Thursday, January 30, 2014
The Strange Case of Sheila Heti
Case in point: trendy writer Sheila Heti. Recently I set up a new twitter account, @literarycircus, whose intent is to promote, in a marginal way, my satirical blog, The Literary Circus—
The idea is to follow the doings of today’s literary people, and on occasion comment on them, often satirically or tongue-in-cheek. Sense-of-humor assumed.
Follow a few literary sites and Twitter will then give you suggestions of people to follow. Leading literary tweeters. It’s how I began following Sheila Heti, who I know of in a vague way only as a variety of McSweeneyite writer. On January 19th I made a cogent, informed reply to one of her tweets. Shortly thereafter she began following me—something she likely does automatically with anyone who responds to her tweets. It’s a standard way of building outreach. Anyway, I saw the note in my list of emails: “Such-and-such is now following you on twitter.” Hmm: Who would’ve thought it? A broad-minded McSweeneyite person, I said to myself? Perhaps the literary world is finally changing.
I noticed a couple days later that Ms. Heti was no longer following me. Okay. This was more predictable. Someone may have told her who was doing the Literary Circus blog; that you’re not supposed to have dealings, direct or indirect, with that person. A week later, checking my vast list of followers (all of twenty), I saw that Ms. Heti was again following that twitter account of mine. Curious. I imagined there were Soviet-style debates taking place behind the scenes. What’s the acceptable line to take with this guy? Or, as George Orwell would put it, “Are we at war with Eurasia or Eastasia today?”
Then, with another day, Ms. Heti was again not following me, and what’s more, I wasn’t following her account. In other words, I’d been blocked.
I’d done a dozen-or-so tweets during the week in question, all fairly innocuous—not one directed at Sheila Heti, beyond that original reply of mine to a tweet of hers, which she must have approved of, because it got her inadvertently following my new twitter account in the first place! Usually (I almost said “Normally,” a word which is un-p.c.) a person is blocked for sending a series of harassing tweets. Or at least one. Not for merely existing. Ah, but the quarantine!
I gather that Sheila Heti is an uber-feminist of some kind. Curious then that she’s made her way as a writer with an outfit run by the most ruthless literary patriarch of them all, though that patriarch presents himself as a benevolent dictator. Ironic as well that my former “gang,” the Underground Literary Alliance, got into trouble with the literary establishment beginning in the year 2000 by criticizing the so-called “New White Guys”—that well-hyped group of affluent and trendy postmodern male writers named Franzen, Moody, Antrim, Foster-Wallace, and Company. We called them “the Big Money Boys,” among other things. A few of these individuals were abusing the literary grants process; we pointed this out; the established literary community looked the other way. We’re back to George Orwell. All white guys are equal, but some are more equal than others.
While the benevolent dictator who leads the McSweeneys Gang presents himself to the world as an anti-totalitarian, the truth is that the literary scene is totalitarian. No criticism of the major players and their ideas is to be found anyplace. If a contrarian such as myself dares knock or mock these people—the essence of free expression—the person is considered a madman, and consigned to the farthest reaches of the literary universe. Zorxon, or Zytron. Or at least Detroit. At the simple existence of such an individual, obedient literary people become terrified, and scurry away. “Danger, Will Robinson,” the robot screams. “Danger!”
Myself, if I see anyone treated by his fans and acolytes like a substitute god; or see any ideas or premises put beyond the reach of disagreement, I’m going to say something. That’s the task of a writer. As I said, I’m a contrarian.
(I have a suspicion there’s another answer to the mystery. The real story. Which is that the “stars” of the literary scene are more-or-less manufactured. They’re intellectually challenged. They can’t even write without the help of workshops screening their mistakes—Jennifer Egan and Vendela Vida have admitted this publicly—or without the help of editors and agents. They’re not even sure what to think. What’s the consensus on that question? Which way is the literary herd going? Throw into this mix a critic like myself who wants to question or debate them, who requires them to be honest or to think, and even the best of them run the other way. Ergo, all the protections and barriers. That’s my latest theory, anyway.)
(Be sure to read my mad ebook novel, The McSweeneys Gang, still available at Nook or Kindle. If I were “playing the game” and trying to please people I’d take it down, but as Lee Marvin says at the end of the 1960’s movie version of “The Killers,” I just don’t have the time.)
Sunday, January 26, 2014
It’s hard to find any depth in the work of contemporary artists, filmmakers, musicians/composers, and especially writers. Today’s trendy crowd of highly-praised writers are notable only for their superficiality.
The reason may be that few of them have any kind of metaphysical relationship with God or the universe. Even atheist Ayn Rand had a metaphysical relationship with the universe. It was based on her own egomania—herself as the center of the universe—but still made for exciting reading.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
The Novels of Lawrence Richette
It was as if he knew he had a limited amount of years on this earth—more limited than most—to get his work done. When I met him for coffee on occasion, his work—and the art of the novel—was all he wanted to talk about. (His favorite novelists were Don De Lillo and Bret Easton Ellis.)
The novelist I compared Lawrence Richette to was John O’Hara. Novelistic competence—always readable, without too many bells and whistles but always with a point to make. Larry made it look easy.
One of his best novels, The Secret Family, is based on the history of his own family in Italy and America. The kind of thing Mario Puzo wrote when he was good, before he went for the flash and money.
