Archive | March, 2013

New Website

27 Mar

Hello everyone. Just thought I’d let you know about a new website I started called It’s mainly a review and essay site themed around all things literary, but I hope to develop it into something more in the future. Check it out!


Gardner’s Ghosts

22 Mar

conversations with john gardner

Conversations with John Gardner

It’s not surprising to see how many of the interview introductions in this collection focus on John Gardner’s physical appearance and on the controversy that surrounded his book On Moral Fiction. We’re familiar now with the famous description by Stephen Singular: ‘He is a small, potbellied man and his white hair falls over his shoulders, so that he looks something like a pregnant woman trying to pass for a Hell’s Angel.’ We get the full article here. Singular goes on a little too eagerly with the most venomous attacks on Gardner’s character delivered by the authors Gardner himself attacked.

Though never quite tasteful to compare a grown man to a pregnant woman, though we feel sorry about the poor reception of his work in the last years of his life, did he not sort of bring it upon himself? He started On Moral Fiction when he was unknown and redrafted it when he was known, which transitioned him to very known. The man who had once been known for the classic Grendel and the best-selling The Sunlight Dialogues was later known as the self-righteous pipe-smoking country boy who regarded Saul Bellow’s works as failures, Kurt Vonnegut’s works as comic books and Stanly Elkin’s work as childish playthings.

If you’re to agree with Gardner, you’d think America’s literature was full of ‘evil.’ Well, then who’s left to follow? Whom do we have left to read if we can’t read satans like Saul Below, snakes like Stanly Elkin, jerks like John Barth and brats like Bernard Malamud? John Gardner, of course! Oh, and don’t worry, there are others. Those who make the cut include Dickens and Tolstoy with Joyce Carol Oats and John Fowls, following (curiously) close behind.

After ‘evil,’ other words that Gardner uses frequently and plays pretty loose with include ‘bad,’ ‘immoral,’ and my personal favorite, ‘genius,’ (everyone in his family, including himself, seems to qualify as a genius). The term ‘nihilism’ is interchangeable with ‘pessimism’ in Gardner’s vocabulary.

This ‘Conversations With’ series, which usually prints pretty thin books of 120 odd pages, gave Gardner a full 300 pages. He likes to talk a lot. He likes to talk a lot about his own books. But that’s not the only thing he seems to like talking about. The Detroit Magazine interview assures us that ‘most of what he knows about philosophy he keeps to himself unless you press him to reveal it.’ Now, I’m sorry, but who in the world is going to press you about your knowledge of philosophy? In this book, Gardner takes up so much space talking about philosophy that the only presser one could imagine pressing him is something like a gangster-interviewer with a gun pointed at Gardner, telling him to spill absolutely everything he knows.

Gardner is probably at his best when interpreting different philosophical conundrums. He qualifies his moral arguments quite well with the historical backdrop of morality itself. His criticism of Sartre is quite clear and he even praises his prose.

At his worst, Gardner is saying far too much far too fast, not checking dates but drawing convenient conclusions that compliment his moral points, such as this:

‘For example, Dostoyevsky reads Nietzsche and he’s interested in Nietzsche’s theory of the superman, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, Dostoyevsky had inclinations in that direction, a touch of megalomania certainly, and a touch of the outlaw … Raskolnikov would naturally, being exactly the kind of person he is, have certain friends, relatives, associations and Dostoyevsky introduces them, makes a perfect laboratory experiment.’
This conclusion isn’t wrong for theoretical literary reasons. It is wrong for a much simpler reason. Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which features the very first mention of ‘the superman,’ was published more than 20 years after Raskolnikov’s exploits in Crime and Punishment. This is a largely forgivable mistake since it is merely a matter of switching diametrically opposed details (we have every reason to believe that it was in fact Dostoyevsky’s characters who inspired ‘the superman’)

Strange logical aberrations are bound to pop up in the language of a man who talks this much. Here’s another: ‘And then I think the whole world shifted with the rise of The Beatles and the drug culture and the revival of Disney.’

