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, and it depends on the particular situation and particular person. I do believe that there is a reason that memories fade and stories are lost. It's difficult to move forward if we carry every pain and microaggression forward with us, and for black people in America that pain is massive. Sometimes forgetting is the greatest act of self-care, but forgetting can also be the greatest act of self-destruction. So it's all very complicated. TM: Without giving too much away (and hopefully to create some intrigue and suspense for readers)...Vi’s search for a resolved, more whole sense of self via her history does not yield what she thought or hoped. And at the end, the reader learns something that Vi never does -- a sort of “key” to her search’s misguidedness. Tell us about your decision to reveal historical reality to the reader, but not to the character. CL: I struggled with adding the historical information. Part of me felt as if the audience should be left in the same position as Vi and feel the same sense of fragmented knowledge, but I also know the novel is a very specific art form, and it seemed "coy" to deny the audience that small bit of information, especially in my debut novel. TM: A related question -- you do not at all “explain” the culture of an HBCU school, and the non-black reader has the sense of being a sort of voyeur and an outsider. An example is the slave auction event: this seems to be a tradition at the college, with a deep and complex history, to which the non-black reader is not privy; and so it feels both intriguing and unsettling to witness it. How much, if at all, did you think about audience as you wrote? CL: It's funny that you chose that scene, because I believe auctioning off eligible bachelors is something I've seen dozens of times on white television shows, but when the bachelors are black, it changes everything. Everything. And I had fun exploring the intersectionality of what most would see as a harmless and fun charity auction if the bachelor were white. In terms of audience, there is no universal black audience, so I just tried to leave enough room for anyone to climb into the experience and get next to Vi, if they are willing; but I refused to Other Vi or any of the other characters. I wanted to make sure the audience would have to do the work to get to know her, not the other way around. TM: Can you say a little more, then, about audience-consciousness while writing? In recognizing there is no “universal black audience,” pre-empting what you call “Othering” a character, and being aware of the work the reader must be willing to do, there does seem to be some idea(s) of potential audience at work for you. What does it mean to write for “everyone?” And have you received any interesting/surprising feedback from readers? CL: In terms of audience consciousness, I guess I can go back to my graduate workshop experience. It made me resolute and steadfast in my vision. I was conscious of audience in the sense that I ignored them. I wrote from the position of an insider to an insider, but I think that's what most white writers do, and it's never questioned. Does Hawthorne explain? Does Twain explain? Does Poe explain? Nope, but that's the invisibility of whiteness. For me blackness is invisible. I don't see stereotypes. I see people. I present a world, an experience. It's up to the audience, be they black, white, or brown to allow themselves to enter or not. TM: In the acknowledgments, you refer to “Vi’s story in many of its incarnations.” Can you share with us what some of those incarnations were? What were your greatest challenges in telling Vi’s story? And related to that, how long did Summer of the Cicadas take you to write? CL: Because I was working, had a family, and was in graduate school, there were long periods of time when I didn't get a chance to work on Summer. I finished the first draft in about a year, then I went to graduate school, and realized it needed some work, so I finished another draft or two while working on my Masters. Then I finished another draft while working on my doctorate, so from first to final draft it was probably 10 years. Because I was forced by life to take so many long breaks between drafts, each time I returned to the novel, I had grown as a writer, and it was almost like beginning again each time. TM: Are you working on another novel? Is the process similar, or are you able to work more consistently this time around? If the latter, is that a better way of working in terms of character development and revision? CL: I prefer consistency because I'm always growing and changing as a writer, and for a novel I believe a consistency of vision is important. I am currently working on a novel and two short story collections. It's much better for me to completely immerse myself in the world I'm revealing. Right now, I'm prewriting. I'm thinking about structure and plot and backstory. I'll be taking a couple months off this winter to start writing the first draft of the novel. TM: I would guess you work with a lot of young writers. Do you have any thoughts about what it meant for you to debut after the age of 40, versus what it might have looked like to launch a book-length work into the world, say, 10 years earlier? CL: I actually have more over-40 writing students than under-40. Actually most of my students are over 50, and it doesn't surprise me at all. I never really thought of my age as a defining factor in my writing, and I hope others don't either. I wrote a book when I was ready and published it when it was ready. My age was not a factor. I have an aunt who just self-published her first book, and she is a woman of a certain age. I'm not sure who decided 30 to 40 was the prime time to write or publish your first book, but it's all bullshit. TM: There are so many battles to fight right now since Trump took office. Or, perhaps there aren’t any more than there were previously, it’s just that now they’re more visible and polarized? Do you feel any more, or less, devoted to novel-writing given the time, focus, and energy they require to write? CL: I'm a big believer in the old adage "If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready." Constant access to news and social media makes us reactive to each new battle and distracts from the war. There is nothing happening that hasn't been happening for centuries. Find your lane and figure out how to integrate your talents and access every day. Don't be distracted. I'm focused on writing and teaching. It's what I have to give. It's what I'm best at. With every word I write and every would-be writer that I'm able to encourage or strengthen, I'm changing the world.
1. I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously. This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said: My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me...is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating...a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity. Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage. 2. Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range -- subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests -- over a long career. The earlier novels -- The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star -- form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga: I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly...even if The Exquisite wouldn't, I imagine, be caught dead with it. The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One -- inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south -- a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female -- a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts -- by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry -- of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel. What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret: He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road. Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing -- and too familiar -- in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions. Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge -- whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included -- criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology -- “cornflower” -- for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice -- acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people -- has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts. Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background -- stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life -- amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels. Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed. The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested -- as have you -- that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc? Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America. At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published. TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you -- professionally, creatively -- if anything? LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit. TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization -- are we doing better? Worse? Both? LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually -- with care and determination -- we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction. Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.” TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring? LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels. TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear. LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear. Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear. TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular -- not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns? LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right. In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same. All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at. TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one? LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation. I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it. TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors -- trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from -- is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy. LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good? Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions. TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?” LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did. I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was "Modern Family," and the moderator posed the question: "What literature influenced you as a young person?" My fellow panelists -- the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam -- named beloved, important books and authors. My answer -- which I think came as a surprise to most -- was that I hardly read as a child and youth. My parents are immigrants -- English is not their first language -- and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over -- something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos. The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college -- relatively late for someone who now writes and reads "professionally." Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience -- I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe -- and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn't put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I'd call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about "mystical susceptibility," the experience of books and language as "irrational doorways... through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them." I'm so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment -- because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I've picked up since then. It's true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago -- the project of frantically "catching up" with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill -- in James's words, "states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect... illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain" -- when reading. In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time -- "catchup" reading I'll call it still -- captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a "too late" (in fact, there may be a "too early") when it comes to the reading life. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley ... He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement." I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author's concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn't take to it as much as Hammett. I've just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler's recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I'd read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I'd identify with Jo -- if you're reading the book at all, you're Jo! -- but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female -- a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender. Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it's all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here -- four score and a decade later -- still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel's themes -- social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness -- have room to come forward. King Lear, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn't actually sure if I'd read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I'd "read" it, I definitely hadn't read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare's dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter's Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn't ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays -- Henry IV is currently on deck. Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin's stunning feats of compassion -- for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: "Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking...finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world --" (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni's Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment -- Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness -- inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I'm still asking them. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be "selfish," which is to say centered around one's creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin's/Edna's attraction to heterogeneous culture -- cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility -- is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call "gentrification": affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin's descriptions of Edna's nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: "There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested...Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience -- those moments when the inward life questions -- that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration -- collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read -- whole-soul read -- being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier's. Image credit: Wikipedia
