Saturday, September 29, 2007

Poetic Closure

I woke up in the middle of the night in something close to panic.

The last line of a poem--one that I'd recently submitted--I knew it was wrong, but I didn't let it register. I could read it in a certain context and not notice. But out of sound sleep, it attacked me like...

like what?

This is how you set yourself up. You write the word "like" and the next thing you know you've hung yourself from a dead simile.

I spent the better part of the day reworking that line. It was the last line in the poem... not seldom a problem. Why? Because "closure" itself is a cliché. A can of worms. A temptation to kitch. If you care about form, a temptation that's especially hard to see--you find something that appears to solve the formal, structural problem and it overwhelms all the other critical senses. That was the problem here. I had a line that brought the poem to a perfect closure. Sealed and shut. Nails in the coffin.

Poem D.O.A.

This was no case of mailing off a poem before it was ripe. (Let me check my log... 7/6/06... with subsequent revisions and drafts)

The Last Line Problem.... Classic Case.

So I worked on it, and I think I've worked it out... the new line flows from the rest of the poem as the other did not. Draws on the same vocabulary (weather... important here... Title: Meteorologist in Love), and stripped of the false sentiment (is there another kind?)--the rot in the old line.

I think I have Jonathan Mayhew to thank.

I've spent a lot of time on his blog in the last few days. He irritates me to distraction at times, but it's the kind of irritation you know is good for you. It wakes you up.

Agreement, disagreement... means nothing.

Why... and How... that's what matters. Like what I've been finding in Zizek. Mayhew's made me go back and reexamine some basic assumptions.

Nothing better to take off twenty, thirty years. Beats Botax all to hell!

Now, if I could only convince my students...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Reading Experience Takes on Steve Wasserman

Serious Criticism
Much of Steve Wasserman's Columbia Journalism Review article is concerned with delineating newspapers' obligation to cover "books as news that stays news." He suggests that this means reviewing books "of enduring worth," which in turn suggests an emphasis on work of inherent literary value. I think most people would understand this to signify specifically works of literature--fiction and poetry, although some occasional works of nonfiction might also be included as achieving "enduring worth" as well. Indeed, in further indentifying "news that stays news," Wasserman asserts that "It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities. . . ."

But in his otherwise cogent enough defense of "serious criticism" in newspapers and other general-interest print publications, Wasserman doesn't really focus with much particularity on literary criticism. It is more or less conflated with discussion of "books" more generally, as if the latest academic tome on American foreign policy or most recent biography of William Randolph Hearst were equally the subject of "criticism" as a new novel by Richard Powers or new collection of poems by John Ashbery. As if the "news" conveyed by The 9-11 Commission Report were the same kind of news conveyed by Falling Man.

In fact, what Wasserman really has in mind is the kind of social analysis or cultural criticism described by Leon Wieseltier (as quoted by Wasserman): the "long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers." While most good novels do not offer "obvious or easy answers," I don't think it's the interpretation of fiction that Wieseltier has in mind here. Novels might sometimes provide grist for the cultural critic's rhetorical mill, but ultimately "criticism" as Wasserman and Wieseltier understand it is an "elite" discourse through which learned commentators discuss the cultural, political, and historical forces bearing down on "society" as it is reflected in all forms of expression. (I don't object to learned commentary per se, but I do like my learned commentary on literature to be about literature.)...

Read the rest HERE

Literature as its own negation: Mark Thwaite on Blanchot

Mark Thwaite quoting Blanchot on ReadySteadyBooks.
"Literature professes to be important while at the same time considering itself an object of doubt," in the sense that it, "by its very activity, denies the substance of what it represents" and thus is "its own negation".

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Reading Notes: Kundara: The Curtain (1)

In the nineteenth century, Milan Kundera writes, in the The Consciousness of Continuity, "Something essential in man's existence changed... man began to understand that he was not going to die in the same world he had been born into."

Is there any more absolute line of demarcation, whether we speak of individuals, religions, political parties or social classes? ... than the abyss between those who accept that they will not die in the same world into which they were born, and those who resist unto death, no matter the toll, this inescapable reality?

Make no mistake. This has nothing to do with the late nineteenth century notion of "progress," a reiteration of an essentially 18th C. mechanistic understanding--where the particulars change and evolve, but the governing laws are unaltered. As though there were a human constant, moving through an every changing environment.

No... "World" here, is that far more complex amalgam... the humanly habitable World by which we define ourselves--our being. If it is not what is was, we are not what we were.

Is this not the very subject of the arts?

Milan Kundera. The Curtain, An Essay in Seven Parts. Translated from the French by Linda Asher. HarperCollinPublishers

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Twilight Sleep

When I was writing my still unpublished novel, The Magic Slate, (Summary and sample chapters HERE, I came across some medical literature on the drug, Scopolamine. This drug, a derivative of Bella Donna, was given to women in labor. It did nothing to reduce discomfort, and in fact, increased sensitivity and reduced inhibitions and self control. These patients, who remained conscious, would be left to scream in pain, strapped down, likely cursing, with good reason, all the men in their lives, not excluding their own unborn sons.

