Patronage, Poetry, and Postmodernism

New article from New Pop Lit editor Karl Wenclas:

Recently the arts/news site Buzzfeed published three poems by Nick Flynn.

https://www.buzzfeed.com/nickflynn/three-new-poems-by-nick-flynn?utm_term=.dt4DPp3Pl#.aqanQOjQP

What’s noteworthy about the poems isn’t their utter mediocrity—I receive better submissions nearly every day for the New Pop Lit website (www.newpoplit.com)— but the way their author has been rewarded for his modest talent by the literary establishment. Simply scroll down from the poems to Nick Flynn’s biographical information. Read the list of plaudits and prizes.

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This tells me the world of establishment poetry is in bad shape. Little is risked by approved poets—and little is achieved.

Why do I care? Not just because I co-edit a literary site, but also because I love to recite poetry. Today there’s little worth reciting.

I can’t help thinking that poetry has been trapped of late on two poles.  One is hip-hop based street poetry dependent on sing-song rhythmn and rhyming. It’s made to be read aloud. More, to be performed in front of the audience. The style has become predictable and is seldom artistically challenging.

The other pole is academic poetry. I can’t claim to understand the thinking behind it—I just know it reads like bad prose, looks bland on the page and puts audiences who dare listen to it read aloud to sleep. Contemporary academic poetry is sure proof of how institutionalizing an art form kills it.

Link to the rest at Karl Wenclas’ blog.

Modern poetry is not at all in “good working order” as Ezra Pound would say. The Nick Flynn poems linked in the post are completely underwhelming. I do not know much about Flynn; I am sure he writes what he believes in. His lengthy list of awards ties into a much broader issue with our managerial elite: the phenomenon of the Intellectual-yet-Idiot, a term coined by the superb author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s other charge to managerialism is that managers have no “skin in the game;” i.e., they aren’t responsible for the consequences of their actions.

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Taleb’s thesis in one line

In the literary world, the IYI is quite commonplace. Why? Even though commercial publishing is still a large industry, many of its authors are immune from the forces of market (not that the market is right all of the time: see James Patterson). Literary fiction authors have books published by New York, yet receive grants from the government and foundations. Several authors come to mind: David Foster Wallace (Whiting Prize, MacArthur fellowship), Johnathan Franzen (Guggenheim fellowship), Don DeLillo (also Guggenheim), Cormac McCarthy (Guggenheim, MacArthur, American Academy of Arts and Letters fellowship), among others. Patronage like this is historically quite normal–anyone versed in Renaissance history knows this. My intention here is not to disparage the talents of these particular authors (McCarthy ranks among one of my favorites). The point is that since the creation of the modern university/foundation centered era of literature, we have had a generation of authors insulated from having to write anything that relates to the reading public. The emergence of this new patronage is one of the most important factors in the emergence of Postmodernism–rather than the grassroots movement of the Modernists. The work of the Postmodernists reflects the tastes of a small group, rather than that of the rest of the nation.

The matter of contemporary poetry makes sense in this light. Most poets must teach in order to make a living, and in some way must appeal to the academy in order to gain some kind of recognition. The other problem with contemporary poetry published in literary reviews and journals is its lack of value to the reading public. Poetry read aloud was entertainment prior to the advent of recorded music. Poets were well regarded in popular culture and often frequent subjects of gossip columns. At the end of the First World War this started to decline, and certainly by end of the second war popular music was primary delivery for verse instead of poetry. Our best poets in the past sixty years have not been poets per se but songwriters. At the same time, the academy has done to poetry what they have done to fiction: create stale, “competent” work incapable of leaving any impression on the reader.

If you want good poetry, look to musicians and songwriters. Or, if there are aspiring poets, follow Pound’s advice and “make it new.”

Phoenix Operator one year on

Today is my belated post on one-year anniversary of the publication of my first novel, Phoenix Operator. Since publishing it, I have learned a wealth of experience as information on the business of publishing and self-publishing. All of my sources are listed on the side bar. I especially reccomend Kristen Kathryn Rusch’s series of blog posts The Business Rusch for a general overview. I have gone over the technical aspects in previous articles. This piece is more a reflection on the year since my book release.

If you think you may want to try self publishing, I encourage it. The corporate structure (what I refer to as the culture industry) around it is bloated and stale. However, it is frustrating to promote and attract readers. It takes years of practice at writing and patience with the reading public to do that. I am often disheartened at my extremely limited commercial success, but I have to remind myself my book is a year old and my online “platform” only a few months older. Balancing my academic and now work obligations has made time for writing and networking with other like minded literary sites difficult, but not impossible. I am determined to keep plugging away. 

