Friday, May 23, 2008

Final sentence(s)

Here’s the last line of Lee Siegel’s review of my old teacher John Wideman’s new book Fanon:

"Read Wideman and listen to his astonishing bluntness, and you might start wondering, as Fanon himself must have, why white people keep writing novels—and running for public office—at all."

I do wish Hillary Clinton would drop out already.

And I did spend a good deal of my recent time at MacDowell wondering why write another novel.

But along came Fanon, and I had to hand it to John, whose steady, serious output (this is book number eighteen) has long been a bracing fact, an inspiration and lesson. Despite the fact that one does have to wonder, as his brother Rob says in this latest novel, “if writing an intelligent book’s an intelligent idea.”

John shows us in Fanon what it means to be a grown-up in an adolescent culture: He writes as if it’s his last book, as if a novel is a matter of life and death—it was an answer for me, actually, and not to Siegel’s asinine question.

Write what’s urgent. And nothing else.

He always was one for encouraging idealism in his students.

Herewith, a few last lines. (“And the last shall be first.”)

From Fanon:


From The Wretched of the Earth.

For Europe, for ourselves, and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.

From Black Skin, White Masks.

My final prayer:
O my body, make of me always a man who questions!

(Though I think of it as “make of me always one.”)

And here’s the penultimate sentence from the same book, especially for Lee Seigel:

… I want the world to recognize, with me, the open door of every consciousness.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Adventures of a Book

Ersi Sotiropoulos’s fifth novel, Zigzag through the Bitter-Orange Trees, was an enormous success on its publication in 2000 in Greece, becoming the first novel ever to win both the national prize for literature and the foremost book critics’ prize, awarded by Diavozo magazine.

Sotiropoulos’s work—which is made only more unsettling by the natural elegance of her prose—was perhaps never going to be an easy choice for a government ministry; her career has not been without controversy and this is not the first accusation of pornography she’s faced. The choice of Zigzag for the prize was subject to some criticism at the time from within the Ministry of Culture, but this did not keep the novel from outstanding critical success (“the best novel of the decade”) as well as translation into French, German, Spanish, and English.

But recently the novel has come under more vigorous attack. Kostas Plevris, a prominent member of the extreme right-wing political party Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), has filed a lawsuit denouncing the book: specifically, aiming to force the Ministry of Education, which each year donates copies of the national prizewinning books to libraries around the country, to withdraw all donated copies of Zigzag from schools. The courts have just granted an injunction in his favor—which will result in the book’s immediate removal, pending a final judgment—on the grounds that “A simple reading of this book shows that it includes passages that are clearly pornographic and obscene.”

Even that summary sounds too reasonable for the facts of the case. In December 2007, Plevris was given a 14-month suspended sentence for “inciting hatred and racial violence” in his book The Jews: The Whole Truth—his conviction the result a suit that has also, rightfully, been questioned as a possible infringement of free speech. The Jews: The Whole Truth is apparently (I’m relieved to say that it is not available in translation) a 1,400-page work of neo-Nazi thought and Holocaust denial, declaring among other things that Jews “deserve the firing squad” (See a typical summary here.) Plevris has recently written his own account of the trial, called The Struggle for Truth: The Adventures of a Book (“truth,” featured in both his titles, is clearly a central principle—perhaps he doth protest too much) and is now countersuing. The irony of his own subsequent attempts at censorship seems not to have occurred to him.

Plevris, in short, is certainly no critic of standing: quite the opposite. He seems to have found his ideal reader, however, in the judge ruling on this case, Dimitrios Gavalas. Gavalas justifies his ruling against Zigzag by reasoning that children’s literature should be addressed “to the pure souls of children, which Christ, God incarnate, offered as models to adults.” “School books should inspire children with moral purity and love for their religion and nation,” he continues, and then contemplates such questions as:

“Once most young people went to Church, in order to approach the truth, which is not ideology, or any other point of view, but truth, since the only light and life is Our Lord Jesus Christ; today young people end up in reformatories rotting from drug use. Is that progress?”

“Once the wife concerned herself primarily with child-rearing, which today is left to governesses and babysitters. Is that progress?”

“Once with a thousand drachmas you could buy all sorts of things, today with three euros what can you buy?”

Those of us who believe wholly in the importance of literature may be tempted to take Gavalas’s spectacular accusations as a compliment: what faith he must have in the power of literature, after all, to hold a single novel responsible for the downfall of a culture. But unfortunately, the absurdity of this case does not make its consequences any less dangerous. Books are in fact being removed from libraries—and that certainly is not progress. Please join protestors in Greece in an international petition against this injustice.

And we can’t help but add: Why not buy a copy to donate to your favorite library?
—Hilary Plum, with thanks to Karen Emmerich for her translations from the Greek

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Contest

I had considerable sympathy for Zadie Smith, when she released her explanation for not choosing a winning short story in a contest she was sponsoring.