The sole advantage of this drug (the Nazis, who used it for interrogating prisoners... does the Bush administration know about this--called it Damerschlaffen, twilight sleep)--was that they would remember nothing of their experience when it was over.

In The Magic Slate, a woman has been given Scopolamine while in labor, but suffers a paradoxical reaction. The only memories she retains, are of those eighteen hours in labor. What little she knows about her life before she gave birth, comes from the store of random recollections during that experience.

Yesterday, I was reading, Slavoj Žižek's essay, Is it Possible to Travers the Fantasy in Cyberspace?, (from The Žižek Reader: Editd by Elizabeth and Edmond Wright. Blackwell Publishing) and came across the following passage.

In 'le Prix du progrès', one of the fragments that conclude The dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer quote the argumentation of the nineteenth-century French physiologist Piere Flourens against medical anesthesia with chloroform. Flourens claims that it can be proved that the anesthetic works only on our memory's neuronal network. In short, while we are being butchered alive on the operating table, we feel fully the terrible pain, but later, after awakening, we do not remember it. For Adorno and Horkheimer, this, of course, is the perfect metaphor of the fate of Reason based on the repression of nature in itself: his body, the part of nature in the subject, feels fully the pain; it is only that, owing to repression, the subject does not remember it. Therein resides the perfect revenge of nature for our domination over it: unknowingly, we are our own greatest victims, butchering ourselves alive. Isn't it also possible to read this as the perfect fantasy--scenario of interpassivity, of the Other Scene in which we pay the price for our active intervention in the world? A sado-masochist willingly assumes this suffering as the access to Being

In The Magic Slate, the character, Yudit, having lost her fixed place in the Symbolic Order, has a transformative affect on others, disarming them, as it were, from their defensive responses. Needless to say, I was quite amazed to find this passage in Žižek's essay, some eight years after I finished writing my novel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

More on Book Reviews, Marketing

Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor for nearly twenty-five years, has rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.”

Quoted by former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor, at just under 10,00 words, Steve Wasserman, delivers the goods in Goodbye to All That, an essay on book reviews, marketing and much more. Published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

A fine compliment to the discussion on book pricing on Literary Kicks.

I found the link on Conversational Reading.
Goodbye to All That
The decline of the coverage of books isn’t new, benign, or necessary
By Steve Wasserman

Monday, September 10, 2007

More on, Compartimentalization of Desire

Levi Asher, of Literary Kicks, (previously mentioned) invited agents, publishers, booksellers and authors to participate in a discussion on marketing books--something set off by questions about hardbound versus paperbacks--why publishers of literary fiction don't put out first editions in paper back, why we don't get reviews of paperbacks... I had about the same time, raised some related questions, but on a more theoretical level, about reviews and marketing--whether or not all reviews are essentially reviews of books "as commodities." (See about three posts down) Ads in disguise. No matter the integrity or intention of the reviewer.

I was profoundly disturbed by the contributions of Simon Lipskar on Asher's blog. Now, Lipskar, an agent for Author's House, and no doubt a fine advocate for the writers he serves, offered insider informed arguments on how the system works, what is and is not possible.

What's wrong here, I asked myself? He's on the side of his clients. He knows his business.

I posted some questions of my own--what does it mean for how we perceive our work as writers, for how we evaluate literary merit, in a context where there can be no competing "reality" but that of the market--where the real value is determined by the bottom line--and all the rest is mere opinionating from the margins?

How do we not let that affect the aesthetic judgments we make? As writers? As critics? ...and inescapably--as reviewers?

Levi Asher, in reviewing the discussion to date, wrote that this should not be about Capitalism versus whatever... but deal with what we can expect from the realities we're left with.

I agree and disagree. Yes, this is valuable in the limits he sets out. I'm learning. I want to make a buck for my efforts like anyone else. So I pay attention and am happy for this discussion.

But why? ... I keep having these nagging doubts, that the cards are stacked against success for what I think really matters.

It's like the message here is: GET WITH THE PROGRAM.

And! WoW! If You aren't watching those GET RICH WITH REAL ESTATE (well... not anymore)... HERE'S how you can (maybe not exactly "get rich"), but ... like Writer's Digest... pure ideological whitewash...

Is that what the whole Beat thing comes down to for you, Levi?

How the mighty have fallen...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Compartmentalization of Desire

I've found the comments by Simon Lipskar in the discussion on Book Pricing for Literary Fiction (Lev Asher's LitKicks)
both enlightening, and more than a little troubling. No question that he understands the reality of marketing books, and for questions that arise within that context, I'm convinced we have to accept his expertise. As long as we limit our activities to the ideology of the market, these seemingly autonomous forces determine what we can and cannot do, and for that matter, what we can and cannot think; what is the point, after all, of wasting our time in fantasies? Reality is reality.

