Support Your Literary Community

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Dan Green asks a lot of important questions about “literary citizenship” and makes a lot of really good points. (And when I think of members in good standing of the “literary community” I certainly think of him.) I don’t have any answers to his questions, but I do have some responses to some of the points he raises.

First of all, I think the basic idea of a literary citizen is pretty simple. Don’t trash the community that nourishes you and gives you a place to exist. Don’t shit where you live. Do some good deeds for your people. Try to leave your place a little better than you found it. If for no other reason, it’s in your own self interest to make the ecosystem you live in a beautiful, interesting, healthy place to be.

As to the free riders and the gamers. Yes, there will always be a tiny percentage of community members who are transparently participating only for their own interests, just as there will also be a few saint-like figures who seem tireless in the good deeds they’ll do for others, with seemingly no regard whatsoever for their own careers. The cynics are easy enough to pick out and avoid, and the saints are welcome. That leaves the rest of us, the vast vast majority of or less decent people trying to do a little good while also trying to carve out a life for ourselves.

Social networks have, of course, become hugely important in the ways we interact as members of this community. But despite everything that social networks have changed, I find things like this a little overblown:

Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media “presence.” Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, “Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being ‘trained’ to do.”‘

First of all, it’s flat-out wrong that “corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves.” There’s a pretty huge difference between what a career publicist can accomplish (and the work involved in getting it done) and the author who’s recruited to do a book tour.

Yes, the author is being asked to participate to a greater degree in publicity than, say, 30 years ago, but c’mon. I don’t know of any “corporate publishers” who ask their authors to print and mail out hundreds of galleys, cultivate relationships with scores/hundreds of critics nationwide, book nationwide bookstore tours (which are generally paid for in total by the publisher, and are not cheap), create and place advertising, and generally build the kind of market presence that can turn an author from completely unknown to semi-famous in a single season. I just don’t think it really helps this conversation at all to confuse the work a publicist does with the expectations that an author be part of a literary community.

As to the social media presence, yes, some authors really get social media and love it and have built sizable followings. But have a look at the number of Twitter followers for many of your favorite authors, and I guarantee they will be tiny (if they’re even on Twitter). Then compare that to the social media presence for his/her publisher. Yes, our media environment has changed quite a bit, but in large it’s the publicists and the publishers who have adapted to build sizable presences in the new online media, not the authors. And let’s not overstate what a Twitter presence can do for a writer; yes, it will help a bit, but it’s not a panacea for sales and publicity by any means.

Just one example out of many: Garth Risk Hallberg got himself a $2 million book deal with a leading publisher despite having no social media profile to speak of, having pretty much gone into hiding from the work he used to do at The Millions (or anywhere for that matter), and barely even having email. So, I mean . . .

The authors that have built sizable social media followings are generally in it for reasons other than to publicize their next book (and if they do also use it to publicize their work, I’m not going to fault them—see above). They probably get a lot out of being on Twitter, are well-suited enough to the environment that it doesn’t destroy their mood, and maybe just like being able to share information on cool books with thousands of people.

Bottom line: having been working in publishing for a while now, and having been in touch with all sorts of publishers and authors all over the place, I just don’t see any real evidence of what people like Becky Tuch say, and I think statements like hers are far too cynical and don’t consider the nuances that exist in the real world. It’s my experience that people who participate in the literary community via social media want to be there, and are doing it for a variety of reasons. The very last reason of all is that they’re being forced there by their publisher.

Dan also raises this series of important questions:

Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably “business” would not be the center of activity: payment comes in “kindness and skill,” receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to “learn, engage, and grow.”

But would real growth actually occur if all that was “paid forward” was “kindness”? Would the “skill” also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative?

Honestly, I think the answers are “yes” and “yes.” When I look at the amount of coverage afforded today to small/indie press titles and authors in very mainstream publications with huge audiences (and it has increased a lot), I think that’s a direct result of the small/indie community that has been built in the decade-and-a-half since the Internet came into its own. Many people from that community have been enabled to crash the gates of the venerable mainstream, and they have brought along their friends with them. A lot of the people I consider peers today started out as nobodies with nothing more than shitty blogs (myself included), and now many of them are in places of power ans prestige. They still remember their old friends, and they’re still parts of the communities they started with. All of this has very substantively affected the sorts of books and authors that are taken seriously these days.