The boxes of manuscripts for another contest had just begun arriving at my own door, and I’d cracked the first box and embarked on that batch and come up muddied and confused. I’d said yes to reading. I’d submitted to what friends of mine in other disciplines just couldn’t believe. (A journalist friend, when I told her I had to read 116 manuscripts in a month just started laughing. “But that’s impossible. It’s not right.”)

But I’d submitted willingly—no: enthusiastically—because I thought it would teach me something. Like a marathon reveals the body. Such bulk reading presses the bare essentials: What is worth reading? What do I want from a book? How can I say what is wrong with a manuscript—and what is right?

The next boxes had surprises in store, and at my reading’s end, I was left with more manuscripts I wanted to send on for the final round of judging, rather than none. And all of the first questions, and more.

“And who would want to possess independent aesthetic judgment anyway?” asks the writer of the “Hype Cycle” piece in the winter 2008 “Intellectual Situation” section of n+1).

“…in the middle (there’s no end) of the hype cycle, the important thing is no longer what a song, movie, or book does to you. The big question is its relationship to its reputation. So instead of abandoning yourself to the artifact, you try to exploit inefficiencies in the reputation market…. But anyone sensitive to art is also sensitive enough to feel his true aesthetic judgment under continuous assault from publicists, bloggers, journalists, advertisers, reviewers, and assorted subcultural specimens. Hype-and-backlash overwhelm the artifacts that supposedly occasion them…. Never mind the moon; look at the finger pointing at the moon.”

I liked the idea of avoiding all that. I was on my own with eight boxes of moon.

And what did I find?

The easy part is to say what’s wrong with a good deal of them. It surprised me to see that there’s still a resident strain of Carver that taken in such doses is very dull.

And too many short story collections seem called together at random. (For the deadline? The lure of the idea “book”?) Individual stories might be very good, but they don’t reverberate with or amplify their companions (as Carver’s do). By this I don’t mean that stories must be united by theme or by characters or by setting (though any of these might provide a shortcut to a greater unity of vision).

What is this—“greater unity of vision”—a phrase I don’t even like, a fusty complaining construction. My hands make a rounded shape in the air, and I’m not sure if it’s a basket or an egg. But it’s something that holds and can be held.

An atmosphere.

An intelligence.

It’s amazing how much fails to leave any impression at all. A month has passed. It seems to me very difficult to make an impression.

Though I was amazed to think of so many people, alone in their words, creating worlds. What place for us?

Friday, April 4, 2008

It Really Doesn’t Matter with Me Now

Today is the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. It devastates me every time I hear the speech from the night before he died.

In it, he says “I want to commend the preachers,” a statement I’d like to draw out in relation to Jeremiah Wright. For more on that, and other thoughts on the relevance of King’s vision today, see Isaiah J. Poole’s “Forty Years Later, Still Far from the Mountaintop.”

So this morning finds me crying at the kitchen table to hear King’s words and contemplate anew that we are the society who killed him (God damn America), confused about which of my several jobs to address first, feeling sorry for myself because I’ll miss my son Amos singing his heart out onstage tonight in “All Along the Watchtower”

“There are many among us /
who think that life is but a joke.”

What I want to hold in the mud of my messy morning (laundry, taxes, the Libyan novel, the overdue library books, the bags to be packed, the evening panel to imagine, the afternoon at school to listen to the 2nd grade biographies) is the vision King still gives us of a man who knew what he was about. That the human spectrum holds such clarity. It must be something to end the day thinking, It really doesn’t matter with me now.

Monday, March 31, 2008

If Mama Ain't Happy...

I had fun holding Sarah Buttenwieser's new baby while she interviewed me for Mamazine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On a Scale of 1 to Lish*

I’ve been nosing around of late in The Afterlife, a collection of Penelope Fitzgerald’s essays and criticism.

First, she wanted to call a novel The Unobservables, “but the publishers, or rather their sales department, rejected this immediately as lacking not only in sex but also in human appeal of any kind.”

Then she tried Mistakes Made by Scientists, which she “liked almost as much.” But she was told “that it wouldn’t fit on the jacket and didn’t sound like a novel.”

Finally, the novel came out in 1990, called The Gate of Angels.


*Thanks to Hilary Plum for the phrase, inspired by the awesome displays of Lish’s editorial interventions covered in the New Yorker late last year.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Voices of 3 AM

It’s deep in the night, and the children are asleep under flannel sheets and blankets. The rain is steady on the metal roof; a clock is ticking; every once in a while the oil furnace stirs.

The phone isn’t ringing, and no creepy male voices are whispering threats of any sort.

And still I cannot sleep.

Amazingly, it’s Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the news media keeping me awake.

When Michelle Obama said what she did about never having been proud before of the American public (or whatever it was precisely), I didn’t understand the fuss.

