Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Reinventing Literary Criticism

THINK OF the lauded American novels of the past as placed in a box. A relatively small box, when it comes down to it. Imagine that box hanging alone in space—against the vastness of space.

Inside the box will be the usual suspects. I note that the Guardian came out recently with one of their “100 best” lists—in this instance supposedly the best novels written in the English language, as selected by a Robert McCrum. Prominently displayed among the titles were American novels such as The Great Gatsby, Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, and Lolita. One can assume the list also includes works by Harper Lee, John Updike, and Carson McCullers. Maybe even duds from Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos. What can be said about most of these titles is that they’re minor works.

Minor, when compared with the immensely complex civilization they represent and are ostensibly about.

What are the aesthetic standards of critics like McCrum? They never give them. Their lists invariably are a mish-mash of opinions handed down to them—taught to them in school—and their own unexplained personal tastes; with a heavy dash of political correctness thrown in. Are all their selected novels really the best? Are they the best we can come up with?

My stance is that the small box full of the “best” isn’t good enough. The world we live in becomes every day more complicated, heavy, and chaotic. Yes, a novel that provides a simple escape from the noise and complexity can be a relief—but in no way should we designate that small, polite read a “great” novel. The only designated great American novel which lives up to the critical billing in scope, excitement, and meaning is Melville’s Moby Dick.

A novel which should be near the top of every list is Frank Norris’s The Octopus. Its relevance continues to this day—as we can see with the rancher standoff in Oregon. The novel contains sweeping narrative movements, compelling characters, strong emotion and at times tremendous excitement. It carries great meaning, but is also a terrific reading experience.

Shouldn’t that be the chief criterion when judging works of art—the artistic experience they provide? Combine this with form, influence, and meaning and you have the beginnings of a more true assessment.

One American novel which never makes establishment “best” lists is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This exposes the narrow viewpoint, the constricted personalities, of these critics. Politically the book is beyond the pale—it gives much for almost any reader to disagree with. That’s what I liked about the book—that along with its relentless narrative force, it’s full of ideas. Unfamiliar ideas. Ayn Rand presents the reader with a radically different way of viewing our world; providing the “shock of the new.” Apparently too shocking for our official not-very-confident-in-their-own-ideas literary critics. Love it or hate it, the novel provides an amazing read—and is truly “novel” when compared with the same-old same-old.

(Another highly intelligent American novel which never makes the lists, and should, is Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens.)

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Are we still looking at our small box of musty books hanging in space? The task of writers and critics alike is to operate in the space outside the box—to have the ambition to move swiftly beyond that box. To create or discover novels truly large enough in relevance and meaning to match the world we live in now.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Honest Criticism

What’s honest criticism?

Engaging in honest criticism means assessing an artwork without prejudices and preconceptions. It means rejecting accepted narratives and looking at the work in question with new eyes and a fresh mind.

An example of this can be found in the world of classical (symphonic) music. Those whose task is to fill seats for venues know there is one classical work more than any other guaranteed to sell tickets—and more, to overwhelmingly please those who attend the concert, even if (or especially if) the audience does not consist of classical music aficionados.

The piece I’m thinking of is not by one of the usual names—Mozart, Bach, Beethoven. It’s not Handel’s “Messiah” or Beethoven’s Ninth. The composer is relatively obscure. He composed the work in a very questionable society with reprehensible ideals. He followed none of the acceptable musical trends of his time.

The work?

“Carmina Burana,” by Carl Orff.

As no other musical work does, the piece combines power and beauty. It’s awe-inspiring. At moments it sounds like the voice of God. To the listener new to the composition, every minute is unpredictable. The music is passionate; uplifting; overwhelming—a tremendous crowd pleaser.

Would any serious music critic proclaim “Carmina Burana” the greatest musical work of them all? Or would they point out what it does not do—that it doesn’t follow their own rules?

When one considers the pure listening experience—which hits the audience member on a variety of aesthetic levels—there may be no musical work which tops “Carmina Burana.”

Which means, if “Carmina Burana” doesn’t meet all the accepted standards, it’s time to rethink the standards.

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The question: does a similar situation apply in the similarly marginalized world of books and literature? Do we judge literary works on the total reading experience?

Should we?

Stay tuned for Part II of this essay.

 

Monday, January 04, 2016

Renewing Literature

AN ART FORM becomes exciting when a handful of practitioners push beyond the bounds of what’s being done—sometimes to move in an entirely new direction. To be alive, to be noticed, to be relevant within a culture, an art HAS to reinvent itself. Current literature is stagnant. New York-approved establishment writers merely go through the motions of creating art—while the mass of new self-publishing authors don’t even try to; instead imitating bad best-selling genre fiction. All ends of the spectrum engage in “paint-by-the-numbers”: taking no risks; providing the intelligent reader no discoveries or surprises.

Which is where NEW POP LIT (www.newpoplit.com) comes in. We won’t settle for the same-old same-old. We’ll push for nothing less than the complete artistic overhaul of the literary art. First, the short story. Next, the poem. Then the novel.

From writers, we want you to give us examples of renewal and change. Stories so striking and tight as to stand out to the entire world. Why not? If you can imagine it you can accomplish it.

Create the new—and send us the result.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Writer in Trouble

I just received word that poet Michael Grover has cancer and in need of cooperative aid from the writer community. Here’s a link to a site dedicated to fundraising for him—with explanation of what’s happening:

https://www.gofundme.com/alittlehelp4grover

I know Michael from my days in Philly when I was spearheading THE most radical writers group ever. (Underground Literary Alliance.) I met Mike in a large calling room in which we were both (ironically) fundraising for an ostensibly activist organization. I had something of a reputation at that time, as well as the loudest voice in the room. What struck me about Grover was his consistency—he could read the same script again and again and each time nail it perfectly. I recall that when I heard he was a poet I gave him a little bit of a hard time—mocking the art and its big names. He assured me there were talents outside the closed world of academe who were keeping the art form vital.