As to the honesty factor—yes, there’s tons of fluff out there. Every day we all see people passing along links to articles they haven’t read past the headline and promoting books they probably haven’t read. This is obviously not a good thing, and I think it can in part be attributed to the pressure to “keep up” and to be a “good citizen,” as well as to the list-making tendency of Internet media. Obviously these aren’t good things, we can all agree. But, two things: 1) This all existed before the Internet, and I think the Internet has only magnified it and brought it more into the open; and 2) Amid all this bullshitting I also see a lot of very genuine criticism and discussion happening.

Because, the fact is, if you really do want to start an indie press and make it live, you need to be able to handle people giving you real talk, or else you won’t survive. And if you really want to be a good writer, you have to deal with honest responses to your work, or else your writing will suck and nobody will actually respect you, regardless of what they say on Facebook.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the people I know, but I tend to see a lot more people in my community who are interested in honest feedback and improving their skills than wanting to accumulate a bunch of skin-deep praise. And, it’s my genuine belief that a ream-full of superficial praise doesn’t sell books so much as create a short-lived buzz on social media that everyone will have forgotten in a week. By contrast, my experience is that what really sells books and makes careers is the deep, extended engagement, where people are giving word-of-mouth recommendations for months/years to come, and where the analysis of the book goes so deep that said book begins to sound really, really compelling. And social media has made it possible to do this in ways and across geographies that we never could have before.

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say here that I think the image of the literary apostate is just that—an image, oftentimes cultivated by a canny and well-connected individual for careerist reasons. Even someone as genius as Samuel Beckett was a virtual nobody in the U.S. until his publisher at Grove figured out how to make him a mainstream commodity (and he wasn’t so much of an outsider as his image would have it). Even a complete misanthrope like Thomas Bernhard recognized the necessity for people to be connected to other people. Yes, writers tend to be solitary people, and some parts of the literary community will tend to turn writers off. A healthy skepticism isn’t a bad thing—but neither is finding the people in the world who get you and forming relationships with them. When you get right down to it, that’s probably 90% of what the words “literary community” mean to me.

Artist’s widows, from “Speck’s Idea” by Mavis Gallant

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Mavis Gallant on artist’s widows, from her story “Speck’s Idea” found in the collected stories. (Sadly, this one-stop-shopping, with a wonderful preface by the author herself, is no longer in print, but NYRB has three volumes of spendor for you.)

Mavis Gallant is true greatness. Before you read one of this fall’s trend novels, read a few of her stories to calibrate your expectations. It may help you avoid some embarrassment down the line.

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Pillars: #2. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

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Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


 

As a writer and a thinker, Marilynne Robinson sticks out for multiple reasons. First of all, there is the fact that she published her first book, Housekeeping, at 37 years of age (in 1980), and then did not publish another novel for 24 years. In today’s careerist publishing climate, those are in themselves noteworthy choices. The bespeak an author who doesn’t write until she wants to, who is moved not be considerations of fame or status but only by what she must say. In other words, a serious thinker.

Perhaps equally interesting is the fact that in the span between her novels she published two serious works of nonfiction, and, indeed, I would be sympathetic to the argument that in due time she may be seen as a better essayist than a novelist (which is not to slight her fiction). Needless to say, it is rare to see a writer who can so deeply master the competing aesthetics of the two forms, and whose mind is supple enough for its thoughts to fit equally well in different containers.

Robinson is also noteworthy because she loves to stick up for unfashionable intellectuals. She is perhaps the leading (and maybe only?) living proponent of the thought of John Calvin. She is a forceful advocate for the American Transcendentalists. She writes compelling essays about obscure books that probably no one other than Marilynne Robinson has read, and she makes you feel that you must read them. More broadly, she is passionately religious at a time when few liberal intellectuals are. Her writing seems almost custom made to cut against the received ideas of our era, yet she destroys this common wisdom in a way that is as calm as it is forceful, profound, and nearly impossible to argue with. She deeply and energetically believes in the humanist tradition, the gifts of the Enlightenment, the place of wonder (true wonder) in the human experience, and the dignity of all people.