And that’s what I’m up thinking about. That I never understand. That I am forever alienated by the voices I hear on the radio (we don’t have any television reception; one must draw the line somewhere), by the framing of—well, almost everything—in the measured, self-gratified tones with which the wisdom of the day is trotted out by the hand-slappers and the naysayers and the sycophants.

Now, that wisdom—and oh, is the paper of the record relieved that their candidate is back!—is that tough-as-nails Clinton has persevered, has shown what every person of gravitas and influence and cultural superiority knew from the start: that the movement for Obama is itself a “fairy tale.” And then its reporting does its level best to make it seem inevitable that Clinton will win, with a number of tricks it’s too late in the night to enumerate or parse, from exaggerating her wins to slighting his delegate lead (“about ninety” says the article, even though the graph on the opposite page says that it’s 105) to making the delegate count itself seem petty compared to voting (as if the pledged Democratic delegates weren’t awarded based on people voting, in primaries and caucuses).

And then there’s the ad. The voice. Who are these people who think of such things, who condone them, who open the door to the creepy insinuations: Your children are safe, the man says—but the implication is NOT SAFE. NOT SAFE.

The night of the latest primary, I was in fact up at 3, putting a cool cloth on Amos’s feverish head, telling him he would be all right, that he wasn’t going to die, that chances were he’d be better in time for his soccer game in a few days. Since we don’t live in Gaza, I thought, where the 8-year-old boy was just killed by Israeli fire, while he was playing soccer.

But I digress. Now is not the time to consider the more considerable asymmetries in the Times coverage of violence in Israel and Palestine.

The very thought exhausts me.

So much is exhausting. Which brings me to what I hauled myself out of bed to try to say: I’m tired of pundits and know-it-alls and the sonorous tones of NPR commentators. Listening to all of this with Rosa and Amos, who at ten and eight are indefatigable in their capacity to ask questions and sniff out hypocrisy, demands something more than the snorting and eye-rolling—and despair—I’ve indulged in all these years with like-minded adults. It demands better listening, better retention, quicker responses, more thorough research, better writing. (Michael Chabon came up with an excellent sample of the latter in the Washington Post .)

But for now, at 3 in the morning, the voices.

Rosa’s hilarious imitation of John McCain folding his hands and saying during the New Hampshire debate, “I will never let you down,” made me realize how when he puts on that syrupy tone, he sounds precisely like Mr. Rogers, who was recently honored with sweater week. A lot of talk about Obama and the youth vote, but McCain seems to be pitching his message to those who haven’t yet learned to read.

“Who was that?” Amos asked, catching the end of a Hillary quote on the radio. When I told him, he scrunched up his eyebrows in puzzlement, said “she sounds different” and shrugged, as though he just didn’t care about any of it any more. True: her voice is never the same. If she answered the phone, you might be afraid you’d called the wrong number. Her voice cracks with the strain of too much bad living: too much power-seeking, too much money raising, too many efforts to match her message to the public mood.

And then there’s Barack Obama’s voice. I grant that he may need some new speeches (they all do) and that he’s doing plenty of the above, too. But his voice is beautiful. Deeply beautiful. And this is not a trivial matter, easily reduced to reporters having crushes on him or women fainting at rallies. It makes me think of the thesis of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty, proposing that the human capacity to admire beauty is linked to a quest for justice. He appears remarkably centered, astonishingly graceful and comfortable in his own skin; his voice comes from that. It is the voice of the man who wrote Dreams From My Father, a moving book whose writing necessitated a process of growth that is not usually embarked on by people running for president.

One night a few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to a strange feeling of some expansive, electric joy. My thoughts stumbled to catch up to the sensation—as if I were a child again, standing in the sunshine before the breadth of an ocean. Then I realized that I’d gone to bed reading Obama’s memoir, and that the feeling came from this: the man who wrote this book could become president. Of this country.

And it seemed a different world was possible. Sure: it would go back to the same old; yes, his health plan’s not adequate (nor is hers); no, his Iraq exit plan is not clear enough; why doesn’t he have a better response to the threat of so many foreclosures?

But to have a voice is a start. The first we’ve had in my lifetime, that’s for sure.

So, actually, I want to celebrate: Barack Obama has won. In the delegate count so far, literally. In getting so many people who’ve never been invested in the political process to become involved. In raising so much money from small donations. And in finding a way to give voice to the desperation so many of us feel: There must be another way.

I had a vision recently of him as an old, old man. (Such optimism!—it surprises me.) He’d been president, but we were so old and it was so long ago that it hardly mattered anymore. He’d survived. And I found myself thinking, Longevity has its place. And then the thinking turned into talking to him: Don’t let all this hype and all this ridiculousness get to you, Barack. Just keep being your brilliant self.

I hope that he finds a way not to be crushed by the inhuman test to which we put our political candidates. That he will keep trying to give voice in our public life to the integrity of his memoir.

I hope he is able to, and I hope we let him.