When I saw him read at a place on South Street one evening I realized he was right. He had several dynamic spoken word poets there, including his colleague Natalie Felix. Soon they moved their show to the Five Spot.

We became buds on the job—double-dating after work regularly with two ladies from the place. Since we usually went to the same bar on Walnut Street where they had great pitchers of margaritas, we started a little club named after the place, “The Moriarty’s Society.” Membership cards even.

 At some other point we formed another club—also with membership cards—called “Left Wing Wackos.” This because a rather buttoned-down bourgie caller would tell people on the phone, “We’re not a bunch of Left-Wing Wackos.” Grover would laugh and say, “But we are!”

To give another anecdote out of many: One afternoon the two of us were drinking at the famous Philly bar McGlinchey’s. Rather heavily. At one point I realized I was blitzed and said, “I won’t be able to make it,” about the job and called in sick. Michael determined to go in. He’s a guy who doesn’t show when he’s been drinking, but I knew he was blasted. He walked out of there in a straight line, staring ahead, his eyes fixed on his mission. I later heard he had one of his best evenings calling ever.

I read at a few of Grover’s events, and recruited him for a few ULA readings. Notably, at a benefit for a writer in Chicago in 2003, and at our Medusa show in Philadelphia in 2005—of which there’s video. We eventually had a falling out—at the time I was a hard charger and maybe even a little crazy.

I’ve always believed Michael Grover to be one of the absolute best spoken word poets in the country. Here’s hoping he gets well soon so he can continue his poetry making.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Best New Writers?

Who is finding and showcasing the best new writers?

The NEW POP LIT project is betting that we have the ability to discover great new writers which the New York conglomerates and literati overlook. In our first print issue we showcase many of them—Jessie Lynn McMains, Thomas Mundt, Alex Bernstein, James Alexander, Wred Fright, Kathleen Crane, Dan Nielsen, Terry Sanville and Robin Dunn among them.

Can you the reader and/or literary person afford to not investigate what new pop writing is about?

Stay up on coming changes! We’re just getting started. Get ahead of the curve by purchasing NEW POP LIT #1 now!

Friday, December 04, 2015

Buy NEW POP LIT!

NPL Cover 2 Hi

The best cover for a lit journal ever?

The stories and poems inside are as striking and dynamic.

How can you NOT own this literary artwork? It’s not perfect—but it is a harbinger of where the lit product is headed in both look and content. Fun and fast, finding a new path for readers and writers.

Get it! Available through our Detroit blog, here.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Formatting a Book

NPL Cover 2 Hi

I’m happy to announce that NEW POP LIT #1 (which might be called Issue One Revamped) is back from the printer. It looks good. More than good. It looks great.

I have found throughout the course of the text a few infuriating trivial mistakes which somehow I missed. Trivial for sure in the larger context of what we’re doing, because the book is a very good product, containing terrific writing. BUT, the failure of achieving 100%—which a book needs to be—plunges me back into the maddening experience of formatting the thing.

Putting together a book online, especially a collection of diverse contributions, is not like designing zines, of which I’ve done many. The way I produced zines, offline, every step was analog. Meaning, when I finished a page, it was finished. Unchanging.

A digital file by contrast is always changing. Make a change in one part of the file, and suddenly a score of changes have taken place throughout. Like the butterfly effect—a butterfly flapping its wings can have effects on the other end of the universe. In this case, the other end of the file. An added word or spaced line can mean two extra pages.

I worked on the book at night, after getting home from a grinding evening “day job.” I soon found I was doing a mind meld with the file. The file became part of my brain. The gaps in the file became echoed by gaps in my tired brain.

I was putting a dozen or more files together, each one formatted differently, along with inserted artwork. Each time I made a change in the file as a whole, it caused a proliferation of changes within each separate file. Even when I thought I’d brought them tediously up to speed. For instance, when I was 90% done, I decided the margins needed to be justified. A good move, but it threw off everything. Was the file also  “register true”? Oops! Another change to be made, causing other changes. Don’t ask me about titles, headers, and footers. I’m still absorbing my learning in those areas.

When you don’t take these steps in the proper order—I was operating by trial and error—then after each step you should proofread every single part of the file. Stories, poems, art, contents page, title page: everything. This becomes mentally exhausting. You begin skipping and scanning. The contents are of high quality. At times, the submissions are amazing. But that doesn’t mean you can reread them word by word night after night with ease! (The re-readings made me realize how amazing the pieces are. I have total appreciation for the talents of the writers and artists we were able to find.)

I took the obstacles and challenges as a kind of punishment given me from the mind of the universe for the extreme hubris of my past life. Maybe as a warning not to be arrogant and self-satisfied this time around. I’m thankful that I have another “this time” in which to push my ideas, and maybe, this time, to get them right.

The upside in the experience is that eventually you reach a point when you’re able to be a little creative. It’s why I’ve decided to keep going. I truly believe I can create books, in look, style, and writing, that will be a step beyond anything produced by the mainstream. If I can visualize it, I can create it—the creation dependent of course on the ability to find talents like those we’re showcasing in this our first title—from cover artist Alyssa Klash (our cover a fully realized achievement) to “Pop Picasso” insert artist Dan Nielsen, to unbelievable writers like Jessie Lynn McMains, Thomas Mundt, Brittany Terwilliger, Alex Bernstein, Robin Dunn et.al., with exclamation marks; to interview subject author/publisher Delphine Pontvieux; and to the very special Kathleen Crane, without whose support and encouragement this project would be floundering.

Now comes the task of promoting and selling the produced thing, which should be easy!