Although I do believe an argument can be made for her essays as her greatest work, I am choosing her first novel, Housekeeping, as my pillar from her.

I happened to read Housekeeping at a time when I needed a book just like this, a book that could show me a different way of viewing the world than I had been viewing it. A book that wold refresh my perspective. Without knowing it, what I wanted was someone like Robinson to be a role model, and to embody another way of being. And reading Housekeeping, that was precisely what I got. Rarely does such a powerful book come along just when you need it, and so it was able to shape my thinking very deeply, and it has remained with me in the years since I first read it.

One of the things I like best about Marilynne Robinson is that as a novelist she talks about an America that exists—or maybe existed—but that is very little-known. It is an America that is conversant with our deepest traditions, our important intellectuals, our artists, the political doctrines we have contributed to civilization, the unique rights and ideals we as a people hold dear—yet, it is also a part of the country that was not widely known even in its time (the 1920s and ’30s), that knew very little of the United States beyond its own parochial limits, and that is all but forgotten now. Somehow, this obscure part of America that Robinson writes about delves into some of the most core aspects of what makes America a nation—that is, those things that transcend the competing and often irreconcilable ideologies, interest groups, and ethnicities that always seem to be on the verge of tearing this nation apart. The people in Housekeeping’s rural village, Fingerbone, feel profoundly American, despite the fact that they are marginalized, even forgotten, and have very little commerce with anything we might recognize as historic or important about the period. They are American characters, expertly drawn by a master with the pen.

In Housekeeping (as in all her work), Robinson talks about religion, but not in the sense of particulars so much as in the sense of the wonder, authority, beliefs, and values that make it an essential part of human society. Robinson’s depiction of religion is always pluralistic, even though her characters have very distinct religious beliefs and are not necessarily pluralistic themselves. She has an effortless way of showing how religion figures into everyday life, how it becomes part of the fabric of human character and social endeavor. In Housekeeping you see how it has crafted and informed human society, why it is essential—and inescapable—even for those who do not believe, or who have found other systems to take the place of religion in their lives. To read Robinson is to see where the practice of religion overlaps with the need for spirituality.

To an extent, these first two things exist in all of Robinson’s novels (although I would say they receive their best treatment here), and the thing that I would say is most particular to Housekeeping is its depiction of feminine difference. The book has women as its main characters, and in particular it centers on two women who will not fit in to society in the ways that women are expected to do so—and who ultimately pay the price for their behavior. In seeing how Robinson constructs their characters, the virtues and ambitions that animate their lives, their shortcomings, fears, needs, you see an image of femininity that stands not just apart from masculinity but also apart from prevalent ideas of what is female and even human. In short, it proposes an alternative, and it makes that alternative compelling and alive on the page. Of course, this vision of difference ties in to the title and the book’s key metaphor—housekeeping—just what it means to you and I, and what it could mean to us, and what it does mean to these strange individuals who see things otherwise that the rest of us.

We can talk about these things, and I do think they are the book’s originalities, but then there is simply the prose, which is unlike anything Marilynne Robinson—or probably anyone else—has ever written. Much of the book reads like a vision, a breathtaking performance that Robinson was destined to only produce once in her lifetime. It feels like a book from another period entirely—if you gave it to someone to read who did not know where it came from, they certainly would not guess the 1980s. There is nothing at all to date it other than the writing, and that itself, with its combinations of the Biblical and the modernist and the pastoral, with its currents of thought from all throughout Western history, is undatable.

The Coming Lispector Tidal Wave

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I have the feeling that years of hard work and dedication are about to pay off in a very, very big way, as we approach the publication of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories. See the front page review in The New York Times (the first time a Brazilian’s been so honored, so I’m told) and gushing praise in The New Republic. And that’s just the start.

(As an incidental note, I’m hoping to add my voice to the mix in September, if my priorities will allow it.)