He comes off so charming and generous in his answers that we find ourselves wanting to believe him even when he contradicts himself. Sometimes he says he writes 15 or 20 hours every day without exception. Sometimes he tells us he doesn’t write when he’s depressed. Sometimes he feels he belongs to the school of verbal acrobats like Barthelme, Coover, Hawkes and Gass. Other times he considers those same the worst. Sometimes he despairs over and disowns On Moral Fiction as badly researched and unfair, while other times he assures us that his work and his theories will stand the test of time.

It is too perfect that one of his close friends was William Gass, perhaps the only writer who didn’t get hurt by Gardner’s criticisms. Gass just didn’t care too much about what anyone else had to say about his work, or about anyone’s work. They got in shouting matches over bottles of gin at the kitchen table late at night, bound together by their difference.

We don’t know if Gardner’s books will be read a hundred years from now, but they are being read now. Ten years ago, all but the best selling of his best sellers were out of print. Now, the post career controversy novel, Micklsson’s Ghosts, has come back into print along with several other works. We get to enjoy the best of what Gardner has to offer in glistening prose even if, now and then, it is interrupted by the odd cliché, the cumbersome sentence. His books are like him and vice versa. They talk a lot, they are full of contradictions, they try big things, they sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Either way, we’re endeared to the effort and the spirit of the work.

Conversations with William H. Gass

16 Mar

Gass doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, he once told Michael Silverblatt. Everything he does is ‘totally intuitive.’

He has Rilke, his favorite writer, to blame for this. Rilke waited years for some inspiration for the Duino Elegies to arrive, ready to fit into the pre-conceived structure he had in mind. Similar in its conception, Gass completed The Tunnel after thirty years of work—A book about a fat guy writing an introduction to a book called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, who instead ends up writing the novel wilst digging a tunnel from his basement and who, admittedly, farts a lot. Why so long, critics kept asking? ‘I write slowly because I write badly,’ he said. ‘I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity.’

One wouldn’t be able to tell of a man who turns out passages like this:

‘Bracket Omensetter was a wide and happy man. He could whistle like the cardinal whistles in the deep snow, or whirr like the shy white rising from its cover, or be the lark a-chuckle at the sky. He knew the earth. He put his hands in water. He smelled the clean fir smell. He listened to the bees. And he laughed his deep loud, wide and happy laugh whenever he could—which was often, long, and joyfully.’ (Omensetter’s Luck)

Or his description of a Boy Scout leader in The Tunnel

‘From a distance, Culp seems presentable and reasonable and normal enough. Approach, however, and you’ll hear whirs and clicks, rhymes and puns, jocularities in dialect, jingles in dirty high-schoolese, gibberish he says is pure Sioux.’

Never using the phrase ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ all that much, he concedes to falling into that category time and time again with his interviewers as he feels that his only obligation as an artist is to language. In fact, he was good friends with John Gardner, of the opposite camp, who kept a long, heated dialogue with him up until Gardner’s death in 1992.

Unlike Gardner, who spoke incessantly about philosophy when discussing his work, Gass, who claims not to be a philosopher but just might qualify anyway, is always very pretty concise when discussing his own work. There’s nothing in his book that’s going to ‘get by him.’ No critic will notice a fault he didn’t notice already or a thread or theme which he didn’t intend.

Gass’s junk-food and vice is metaphor, on which he wrote his dissertation. Architecture serves as a great metaphor for the way he views fiction. For Gass, a book is an artifact. It creates a space. It is like a house one can inhabit and move around inside, open up various doors, return to different places. This gives Gass a playground of metaphysics which he can’t entertain. He explains to one interviewer how he considers himself a Platonist on the page but non-platonic when considering the world.

What this amounts to, according to Gass, is that a piece of work can have an intrinsic morality that is wrapped up entirely in the language and the world of that language within the work. Many critics missed this when they read The Tunnel, which was a fascist work from ‘within,’ written by a man suffering from a ‘fascism of the heart.’ It is only from outside the text that one can see the machinery at work.