Or is it?

I wouldn't bother to raise the question if I had more faith in our power to compartmentalize, to judge the value of a book as a commodity, and as... whatever else it is: art, literature, a cultural artifact, without leakage, without contamination from one compartment to the other. I would assume that an agent or publisher who admitted a book's "intrinsic" value into commercial considerations would not see leakage from that side as "contamination;" more likely, this would be an argument against the totalizing ideological influence of the market. But this would be true only to the degree that the membrane is permeable only in on direction.

Is it?

Here we are, subject to an ideology which informs us what is,and is not real, informs us that we are at best, instruments governed by that reality, that we cannot operate outside of it, that our freedom, such as it is, consists in understanding the operational forces (as Simon does), and choosing after the fact, what those forces have determined for us. Because what is "real," is the market, we all know perfectly well, that no value can exist apart from it, no value that is not fully quantifiable and subservient to its Laws. How then, to return to my question about compartmentalization, are we to formulate ideas or make judgments that are not thoroughly contaminated by the governing ideology? The problem is--how do you separate forms of desire? And when we talk about 'values,' that's what we mean--forms of desire. Take reviews, as just one example--one area where we express (and consume) public judgments on the value of books. No matter the intelligence, the integrity of the reviewer--book reviews, on one or more levels, become reviews of a salable object, or more precisely, of how the book will effect the desire to purchase and own.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Reviews: The Book as Commodity

Here's a question I would like to see spread around and broadly considered.

Is it possible to write a book review in any commercial venue that is not, by intention or otherwise, a review of the book as a commodity?

Because "reviews" are, whether published in the usual commercial settings--newspapers, magazines--or on blogs, web sites--other supposedly, "non-commercial" venues--catalogs of their desirability for readers...and so, for buyers of books--is it possible to write a "revue" at all, that is not essentially, no matter the intent of the reviewer, a review of a commodity?

It may be, and this is my current opinion... that the very form is inescapably corrupted. That is, if the first assumption on writing a review, is not that it is, in fact, inescapable (that a review is always going to be, primarily, a review, not of a work of literature, whatever that means, but of a commodity), than the answer to the question is, no.

Accepting that assumption--or should I say, recognizing that reality? How then does one go about writing a review, that is a review of the work itself... and not of the "book" as a commodity?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Richard Powers is one of those authors, like Don Delillo, who get a lot of praise, their share of rewards... and readers and reviewers who just don't get it. A review on Incurable Logophilia goes a long way toward explaining why I find this writer one the best of our generation.

Do check out the review.

I responded in the comment quoted below (hopefully, edited to eliminate the typos and lost words I've inflicted on the good readers of Incurable Logophilia.

A couple of years ago a friend–I think of her as a friend now–a cyborspace acquaintance: refugees, exiles and escapees from web sites as they evolved and expelled us–or at least, me: Salon–the old not-for-pay Salon, Atlantic Forum before Atlantic Monthly delegated fiction to the Terminal Care Single Issue Nursing Home, Readerville… one more place I’ve been booted from… (I've been expelled from a whole State. 1965… declared PNG by Mississippi). Too many other changes, disasters, reincarnations to keep track of. Very few acquaintances last through these transitions, some voluntary, some forced–so I have special regard for the few who hang on for more than one or two expulsions… ah yes, the point at hand: Richard Powers. This fellow Expat recommended Plowing the Dark.

Reading that book was enough to convince me–this was someone whose career I wanted to follow.

He hasn’t disappointed me yet, and your review does a pretty good job of zeroing in on what I respect about Powers' work. The fragility of his central characters-–of their self-identity--can make them difficult to “identify with” (how the middle-brow reviewers love to thump on this one), but that is the edge, the precipice he makes them walk, the heart of the question at the heart of each of his novels… this thing about “identity.”

In each novel, the question of personal identity is matched with a set of roughly (or more than roughly) complimentary questions from fields we assume are less contingent, less contaminated with our subverting needs and wishes–-fields that suggest we might explore them with more disinterested minds: programming virtual reality, photographic imagery and history, mathematics, music, the structure of DNA and its discovery… and in each case, the science, the complimentary representation of the human question, is no less problematic and elusive than that one about “personal identity.”
So yes, his characters seem stiff-–hidden behind their projected, fragile and unstable self-images, expressing themselves in a odd sort of Powers-esque dialog, all feint and dodge, evasion and deflection… the sort of more than semi-conscious lie… or, if not lie, refusal… refusal to take the business of settled identity seriously… so the dialog comes across as ironic evasion…evasion that reveals the “lack” the Lacanic “Real.”