This is really the story of many people working selflessly for a common goal, along them some remarkable translators, a legendary publisher and her staff, and, most of all, the impassioned Benjamin Moser, who got the resurgence of Lispector off the ground with his biography, Why This World, and kept things going with a re-translation of what many consider her masterpiece, and then spearheaded re-translations of four more essential Lispectors. And now this, the years-long work of translator Katrina Dodson (with Moser again providing must help and guidance).

And the wonderful thing is that few authors would be so worthy of this treatment. Lispector is genuinely original, and her work is so genuinely weird and against-the-grain that she would need champions to get her right in translation and make people pay attention.

For your reading pleasure, we have three pieces on Lispector at The Quarterly Conversation: The Lispector Roundtable (featuring Barbara Epler and Benjamin Moser, among others); an essay on The Hour of the Star, and Colm Tóibín’s introduction to said book.

Here’s a little piece of Clarice’s infinity.

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Pillars: #1. Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai

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Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


 

Most likely the contemporary author who has had the greatest influence on me has been László Krasznahorkai. His books feel more visionary to me than any other working author I’m familiar with, his style more original, his project more unified—yet also profoundly expansive, complex, and elemental. So I could very easily be writing about the influence that all of Krasznahorkai’s books have had on me (his project is very unified, and he has many important works), but I am going to pick Seiobo There Below to write about as the major pillar.

The general consensus of most people who know Krasznahorkai’s work inside and out—as well as my own opinion, based on reading six of his works—is that Seiobo There Below is his masterpiece to date. This is a book that I could imagine us still learning from 100 years from now, a book that will come to seem more and more emblematic of its times and predictive of the future yet to come. It reminds me most of Kafka, in the sense that Kafka was able to divine the irresolvable elements at the heart of modernism, yet was also able to foresee the horrors that would come with the Second World War and the logic that would take hold of Western civilization thereafter. I think Seiobo There Below carries that kind of visionary power, both to comprehend what is at the center of our own era and to create a structure nimble enough to continue to feel profound and precognitive in the decades to come. Although Krasznahorkai’s early books were very powerful, they also came out of the specifically Hungarian, Communist world that he was born in. Seiobo There Below partakes in his travels and growth as an individual, to encompass not just the communist Eastern Europe, nor just that + Western Europe, but those things in addition to the East and Krasznahorkai’s experiences around the world. It feels global in reach, and this is why I would pick it to last longer than many of his other books, powerful as they may be.

So what is this book about? Well, it does not function in the way that we’re accustomed to thinking most novels function. There’s no first-person narrator whom we follow for these 400-some pages, there are no consistent characters, no central incidents, or even locales. In fact, the book is so wide-ranging and diffuse that you could almost call Seiobo There Below a series of short stories, except for the fact that this book is so profoundly unified under thematic lines—as well as by its central conceit (more on that in a moment)—that it simply cannot be looked at as a collection. Reading it, each successive chapter seems to emanate out of everything that has come before, like the movements of a symphony, even though to superficial eyes there will be little to connect them together.

An attempt at plainly stating what Seiobo There Below is about might go something like this: the book uses various individuals and situations to make you feel all of the chaos and anarchy that necessarily exists in the human world, but it also shows how something we might call either art or spirituality has for eons given humans a way to escape the anxiety and loneliness that necessarily come with a world fundamentally beyond our control and understanding.

That summary is the best way I can concisely state what this book does, but it necessarily shortchanges it (as would any concise description of Seiobo There Below), so here is a list to give a sense of the range and newness of this title:

  • the book ranges in era from pre-history (or maybe post/a-history) up through the Middle Ages right to the present, and it also ranges through the continents, always managing to give us an immediately compelling, believable, and forceful portrait of whatever way of life it chooses to convey
  • the book is truly encyclopedia, as it encompasses various disciplines from Noh mask-making through Renaissance art to ancient architecture to mud-sculpting, again always giving us an expert-level account of these disciplines while integrating each item into the book’s core themes at the deepest level
  • the book is stylistically advanced, being composed mostly of pages-long sentences and single-paragraph chapters, a style that references and converses with Krasznahorkai’s previous ways of composing his novels but that also feels new, a style that he has not previously tried before and that feels like an evolution of his art
  • the book seems to be in conversation with some of the most exciting, new, and original ideas of our times (more on that in a sec)