For a man who claims with disturbingly little reserve that he writes ‘to get even,’ and because he ‘hates very much, very strongly,’ Gass is very generous in his answers to interviewers, even with the most cliché questions that most pious writers brush away, or insist on not being asked, like ‘How do you write?’ ‘Do you keep a schedule?’ or ‘What do you write with?’

Gass even makes room to appreciate writers in the camp opposite to him. He has no problem with certain moral books, he just doesn’t go to them for that and will never write like them. In this, he allows himself to coexist peacefully enjoying the art of others by his own aesthetic standard.

Whether you’re an ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ kind of person or an ‘Art For Goodness’ Sake’ kind of person, Anyone interested in Gass, or even just a very aesthetic side of the argument concerning writing, will find this rewarding.

Making a Living off of ‘Living for the Moment.’

9 Mar

It seems to me that the phrase ‘live for the moment’ has gotten away from us in much the same way that this very phrase suggests life has gotten away from us. It’s certainly an exciting phrase, a challenging phrase, a phrase pregnant with possibility, but does it have very much weight?

It appears in many forms. ‘Carpe Diem’ is a call to ‘seize the day’ as if the day is something moving away from us that we must grab tight and wrestle to the ground. ‘YOLO’ which stands for ‘You Only Live Once,’ is a passive acknowledgement of our anxiety around the whole death business—something that Hindus are inevitably going to have a problem with. ‘Living in the present,’ is a phrase that, while well-intended, suggests that in the subconscious blink of an eye and the malevolent capitalist-hypno-snap of a finger, we’ll somehow find ourselves distracted, lost in some other hall of our minds with no one to wake us from the dream but an enlightened person standing outside of the whole trick.

Where did all this present-moment-worship begin? It’s all good and fine if we can glean some motivation out of it, but who in the world are these people who keep telling us this stuff and why, having found some way to ‘live for the moment,’ did they decide that they were going to spend their ‘moment’ telling us to live in ours?

One risks being in the position of a contrarian, a paranoid, a naysayer or a conspiracy theorist if one spends too much time carping about the media or the government and its messages. Not wanting to be a pessimist concerning The West’s favorite motivating pop-philosophy mantra but also remaining weary of potentially stupid and harmful ideas, one regrets having to call attention to the fact that many retailers and corporations use this very phrase or something much like it in order to coax you into buying something. ‘Come on,’ they say, ‘Just do it.’ Just buy it, in other words. The word ‘just’ is just as key here in stopping you from thinking too much about an expensive purchase as the word ‘only’ in ‘YOLO’ is key in making you focus on the singularity of the moment without its consequences.

But we all know that Nike and name-brands only represent a small fraction of the people pumping this idea into common usage. A lot of people saying it are artists who live off of their art and enjoy doing it, whether that be actors, musicians, writers or comedians—in other words, all the people whose ‘living for the moment’ made them a living.

And how are the rest of us living while they’re all living off of ‘living for the moment?’ Well, we’re doing much the same. We’re making a living so that we can live for some kind of moment, if not ‘the’ moment, even though we don’t always enjoy the living we make to get to that ‘moment’ or the ‘moments’ that occur in between. Some of us live for ‘a’ moment, a hobby, a habit, and if we’re single we end up devoting a lot of time to arriving at that hobby or habit, which usually means that we live paycheck to paycheck. If we are married with children, we live for our wives and children and hope that the short hand on the clock at work where we make our living will spin like a top so we can get home to them and have a fighting chance to enjoy our moments together.

Of course, more people than just artists enjoy the living they make. With that said, ‘living for the moment’ is at its best a reminder of our cognitive responsibility to present tasks and a call to stop bitching about pains of the past while, at its worst, it is a complete negation of all responsibility to knowledge gained from the past and from intuitions about consequences in the future. The former is probably very Freudian, or at least, pop-psychological while the latter is very anti-establishment.