In August of this year, my president, Barack Hussein Obama, wrote: We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs. We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women...And yes, it’s important that [Sasha and Malia’s] dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men. (Glamour, August 4, 2016) Sigh. This year my Year in Reading selections are themed: fathers and daughters. The topic is close to home: the father-daughter relationships in both my novels -- Long for This World and The Loved Ones -- are central. Not all the following fictional father-daughter bonds are as beautiful or evolved as the first family’s, but they are all complex and memorable. These fathers and daughters are flawed, some painfully so, yet there is an honesty and a messy striving in these depictions that I find compelling. The 1955 novella Bonjour Tristesse -- a delicious, devastating anti-coming-of-age tale written by Françoise Sagan when she was 17 years old -- tops my list. Cécile (also 17), her father, and his mistress du jour take a villa on the Mediterranean for the summer. In her own words, Cécile’s father Raymond, a 40 year-old widower, is a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him for he was kind, generous, gay and fond of me. Father and daughter are similarly flawed -- self-centered, hedonistic, driven too much and too often by a need for “physical charms” at the expense of intelligence or moral depth. Thus Cécile “cannot imagine a better or more amusing companion.” American readers in particular -- now as then -- will judge Raymond harshly, as indulgent and inappropriate and oblivious to fatherly responsibility. For these very reasons, I confess I find Raymond, Cécile’s relationship with him, and the narrative perspective on both (Cécile’s retrospective but not fully illuminated first-person point-of-view) not just refreshing, but persuasive. In an era of helicopter parenting and an oppressive parenting industry, the absence of all that striving by this duo to be anything but themselves means an implicit bond/trust between them that one can’t help but give its due: it’s them against the world. Both do behave badly, and others suffer seriously as a result. The brilliance of the novel, I think, is its power to reflect back to the reader how much you care about the damage the pair causes versus the assertion of their essential selves. Diane Johnson, in her introduction, implies that the reader unequivocally does, is meant to, read through the narrator -- assess her failures from a wiser, morally superior vantage point -- and internalize a cautionary tale of weakness of soul. I’m not so sure, myself; ambiguity teems in the subtext, and as far as I’m concerned, herein lies the elegant technical achievement of a prodigy’s debut -- the first of Sagan’s 30 novels to come. Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel, Home Field, shows us just how tragic the unbridgeable gap between a father and daughter can be, when connection is desperately needed and the disconnect no one’s fault. Under the best of circumstances, Dean and his teenage daughter, Stephanie, would fail to connect: he is the high school football coach, a hero in a small town and wholly absorbed in his devotion to his players, while Stephanie doesn’t much care for the sport at all. When Dean’s wife/Stephanie’s mother, Nicole, commits suicide, all bets are off as each family member is sent reeling into remote grief. Stephanie goes off to her freshman year in college, which lets Dean off the hook, sort of. In the short-term he reaches for another woman, as well as a kind of unconscious replacement for Stephanie in his niece. Then, when Stephanie suffers a bad acid trip while at school, and he isn’t home to receive the emergency call from Stephanie’s roommate, Dean’s uselessness comes into stark relief. Gersen doesn’t tidy any of this up easily. Her novel has been compared to the TV series Friday Night Lights, but whereas the show -- of which I am a huge fan -- leans YA in its goodness-prevails outlook, Home Field allows characters to scatter and come together more quietly: the violent loss hits each family member uniquely, and in the end it’s mere proximity and watchfulness that they can offer one another: “Dean got a glimpse of what [Stephanie] would look like when she was older, and for the first time he could picture her in the world, the adult world.” In Rion Amilcar Scott’s “202 Checkmates,” my favorite story from his powerful debut collection, Insurrections, a 12 year-old girl and her downtrodden father find absorption and shared passion in the game of chess: “We both hunched over the board. There was no world outside the both of us, outside of this game.” The layering of a coming-of-age, working-class, black family struggle, and the complicated, aching need children have to both admire and conquer their parents is beautifully done here. The mother character is somehow both backgrounded and heartbreakingly blaring as she whisper-harangues her husband for encouraging their daughter toward chess instead of schoolwork, and for spending money on a marble chess set when he is chronically underemployed. Father and daughter reach together toward something beyond mere survival -- toward mental vitality and mastery and delight. The tension that builds toward the story’s end anticipates the reader’s conflicting investments perfectly, and the resolution satisfies just as well. One stunning father-daughter portrayal this year came not through a book but across my screen, via French maîtresse-filmmaker Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum. Here -- as in her wonderful earlier film U.S. Go Home, which focuses on a brother-sister relationship -- Denis explores her interest in the romantic shades of familial love. Lionel -- a widowed métro train driver and West African migrant -- and his daughter, Josephine -- a university student in anthropology whose mother was German -- might be seen as a working-class version of Sagan’s Raymond and Céline: they have a special intimacy, it’s them against the world, and they’re each fearful of imagining life without the other. Unlike their privileged, indulgent counterparts, however, Lionel and Josephine see that they must try harder to connect with humanity, and their own hearts' desires, beyond the safety of their love. Denis -- a master of complex emotional layers in the guise of simple stories -- seems to laud that effort while simultaneously rendering its emotional cost and the uncertainty of its result. Re: Daniel Paisner’s A Single Happened Thing, published this past spring, I’d like first to set the record straight: despite its cover art and the characters’ extreme passion for the sport, it is not “a baseball novel.” Not solely or primarily, anyway. (Paisner and I share a publisher, which is how I came to read the book, and I’m thankful, since, given its basebally veneer, it may otherwise have passed me by.) Rather A Single Happened Thing is a poignant and whimsical story about a man, David Felb, stalled at middle age, who anxiously doubts then gives himself over to the possibility of a fantastical visitation upon his unremarkable life. The central question Paisner asks via Felb’s story is, What happens when you are carried into a nether realm of anything-goes, and your loved ones are not willing to come along with you? In David Felb’s case, it is his wife, Nellie, who becomes wary of him; but his daughter, 15 year-old Iona, hitches her heart to her father’s leap of faith. Paisner’s novel walks the sad, beautiful line that children walk when they love both parents and know that “sides” are forming; it also allows us to feel for Nellie all that Felb himself feels -- love, longing, disappointment. Iona’s evolving originality and girl-power intelligence leap off the page, reminding us that parents often pour the best of their own remarkableness into their children; and that ain’t nothin. Plus, if the same happens also to apply to Sasha and Malia Obama vis-à-vis their parents’ best, then look out, world: we absolutely do have hope for the future. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Take one or two steps into the world of literary marketing and commerce, and you will likely encounter the name Caitlin Hamilton Summie. In particular, if you are a champion of independent publishing and bookselling, the degrees of separation to Summie will be few. For literary writers coming out with a debut, or perhaps seeking to improve their second or third book’s visibility, the search for an independent publicist will likely begin with personal recommendations; and it’s via that word-of-mouth chain that Summie -- a lover of books but also, clearly, of the human side of literary creation and marketing -- rises to the top of the referral list. It’s commonplace these days for authors to participate actively in publicity efforts, and, while doing so, to comment on the fact that publicity requires an extremely different temperament and skill set from writing. And so it’s not often that publicists double as authors. Here, too, Summie, age 47, is exceptional: next spring, her debut collection of stories, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, will be published by Fomite Press. Bloom: You’re a books and lit person through and through, that much is clear. When and how did it start? Did you grow up in a bookish family? Caitlin Hamilton Summie: I grew up in a household filled with books, and both my parents are avid readers. I remember falling in love with writing before I fell in love with reading, oddly enough. I started writing as a preschooler. I wrote stories and gave them to my mother to read, but since I couldn’t write yet and had only scribbles, she quite smartly asked me to read my stories to her instead. I have always appreciated the respect she gave me, even then. I can’t remember when books became as important to me -- lifeblood -- but I believe I was an adult. Bloom: You’ve worked as a bookseller, a marketing and publicity director for a corporate publisher, a marketing, publicity, and sales director for an independent publisher, and as an independent publicist for both individual authors and small presses. We who love books but have never worked inside the business don’t realize how complex is the web of book publishing and selling. But we authors do hear stories of how dysfunctional the publishing world can be. I wonder if, as someone who loves books as much as you do, knowing so much of the inside baseball -- the “sausage-making” as they say -- is ever discouraging or demoralizing? CHS: Yes, it can be discouraging. There are several things about the industry that can wear one down, especially for those of us deeply involved in the small press world -- the fight for review space being one. There is the continual vast difference in resources in general -- financial, staff -- that make small press life more of a challenge. But I am interested in what books and publishing can become. I am quite energized by the revolution in books, the different ways people can now publish -- POD [print on demand], hybrid, traditional, large press, small press, self. There used to be only one real way to share stories, but now we have stories being published in a variety of ways, and I think we as an industry will benefit, that it will spur continued innovation. Every discouraging moment comes with a moment of success or joy -- a great and important review, the discovery of a new talent, that perfect pitch to a niche outlet -- and so we here in this firm get up and turn the lights on to make certain those voices are heard. Bloom: Of all the jobs above, which would you say is/was the most challenging, and why? CHS: I think that publicity is the hardest right now. Things are changing quickly, as we go mobile and more communities and publications proliferate online, and more books hit the marketplace. But those very challenges keep it exciting, too. One has to keep learning, and I believe that is a great thing in a job. Bloom: Most of your work has been in the indie world. Has that been a deliberate choice, or just how it turned out? CHS: I began in the big house world, in editorial at Vintage. But I am not a New Yorker, and so my focus changed the day I started counting the trees in my neighborhood. I thought I was leaving books for good when I left New York, but of course I didn’t. I worked at an indie bookstore, then slowly found my way back to publishing by joining MacMurray & Beck. At the indie bookstore I handled events and also maintained the biography section. Sadly, I could never decide how I wanted the section to look: should I alphabetize by author or subject? On the floor, I hand sold the same two novels over and over (Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons and Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi) so I learned the power of handselling, the importance of independent bookstores, and what they mean to a community. I remember that when we closed, I was somehow tasked with the job of announcing the discounts over the PA system. I felt such resentment as people swept through the doors, people I had never seen before. My dad came in looking guilty, and I told him to buy away. He was a genuine, regular customer, and he of all people should get a discount. At MacMurray & Beck, I was the marketing director, but I was also the publicity director, and for two years roughly I managed all sales nationwide, from Barnes & Noble to mom-and-pop stores. My college major was in Middle Eastern history, so basically I learned everything about marketing on my feet. As my career progressed, I developed a growing love of small presses, and so yes, it became a conscious effort on my part to remain involved in the small press community. Bloom: What made you decide to open up your own book marketing and publicity firm in 2003? CHS: Ah! I was laid off from Penguin Putnam and looking for jobs. But quite quickly, the phone began ringing. First, a small press publisher needed publicity help for a really literary novel. I had done publicity, marketing, sales, and bookselling so I felt ready to assist in a variety of capacities, which is what I did whenever someone called: I determined where they needed me on their team (and still do.) I really enjoyed my freelance work, and about the third time the phone rang, it hit me: I have started a business. Bloom: What advice would you offer to authors who are considering hiring an independent publicist? What have you learned about how/whether a book “breaks through” to get press attention and sales? CHS: I advise any author who wants to hire a publicist to treat this as a business. Develop a set of expectations and a budget prior to speaking with publicists, and make certain they fit your needs and plans. I believe publicity is all about fits, so an author should interview people, review their websites, speak with them to make certain working with them on a day-to-day basis is possible, get references. Ask questions. Sometimes breaking out an author is actually a ten-year process, a slow build from book to book. Sometimes it comes in a lightening-flash of bookseller and media love. I have seen it happen both ways. What I have learned is that for the books I represent, there is no set formula. There are definitely things that we know will be helpful -- starred trade reviews, other reviews in publications that really fit the book’s audience, a striking cover, handselling -- but I believe in remaining creative because you can develop all those things for an author and still not break out. Bloom: I confess that for a long time, when you and I were corresponding about Bloom, and book biz, and other subjects, I assumed you lived in New York City. Talk about that common misperception -- that all literary work and life happens in New York -- and the ways in which it’s wrong, misguided, possibly even damaging to literary life? CHS: You are not alone! When people find out I live in Tennessee, there is usually an awkward pause. People forget too easily the importance of the South to American literature, and even more so forget the importance of Tennessee itself to American letters. We have Parnassus Bookstore, and Burke’s, and Union Avenue Books. Vanderbilt and UT both have MFA programs. Also, we host The Southern Festival of Books and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. And so many writers are here! Pamela Schoenwaldt, Joy Harjo, Marilyn Kallet, Michael Knight, Amy Greene. Alex Haley was originally from Nashville, Charles Wright was from Pickwick Dam, James Agee was born in Knoxville as was Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy set his first four novels in East Tennessee. William Gay lived in Tennessee as well. Poets Laureate Allen Tate and James Dickey went to Vanderbilt, and Robert Penn Warren, also a Poet Laureate, taught there. The fact is that for the majority of my career in books (all but one year), I have not been in New York. There is a vibrant, different literary world outside New York—and some incredible work being done—and I think the presumption that the best of literature is in New York or that New York is the center of literary life is in fact damaging. MacMurray & Beck published the first novels of Steve Yarbourgh, William Gay, Patricia Henley, and Susan Vreeland, among others, out of small offices in central Denver. Free Spirit Publishing, with whom I was an intern the summer after I graduated from high school, is in Minneapolis. When I interned there, they were publishing books for gifted and talented kids that address real life issues, something they began back in the 1980s to fill a gap. They’ve continued to innovate. She Writes Press in Berkeley is succeeding with a new publishing model. Don’t get me wrong. New York is important, of course. But as book lovers and readers we are more than what one city discovers. Bloom: What would you say have been some of the most significant changes and trends in bookselling, marketing, and publicity over the last 20 years? 