I should now say a few words about the book’s central conceit. First off, the chapters of this book are numbered according to the progression of the Fibonacci sequence, a numerical sequence that is simply generated by adding up its last two numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 (Seiobo There Below ends after 17 chapters, on the number 2584). There is much beauty in the Fibonacci sequence: when graphed, this sequence makes a beautiful, gracefully expanding spiral, and the it has been mathematically linked to the so-called golden ratio, which is found all throughout nature and has been studied by philosophers/scientists and drawn on by artists for virtually all of recorded history.

I think that there are many, many, many ways to read what Krasznahorkai has done by invoking these concepts in the architecture of his book, but surely one idea they raise that is close to the heart of this project is that of some kind of natural order underlying the chaos of the world. This order is a thing that we humans can at times glimpse when we have our most profound moments of what we might call art or spirituality. This idea also syncs up with the book’s title: Seiobo is a minor Chinese goddess associated with the West and prosperity who is known for cultivating a garden of peaches that confers immortality. Placing Seiobo “there below” obviously implies certain ideas about the transcendent touching the earthy plain; I also think it is significant that she is an Eastern goddess of “the west,” given how Krasznahorkai has grown increasingly interested on finding literary ways of combining the realms.

I’d just like to conclude by mentioning one last way Seiobo There Below feels so new to me. I do believe that the book (whether consciously or not) invokes the idea of the “rhizome,” which Deleuze and Guattari attempt to philosophically describe in their masterpiece, A Thousand Plateaus. Wikipedia explains a rhizome as describing “theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” In other words, it subverts our traditional, inherited ways or ordering the world in favor of something new, something that is fundamentally non-hierarchical. To quote from rhiomes.net:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G 7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G 25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

To me, this is precisely what Seiobo There Below is about: to resist the simple idea of “beginning, middle, end,” to contradict the claim that civilization is “progressing” toward some culmination. Instead, the book attempts to find new narratives and new organizational principles for explaining the human propensity to seek transcendence over our brutal, chaotic, fundamentally uncertain world. Of course, many writers have written on this subject, but few have attempted to find a rhozomic way of linking it all together. Deleuze and Guattari first published A Thousand Plateaus in 1980 (and the book first appeared in English in 1987), meaning that their ideas are extraordinarily young and are still being assimilated and interpreted. In my opinion, the are among the forefront of the philosophical ideas of our era—they are concepts that are far, far ahead of their time, and we are just beginning to see them comprehend and adopted in the mass culture. The fact that Krasznahorkai, whether purposely or by intuition alone, seems to be conversing with them at the deepest levels (and in the form of fiction) is just one more proof of how new and canonical Seiobo There Below really is.

Thanks to some good luck, as well as the determined efforts of many individuals who believe in the importance of Krasznahorkai’s literary project, Seiobo There Below has developed the beginnings of a sizable and passionate readership. I expect that this will continue, in the mold of many great works before it that started out with a small but devoted readership and slowly grew and grew to become central pieces. Like those other titles (and, indeed, like A Thousand Plateaus) Seiobo There Below is a book that at times demands to be read slowly, a book in which not everything will be comprehended at first glance. Nonetheless, it is a book that, to me, more than anything else feels vital and alive and powerful. I think that any reader who gives it a honest chance will not be failed to be moved—again and again and again—by what Krasznahorkai has achieved.

15 of My Favorite Archipelagos

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Definitely one of the best translation presses to emerge in recent years is the great, Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books. Probably best-known nowadays as the place that unleashed that Knausgaard guy on all of us, it’s shaped my contemporary reading as few presses have, and it’s safe to say that it has also shaped the face of modern translated literature. Here are 15 favorites out of the many, many titles that it has brought into our world. (And I’m not going to list Knausgaard here because you all already know him.)