The most run down, complacent, boring, over-used aspects of ‘live for the moment’ probably reached their cultural height—thus creating a new breeding ground for it—in the 1960’s. It was then that youth culture began to distrust absolutely everything with utmost suspicion. Everything which had been done was constraining, manipulative, and if created, artificial. No organization, group, party or brand was worth following. The only wisdom needed was the wisdom of weed and the only music played was the music of the immediate. History itself was considered a simple fabrication of the academic world, an idea which pretty much ruled out any consideration of the past, which pretty much ruled out any need for education, which pretty much ruled out any responsibility to any piece of knowledge, which pretty much ruled out rules altogether.

Seeing any piece of knowledge that could only be gained over time as unfair to the most immediate drives and impulses, youth culture created some bad, irresponsible, pretentious art, a whole generation of fleeing fathers who just couldn’t hack having children, and a series of slogans and epithets which have become so cemented into language that they are taken as straight fact.

So we arrive at our today, believing that the key to enjoying life is to live ‘for’ today. We are all meant to be adventurers of the day-to-day, seducers of the commonplace and prophets of pure impulse. It seems to me that this ‘live for the moment’ thing only works if you do it sparingly, which then means that you ‘live for some moment at some point whenever everything that needs doing is done for the day.’ Perhaps a lucky few are able to achieve the most extreme subtext of the message as they either enjoy or quickly bounce back from unpleasant parts of the day. If we take this incredibly violent life philosophy with a grain of salt, we can forget its more extreme implications in favor of a shrug and a smile as we jump out of the airplane, twist and turn from the diving board or make a gleeful impulse purchase when shopping with the girls.

But who will be casualty to the more violent implications of this message? Who will take it so seriously that they, resentful of any suggestion of the consequences, go pee off the third balcony of a sports arena in the middle of a game, let a bull loose and paint the town red, set fire to a trashcan full of money or run through psych-wards dressed as Santa singing ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ at the top of their lungs?

At such a point, we’d have to figure that the implications of the phrase are embedded in this very word ‘for.’ When you live ‘for’ something, you are making yourself subordinate to it. I’m not sure exactly who decided that ‘the moment’ was the ultimate god to which we must lay subservient, our ultimate master, and that every jerky, adrenaline-fueled, dopamine-riddled itch and inclination should be ravished and robbed of even the slightest hint of hesitation. And anyway, who says that ‘the moment’ is some distinct, disembodied plane? Is a moment not an eventuation of another moment, and so on and so forth? The moment before makes this moment, and the only way to go about this moment is to take that into consideration.

Far more stupid than the phrase ‘live for the moment’ is the phrase, ‘live every day as though it’s your last.’ Is this thought-experiment supposed to compel me to have some kind of fun or make me do something ‘worth while?’ I’m afraid the only thing I would be doing with the knowledge that this was my last day on earth is saying goodbye to my family and loved ones, reminiscing about old times—that’s right, the past, the very thing that insecure ‘this moment’ worshippers are so afraid of and hate so much that they’d rather caress their egos and pretend that every thought they have and every thing they do is completely fresh, original and first born. I’m sorry but I don’t have time to keep saying goodbye to my friends and family everyday.

Though I would mistrust any commonplace too easily spoken and seldom practiced, why not try the opposite thought experiment out? Rather than treating every day as your last, why not treat everyday as your first?

How wonderful life would look if every day was your first. You’d have a thousand things to learn. A thousand people would have come before you. A thousand tools lay at your disposal for a thousand different projects. A thousand pastimes are yet to be explored and there are still a thousand people to meet and moments aplenty to know each of them.

Of course, we know that one day it’ll all end, but why in the world should we frighten and guilt ourselves into having a good time?

The Best of Both Burgess– a look at Conversations With Anthony Burgess

2 Mar

The ‘Conversations With’ series has published a number of insightful, witty and sometimes disappointingly normal interviews with extraordinary figures. While some editions feel weighted with the worry of editors having threshed the fields of journo-sensationalism far and wide for just a dozen or less articles on a very non or anti-public figure, I’m sure they made a brief sigh of relief when they saw the huge catalogue of articles, interviews and TV spots to which John Wilson contributed throughout his career. But surely this relief was interrupted when the said editors furrowed their brows, wiped their sweaty foreheads and hyperventilated in the face of some deadline requiring them to pick only the very best of Burgess—hardly a throw-away afternoon task.