10 years? What do you think might be the Next Big Change? CHS: I have seen tons of changes: the shrinking of book review pages, the development of paid reviews, the rise of the Internet and Internet media, the development of the citizen (consumer) reviewer, and the creation of online engagement through social media. I’ve begun to think the next change will be in delivery -- in the methodology itself as well as in how current delivery options are perceived. I am so intrigued by the book vending machines abroad. I imagine soon we will be delivering books in great, fun new ways here, too. I think POD ought to be more acceptable than it is in some quarters. It is a smart choice for smaller houses. Bloom: A Next Big Change for you is that you are about to become a published author of a collection of short stories. A lot of folks who work in publishing -- as editors, publicists, booksellers, etc. -- have creative projects going on the backburners, in hopes that their time will come. And it has for you, after many years of working steadily and quietly on your fiction. Tell us about those years, that journey, and what this moment means for you. CHS: I earned my MFA from Colorado State in 1995 and had had a few stories published in 1995 and 1996. Since then, I have continued to write. I even sent a few pieces out, though none were accepted. Like many, work and motherhood were happy distractions for many years (and still are.) The recent acceptance of my short story, “Sons,” at Mud Season Review, was a sweet moment. I wrote that story in 1992. I have always loved it, and for someone else to find merit in it was really exciting. For as long as I have been writing, the book acceptance happened very quickly. As tickled as I was to get the news, I was also stunned. A few days later, when my family met to celebrate, I was more joyous than the night I had read the acceptance email. It is tremendously exciting! Bloom: What do you think lit the fire under you to begin pursuing publication more seriously recently? CHS: I had been working on a middle-grade novel and needed a change, so I decided to revisit my stories. I had sent a couple out, including “Sons.” When it was accepted, I thought, “Why not go for it?” I sent more stories out and then decided to go for it wholeheartedly and sent the collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, off to Fomite. Bloom: What can you tell us about the stories in your forthcoming collection? CHS: The stories are about family -- often about loss and about accepting each other as we are, sometimes about accepting ourselves as we are. Many of the stories are set in Minnesota and involve snow. I grew up in Minnesota and Massachusetts -- snow everywhere during the winter. That may sound like a trivial detail, but snow, and weather in general, are important to my writing. The collection begins with the story of a kid, follows people as they age, and ends with the story of an old man. But what links them isn’t as much age or aging as it is the themes of family, loss, and hope. Bloom: How will it feel to put the marketing, sales, and publicity of your book in the hands of someone else? How do you see yourself being involved? CHS: Fomite is a press with a small team and asks authors to do a lot of the marketing, so I will be working on my own book, with the assistance of my husband, who is also a book publicist. We chose the cover image with the publisher shortly after the book was accepted and just chose the book title and that has been a great process. We made team decisions, which I like. I have no problem letting others in on the marketing. In my experience, teams are best. Even when a team disagrees, we all refine our thinking and get better. Also, I may be too close to these stories and so having the Fomite team share their perspectives is essential. Bloom: Are you working on new fiction now? CHS: Yes! I am taking the middle-grade novel through a last rewrite and then revising a couple of children’s picture books. I still have a few short stories to reconsider. Also, because some of the stories link, I want to revisit a manuscript that is a novel-in-stories—a few pieces for that book are from the collection and then there are a bunch of others to add. Bloom: You have so much experience with book release triumphs and disappointments; and you’ve already said that a book’s reception is unpredictable. What will you consider a “success” for the roll-out of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts? CHS: Reviews. Good reviews will mean the book is a success to me. Sales would be sweet, but short story collections are always a tough sell. The critical reception matters most in building my brand as a writer.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers: What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade? We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds. The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened -- beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” -- that rape was the price one has to pay for staying on...they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves. Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid...about what human beings do to other human beings” -- such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” -- yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote: Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it...A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel...I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion...The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life. For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility. Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre: For the South African novelist...how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing? Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: "[C]ontemporary political novels -- the ones that sell, at least -- are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through...is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.” Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist -- David Lurie is -- her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal -- are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Lydia Kiesling In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver's copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence. That's a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men -- which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop -- and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much. Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described -- the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck -- all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.” But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn't be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life's Work, although again it's not fiction. But I don't suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant -- finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now. Edan Lepucki I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn't participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again...on and on, and I haven't even gotten into international issues! I don't want politics to be a source of entertainment -- there is too much at stake for that -- and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don't misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let's keep them separate. But maybe that isn't possible. Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel's novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it's whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn't feel overtly political; it's concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn't shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth -- with black slaves, for starters. The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family's history: for instance, one mother's goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can't have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming. That's...political. Michael Schaub Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the "finest form of free entertainment ever invented." It's a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain't makin' carpenters who know what nails are for." And this year, crazy has gone national, though it's New York, not Texas, to blame. That's why I've been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer's wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur "Goddamn" Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There's a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it's the perfect Austin novel. The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something's gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there's not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it's happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump). The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it's a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y'all. Or at least we meant to. Janet Potter One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics -- with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall. Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head. I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about. At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk. Cara DuBois Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale -- once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable. As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world -- to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman -- feels like a slow death. Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice -- the most important political weapon there is. Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
In my last semester of graduate school, I sat in my advisor’s office discussing with him my struggle with plot. I didn’t much care about it, and it felt unnatural to graft it onto my stories. He said that my strength was “an ear for language,” which was something I’d heard before. Toward the end of the meeting, he declared, a bit too casually, “You know, maybe you’re actually a poet.” My heart sank. Too little too late, I thought. I was 25 and had never written a poem in my life. To this day, I confess the idea haunts me a little. But prose writers don’t up and become poets. It just doesn’t happen. Or does it? It certainly happens the other way around, and that’s always fascinated me. Whenever I teach Denis Johnson’s work, for example, I often save “the big reveal” for the end of the discussion: “Johnson started out as a poet. Can’t you tell?” The students nod and consider; some of them light up. There is a sense in which I am making a subtle argument -- that “literary fiction” as a genre is in fact the fiction of poets: language-rich, language-precise, language-driven. Secretly, I want to fake like I actually was a poet before I started writing fiction; because that’s how you develop the full range of skill and originality. Enter April Bernard, Idra Novey, and Jennifer Tseng -- three talented poet novelists (among many more, I should say) who kindly took the time to answer some questions about moving between the genres, blurring the genres themselves, authorly identity, and their most recent works. The Millions: Origin stories may or may not be revelatory here, but nonetheless: tell us how you started out as both a writer and reader. Were you most drawn to poetry, or prose, or both, or neither? Jennifer Tseng: I began my writing life as a poet. Growing up in a bilingual household -- one in which the relationship between sound and meaning was constantly being contested -- plus years of classical music training, primed me for this. As a reader, I’ve always drawn equal (if different sorts of) pleasure from poetry and prose. Idra Novey: I was equally drawn to poetry and prose as well, and to playwriting. I’d write scripts and perform them in the backyard with my stepbrother and kids from the neighborhood. I remember sitting in the grass scratching out lines that didn’t ring true once I heard them out loud. Even in fourth grade, I was a compulsive reviser. April Bernard: I liked all words, but I loved poetry. My mother read to us -- there were four children, I was the third -- all the time. Recently I found something I wrote in very big printing on lined paper, about the sound of the ocean snoring in its sleep; my first prose poem, when I was six. I always experienced poetry as something that needed to be heard as well as seen, that was in a way "public." Fictional prose, especially by the time I was reading novels you can get lost in, like Jane Eyre, was a much more private affair. I never planned to write fiction; my one or two early efforts embarrassed me. But I never minded my own voice in my poems, even when I knew they were simple. The Millions: Writers who start out writing poetry more often step over/switch into fiction writing than the other way around. I’m wondering how much you think this has to do with the nature and process of writing poetry itself, and/or how much this has to do with something else -- and what that would be? JT: As a writer’s experience deepens, it can become increasingly difficult to articulate meaning within the confines of a short form. Our greatest poets do this. Writers whose poetic impulses drive their prose (e.g. Borges, Anne Carson, Fanny Howe, Michael Ondaatje, Maggie Nelson) and writers whose story-telling instincts propel their poems (e.g. Ai, Claudia Rankine, Lois-Ann Yamanaka) further complicate the task of making distinctions. Indeed, another reader could reframe or reverse or refute these categories entirely. IN: Yes to refuting categories entirely! Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, so many of the most groundbreaking writers in the U.S. right now have eschewed traditional notions of genre. Most MFA programs in the U.S. require students to apply in one genre and stick to it, which I found incredibly inhibiting. Before getting boxed into the genre of poetry as an MFA student, I wrote mostly prose poetry. I also played around with languages, writing a draft in Spanish and the next in English while I was teaching in Chile after college and later in Brazil. It took me two poetry collections and four translations to get back to that kind of experimentation in Ways to Disappear. AB: While I would never legislate the distinction for others, I find that fiction and poetry do function very differently for me as a writer and come from utterly different impulses. The novels and short stories I have written are very much fictions, very much made up, and the difficult pleasures I had in writing them comes mostly from the thrill of making up whole worlds. In poetry, I am trying to describe the given world -- however round-aboutly, however mischievously. The Millions: Idra and Jennifer, your official biographies might suggest a linear movement from writing poetry (to significant acclaim) to writing fiction, chronologically speaking. April, you’ve written and published two novels and five poetry collections, and one of those novels was your second book. Can you each give us the “real,” less simplified version of your movement between writing poetry and writing fiction? (“Movement between” may even be oversimplified.) JT: I’ve been writing poetry and fiction since I was in my 20s. Because I’ve spent many years working on the same novel (still in progress) and I rarely write short stories, I’ve published very little fiction. Before my first published novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, which I wrote to escape this other novel, I was “known” as a poet. IN: The murky area between genres has always been the place where I feel most at home. As for how others viewed me as a writer, I suppose I was “known” mostly as a translator before my novel Ways to Disappear came out, or maybe as a poet-translator, and now as a poet-novelist-translator-essayist, occasionally. But regardless of which genre I have in mind, my attention is foremost on the sentences, how to inhabit them more deeply and risk something new in an image or a question that I hadn’t written toward in any sentence before it. AB: The "real" story is that I never know what I am going to work on next, but that poetry is always cooking on the back burner and sometimes on the front burner as well. I wrote my first novel, Pirate Jenny, on a dare to myself (I was about to turn 30 and it was sort of a now-or-never moment) and then -- while muddling along with poetry, working at magazines, then learning how to become a teacher and then also a mother -- I wrote three more books of poetry that were published and at least two and a half novels that no one wanted to publish, probably because they were pretty bad. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Sleepless Nights, "Even bad artists suffer," and the bad fiction writer in me suffered a great deal over those 15 years. Then my second novel, Miss Fuller, possessed me entirely for seven years, until it was published in 2012. Once that was written and I knew it was okay, I started writing my first short stories and have published two -- I want to write many more eventually. I love the short story form and feel more like myself in that form than in the longer novel form. A very long answer to a complicated question -- but I need to add that I now do typically write poetry and fiction "at the same time," meaning, during the same month. Not on the same day. The Millions: I’m curious about the question of writerly identity: does it matter to you whether you are considered primarily a poet, or a novelist (or an essayist, or screenwriter, or critic, or teacher, or translator)? Maybe the more relevant question is how you think about crafting your list of writerly identities in various contexts: privately, in your head, versus on a website or in a bio that is out there for a specific purpose? JT: Privately, it matters little to me whether I’m considered a poet or a novelist. In the public sphere, one’s “identity” impacts one’s readership. The American mainstream, accustomed to reading prose, tends to view poetry as esoteric. Quite often, native English speakers in America perceive English-language poetry as foreign. IN: In my head, I identify with whatever unfinished writing I feel the greatest urgency to work on. It shifts monthly, sometimes daily. A bio generally reflects what a writer has already published and after a book comes out it has to be your public identity for a certain amount of time, even if, in your thoughts, you already belong to some other book-in-progress. It's not of great importance to me whether others view me as belonging primarily to one genre or another. What is important to me, however, is to have an identity within the international conversation happening between writers, readers, and translators all over the world, to take part in that larger global conversation and not only in the conversation happening in my own country. AB: I'm a poet -- one who also writes essays and is still (forever) learning to write fiction. I wear the poet badge defiantly. Greatest movie line ever, in The Big Short -- it's actually printed on the screen -- one businessman overheard saying to another: "Truth is like poetry. And everyone fucking hates poetry." The Millions: Does your primary literary community figure at all into this sense of identity? JT: In my imagined transnational, transhistorical, multilingual community of beloved writers, all sorts have influenced my sense of identity. Of writers whom I know and who inspire me, poets have exerted the heaviest influence. My longstanding friendships with poets have been forged through a love of poetry and the exchange of work. IN: I’ve stayed close to writers working in a number of genres and languages. For almost 20 years, I’ve been exchanging work and making dinner with the Chilean fiction writer Andrea Maturana. I’ve also shared all my writing since college with the poet Gerald Jonas, who reviewed science fiction for The New York Times Book Review for 25 years. My intense connection to them is driven more by the exciting conversations we have about each other’s work more than what we have in common in terms of genre or audience. AB: I have several good friends, living writers, who see my work in draft and help me keep going. My other friends -- and they are every bit as real to me -- are dead, and they are the great poets I am reading and conversing with all the time. I always say to my students, "The dead want to hear from you." Send a poem on to G.M. Hopkins; Shakespeare needs something new to read today; have you written to Emily Dickinson or Bashō lately? My true writing community centers on my twice-yearly teaching in Bennington's low-residency MFA. I've been doing it a long time; my colleagues in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in that program are dear to me, and their many successes fill me with familial pride. The Millions: And now, a question for each of you individually. April, early praise of your recently published poetry collection Brawl & Jag invokes comparatives and superlatives -- "the most powerful, intimate, lucid, and indelible she’s ever written” (Wayne Koestenbaum), and "as if the poet set fire to all her earlier work and wrote these new ones in the light of those flames” (Mark Wunderlich). Blurbs are blurbs, but tell us about Brawl & Jag in the context of your body of work and/or your life. Is this a “letting loose” collection? The title would suggest so (along with the opening poems “Anger” and “Blood Argument" and an unflinching poem about merciless parents and a cat murder). AB: We do not always know what we have "done" when writing -- though since my two readers/blurbers, Wayne and Mark, note a new direction in this book I am happy to agree with them. I feel much freer in my life -- bolder, less apologetic in disagreeing with so very much in our culture and in my own history. My working title for this collection was "Arguments and Elegies" -- then, as the book was finishing, I switched out the Latinate for the Old English. But something I assert in the final poem is important to me as well -- that there is a "sluice of sweet delight" running through my work and my life that accompanies all the brawls and the jags. It is inexplicable; but I know I have experienced, do experience, a kind of grace. I love the world, hard love though that is. The Millions: Jennifer, the review that most lured me to Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness was the Kirkus, in which the novel is described as “at once voluptuous and spare.” Then, when you and I got in touch, I saw that your email address includes the words “ardor” and “austerity.” Can you talk about these twin forces -- in Mayumi, in your literary interests, in your way of life? JT: I’m so glad you asked about ardor and austerity -- two of my favorite “twin forces” (and also the twin stars of my book Red Flower, White Flower). The word pairing comes from Iyengar’s definition of the Sanskrit word tapas, which he defines as “ardor and austerity.” (Italics mine.) As a biracial reader/writer/human being who has spent a lifetime critiquing dualism, I gasped when I read that. It proposes that two things commonly known in English as opposing forces, are, in fact, kindred actions. While Iyengar applies ardor/austerity to the practice of yoga, we can apply it beautifully to the practice of writing, to the practice of any art. Often, even the most ardor-driven work is born of an austere practice. We sit down to write, we encounter emptiness, we wait, we sit down to write, we encounter emptiness, we wait, and so on. Over time, we make discoveries. Somewhere along the way, this practice, this sitting, this encountering, this waiting, this returning to make discoveries, becomes a pleasure. Instead of having to discipline ourselves to practice, we develop a longing to practice. It’s an ideal state for an artist to attain, one in which discipline and longing are one. The Millions: Idra, since we’re talking about genre here, tell us about the influence of mystery/noir on you as writer and reader. When did you know that this novel’s plot was going to be driven by a genre-esque disappearance? Are you a mystery novel reader, or a Hitchcock fan, or a Law and Order junkie? I’m also curious about your process of developing the novel’s wonderful collage form. IN: My dad is an Agatha Christie junkie. I watched endless Hercule Poirot mysteries on the BBC with him when I was growing up. After I left for college, I never watched those Agatha Christie shows again and I think something in me longed for the noir-y pleasure of them. I knew from the first draft of Ways to Disappear that I wanted to work in something about online poker and the ways that publishing writing and translations often feel like a crapshoot. As for the definitions and radio announcements and the novel's mashup of forms, if a section didn't push the world of the novel outward in some way, if it didn't surprise me as a writer, I deleted it and tried something wilder. I wanted the form of the book to be the continual subversion of form. The Millions: And lastly -- Jennifer, I understand you are currently working on another novel. April, your new poetry collection has just been published, and the book before this was a novel. Idra, you’re going to be teaching in an MFA program in the fall, and I’m wondering if you’ll be teaching fiction or poetry or both. So my question for all of you is whether poetry or fiction is “winning out” for your time/attention right now and going forth; and how you balance the two impulses/interests? Are any of you able to work in earnest on poems and fiction at the same time? JT: For the first time in my life, I’m writing poetry and fiction in tandem. This will sound insane, but the other morning I was literally working on a poem and on my novel, writing a line or two on one manuscript then switching to the other manuscript to write a line or two and so on. It scared me a little, but it was thrilling. IN: I also enjoy working on poetry and fiction in tandem. The other day I was editing a short story and then turned to a prose poem about a man who gives birth to a panda, which I’d already sent to an editor who accepted it. But as I worked on the story, something occurred to me about the man and his experience of gestating an endangered animal that I hadn’t thought of earlier. Like Jennifer, I find it thrilling to jump back and forth between various manuscripts and surprise myself with the ways one might lead to new meanings or questions in the other. AB: I guess I already answered this in another context. I do them both at once -- (but not on the same day! Jennifer, that does sound divinely mad!) -- and I have plans for new poems and for new stories going on right now. The Millions: And related to this -- the true final question -- while I’m framing this as if the two endeavors are in opposition, please do share the ways in which you think they nourish and instruct each other. JT: In its finitude, poetry revives the prose writer in me like a rest stop during a long journey. The sense of completion one feels after finishing a poem is especially gratifying for a novelist. The novel offers freedom, a break from intense scrutiny; one can roam its frontiers in a more anonymous way, as someone else. (Though poets too find ways to be anonymous.) A writer can learn a lot about her own motives and priorities by turning a poem into a paragraph or a paragraph into a poem, by turning an entire novel into a single poem and vice versa. IN: I’ve found the process of turning a poem into a paragraph or vice versa to be profoundly illuminating also. And the break from intense scrutiny that the novel offers hadn’t occurred to me, Jennifer, until I read your response, but I think that was probably one of the reasons I found it so pleasurable to work on Ways to Disappear. I worked on it for four years before showing it to anyone but a few close friends. I think that period of time writing without taking part in a workshop, without figuring out what genre it might be, or who might read it, was tremendously freeing. AB: Fiction frees the liar in me; poetry entraps the truth-teller. But fiction is a trudge and poetry is a dance. I need both. Image Credit: Pixabay.
1. Of the many high-drama events that occur throughout Alexander Chee’s second novel Queen of the Night, my favorites are identity theft via cancan shoes, murder by fire-breathing, a hot-air balloon escape, and a scandalous curtsy. Queen is a Big Book in every way: within its 550 pages, a lot happens, and it’s “about” a lot of things. Big Books are back, it seems, though I confess I’ve started and chosen not to finish several over the past few years. On the other hand, once I started reading Queen, I could not put it down. Paris, 1882. A decade into the Third Republic. Our heroine, the celebrated “Falcon” soprano Lilliet Berne -- née a Minnesota farm girl whose real name we never learn -- makes her entrance at a ball in Luxembourg Palace. Lilliet is also our narrator, and within the first pages she tells us she has had a “premonition” about this return to Paris after an extensive European tour: “I would be here for a meeting with my destiny.” Enter the writer Frédéric Simonet, who corners Lilliet and conveys a proposition: he has written a novel, the novel will be staged as an opera, and she must play the starring role. Unbeknownst to Simonet, the story he describes -- of a circus performer, later a courtesan, who sings for the Emperor and so moves him that he bestows upon her a ruby brooch -- is Lilliet’s own. She is duly spooked: how does this man know these details of her secret past? Who has prompted him to approach her with the role? What sort of trap is this? “In an opera this moment would the signal the story had begun, that the heroine’s past had come for her, intent on a review of her sins decreed by the gods.” And so launches our heroine’s recounting -- infused with this decidedly operatic sense of fateful retribution -- of her farm girl-to-diva tale. Interspersed with a flashback narrative, which takes place between 1867 and 1872 and features the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 as its central historical crisis, are present-time (a decade later) scenes in which Lilliet confronts characters from that past; for if someone is in cahoots with Simonet, perhaps with malicious intent, she must find out who, and why. 2. Writers and readers alike will recognize this narrative structure as both familiar and sound: the past and the present move forward simultaneously, criss-crossing at strategic moments, generating suspense upon suspense. Lilliet herself literally, anxiously, turns the pages of Simonet’s novel as she investigates its ulterior intentions, while the reader becomes absorbed in Lilliet’s tale -- her unlikely and at times outlandish journey from orphan to opera star, which she recounts in a voice somehow both taut and melodramatic at once: “I slunk from the bed and stood again in the cold. As I dressed myself in that dim kitchen light, I felt the opposite of ruined. I felt strong again, ready to cross the ocean again. “I was sore, that was all. And so this felt like a triumph over death, as if I had been dealt a murderous blow and lived.” The “murderous blow” -- her first sexual experience -- occurs shortly after her entire family dies from fever. She is alone and hungry; she takes up with a widower who shelters her. The transaction of sex becomes then inevitable, as does the pattern of Lilliet’s life henceforth -- bargaining for survival, over and again. Herein perhaps is a key to Chee’s success in crafting a captivating protagonist: our heroine is a celebrity in the Paris opera world, yes, but she never forgets her hardscrabble Methodist roots. Her love of opera -- its outsized gestures, symbols, and emotions -- is real, while at the same time she has no delusions about life’s essential requirements. When later in the novel, during the Siege of Paris, Lilliet must survive weeks of hunger, we have no trouble believing that she could in fact do so -- no matter what gowns and jewels she now dons. And we love this sort of protagonist, don’t we? In Lilliet, Chee has done that thing that all historical novelists must do well: draw the modern reader into a past world via the glamor of that past (we enjoy detours into evenings at the opera and Rules of the Game type gatherings, as well as cameos from Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, Cora Pearl, Giuseppe Verdi, and others) but also with contemporary ideas and conflicts. Her twisty-turny journey takes Lilliet from farm girl to orphan to circus performer to courtesan, back to orphan, then to servant, again to courtesan, finally to opera singer (there’s more, but no spoilers here); and as she drifts from the street to the conservatory to the ballroom and back again, we are aware that our heroine has a complicated and heterogeneous identity, with all the attending, familiar dilemmas. Lilliet is ultimately a distinctly modern American heroine: the child of parents who “came to settle America for God,” Lilliet must, and can, continually reinvent herself. In this vein, the episode with the widower sets another pattern: it is from a dead child’s gravestone near the widower’s farm that our heroine takes her name, Lilliet Berne. In a later scene where Lilliet steals yet another identity -- from a girl with whom she shares a jail cell and who dies in her sleep -- we see Lilliet switching clothing (parting with the aforementioned cancan shoes) and calculating her opportunity: “[S]he couldn’t use her future, and I could.” At this point one can’t help but think of another historically-conceived protagonist of recent years who hit a contemporary nerve: Don Draper. Like Don, Lilliet is a consummate opportunist and chameleon; unlike Don, of course, she is female in a world where what she desires most -- independence, love on her own terms -- is impossible. 3. There is a curious way in which Queen of the Night wears its feminism -- by which I mean portrays and expresses the timeless female struggle to be free -- so heavily that it ultimately wears it lightly. The book does not read so much as an “argument” for female power or independence, nor as an activist cry in the face of female oppression; rather, Chee expresses himself authorially in such a way that you are just enough aware of him -- an enlightened, empathic, culturally heterogeneous male in the 21st century crafting this tale -- to simply take for granted, even enjoy, the dramatic ways in which this female protagonist’s struggle for self-determination plays out. Voice is an obvious central trope here: Lilliet is deemed a “Falcon” because her voice is as fragile as it is strong (the soprano Cornélie Falcon lost her voice at age 23); thus, the female voice as both power and liability. As she navigates her successive identities, Lilliet learns that feigning muteness is a useful disguise. In this way Lilliet, and Chee, reclaim traditional female voicelessness in service of self-preservation. Jewels and dresses figure prominently throughout the plot: jewelry is gifted and worn in acts of love, dominance, charity, regret, rebellion, and terror, and a woman’s choice of gown has the power to determine not only individual but national fates. None of this strikes the reader as particularly farfetched: While Chee may have been having fun with the characters of Louis-Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie, it seems perfectly plausible, and pleasingly so, that it was indeed a rivalry between Eugénie and Louis-Napoléon’s mistress the Comtesse to Castiglione (which involved both jewels and dresses) that catalyzed the Franco-Prussian War. This is just one example among many where Chee fulfills with gusto yet another crucial, if hackneyed, obligation of the historical novelist -- to make history “come alive” through human personality. In this sense Queen joins ranks with the best historical novels and made me think, not infrequently as I read, of one of my all-time favorites -- E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Lilliet’s dividedness when it comes to romantic prospects is perhaps the most explicitly feminista thread of her story, the one that seems to want to “say” something to our current culture. One man seeks to possess Lilliet, another she falls for “at first sight” -- at first listen, actually, as he is a pianist who plays a mesmerizing Frédéric Chopin. While the choice between them seems conventionally obvious throughout most of the story, there is an unsettling moment when she considers romantic love and abusive obsession not so far apart: perhaps the man who essentially imprisoned and raped her, and the man who manipulated her to manage his own fears, are not so different in the end. In trying to more fully inhabit her role as Carmen, Lilliet concludes: “She loves neither the toreador nor the killer,it came to me as I went on the stage. More than these men, she loves her freedom.” In other words: Up with single women; down, once and for all, with the derisive notion of a spinster. For the most part, though, the strain of feminist messaging does not bog the novel down. This is a particularly subjective assessment, I recognize: it did matter to me as I read that the author is male. This character did not seem like someone Chee had to force into a psychology of freedom-seeking: she is a woman the author seems to know better than any, and one the reader thus recognizes instantly. Her desires, conundrums, strategies, and strength are all, at this moment in time -- the reader’s historical moment -- wonderfully and completely familiar, and written into this story as The New Normal. It’s exhilarating to follow Lilliet, over the course of 550 high-drama pages, as she simply does what needs to be done -- as any woman with talent and intelligence would. 