From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar (trans Anne McLean). This book is just visually stunning, with photos Cortázar took of a beautiful, cosmic 18th-century observatory in Jaipur, India, mixed in with a book-length poem he wrote about it. He mixes in ruminations on the spawning cycle of the eel with the farthest reaches of space to make something that kinda sorta resembles Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. A wonderful book from the Argentine master, and while you’re at it, get all of Archipelago’s Cortázar translations.

Tranquility by Attila Bartis (trans Imre Goldstein). God damn this book! This has got to be one of the most overlooked books in contemporary translation. Bartis writes amazing sentences, the structure of this book is fascinating, and the tone of this book is just pitch pitch pitch black. I will never forget the part about the priest who feeds his congregation poisoned wafers. TQC review.

Yalo by Elias Khoury (trans Peter Theroux). Set in Lebanon, and digging deeply into the Lebanese Civil War, I love this book not only for its cultural depth but also for its amazing use of the unreliable first-person. Also, just a flat-out great, heartbreaking story of a man who gets caught up in taking the blame for crimes he didn’t commit. TQC review.

Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard (trans Alyson Waters). Chevillard is one of those authors who never writes two books that remotely resemble each other in any way. Prehistoric Times begins with the epigraph “only cave paintings seem made to last forever,” and goes on to contemplate artistic posterity over very, very long durations via the story of a man who tries to make his own cave paintings. Fascinating. TQC review.

Return to My Native Land by Aimé Césaire (trans Anna Bostock and John Berger). Just a totally classic work. TQC review.

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski (trans Bill Johnston). “The Great Polish Novel” is probably not something to get you all excited, but god damn this book is fun to read. It has amazing range, from blackly comic to philosophical to absurdly Beckettian to poignant. It begins with an old man building his grave and goes on to encompass a life and a nation. TQC review.

Auguste Rodin by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans Daniel Slager). Rilke’s book on Rodin (a major influence of his when he was young and freshly arrived to Paris) is utterly fascinating. And it comes with a lengthy introductory essay by William H. Gass and beautiful photographs by Michael Eastman. One of the best-looking Archipelagos there is.

Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz (trans Bill Johnston). Gombrowicz was really on fire when he wrote these. Somewhere aligned with Bernhard and Beckett, but ultimately completely originally himself, Gombrowicz is a stylistic, comedic, philosophical feast. Check the ridiculous range here: “A balloonist finds himself set upon by erotic lepers…a passenger on a ship notices a human eye on the deck…a group of aristocrats enjoy a vegetarian dish made from human flesh…a virginal young girl gnaws raw meat from a bone…a notorious ruffian is terrorized by a rat.”

Poems (1945-1971) by Miltos Sachtouris (trans Karen Emmerich). I brought this volume to Greece with me when I went there, and it was the ideal companion as I traveled around. Both poetic and engaged with the currents of history (that are obviously still flowing very strongly), this is just a great collection, and it’s wonderfully translated by one of the best translators currently working with Greek literature.

The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldór Laxness (trans Philip Roughton). Just a great, really robust coming-of-age novel with an epic, elemental pitch to it. TQC review.

Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu (trans Sean Cotter). This book is enormous, messy, and almost unbelievable imaginative. Cărtărescu is strongly influenced by Pynchon, and you can definitely see it here. Some of the most grotesque, surreal, unforgettable images I’ll ever read in a novel. TQC review and interview with the author.

Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal (trans Stacey Knecht). One of the best by one of the Czech language’s greatest ever. The melancholy, memory-ridden meditative novel of an aged master.

Wonder by Hugo Claus (trans Michael Henry Heim). Undoubtedly the great Michael Henry Heim was one of the few people capable of translating a book like this. A surreal, allegory-like tale of undercovering Nazism and collaboration in post-war Netherlands. Here are some thoughts I wrote down about it.

Job by Joseph Roth (trans Ross Benjamin). An achingly beautiful, necessary retranslation of a great novel from a classic Austro-Hungarian author (the last edition dates from 1931). TQC review.