Another novel, The Fault Line, of especial pertinence to Philadelphians, is Richette’s thinly-disguised take on the MOVE bombing, which Larry covered as a young reporter. It’s short, journalistic, concise and dramatic.
My favorite Lawrence Richette novel, however, is Private Screenings. Here’s a review I wrote of it when it came out. It’s an honest review. I’m never less than honest. I disappointed or angered more than one struggling author when I ran the ULA, by refusing to tell them their book was something it was not.
When I first encountered Richette, as a matter of fact, and he told me he was a writer, I thought to myself, “Not another one!” (The Underground Literary Alliance was in its heyday and I’d achieved some notoriety. There are struggling writers everyplace.) Larry pawned a copy of his novel, Secret Family, on me. I took it home intending to glance at the first page or two and dismiss it. I ended up reading the novel most of the night. (The first couple pages in fact are a tad slow. His proper beginning comes with the description of a personality around page five.)
Larry Richette received some bad press—a mark of distinction in my eyes. The articles don’t say that he was a very generous guy. After the ULA collapsed, he was one of the few individuals who didn’t abandon me. When I was hurting financially (flat broke) after I moved back to Philly in 2009, Larry bought me dinner on more than one occasion. The last time I saw him, in fact, a couple years ago, I was walking down the street near Rittenhouse Square. A voice yelled from across the street, “Karl! Karl!” It was Larry Richette having lunch at an outdoor table at some trendy cafe. I joined him and he ordered lunch for me. I begged off out of pride but he ordered it anyway. We talked about—what else?—books and authors, and what he was currently writing. Larry was as intelligent on the subject of literature as anyone I’ve met.
Why was he never published by the big guys? You tell me. Read his books and give me an explanation. Lawrence Richette’s novels are intelligent and readable— the kind of thing intelligent readers once read by the truckload, but which today, from the current breed of designated authors, is very hard to find. Jonathan Franzen with a deeper understanding of the world and a better sense of pace.
The only reason I can see for agents and editors not touching Larry is that they perceived him to be a “difficult” personality. A pity that those delicate souls put manners and convenience above art. It’s not the way the game should be played.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
RIP Larry Richette
I just received tardy word of the death of Philadelphia novelist Lawrence Richette. Larry did a lot of self-publishing, and was an advocate of good writing and writers. I appeared at several readings with Larry in Philly, including a ULA (Underground Literary Alliance) event at a rock club aptly called the Underground in 2007.
Larry received fairly bad press from local media, but whenever I was in Philly I found him to be a good friend. We had many long conversations about literature at coffeeshops (Larry was on the wagon), sometimes with loud voices, which threw people, no doubt.
What Larry was above all was a terrific writer.
I’ll have more to say about his work when I can. Here’s his obit:
THINKERS from LeBon to Jung to Lacan have believed mankind is swayed by hidden forces in the subconscious mind. The notion is in line with the pagan myths outlined in Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The idea is that the pagan gods and mythic figures are unavoidable symbols, appearing in our culture and thoughts of themselves, against our will.
I think of this when assessing my own short novel, The McSweeneys Gang, which began as a cartoon-style pop satire but soon got away from me, new characters and situations materializing of their own volition. In particular, the character of “The Assassin,” appearing in the guise of a beautiful but troubled woman. Is this character a version of Graves’ “White Goddess”? Hmm. I’ll have to reread the ebook to find out. (Available via Kindle or Nook.)
Tuesday, January 07, 2014
I’ve been browsing through The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which someone sent me to read. I can’t say I like the arcane work—much of it’s nonsense—but it does stimulate thought. It gives a different way of viewing the world.
I’m intrigued by Graves’s poetic way of thinking. I’ve looking through objects to see the reality behind or beneath. Of his “seeing” words in the air before him. Though he doesn’t call it that, I call it having visions.
I’ve been trying to tune into ideas myself, new and old—though one doesn’t try to do it, but allows it to happen.
I’m living a fairly Spartan lifestyle right now in barren Detroit. A mundane job. Frigid temperatures. No TV. A dead phone. An el cheapo netbook which only sporadically hooks into a network. Minimizing the world’s electronic assault, on the 19th floor of an old building, I read. Especially late at night.
In the very early morning, when awaking, the brain is alive to thoughts and speculations.
My main speculation is this: That we’ve become not an athiestic post-Christian culture, but a pagan one. The evidence is everywhere around us, in the culture itself.
Robert Graves makes it plain that paganism never left Western civilization. It’s always been present, waiting under the surface to re-emerge.
Many of us remain Christian, despite the omnipresent culture. Others of us worship different gods. (Paganism allows, almost requires, a multiplicity of gods.)
I’ve identified three main alternate gods displacing the Judeo-Christian Jehovah (leaving Islamic Allah for the moment out of the discussion). The three gods exist subliminally in the minds of their adherents, in large part controlling them. The three gods are:
A.) The Machine.
B.) The Goddess.
The truth is that those who most believe themselves untouched by faith and religion are most immersed in it. I’ll explain this, likely in an ebook—which will conclude with a provocative speculation about “Dueling Goddesses.” Or am I merely having fun with Graves’s ideas?
What’s the future of America? Of our culture and ourselves?
(In the meantime, read my ebook novel The Tower, which plays many of these themes.)