4. Speaking of subjective, this wouldn’t be a piece written by me if I didn’t acknowledge my initial interest in Queen of the Night based on its long-blooming history. Chee’s first novel, the award-winning Edinburgh, was published nearly 15 years ago, in 2001. By lit-world norms, and for someone as visible and active in the literary community as Chee -- he teaches, has written for The Rumpus and The Morning News among other publications, won a Whiting Award and an NEA grant, was named one of Out's 100 Most Influential People, hüber-active on social media, and is an editor of LitHub -- 15 years is quite a long time. There was also a first novel preceding Edinburgh -- a “Great American Novel” type as he puts it -- that he was unable to publish. Queen of the Night is itself the protagonist of a twisty-turny narrative -- much of which Chee describes in his recent interview with our own Claire Cameron. The novel began with inspiration from a real historical figure, Jenny Lind, aka the Swedish Nightingale, and a fruitfully mistaken notion on Chee’s part that she had sung with a circus. When I asked Chee if the novel had always been conceived in the first person, and/or if he had hesitated to take on a female voice, he wrote: There were seasons of hesitation and apprehension. I put the novel down for three years before I finally sold it because I was both drawn to and afraid of the idea, sure that I knew that woman on the train very well and then later sure that the vision had tricked me into making a terrible mistake that I just couldn’t see. When he did sell the novel, it was sold based on 115 early pages and a synopsis, with a manuscript due date of 2006. In 2008, the novel still very much in progress, Chee’s editor at Houghton Mifflin was laid off; thus began Queen’s fittingly itinerant quest, including a total of four different editors to date. Cameron’s interview focuses on Chee’s coping with the low points and dismay of Queen’s odyssey. As a fellow novelist who struggled mightily with novel #2, I felt the following like a punch in the gut: The longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life -- my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years. But Chee endured; and so, I believe, will the critical acclaim that has and will be showered on Queen of the Night. The novel thus has a personal resonance for me as a testament to persistence, and to the pursuit of a driving, ambitious artistic vision that just won’t cooperate with conventions of time and career progress. 5. A Big Book asks a lot of the reader, who is also a busy person eager to get on to other books and her own projects. When a Big Book doesn’t satisfy, the reader feels especially betrayed: in the contract between reader and writer, the stakes are higher. Some might feel that the bigger the book, the more forgiving we are as readers: surely among so many pages, there will be bagginess and flaws and plot points that ring false. The truth is I did put Queen down -- for a couple of days at the point where the past and present-time threads converged. This occurs approximately three-fourths of the way through and felt like the moment to take a breath. Lilliet readies herself for the dramatic finale, and so do we. When I picked it back up, I found that the final 130 pages read differently: with so many plot points finding their resolutions, mysteries solved and threads reaching back toward details that both Lilliet and the reader brushed over, I became confused and frequently flipped back and forth to earlier scenes. I also found myself less engaged by extended descriptions of operatic plots. Faust, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lamermoor, La Sonnambula, Carmen, Orphée aux enfers, The Magic Flute, among others, all figure significantly into Lilliet’s story. The novel is true to Lilliet’s initial premonition, that her life is an opera and vice versa, so the material is utterly relevant. Still, if you are like me -- a listener and a fan, but not a buff -- those sections may feel more opaque than others. Chee is at his best, I think, when he is doing opera, via Lilliet’s life, as opposed to describing it. I am not one to be more forgiving of a Big Book when it comes to the interruption of John Gardner’s notorious vivid continuous dream; but what is notable about these so-called “flaws” is that they are also part and parcel of what makes Queen worth reading. It’s a challenging novel in addition to a page-turning one. You feel, as you read, that you are being swept away by this delicious plot and voice, and that the novel wants to be read slowly -- is actually smarter and deeper and more intricately constructed than can be appreciated at its decidedly propulsive pace. Great books satisfy in that particular way, leaving you sated and spent, but at the same time craving to do it all over again. Queen is a book that I look forward to rereading, savoring, studying for my own novelistic purposes. And when I do, it would not surprise me if those flaws were revealed as my own.
“They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand. And until they understand it, they cannot be released from it...We cannot be free until they are free.” –James Baldwin, “Letter to My Nephew James” 1. As of this writing, the town of Ferguson, Mo., is in its third day under a state of emergency, following protests to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the police shooting that injured 18-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. In radio interviews, Ferguson residents expressed unsurprising frustration and fatigue: “I’m fed up with it. I’m tired of it;” “When it’s all over with and said and done, we still have to live here.” Referring to the chaos that breaks out when citizens try to congregate peacefully, one man said, “I think next year, you're going to see the exact same thing. And that's sad.” People who know me will tell you I’m not an optimist. The glass is usually half empty; the worst case scenario looms; I don’t hold my breath. At this moment, it’s particularly easy to feel this way -- helpless, pessimistic -- about race in America. Which is why I am surprised to find myself rooting for -- eagerly awaiting -- something that many would consider highly improbable: a retraction and an apology by New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks for his July 17 opinion piece, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” 2. It’s been a month since Brooks wrote, in a direct address to Atlantic columnist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, By dissolving the [American] dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. Brooks’s column, along with the voluminous online indignance that ensued, disturbed me; but I am more essayist than journalist by temperament, and so my response has been slow to form, relative to the news cycle. I am tempted to conclude, It’s too late, that ship has sailed (helplessness, pessimism). But then I think: “when it’s all overwith and said and done, we still have to live here.” In other words, a plea for a mea culpa from Brooks is not just about words published on July 17; it’s also about something persistent and fundamental in how non-black people, conservative and liberal alike -- who don’t have to live in Ferguson, when it’s all said and done -- engage with black lives, and black deaths, in America. 3. I am a left-of-left liberal who also happens to respect David Brooks’s pragmatism, his intellectual agility, and his clarity and economy as a writer. I appreciate his presence on NPR and PBS. I understand why liberal news outlets foster Brooks’s ubiquity: for all his alleged smugness, he praises and critiques policies and politicians equally on both the Left and the Right. Where he sometimes oversimplifies ideas, he eschews oversimplification of partisan packaging. I disagree with him frequently, but his commentaries don’t make me wince or shout. A low bar to clear, you might say, but a significant one, in this age of unbridgeable ideological hysteria. This summer, in succession and by coincidence, I read both Brooks’s collective biography The Road to Character and Coates’s epistolary essay Between the World and Me. I found both compelling. The day after I finished reading the latter, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” was published. Between the World and Me -- a 150-page essay-letter from Coates to his teenage son, which describes a self-deluding white America that has relied, is relying, and will continue to rely on “defiling and plunder,” on “breaking[ing] the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation” for its peace and prosperity -- has earned Coates an endorsement from Toni Morrison as this generation’s James Baldwin. Brooks responded to the book with considered duplicity -- the ultimate effect of which was to demonstrate precisely what drives Coates to conclude that “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct...sometimes it is insidious... and to impress upon his son Samori that my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic -- an orc, troll, or gorgon. Coates also invokes Solzhenitsyn -- “'To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law'” -- and then applies these words to the myth of the American Dream. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates reiterates -- through memory, historical survey, recaps of police killings of African Americans -- that the Dream is a myth because it is available only to “Dreamers,” i.e. those who (knowingly or not) buy into the White “syndicate.” This is the foundation of the Dream -- its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. (This last aside -- in case it’s not clear out of context -- is Coates’s impersonation of a Dreamer.) Brooks’s rebuttal focuses too on the American Dream, which he is eager to defend. I think you distort American history...Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America. In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. In other words: the bad old days were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. As preamble to his hard pivot toward refutation, Brooks approaches then dismisses the crucial act of listening-and-hearing, with a rhetorical structure that is ever the enemy of authentic conciliation: I verb x, but... We’ve all been in these arguments with our loved ones: I hear what you’re saying, but you’re being unreasonable. I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was right and you were wrong. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask... Brooks, of course, does not have to do any such thing. But he does ask. And what’s more, his questions are disingenuous: “Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” The questions are disingenuous because he has already answered them for himself (no, no, yes), as evidenced by the publication of the column. The divestment of power by asking before negating is mere performance. 4. All this said, I do not wish nor intend to demonize Brooks; others have done the job thoroughly. Rather, I propose that his column was not an irredeemable offense, but a concrete opportunity. What Brooks has done is common, not extreme nor “fantastical;” no tobacco has been spat. Maybe I should just say nothing and let it sink in BUT is more often than not how a well-meaning majority person responds -- liberal and conservative alike -- when an unsettling truth about the foundations of her worldview and day-to-day well-being is presented. The need to reframe and control -- to redline discussions on American whiteness and the enduring structures of racialized injustice, especially when the discussion is not conceived from a majority point-of-view -- simply exemplifies the predictable expression of white cultural power in the everywhere/everyday ways that Coates describes throughout Between the World and Me. Coates’s Dreamer dissects, double-talks, and reframes because she can; and because she cannot abide the constriction and instability she experiences within this non-majority-centered conception of reality; and because it’s too awful to imagine that it’s really that bad, now, today, in 2015; and because, Jesus, what if it is that bad? No, no, it can’t be that bad. It isn’t. You’re distorting it. Or, as Brooks suggests, your realism is excessive. If we can recognize that David Brooks is neither troll, nor gorgon, nor orc; that he is enacting what is enacted all the time, every day, by more non-monstrous people than we care to acknowledge; if we can quiet the Twitter indignation and see Brooks’s response for the utterly commonplace expression that it is, then we can see, possibly, the opportunity here. One worth rooting for. 5. To those who feel that too much ink is spilled by and about Brooks already: the essence of the opportunity is in Brooks’s very ubiquity. He is a privileged public figure, with significant cultural power. He has a platform among elites across the political spectrum. He has also just written a thoughtful book about self-inventory and moral depth -- a book that seeks to foreground a moral logic in which Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility, and learning... The Road to Character is lucid and well-organized, as you’d expect. Each chapter profiles an individual whose “U-shaped” journey through trial, failure, and personal moral development Brooks admires: Dorothy Day, George Marshall, George Eliot, Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins, St. Augustine, and others. I found The Road to Character persuasive, and I believe it’s a book I will return to for insight on how to live, and how admirable individuals have struggled for that insight. I also found it earnest. Road originally caught my attention because it is a personal book. In interviews, Brooks has discussed his impetus for writing it: how, in mid-life, he found himself more professionally successful than he ever imagined, but at the same time not very happy. He writes in the introduction: Years pass, and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom. Not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth... In the second-person “you” we hear an anxious intimacy, a simmering melancholy -- the feeling of Brooks revealing to us, and to himself, that he has skin in the game. And then, he makes the inevitable shift to first-person: I wrote [this book] to save my soul. I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness...I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I’ve also become aware that like many people these days I’ve lived a life of vague moral aspiration -- vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose... I’ve discovered that...it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve...you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. Notice the pivot back to second-person; the anxiety of a deeper self-revelation returns. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly that this effects in the reader, though perhaps something related: a point of connection in hearing this confession that being a well-paid Know-It-All is a problem with real stakes, a road to isolation and emptiness. The Road to Character returns over and over to two core virtues. The first is recognition of one’s own brokenness. The profiled figures are all “acutely aware of their own weaknesses,” participants in the Kantian tradition of humanity as “crooked timber.” They also face down those weaknesses, work tirelessly at seeing themselves clearly and at getting better. In this manner, these individuals ultimately influenced human history and culture, far beyond themselves. By successfully confronting sin and weakness, we have a chance to play our own role in the great moral drama...we have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world. Closely related is a second core virtue, which Brooks depicts as troublingly absent in American culture today: humility. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success. But that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character... In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. “My favorite definition [of humility],” Brooks has said, “is radical self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.” Other-centeredness. Herein lies the hardest work for Brooks and Coates’s Dreamers. 6. As a pundit, Brooks’s job is to say things and write things; he is not expected to do things. But as an author of a book about moral evolution, he has stepped onto the stage of moral action -- in his own words, onto the path of “moral adventure.” He writes of a desire to manifest “ripening virtues,” as exemplified by his subjects -- to submerge his ego to a greater mission as George Marshall did, to respond to the broken world’s clarion “summons” as Frances Perkins did, to be able to relinquish ego-centered control as St. Augustine did. An email from a man named Dave Jolly provides "the methodology of the book”: “What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life...is what gets transmitted...The message is the person...” The convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me constitutes a summons -- away from mere “teaching” via words, and into the adventure. The moral imperative of this moment in America centers around black lives, black deaths. Here is a substantive chance to build virtue and be of service, to play a role in the great moral drama of right now. The July 17 column is exemplary, in both senses of the word. It does, as I’ve described, exemplify the common response when one is faced with a version of America that upends both existential and material stability. But it also exemplifies an honest, and failed, attempt at dialogue about race. If Brooks was trigger-happy, if other-centeredness eluded him, if he needed to get his word in edgewise, he is not alone. That Brooks’s from-the-hip response to Between the World and Me was unseemly, blind spots on display, is no surprise; arriving at something true and consequential in a struggle over conflicting realities doesn’t come fast or easy. Meaningful transformation in this struggle might be compared to writing itself: you have to write the shitty first draft in order to move forward. Without the shitty draft there’s nothing to revise. So it’s not so much a retraction as a revision that we need. The column is Brooks’s honorably shitty draft -- his stumble backward from revelations about “what he’s paid to do,” a lack of integration between his moral aspirations and his habit of sending pithy, fast-finger bytes to print. He writes in Road: We have the tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite...We know less than we think we do. Old habits die hard. A person of character faces down those habits when it matters. We need Brooks to model the humility and courage he admires and articulates. And we need the process of individual transformation to have consequence beyond the individual. None of this is easy. It’s messy and perilous -- U-shaped, in Brooks’s words, not linearly ascending, and the U’s descent can be deep. A revision usually means more revision to come. There are not many people I would exhort to such public self-inventory. But the characters in Road light the way -- with their willingness to fail, get better, fail again, re-examine what they think they know, then ultimately step into the greater moral drama that requires them. 7. I started with the notion of optimism. I’ll finish with a word about hope. Note that I have thus far used words like await, anticipate, root for, opportunity, and desire. Like “love” and “friend,” “hope” has lost its power and concreteness. Hope has become wimpy and puling and dishonest -- the opiate of old church ladies, the toothless promise of an upstart young black senator’s presidential campaign slogan, a million years ago. “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law,” Coates writes. It is wrong to claim our present circumstance -- no matter how improved -- as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children...you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope. Coates’s rejection of spiritual redemption for the pillaging of black lives is a hard pill to swallow; it is also the strongest thread of Coates’s message to his son. But there are moments when Coates doesn’t seem to swallow the pill fully himself; where he expresses something like an inability, and a kind of awe in the presence of the very spiritual depths -- I’ll call this hope -- that he denies. Recalling his visit to Dr. Mabel Jones -- whose son, Coates’s classmate at Howard, was killed senselessly by the police -- he writes: As she talked of the church...I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life. In Dr. Jones’s face, Coates sees “the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you” and compares it to the faces of civil rights activists in photos from '60s sit-ins: They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. I wouldn’t over-read these moments as actual ambivalence on Coates's part about his materialist reality, but they do belie, in my reading, a deep fatigue. Hope -- of the real, exceptional kind that Coates witnessed in Mabel Jones -- is neither wimpy nor toothless. Hope may be the hardest work there is. And yet still, the watching world expects hope from its victims. It’s terrible what’s happened to your sons, your brothers, your sisters, your community; but surely there is HOPE? Even if, say, you don’t buy the premise that today’s American Dream is a white dream built on black bodies, you might at the least recognize that we who are not black -- and we liberals may be guiltiest of this -- have built our sense of hope on black hope. In the wake of death after death permitted by unbridled ignorance, negligence, and a heritage of hate (and let us not forget that these are only the cases that break into mainstream media), we who absorb this violence indirectly have become accustomed to witnessing, and perhaps now implicitly demand, the hope that rises up from ashes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching deliverance through nonviolence, members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston preaching forgiveness, President Obama reconciling his white grandmother’s racism with his own black body and incanting amazing grace; the displays of dignity by grieving mothers and widows, like Mabel Jones. When Ta-Nehisi Coates rejects that role for himself and his son, when Eric Garner’s mother will not forgive the police officers who killed her son, when some residents of Ferguson say they’re fed up with protesting, they are saying to the Dreamers: you’ve lived off of our bodies, now you want us to supply you with hope? That’s enough; that’s too much. “Excessive” is an apt word for this moment, but it’s been poorly applied. What is excessive is for a white person to suggest that Coates should have a more hopeful assessment of American history and his son’s reality. We must shift the burden of hope elsewhere. Dear David Brooks: I hope that I have not failed to express myself as earnestly as you have. I hope there is enough humility in my words to convey something meaningful. I hope you hear in these words not petty attack but respectful exhortation. I hope the news cycle does not trump the moral adventure. I hope you know that I, and many who read Between the World and Me and “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” are on the side of real and truthful hope.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a lengthy chapter to the proverbial fish-in-pond question: Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Most of us would surely answer, “Well, it depends” -- and Gladwell (with his characteristic passion for truisms) acknowledges as much: There are times and places where it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond; where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all. Two of these times and places, according to Gladwell, are 1) Paris in 1874, and 2) Brown University in recent years. In the case of the former, he refers to the first independent exhibition mounted by Impressionist painters, who for years had failed to gain access to the prestigious Salon and accompanying patronage such access guaranteed. Their scenes of everyday life, indistinct figures, and visibly expressive brushstrokes did not at all please the tastemakers of the day. When then-outsiders Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet led the charge in April 1874 to hold their own small, DIY exhibition apart from the Salon -- 30 artists in three rooms on Boulevard des Capucines, in contrast to the Salon’s massive production in which paintings were hung floor-to-ceiling on countless walls -- it was a risky, scandalous moment. They were scorned by the Academy and its patrons. But their goal was to “advance without worrying about opinion,” and this they accomplished. It was, in Gladwell’s unqualified estimation, “better” that the Impressionists -- at the time a mere collective of unknown, experimental painters -- chose to be big fish in the little pond of their own making. History would, of course, agree. Gladwell’s contemporary argument -- which focuses on choosing a college and is exemplified by the story of a young woman named Caroline Sacks -- can be summed up thus: when it comes to indicators of success, how smart or talented you are is not as important as how smart and talented you feel. Caroline Sacks earned her ivy-league degree, but, in the end, she didn’t pursue studies in science, which was what she loved; she was subsumed by competition and feelings of inadequacy. “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be doing science,” she says. Gladwell’s conclusion is that it’s better to place yourself in a milieu where you feel confident and visible rather than inferior and lost-in-the-crowd. In an intellectual environment, being a little fish in a big pond is demoralizing; demoralization leads not only to failure but eventually to quitting your path, sacrificing your dreams and passions to the deep-sea bottom of the big pond. Notwithstanding Gladwell’s oft-maligned tendency to oversimplify -- to make social science of anecdotes -- his arguments at the least proffer hypotheses worth taking out for a spin (his New Yorker essay on late bloomers was one of Bloom's site-launch inspirations, after all). When I consider the fish-pond conundrum, I find myself shifting to a different nurture-and-thrive metaphor (Bloom-related, of course): any gardener knows that when putting plants or seeds in the ground, you must mind the distance in between -- too close, and they’ll compete to their detriment for air, sun, moisture, and nutrients; too far and weeds will fill the space, guzzling up the nourishment and leading to sparse harvest. In other words, living things thrive under definite environmental circumstances -- including relative position to fellow organisms. So the question for a student, or an artist, or anyone seeking to achieve goals and dreams might be: Where can I best blossom -- upward and outward, deeply rooted and nourished? 2. The pond that Dave and Reba Williams swam in was, initially, that of Wall Street finance. Dave had been an art lover since his youth, though. In his mid-30s, he found himself struggling in his career after “a couple of unlucky or poor employment choices.” He was married, with two children, and he needed to focus and get settled. Nevertheless, one day in 1968, a colleague told Dave about a prints exhibition, where he’d found original etchings and lithographs for sale in a manageable price range, and Dave immediately went to investigate. That day he fell in love with prints, and by 1975, Dave had collected some 25 prints, but he’d also undergone a seismically destabilizing divorce that left him with debts, alimony payments, and private-school tuitions. On the other hand, he was getting married again, to financial analyst Reba White, who would become his lifelong partner in the soon-to-be-launched adventure of print collecting -- an altogether new pond for both of them. Dave’s memoir, Small Victories: One Couple's Surprising Adventures Collecting American Prints, is the story of the Williams’s 30-year journey in dogged self-education and research, collecting, and curating. Published earlier this year by David Godine, Small Victories manages to both sweep informatively through the history of American printmaking and stir the reader to ask herself how she too might pursue her creative projects with the same rare combination of joy, sense of mission, intensity, shrewdness, and humility that the Williamses exemplified. Embarking on their art collecting adventure as a later-life second act and with financial limitations that many collectors don’t have, the Williamses recognized at the outset that they needed to choose their proverbial pond wisely. In 1978, when Dave landed a good position with Alliance Capital, he also landed an office space with empty walls that both he and Reba immediately saw as their “gallery.” “Big prints seemed like the answer for the expansive space,” he writes, “so we gradually added contemporary works by living artists. But this didn’t seem to satisfy.” And why not? Contemporary prints were expensive. Even worse, we were doing what most other collectors were doing in the late 1970s, seeking the big, colorful prints that living artists continued to make following the 1960s ‘print revival.’ Moving with the herd offended my investment sensibilities. Living artists and fresh-off-the-presses prints provided little opportunity to discover new fields or obtain new insights. What could we contribute? It wasn’t that they didn’t have the same acquisitive impulse of many collectors: by Dave’s own admission, he was image-addicted -- “A fever can be treated and cured, but the only relief -- temporary, of course -- from the desire to acquire, is to acquire.” But hand-in-hand with that impulse was an implicit set of values that he and Reba shared, and those values only deepened as they progressed: “What could we contribute?” I read the question as not purely selfless, yet still powerful when understood as a basic human need to do something impactful -- to prosper by way of munificence. The Williamses needed an open space in which to root and thrive, a pond in which to swim and not just tread water among the throng. What they did, in fact, was dig their very own pond. Reba proposed that we use the Alliance walls to build a big, affordable American print collection emphasizing less-familiar artists from an earlier time, the first half of the twentieth century. We would seek the work of artists whose signatures were not household names, try to find great prints by lost or forgotten printmakers. Less money, more prints. It’s notable -- and inspiring to me -- that the fundamental assumption behind the project was that there is a vast trove of extant art that has been lost or forgotten; that what has risen to the surface as “great” or popular at different moments in history is incomplete. Commercial trends, media hype, the whims of good and bad fortune, and occasional nepotism inevitably elbow out quiet or challenging gems of great beauty and value. We can cite many examples of posthumously recognized masterpieces. And so, if you have an opportunity -- plus passion and resources -- it is a worthy endeavor indeed to seek out and discover what has been regrettably passed over. The simple truth -- that not all good or great art is recognized -- is easy to forget. We can too readily entrust tastemakers of the day -- the Academie of 1874 France, A-list publishing houses and magazines, even the Twitter kings and queens -- to point us to ideas, works, and forms that are worthwhile. Recently I was made aware of a new online literary publication called the James Franco Review, the mission of which reads: • This project is about visibility of underrepresented artists and narratives. Not satire. • We have a desire for diverse literature and are questioning literary journals and the publishing industry. What happens when work is considered blindly? What happens when editors are asked to question where their tastes came from? At the James Franco Review, we don’t know why some stories and poems get published while others don’t, or what it means for something to be right for a magazine. We seek to publish works of prose and poetry as if we were all James Franco, as if our work was already worthy of an editor’s attention. An artist competing for an open space of recognition -- the attentive reception due one’s unique talents and contribution -- can only hope that there are James Franco Reviews, and Dave and Reba Williamses, digging their thoughtfully conceived little ponds all the time. 3. As their brainstorms became more serious, the Willliams’s pond became even smaller: [W]e established rules: only prints made by American -- United States-citizen -- artists; only prints made in the twentieth century, with emphasis on the first half of the century; and only prints featuring images of America. And the prints would mostly be black ink on white paper, not color. Why these choices? We learned from dealers that American prints were under-collected by institutions and individuals. We saw them as bargains, compared to Old Master and nineteenth-century European prints. They were mostly American scenes, and they were mainly black and white...Most important, there were many, many possibilities to choose from, and not much competing demand. We dove into our new project headfirst, evading the collector herd. Again, the Williamses fashioned a strategy that was equal parts pragmatism, ambition, and aesthetic passion. They wanted an open space -- enough sun, air, and healthy soil, if you will. Enough opportunity for learning and discovery apart from cutthroat hordes. Having started on their project later in life, perhaps they also felt some propulsion toward more -- bargains, and a large supply with little demand. Having moved in affluent circles, perhaps they knew too well the intense herd mentality of status-seeking among peers. Reba was the voracious student and researcher. So when print dealer David Tunick said, “Spend just a few hours researching any aspect of American prints, and you’ll become the expert on that topic,” an additional appeal presented itself -- to develop a bona fide expertise in a field as yet unpillaged by art historians. Reba went back to school, earning her PhD in art history from CUNY Graduate Center; her dissertation topic was the history of the Weyhe Gallery, a New York gallery that, writes Dave, “early in the twentieth century, did more than any other to promote prints by American artists.” With the scope of their pond determined, with Reba’s talent for research, with Dave’s “addiction” in full force, and with a mission to bring attention to the undiscovered driving them, they went forth to build a remarkable and renowned American print collection. 