The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić. Coming this September, Vladislavić is just always so inventive with language, and his profile is finally beginning to heighten in the U.S. This book of his involves a mysterious “plan” that turns into something like a parable/allegory in the best tradition of the likes of Coetzee and Borges. TQC on Vladislavić.

Do Your Own Thing

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There is an interview here with Jon Baskin, who is one of the is co-founders and editors of The Point magazine. You should definitely check it out, as The Point has impressed me as one of the most interesting and worthwhile of the literary magazines to begin in the Internet era, and Jon et al. have impressed me more personally as editors.

One thing I wanted to highlight from this interview is one of the pull quotes, which reads:

We were in this program The Committee on Social Thought, kind of like a ‘Great Books’ Ph.D. program, where you sit and discuss the relevance of Plato and Hegel and Hannah Arendt for contemporary life. That sort of ethos was so attractive to us, but we found that when we went to write about these topics, we were forced or encouraged to do so in a way that was academic, that didn’t speak for the relevance they actually had for us. That was the impetus behind deciding ‘Maybe we should start a magazine where we can do the kind of writing that we want to do.’

It seems like right now we are in a golden era of social media-enabled identity politics, where you can very quickly and easily register your support for a certain brand of ideological argument with a simple, painless “Like,” “Retweet,” or “Favorite” (sorry Google Plus, you don’t count). That’s all fine, and I’m not arguing that people should stop doing that (I do it too), but I do think there’s a problem where people think that doing these things, and/or applying greatly over-simplified cut-and-paste rebuttals to extraordinarily complex questions, suffices for engagement.

I guess that on the whole I’d rather that people did this than nothing whatsoever, but nobody should think that this suffices. It’s just not that easy, and I’ve come to recommend to people who really want to help their cause do what Jon has advocated in this quote: start your own thing. Badgering people who don’t agree with you and may well never get it is fine and probably does some good, but an even better thing to do is to start your own publication/website/award/campaign/etc/etc in support of your own cause. And I do think what’s happened with The Point is a good case in (err) point. To wit:

The first issue of The Point we sold out the initial print run and that was great. In terms of the lows, there was a time around issue 6 or 7 when we all thought ‘Is this worth it?’ That was when we decided to do a Kickstarter campaign which ended up bringing in over $100,000. It’s been exciting trying to see how far we can take this and to what extent we can grow.

If what you’re doing resonates, and if you do it well and stick with it, you can achieve great things, like finding enough support to raise $100,000 and getting the sort of relevance and influence that comes with that level of support.

On an unrelated, and more personal, note, I had to smile when I read this pull quote from the interview:

So much a part of the early magazine that I loved was that we [Baskin and the two other founding editors, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick] would meet on the weekends and literally go through every article, almost sentence by sentence, arguing, bringing up objections, fighting (especially if it was one of us who had written the article). It turns out the three of you don’t have the same image of what the magazine is going to be.

Anyone who has been edited by The Point knows that it’s some of the most rigorous editing you can get. At times it really does feel like they’ve discussed every single sentence in your piece (and these tend to be essays ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 words and more). It’s impressive, and extraordinarily dedicated, and my writing has gotten better because of it.

Adorno’s Essay on “Free Time”

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One of my favorite essays of Adorno’s—and one of his most accessible—is his essay on “free time.” It’s short—just 11 pages in my copy of The Culture Industry—and I think it’s one of his more readable pieces. It’s also a very prescient piece, an essay that has grown more and more relevant as our relationship to free time has grown increasingly fraught.

Adorno begins by noting that the phrase “free time” is a recent coinage, as its precursor “leisure” denoted a completely different way of life that was (and is) well out of reach of nearly everybody who has some measure of “free time.” (For context, I believe this essay was written in 1969.) Almost immediately after that, he declares that “free time is shackled to its opposite.”

This is the main theme of the essay: the extent to which the hours what we consider to be ours are not really ours, and the ways that the culture industry attempts to colonize that time that us members of the middle class believe to be our free time. He puts it plainly when he says “unfreedom is gradually annexing ‘free time,’ and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of the unfreedom itself.”