Writing itself is only as difficult as you make it, but finding an audience is. The US literary scene is in dire need of rejuvenation after forty plus years of postmodernism rendering it inaccessible to many readers, along with the glut of hackneyed genre fiction–science fiction and fantasy most of all. My intent writing is to be the change I want to see by telling the best story I can that is entertaining and tries to reflect on human realities. God willing, the next year will give me more stories and more readers. 

 

 

Reflections on Hemingway

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In honor of Ernest Hemingway’s birthday, I thought it was time to write a reflection on my favorite writer and the one I credit for me to start taking my writing seriously. I also contributed to another excellent question and answer column at New Pop Lit about Papa, which has a lot of stellar contributions.

For many years, I Ernest Hemingway was a name I had heard–I recall at some point reading “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” somewhere around middle school. I was too young to read much of anything carefully–instead I preferred Japanese manga or science fiction and fantasy novels.

I was turned on to Hemingway in high school when my English class read “Soldiers’ Home,” part of the unit on Modernism. As my teacher introduced Hemingway, I remember dismissing his meritorious and honorable service as an ambulance driver in the First World War. The lean, direct prose created the atmosphere of a returning soldier, clearly drawn from the author’s own experience returning to Oak Park after heavy action on the Italian Front. The protagonist, a war veteran named Krebs, tries to cope with the shock of coming home:

At first Krebs, who had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel, and in the Argonne did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it.

Later on in the story, we learn that Krebs has difficulty approaching or relating to women. Little has changed in his small Oklahoma home town. He turns to lying about his war experiences in order to cope with his boredom and apathy. He spends his days going to play pool or lounging about. The story ends much as it starts; Krebs does not break out of his ennui.

I was taken aback when I read this story. It was the first piece of fiction that hit me on a deep, emotional level. It conveys emotion in a way that the purple prose of many authors before and after Hemingway cannot.

As I learned more about him, I found that I could relate to him: Hemingway played football in high school, though not very well. I was a wrestler, but not a very good one. Hem spent his summers at his family’s lake house. My family does the same. I discovered him at a critical juncture in my writing. After reading “Soldier’s Home,” I did my best Hemingway imitation in a science fiction novel, about a man who lives in a Russian-occupied post-America. that ultimately broke me writing the genre (it remains, and probably will forever remain, unpublished). Writing about people and their relationships could be interesting, I thought. There was something to this “literary fiction” I dismissed for genre novels for too long.

In my AP lit course the next year I read For Whom the Bell Tolls  as part of a self-selected novel unit. I had to write a paper about the book. My teacher at the time (who was not fond 0f me) announced that she did not like Hemingway. We had also read “Hills Like White Elephants”–probably the best example of the iceberg method of writing. For Whom the Bell Tolls became one of my favorite books. While the protagonist fights for the Spanish Republicans in their Civil War, the book does not moralize the political. It is a close examination of mortality and the uselessness, ultimately, of sectarian war. Robert Jordan’s guerillas and the Spanish Nationalists both lose, albeit in different ways.

That same year, I read The Sun Also Rises. While I did not quite get it on my first reading, it is now another one of my favorite books I try to read every year. Hemingway’s rendering of man-woman interactions is worth more than every single dating advice website–no surprise given that the story was drawn from the actual intrigues among his circle of friends. It is in many ways a writer’s novel in that it can seem like page after page of drunken debauchery and lengthy stretches of dialogue .sun-also-rises-9781476739953_hr

Like his narrator, Jake Barnes, Hemingway was an outsider in his early literary career. He did not have an advanced degree, unlike fellow Paris expatriates Ezra Pound and Archibald MacLeish. His clear language, while avant-garde compared to the flowery prose standards of the day (pre-Hem, that is) was and is readable compared to the nearly unreadable writings of Gertrude Stein and parts of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even within the Modernist camp, he marked himself as an outsider, an often overlooked aspect of Hemingway’s artistic life, explored in much greater depth in Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider. Yet despite all of this, Ernest Hemingway broke into the mainstream and turned from niche expatriate writer of the Paris modernists to an American icon.

Hemingway drew me into his friends’ and contemporaries work. I count F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hem’s rival William Faulkner as two other favorite writers, as well as his mentor and lifetime friend Ezra Pound. I credit all of these authors as continuing sources of inspiration for my own writing. On this Hemingway Day, I encourage you all to read him. Hemingway is one of the most relevant and influential American novelists.