4. Small Victories is filled with examples of how setting a clear, modest path, away from the din, can lead to moments of great discovery and reward. Dave writes, for example, about how prints from the 1930s WPA era opened windows onto that historical moment: “Although the WPA administrators demanded an uplifting and optimistic tone in murals, the prints were censored very little, probably because prints are often considered a lesser art.” Lucienne Bloch, who had worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera, was commissioned to paint a mural of children in a playground that was located in an African American neighborhood of Detroit. She told us that the WPA administrators wanted only white children in the mural, so that’s what she painted. But she also made a realistic lithograph of the same scene with black children, titled Negro Playground, Detroit. The Williamses acquired and later exhibited this print. Other WPA artists whose prints became part of their collection included Joseph Vogel, John Langley Howard, Florence Kent Hunter, and Rockwell Kent. [caption id="attachment_76946" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Florence Kent Hunter, "Decorations for Home Relief," ca: 1938-9.[/caption] Their WPA research led to other screenprints made prior to the 1960s pop-art explosion. Dave writes that they were “the first collectors to take early screenprints seriously and do the necessary research,” and thus, as David Tunick had earlier predicted, they became “the experts” and “changed perceptions about early screenprints, rescuing them from the art orphanage and reviving them as sought-after collectibles.” Screenprint artists that made up this part of their collection included Ralston Crawford, Harry Sternberg, Elizabeth Olds, Ernest Hopf, Anton Refregier, Hugo Gellert, and Ben Shahn. In 1991, after an exhibition of their prints at the Newark Museum had proved disappointing because their curatorial partner had “wanted to show only the best-known prints by the best-known artists, while we wanted to show great work by lost and forgotten artists,” the Museum’s director, Sam Miller, asked the couple a question that sent them on their next mission: how many of their prints were made by African-American artists? Miller was interested in mounting that exhibition. Once they determined that only one print in their collection qualified -- Sargent Johnson’s "Singing Saints" -- the Williamses set out to locate and acquire more; if the work of African-American printmakers was under-collected and under-exhibited, they wanted to change that (as did Sam Miller). “We took an unorthodox approach -- and one we never used again. We sent Reba’s list [of more than 50 African-American artists] to every art dealer we knew, or had even heard of, and offered to buy any prints made in the 1930s and 1940s by any of the artists on Reba’s list for whatever price the dealer asked.” They succeeded in buying up more than 100 prints. With such an aggressive approach, they did face trust issues. When the African-American artist Raymond Steth heard about their buying binge, he came in person from Philadelphia with his portfolio to make sure they were worthy buyers; he made them promise to never sell his prints and to donate them to a major museum. What likely earned Steth’s trust was Dave and Reba’s evident love for the work they collected. Dave writes in detail about every artist and print featured in Small Victories, demonstrating his intimate relationship with each print and passing that involvement on to the reader. Of Steth’s print "Heaven on a Mule," Dave writes: It is a remarkable print, an emotional experience...Steth explained that there was a religious cult that believed that if you put on wings, went to a hilltop with all your earthly possessions, and prayed, angels would come and take you to heaven. In the print, a commotion in the clouds overhead hints that the angels are on their way. [caption id="attachment_76948" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Raymond Steth, "Heaven on a Mule," ca: 1935-43.[/caption] Of a depression-era print, Raphael Soyer’s "The Mission," Dave writes: The scene is in a church mission, and the hollow-cheeked, near-starvation poor are concentrating on their coffee and bread -- except for one. A central figure stares out at the viewer in anger, eyes intense and mouth tightly drawn. I can read his mind: “I’m mad at the world. It’s not my fault, but I’m desperate and can’t do anything about it.” Along the way, many delightful discoveries were born of their decision to stay focused and small: prints from short-lived, forgotten creative movements like Indian Space; the discovery that Connecticut, where they had settled by 2007, had been home to a major American Impressionist colony (which they only learned when they agreed to a small exhibition at the Greenwich Historical Society); a beautiful collection of flower prints all done in black-and-white that innovated modes for capturing the essence of “color” via monochrome aquatints; and little-known experimental works by star artists who, when making prints, were free to depart from their best-known styles, e.g. Frida Kahlo’s only print, "Frida and the Miscarriage," and Alex Katz’s atypically black-and-white "The Swimmer." 5. I write all of this from Paris -- 140 years after that first Impressionist exhibit, and yet I've decamped here this summer for the very reason of finding a bit of open space. I have lately come to realize that fierce competition -- whether the hothouse of literary commerce, or the more general ubiquity of unbridled American capitalism -- dampens me: I need a regular antidote, lest demoralization set in. Throughout my life I have, by no conscious choice of mine, swum in big ponds, and as a small fish have not fared particularly well. The older I get, the more I seek open spaces and warm souls. I want to grow, upward and outward, deeply rooted and nourished. But what of the value of competition and intense selectivity? In a Slate article, ”The Trouble With Malcolm Gladwell,” psychology professor Christopher Chabris writes: Perhaps tough competition gives students a more realistic view of their own strengths and weaknesses. An accurate sense of one's own ability could help the process of acquiring expertise….Finding your skills may trump following your passion. If you can’t cut it, maybe it wasn’t meant to be; you have to compete to find out. Competition separates the contenders from the dabblers. Well, it depends. Of course I come back to what it means to be a “Bloomer,” embarking “late” on a venture or passion. When you’ve lived a little, you perhaps better understand that in the school lunchroom of life, the cool kids’ table is an illusion; everyone’s eyes are wandering, and the competition to get seats at the one table is a sham. Also, Dave and Reba Williams likely did not wring their hands too much over their parameters: they hadn’t the luxury of time to waste, to fall in with the trendy multitude on roads well-traveled and wade toward some dribble of fulfillment. If they were going to make something of their mission, and enjoy it, they really had to start out thinking small. Paradoxically, the imperative of efficiency spawns surprising and significant revelations -- the fact that many talented fish have gotten lost or drowned in the big ponds of history, for example; and that a world in which institutionalized tastemakers are never challenged is a world lacking sorely in creative victories, small and otherwise. Images courtesy of Dave H. Williams/David R. Godine. Homepage image: Raphael Soyer, "The Mission," 1933.
1. At the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, I loop back around to the beginning of “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN,” an exhibition that “explores the creative process behind Mad Men.” I arrived later than I’d hoped, just as the crowds were beginning to bottleneck, and was nudged through the narrow display corridors more quickly than I would have liked. The exhibit is a well-conceived combination of captivating eye candy -- Megan’s "Zou Bisou Bisou" outfit and Pete’s plaid pants, Don’s office and the Ossining kitchen recreated in full, embossed business cards from each incarnation of the agency, every item from the Adam Whitman shoebox, a copy of Sterling's Gold -- along with the pen and ink and paper behind all that. I crane my neck behind rows of bodies now three-deep, trying to read an entry from creator Matthew Weiner’s 1992 journal, in which he describes a character for a screenplay he was writing: “He will be brave and cunning but he is ultimately scared because he runs from death and family; for him they are the same.” A security guard hovers, scolding anyone who whips out an iPhone before any camera triggers can be tapped. I linger around a standalone display case containing that most romantic of artistic relics -- scraps of paper on which Weiner scribbled character, plot, and theme notes whenever they came to him. I wait for the guard to drift to the other end of the exhibit, then hold my phone over the glass and tap-tap-tap, working my way around all four sides and drawing looks. Later I see that the glare and shadows and sometimes illegible handwriting have obscured many words, but I make out a few things, like, Am I supposed to pretend that I can’t open a jar so you can prove you’re a man All your lies hit @ once even though you do them one @ a time a same story as the Chip n Dip Don seeing a woman / inverse of the pilot Peggy and Betty have lunch Fear is contagious. Permeates its expectations. I’d trekked out to Queens on a Sunday morning -- the Sunday of the series finale -- because I wanted to somehow mark the end, and begin my pre-mourning. It’s an absurdly dramatic word, I know -- mourning -- implying real loss. It’s just a TV show, the level-headed inner voice says. But lately I find myself leaning into the gap between rational assertions and a stirring in my gut: yes, of course, It’s just a TV show. So too, When God closes a door he opens a window and I have my health. Nevertheless, experience tells me there may be something interesting, there in the gap, in the dissonance. As I moved through the exhibit the first time, I found myself surprisingly less interested in the fabulous clothes and mid-century-modern office furniture (although I did love the smudgy worn leather of Don’s Eames desk chair) and more so in these glass-encased scribbles, along with mounted script outlines, the recreated writers’ room whiteboard (a grid of color-coded index cards), and three-ring binders that contained things like “Notes from Tone Meeting.” In other words, the museum curators smartly anticipated what seems to me a real question we’re all left with after spending eight years with Mad Men and now reminding ourselves that It was just a TV show... We know that we became absorbed, that we experienced great pleasure in watching, and that we couldn’t wait for each new season to begin. We know, or feel at least, that we have participated in something significant, a cultural moment. But what I want to know now, or try to know, is this: Is it art? 2. I can hear the chorus of responses, falling into three camps: 1.) of course it is, 2.) of course it isn’t, 3.) who cares? Yet for me the question is there, with no obvious answer. And it matters: I believe there may even be moral stakes here. Our current golden age of TV demands a considerable intensity of involvement from its viewers: when it comes to compelling serial drama, you care a lot about your show and its characters, or not at all. When the subject of Mad Men -- or Breaking Bad or The Wire or House of Cards or any number of shows -- comes up in a conversation, the parties are typically all in or all out. In the case of the former, the talk zooms zero to 60, whatever conversation you’d started is supplanted; in the latter, with the all-outs, the word “investment” almost always comes up -- as in, “I’m not prepared/willing to make the investment.” Indeed, watching these shows costs; a seven-season, 92-episode show like Mad Men is a significant expenditure -- by my math, some 200+ hours (if you’re a re-watcher, as I am). There are myriad other things we could be, should be, want to be doing with our time and energy: how can we not ask, What’s it worth? And I do think about those hours -- about the 15 to 20 books I could have read; about the four hours per week for a full year that I might have spent exercising, mentoring a young person, self-educating about global threats, growing food, helping a friend in need, freelancing for extra income, writing fiction, writing letters to my government representatives, calling my mother. Et cetera. So since the credits rolled on the finale last week, I’ve been thinking less about “what happened” to Don and Peggy and Betty and Joan and Pete and Roger. Or even what happened to American culture, fashion, and gender politics between 1960 and 1970. What I’ve been wondering is what’s happened, over the last eight years, to us. What has the show done to us; what has it meant. Has it done or meant anything? For this is what I mean by that highfalutin word “art” -- something that changes me, shows me something that matters, something that will last. 3. Behind a work of art, there is an artist; and the MoMI exhibition title says it all: “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN.” Yes, there is a team of writers, and sometimes they are given due credit. But also (from an interview in The Paris Review): At the beginning of the season I dictate a lot of notes about the stories I’m interested in. Then for each episode, we start with a group-written story, an outline. When I read the outline, I rarely get a sense of what the story is. It has to be told to me. Then I go into a room with an assistant and I dictate the scenes, the entire script, page by page. And: I am a controlling person. I’m at odds with the world, and like most people I don’t have any control over what’s going to happen -- I only have wishes and dreams. But to be in this environment where you actually control how things are going to work out, and who’s going to win, and what they’re going to learn, and who kisses who... And (from The Atlantic): Much of Mad Men is driven by Weiner’s id, by his own dreams, by what he calls a “wordless instinct,” a conviction that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Some aspects of the show may seem “dreamlike or whatever” to others, but Weiner told me he often experiences things in a very different way than most other people do. And (from Vulture): Apparently, one of the actors on The Sopranos said, “My character wouldn’t say that,” and [David Chase] replied, “Who said it was your character?” [Laughs.]