Of course, in a culture where people regularly work 60- to 80-hour workweeks, and where we are all chained to the office by the Internet and mobile devices, these sentiments seem rather obvious. Adorno’s ideas go far deeper than this. At root, he sees our leisure activities as mere appendages of our work lives: “in accordance with the predominant work ethic, time free of work should be utilized for the recreation of expended labor power, then work-less time, precisely because it is a mere appendage of work, is severed from the latter with puritanical zeal.” Adorno goes on to argue that the real point of free time is to offer us rest and recuperation so that we may be prepared to do more work.

Adorno also presents the rather dark idea that our free time has merely become another thing for capitalism to monopolize. He mentions how travel has become a profitable industry, and he also invokes the idea of a “leisure industry” dedicated to finding ways of monetizing every last moment we spend outside of the office. Then he goes on to remark on our inability to opt out of such a state of affairs: “woe betide you if you have no hobby, no pastime, then you are a swot or an old-timer, an eccentric, and you will fall prey to ridicule in a society which foists upon you what your free time should be.” And, of course, it is not enough that we exploit our free time in approved manners—we must also demonstrate in culturally approved ways that we have used this time well: “if employees return from their holidays without having acquired the mandatory skin tone [i.e., a sun tan], they can be quite sure their colleagues will ask them the pointed question, ‘Haven’t you been on holiday, then?'”

Having laid out all of this, Adorno gets to the root of the matter: our concept of boredom, which he sees as purely an emanation of the prevailing capitalist order. “Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labor. . . . If people were able to make their own decisions about themselves and their lives, if they were not caught up in the realm of the eversame, they would not have to be bored.”

Boredom is closely related to imagination, which Adorno sees as being stamped out as we grow into maturity:

Those who want to adapt must learn increasingly to curb their imagination. For the most part the very development of the imagination is crippled by the experience of early childhood. The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time. The impertinent question of what people should do with the vast amount of free time now at their disposal—as if it was a question of alms and not human rights—is based upon this very unimaginativeness.

As he closes the essay, Adorno notes a slight reason for optimism: “what the culture industry presents people with in their free time . . . is indeed consumed and accepted, but with a kind of reservation.” In other words, people have some idea of how their free time is monetized, how their “desires” are not really theirs but rather wants and needs created by advertising and propaganda.

I think it’s rather uncontroversial to say that this awareness has only grown in the decades that followed Adorno’s writing of this essay. Many subsequent individuals have discussed precisely how aware we are of this now—for instance, David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” where he breaks down how we are taught that we become individuals by consuming mass-commoditized products. Or we might think of Richard Linklater’s unexpected hit Slacker (1991), which celebrated people who had opted out of using their lives and free time in socially approved manners.

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Undoubtedly, there’s a rather loud and pervasive critique that has come out of the sort of ideas Adorno lodged in his essay on free time. People these days are very savvy about the ways profit-seeking industries try to impose themselves on their lives, and there’s a very serious discussion of how to separate one’s free time from one’s productive life. There’s even been a backlash against the ideas of conformity and utility that have monopolized our education system.

I do think, though, there’s quite a way to go. The ideas that Adorno critiques are still the prevailing ideology that we are all inculcated in as a part of childhood and adolescence (to see how deep they reach, just try watching Slacker without feeling that its characters are losers or oddballs). There’s still plenty of guilt over “wasting” one’s time (just see how many people write posts on Facebook about how they wish they weren’t so addicted to Facebook). And, of course, the economic productivity of the American workforce continues to rise to unprecedented levels (while compensation remains stagnant, or decreases). The counter-strains presented by people like Wallace and Linklater are still a part of the counter-culture, not the culture at large. Which is to say, Adorno’s essay “Free Time” is still extremely relevant, and very much worth reading.

Happy 4th

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In traditional American fashion, I’m celebrating the 4th by reading the concluding volume in the lifelong saga of an Italian woman who becomes a writer.

What are you reading this weekend?

Cess by Gordon Lish

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Gordon Lish’s latest book is basically a very long list, composed of words that are generally obscure and not-known-offhand.

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Ballsy move. Props to OR Books for publishing it.

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