Always clever and always ready to answer generously, Anthony Burgess is quick to self-deprecate in the face of criticism, but usually in such a way that he can blame his faults on specific demographic spectrums within which he identifies himself, whether that be as an Englishman, a Catholic Englishman, a novelist in Europe or as an artist largely remote from academia by no real choice of his own.

Both famous for writing as well as hating A Clockwork Orange, Burgess remains certain throughout these interviews that he wrote better works but unsure as to whether he will ever rise above the slight novels of his prolific career and write a ‘big’ book with larger scope and vision. We are fortunate enough as readers to see him overcome the self-proclaimed shortcomings of his short novels in favor of the kinds of big books he probably had in mind: namely Earthly Powers and Kingdom of the Wicked. But this was bound to happen. Even his slim novels, which he insists are merely ‘entertainments’ (probably to take the piss out of Graham Greene) for the most part offer an imaginative, ambitious breath of fresh air to the world of English literature that he, in his time, really didn’t resemble.

Napoleon Symphony is about the life of that same Mr. Bonaparte but using a rhythm that takes Beethoven’s Eroica as a literary model. Most people are familiar now with the full narration of slang language in A Clockwork Orange, of which Stanly Kubrick’s screen adaptation only scratched the surface. Byrne is a novel in verse. The Wanting Seed, a futuristic novel about over-population, would have perhaps been a classic in the manner of 1984 or A Brave New World had it not been swallowed up in the divided public attention to his dozens of other novels.

It is then extraordinary that Burgess not only fathomed and carried through with such ambitious projects, but that he peeled out so many of them. To say that Burgess was prolific is almost an understatement.

‘I’ve been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly,’ he tells The Paris Review. ‘I’ve always written with great care and even some slowness. I’ve just put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem to be able to.’

He forced himself, absolutely every single day of the year, to write 1,000 to 2,000 words. This pace was initially set when he was ‘diagnosed’ with a brain tumor when serving in Malaya, giving him one year to live—a famous story that changed shape just slightly but constantly throughout his career to the point that many suspected him of mythomania. In later interviews he suggests that the British Authorities simply told his wife that he had a tumor to get him out of the country, which is, arguably an even more romantic lie. Whatever the truth is, we know for certain that he wrote five novels in a single year.

When one interviewer expresses awe over such incredible output, he replies by saying that if one writes 1,000 words a day, that’s 350,000 words a year which is easily War and Peace. Is that all? For a minute he had me thinking he was producing a well-above-average amount of work. After all, everyone you know is able to pump out something not unlike the major works of Tolstoy with moderate effort, right?

We gather in these discussions that Burgess is as much of a paradigm as the Manichean heresy he reservedly appropriates into his carefully undefined Christianity. Though berating people for suggesting that being too prolific is ‘impolite’ for an Englishman, he then says that he wrote under a pen name precisely because it was the polite, English thing to do for a writer of fiction. Though he remains unflinching, dare I say innocent, concerning the subject of masturbation as well as his tumultuous relationship with his first wife and the adulterous affair that would become his second wife after the first’s death, he insists that he has only a puritanical, unseen place for sex in his actual novels. Though he speaks a lot about his method and the things a writer must do to build a consistent body of work, he often breaks his own rules with much regret, as the case was with his insistence that one should write quickly though Napoleon Symphony remained untouched on his shelf for several months.

Possessing all the talent that one would with a ‘genius,’ Burgess remains un-genius-like in the modern sense that we have come to see it: that being, a savant good at one thing and bad at many other things, socially awkward, troubled and somewhat childish, probably insane. No, Burgess is a rarity in that he always conveys that aforementioned polymathic genius though always with a sense of street-cool and pub-house jest usually common to artists or public figures whose personalities are often bigger than the ambition of their work. Fortunately, Burgess possessed the best of both worlds, and both of those worlds are found in this book.