...The [actors] definitely thought I was picky and vague, I will say that. I was frustrating to work for because...I’m not always articulate about what I want. There’s a lot of material on Weiner -- he has not shied away from interviews -- and I’ve combed only a fraction of it. What I gather is that, as Mad Men gained in acclaim, Weiner gained total freedom: what the characters say and do, the visual, psychological, and emotional tones of the scenes -- in the end, it’s Weiner’s vision, and his call. In that sense, he is the Don Draper. But is the landscape of a writer’s id necessarily artful? We are meant to believe that Don’s creativity works this way -- successfully, unquestionably. Does Weiner’s? In answer to a question about the poems he wrote in college, Weiner said, [They were p]retty funny, a lot of them, in an ironic way. And very confessional. A lot like what I do on Mad Men, actually -- I don’t think people always realize the show is super personal, even though it’s set in the past. It was as if the admission of uncomfortable thoughts had already become my business on some level. I love awkwardness. That awkwardness, that instinct, truth that is stranger than fiction, that picky vagueness -- one might say these are the marks of Weiner’s artistry. When I think back on seven seasons, it’s the weird stuff that floats to the surface: Peggy doing the twist in her awful green skirt toward a glowering, glossy-lipped Pete; Joan hoisting up her accordion and crooning in French; those horrible giggling aluminum-ad twins; Grandpa Gene grabbing Betty’s boob; Lane flaunting his “chocolate” playboy bunny in front of his father then getting beaten with a cane; Ken’s eye patch against his unsettling cheerfulness; Ginsburg’s nipple freak-out; the cringyness I still feel when rewatching Megan’s "Zou Bisou Bisou" performance. These moments felt bizarre, distinctly off, and made me always aware of an authorial sensibility: someone put that accordion in the script, told those girls to giggle, and crafted that palpable awkwardness while Megan flung her hair and legs around. Why were the characters doing these things? Because Matt Weiner’s dreams, wordless instincts, and experiences said so. “The important thing, for me,” Weiner said, about writing for The Sopranos, “was hearing the way David Chase indulged the subconscious. I learned not to question its communicative power.” 4. It was Nicholson Baker who once said that he writes best first thing in the morning, before even turning on lights, so he can write “in a dreamlike state.” I always liked the romantic purity of that; and yet, that’s the raw-material part of the process. What next? In undergraduate writing classes, I sometimes introduce the idea of “the moral point of view” -- which I borrowed from Anne Lamott’s sometimes cloying but often useful Bird by Bird. Lamott invokes the term moral -- with all its baggage -- then both deconstructs and reclaims its significance. It’s not about judging characters, or readers; it’s not about black-and-white messages or lessons. It’s about the author having a stake, and exploring/expressing his worldview, lest the work risk being mere craft, bloodless and forgettable. That stake, that world view, could be a pressing, unanswerable question; a hope, or a shade of darkness; an incisive observation about human nature. Is the strangeness of dreams a world view? Life as a series of unresolved and awkward non sequiturs? In Mad Men, people come and people go. They sort of change, but also not really. Many of them behave in disturbing or creepy or inconsistent ways. Ultimately we don’t know the fates of most of the people who come on screen, and neither do the principal characters. If a young man runs into a beautiful woman at a party on Mad Men and she gives him her phone number and he writes it on a piece of paper and then he loses his coat, he will, on a normal TV show, end up figuring out how to find her. On Mad Men, he will never see her again. (from an interview with Esquire) This approach unsettles the typical viewer and is likely a main reason -- along with its decided racial homogeneity (but more on that later) -- the series is not more numerically popular, by ratings standards. I myself have no trouble with narrative non-resolution per se; but it’s hard to know if what Weiner crafts in his episodic world is so much like life that it sometimes seems strange and unreal, or if he’s forcing the weirdness and illogic too hard -- manneristically. The young man will never see the beautiful woman again; but will he think of her? Will he care? Does Weiner care? Does he have any stake in it? Should we? Herein is evidence of a “moral point of view” that discomfits even me, a devoted viewer. Yes, people come and people go, that’s life; but in the world of Mad Men, it doesn’t seem to matter. Peggy’s abandoned baby, and the subsequent easy chumminess of her friendship with Pete (the father) is one example. The inconsequential in and out of so many characters with whom we spend significant time -- Duck, Freddy, all of Don’s women (Megan included) with the possible exception of Rachel, Beth, Joyce, Ginsburg, Lane, Ted, Margaret, Hildy, (and what ever happened to Polly the Golden Retriever?!), et alia -- is another. There is an uneasy tension between caring about the characters and not caring about them; between them mattering and not mattering. That tension seems to push and pull between the authorial side and the viewers’ side: why is it so easy to discard these broken people? Is it the show that discards them, the nature of episodic TV? Is it Weiner who dictates the emotional reality of the characters out of his own emotional instincts? Or is it, as Weiner would have us believe, real life itself? To be clear, the question isn’t should it matter; the question is does it? “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” These words -- Don to Peggy after she has given birth to the baby she didn’t know she was carrying -- essentialize Don’s character journey. “You have to move forward. As soon as you can figure out what that is,” he says to Roger over drinks in Season 2. And in the series finale, the words come back yet again, Don to his pseudo-niece Stephanie (with regard to another abandoned baby), slightly softened: “You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” Stephanie doesn’t buy it, but for the most part, the principal characters do: they move forward -- they both forgive and seamlessly forget -- and it’s we who may be shocked by it, not them. 5. Move forward. Mourning? “Mourning is an excuse to feel sorry for yourself,” as Don made clear to Betty in Season 1. Life is a sequence of episodes, nothing more and nothing less. In this light, there is a coherence to Weiner’s landing and thriving in the hybrid creative ground of literature and television. He grew up around books -- his father carried Marcel Proust on vacation -- but he was a slow and “not...great reader,” and had “trouble with long books.” Since he wouldn’t thus be a novelist, he turned to more compressed forms -- skits, improv, and then poetry in college. In film school, he found himself a minority among a cohort that “hated episodic structure,” films that were held together primarily by character (e.g. 8 1/2, The Godfather, Days of Heaven). “I liked episodic structure, and I thought it worked. I still think it works,” said Weiner. After film school he started reading more intentionally -- biographies, which led to an interest in the “American picaresque character.” When asked about writers who’ve influenced him, he talks about what “holds his attention” -- the compact density of poems; J.D. Salinger, Richard Yates, John Cheever. All this may point to a temperament that foregrounds the present moment -- layered, discrete, and impermanent -- over the long arc or the enduring idea. As a writer in the entertainment industry, Weiner exploits the language and practice of aesthetic concepts, alongside a certain liberty to focus on the internal engine of this scene and these 47 minutes (which will immediately be rated and valuated). The big picture is whatever the aggregate ends up amounting to, not the other way around. But in Mad Men, this hybridity may have ultimately manifest in a meta-ambiguity (i.e. an artistic ambivalence) that verges on cynical: again, while I am not at all bothered by open-ended ambiguity of plot or character fate -- I don’t need to know if Stan+Peggy makes it for the long haul, or even if Don plays out his career at McCann, blue jeans banished forever -- I am uneasy with Weiner’s playing both sides when it comes to the art/entertainment handshake. On the one hand, he talks character complexity and “Old Testament flaws” and existentialism, and, according to Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic, is “dismissive of what he calls the ‘Hollywood reaffirmation thing.’” He’s also said: “The term ‘showrunner’ is really foreign to me. It just feels like an agent term. I’m a writer-producer, and the ‘showrunner’ thing takes away the creative part of it.” On the other hand he sometimes ducks behind the “it’s entertainment” curtain, as in, don’t expect or read into this too much, It’s just a TV show. “We’re trying to entertain you,” he said, somewhat irritably, at an event at the 92nd Street Y, in response to a Big Issue question about “men” and “women.” “So, if it seems like it’s about that, you know, that may be what we ended up doing, but that’s not part of the plan.” Similarly, writers André and Maria Jacquemetton said in a 2012 interview, in reference to the show’s relationship to historical research, “we’re making entertainment, not a documentary.” In other words, Mad Men has aimed primarily to RE-flect, not AF-fect. It’s not “about” anything; it’s just episodes, and they look beautiful and move forward and express awkwardness and sometimes they build toward something and sometimes they veer off, and dead-wood characters drop off as instinct dictates, and now…well...now it’s over. If you expected something more, dear viewer, something “that will last,” then that’s your own silly problem. After all, Weiner and company would say, we’re making TV here, not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” We’re just selling programming here, not meaning. 6. But c’mon; really? If advertising is metaphor, then the show is the meta-metaphor? Self-consciously shallow and deceptively complex? It feels like a fake gotcha, a feigned cleverness that may actually be a smokescreen for hedging. When Lili Loofbourow writes (at the Los Angeles Review of Books): I do think it’s very much to the show’s credit that it ends with an ad -- showing how monumentally frivolous its guiding vision has been all along. I appreciate that. I do. It’s even a certain kind of brilliant. It’s just not something I, personally, can love -- I’d like to agree about the brilliance -- that it’s all been a masterful trick, and the joke’s on me. But that would mean that the writers genuinely cared very little about the characters, while doing their damndest to make sure that the viewers did. And that is contempt and cynicism of quite a high order. It seems more probable that in the particular way the show hedged art and entertainment, it copped out; it settled in the end for being the head-turning bombshell at the gala, relying on her cleavage instead of her Mensa IQ, tragically underachieving. Because the characters did matter to us; but then -- and now we come to the finale -- they kind of didn’t. We believed in Peggy, in her unlikely ambition and talent, her quirky beauty and capricious taste in men, and her oddness; in the end, as she rises in the professional ranks, she really just wants a corner office at McCann and to work on Coke and to channel a Sally Albright she predates by 20 years. We felt for Joan through her ups and downs and admired her plucky, hip-swinging sensuality; what she loves, it turns out, in lieu of male bullshit and yet still uninterestingly, are making money and wielding power, like an extended middle-aged revenge fuck. We expected little from Roger and Pete, but we enjoyed them (except when we didn’t), so I’d say we’re at zero-sum seeing them keep on, more or less as they were. As for Betty, it seemed fated since the pilot that someone would kick it from too many Lucky Strikes, and she was the one at odds with her body all along; her clarity and muted emotion at the end were for me the most satisfying -- character-logical -- of anything that happened in the finale. As for Don -- Don whom I have admired, despised, defended, quoted, and rooted for most of the time -- it turns out he’s an ad man; that’s what he is. To boot, he’s not so special, really. He’s been cruel and honorable, weak and strong. He really needed a hug -- and he finally gave it to himself, via lonely Leonard and hippie self-help -- and now he can do as he’s told others to do, i.e. Put It All Behind Him. In the penultimate image, Don’s gleeful face is huge on the screen, outsizing his trail of wreckage times a million. And nothing much matters now, because the episode, and the series, and the characters, have come and gone. We thought there was some there there, and I think the writers did, too (see my end-of-season-7-part-one essay, in which the Burger Chef episode as possible series finale had me singing a very different tune); but then there wasn’t. Because if you hedge long enough, you’ll tip right over. It doesn’t take much, just a feather-like waft, or maybe just silly viewers and their need for meaning. The writers would surely say that the characters’ endings came organically from “who they are.” But I’m not really buying that, because Weiner, as creative non-showrunner, has been imprinting who he is, his authorial dreams and awkwardness and moral point of view, all along. The notion that what Mad Men does is more like real life than what other TV shows do is perhaps the most self-unaware thing that Weiner asserts, and suggests, again, some hedging: is he the show’s creator, or is he simply managing life-like characters’ inevitable behavior? The characters’ stunning disconnection from their actions and interactions -- the atomized non sequiturs that comprise their stories -- is a highly particular version of real life. I think, for example, of the Season 5 finale of The Wire -- in which the dark fate of a promising young black male (Randy) resulting from the carelessness of a dull-witted white male (Herc) is not relegated to the dead-wood pile of episodes past, but revisited and shown to the viewer; surely David Simon would say, That’s real life, and fuck yes it matters. I think too of the very satisfying series finale of Friday Night Lights, in which the saintly and sacrificial Eric and Tami Taylor finally make a selfish choice, and what we feel in those heartbreaking final moments is how everything that is now off-screen -- everyone from the past five years from whom they have disconnected and put behind them -- matters so very much. 7. As is obvious by now, I did make the investment; I ponied up big and bought what Mad Men was selling. So invested was I that I may still have been convinced of Weiner’s all-in artistry, or Loofbourow’s theory of visionary brilliance -- if it weren’t for Weiner’s final words with regard to the finale. Moved to speak out after the fact, in response to what he thought were disturbingly cynical readings of the ending, Weiner explained that the implication of the episode’s final images is that Don, “in an enlightened state...created something that’s very pure,” i.e. the most famous ad campaign in history, “Buy the world a Coke.” In other words, Weiner exults in Don’s transcendent talent, and his receptivity to artistic vision via emotional healing. In apparent earnestness, Weiner takes a final shot at resonance by celebrating the artist and the possibility of human wholeness. But what to make of an earnestness so blind to -- so disconnected from -- what it means? As we now know -- thanks especially to Ericka Blount Danois writing at Ebony -- in real life, Billy Davis, an African-American man who’d had a career as a songwriter and A&R executive, was the music director at McCann Erickson in 1970; he helped to create the Coke campaign and co-wrote and produced “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The campaign, as the Coca-Cola Company tells it, was a team conception; but as Tim Carmody points out at The Medium, it was Davis -- one of the few African Americans at the senior level in advertising at that time -- who contributed what might be described as “pure” or “enlightened” -- the part that involved harmony and healing. Davis said to Bill Backer, creative director for the Coca Cola account: Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke...I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love. Does it matter that Weiner gave Don Draper credit for the ad? Does it mean anything? Carmody said it well: We have a long tradition in the United States of erasing the creative work of black Americans, of suggesting that the inventions of black men and women either came from nowhere, came from no one in particular, or were in fact the creations of white people. We do this in our history, in our oral traditions, and even in our fiction. Mos Def had something to say about it, too: Elvis Presley ain't got no SOULLLL (hell naw) Little Richard is rock and roll (damn right) You may dig on The Rolling Stones But they ain't come up with that shit on they own (nah-ah) I wonder if Loofbourow would say that it was all ironic meta-brilliance on Weiner’s part: in Mad Men's final act of meta-metaphor, the white man gets full credit for a black man’s work -- work of lasting greatness -- so that we can be properly entertained. I think I prefer blinded earnestness; the joke grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Maybe Chris Rock could pull it off; Matthew Weiner can’t. One of the last installations at the MoMI exhibit is a screen display of the various opening credit sequences submitted by the design firm Imaginary Forces. It’s impossible to imagine a different choice from the iconic falling silhouette we’ve come to know so well: the sequence is beautiful, haunting, racy; and like a great first paragraph of a novel, it contains the whole of the story to come. The mysterious ad man’s ephemeral surroundings crumble around him; he falls and falls, it’s terrifying but also exhilarating; then he lands. Reclined, unruffled, and still smoking. You win, Don Draper. You always do. It would seem that I am ready to move forward, and to put Mad Men behind me like it never happened.