 

 

Neo-Victorian literary culture

51m9dmdbqkl-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_I came across this interview of literary critic Harold Bloom from 1992, shortly after the release of his book The Western Canon. Bloom’s answers give the kind of insight on national television you cannot find outside of small blogs and podcasts in our modern low-information discourse. Bloom says at one point in the interview that you can find literature graduates who have never read a word of Shakespeare or a line of Wordsworth–and this was twenty years ago when postmodernism had not yet reached its peak. Literature too, has been on the decline for the past twenty years at least. A piece in the Atlantic–arguing against that position–helps prove this point:

Surely there are a decent number of straight white men in the world of literature who aren’t doom-and-gloom pessimists about its future. But despite wracking my brain and looking through online media and academic archives, I could find no female or non-white writers who have made comparable statements, none who have similarly contributed to this literary despair. Why?

Th  author of this piece is not concerned with tackling the argument at hand , merely deconstructing who is saying what (i.e., shooting the messenger). To answer the author’s question, women and minorities are part of the liberal coalition that controls much of higher education and publishing. Of course they would not be concerned about the death of literature–their stories are on top of the social hierarchy. Women authors and female-dominated genres, especially romance, make up 45 percent of all Amazon paid units, about 174 million units annually.

Anecdotally, the Writer’s Digest feed on Twitter announces new literary agents from time to time (not that I bother with that racket, and neither should you) most of which are women. One day at Barnes and Noble, I had to struggle to find Graham Greene’s books. Eventually, I found them–surrounded by all women authors named Green or Greene. The premise that publishing is somehow stacked against women in particular is absurd. These kinds of identity politics are a part of the Neo-Victorian orthodoxy that pervades our country, from our political discourse to literature. Our time is eerily similar to the late nineteenth century: extreme income disparity, authoritarian culture, and an unhealthy focus on status signalling.

Neo-Victoriana manifests itself in other ways in the modern literary world. The culture of the nineteenth century Anglo-sphere was rightly derided by the Modernists as overly stifling. Similar to the lengthy young adult novels popular today–Harry Potter, Twilight, et al.–the books of Dickens and Henry James (while excellent writers nevertheless) allowed their readers to escape back into themselves. The literature from the post-Great War period was in general more condensed, yet intense. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, while having more in common with the likes of James or Dickens, used less pages to tell a story just as effectively. When a country’s literature “is in good working order” (to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase), it allows the reader to reflect back on reality through the story, not give them a lengthy, self-indulgent escape.

The best case study and simultaneous worst offender is George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, dramatized as the HBO series Game of Thrones. According to the Wiki page, Martin started writing the first book in 1991 and is still writing the projected seven book series. It is not by accident, I would argue, that they are fantasy novels. Fantasy and science fiction are pure-escapism genres, although the latter has authors who used genre well, such as Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert. Fantasy has little ability to be great literature because its situations and themes have little or nothing to do with the real world. It allows the reader to slip into a kind of mental cocoon for a few hours, live through the charters and then return to real world, no better equipped to understand or engage with reality. This is where our “literature” diverges from the Victorians; at least Dickens, Zola, and James dealt in realism. Our science fiction and fantasy drenched culture escapes back into its own delusions of grandeur.

The country’s literature needs to be put back into working order, and it will not be done through nine hundred page novels of postmodern antics.

 

Diminutives

My latest piece at New Pop Lit, a short story:

*** Our month-long Hemingway celebration continues with a striking new story by Samuel Stevens, “Diminutives,&#…

Source: Diminutives

Unfortunately, the Nice terrorist attack have made the situation and theme timely.

Ezra Pound’s Classes of Writers

When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

  1. Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.
  2. The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well or better than the inventors [SS: You could class Hemingway in this category viz-a-viz Sherwood Anderson]
  3. The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.
  4. Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when literature of a country is in good working order, or when some branch of writing is ‘healthy’. For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante’s time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare’s time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.
  5. Writers of belle-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.
  6. The starters of crazes. [SS: Too many of this type in our day: J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Tom Clancy, etc.]

Source: Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading1934. Reprint, New York: New Directions, 2010. pp. 39-40

I highly recommend the rest of the book as a brief, but sweeping survey of Western literature.

ezra-pound

Everyone Behaves Badly by Lesley M.M. Blume

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Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Hemingway’s Masterpiece the Sun Also Rises by entertainment journalist Lesley M.M. Blume is as it says on the cover, the story about the actual fiesta of San Fermin Hemingway and his entourage attended. The book purports to be about this, but the material related to this now-fictionalized event takes up only part of its over three hundred pages. It also explores the impact of The Sun Also Rises on the literary landscape of the 1920s.

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