End of the Pods

How did we get from Jack London and O. Henry to Francine Prose and David Gates?

The battle between pods and human beings can be traced back to Shakespeare's "King Lear," in which riotous Lear and his riotous friends are banished from the castle by his two uptight daughters, Regan and Goneril, who like suburban boozhies today, can't handle the noise and the mess. (Presumably, beer bottles all over the place.) For Lear's friends, think of the characters in a novel by Wred Fright.

The plays themselves at the Globe were riotous events-- across the street from bear-baiting shows and whorehouses. Genteel literary affairs? Hardly! The crowd smelled of beer, sweat, and piss. Did they heckle? They not only heckled, they threw fruit and peanuts at the players. Interchange between the actors and audience was expected. Note the plea for tolerance at the end of "Midsummer Night's Dream"-- "Those of you who've been offended, think of this, and be amended. . . ."

Quite reminiscent of ULA affairs!

Yes, yes, I know. Today's genteel literary audiences prefer to sit quietly and politely listening to the oh-so-quiet patter of words about sleepy vacations to Tuscany. This has been affirmed by posters on this very blog. What further proof be needed that the world of literature has been stolen by pods!

Shakespeare's plays were banished altogether when England's Puritans took power. Appropriately, Puritans were the forebears of a few prominent literary Overdogs of now.

The years since in England and America have shown the continual gentrification of society. Of literature: homogenization and hyper-regulation. Dictionaries and style manuals have proliferated, their intent to squelch individuality. Smoothing out the rough edges of writing, the personality quirks and politically incorrect prejudices, results in creative writers sounding alike.

The 1950's were the tipping point. From 1953 on there's been a deliberate attempt to make literature noncontroversial and irrelevant, with further emphasis on refinement. Literature became stripped of social commitment, of passion and emotion. This was of a piece with the boozhification of American society-- Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Rexroth transformed into John Ashbery and Louise Gluck: the wild angry human voice to the voice of a pod.

The Ray Carver case is the classic example of the podification of writing; the talented man put through writing program after writing program, his innate frustration and anger squeezed into a tiny hint of a kernel of influence in his stories-- then in a final last laugh Random House editor Gordon Lish made the pod process complete, turning Carver's art into gutted memories of stories.

Smooth blandness became the ideal. Polished nothingness. Which means: go through a writing program and as a writer, if you're successful, you'll be turned into a pod.

99.9% of the literati can't relate to the underground's noise or our cause. That someone is questioning the system of literature is unheard of. It's not done. It's beyond tolerance; can't be imagined or thought. There's an overwhelming mass of pods at every level of literature, except in the underground. In New York City one sees them exit the towering office buildings like well-dressed robots. Their mask-like faces devoid of expression match the polished smoothness of their glass skyscrapers.

The outcome: contemporary stories express feeling instead of emotion. The tragic sadness of being a pod.

Miranda July writes a bullshit story about giving swimming lessons in her kitchen to a pair of underclass folks. She's the pod trying to relate to human beings. Everything is sadness. Unarticulated sadness. How can you discuss being a pod?

It's not sadness so much as THE MEMORY OF EMOTION, emotion now forever gone. Apt that so many of these stories and novels end in suicide. For them it's the only way out. Life for them is an Ice Storm. The emotional coldness of an Ice Storm, present in every sentence, on every page.

A raging King Lear character? A madman on the subway. Beyond understanding. To such an exhibition, literary or otherwise, they can only blink.

Now it's time for the lit reading at the Manhattan bistro or chain bookstore or coffee shop. Bliss and Binky and Boo and the rest of the gang will be there. They dress carefully in their well-washed pod clothes. (No Jack London or Jack Kerouac human odors, thank you!) In the mirror they look stylish and hip and, well, pod-like. No trace of a flawed real human being. They view this with satisfaction.

Our pod writer jumps into a taxi to-- where? Aha! To Housing Works bookstore, the ultimate pod hangout. Other pod writers reading tonight will arrive in limos, but for you, a taxi will suffice. Keepin' it real.

As you exit the taxi a last remaining Manhattan homeless person still stupidly existing in Disneyfied Podland tries to hand you a scrap of paper containing his scrawled poems. He's grungy and smelly. "I'm a real poet," you say as you brush past him into the store. After all, "poet" is a designation which must be earned through proper certification and approval from above. Everyone but this character knows this.

At the podium you gaze out at the packed pod audience filled with fellow pods who attended similar pod Ivy League universities as yours. You're following tonight several pod readers who did a thoroughly unexciting but adequate pod job, earning perfunctory pod applause. One read a description of sex without love (love an archaic and rather gross concept). Another read a work about a tree-- a story to which, needless to say, all could relate. The previous pod at the pod-ium read a humorous story about a candy bar! It earned snickers from the audience. It was humorous because, well, because it wasn't. That was the joke. Call it irony. They were all ironic. Pod people could only be ironic. You could laugh at a story about a candy bar which wasn't funny because it wasn't-- that was the irony of it. It was the ultimate "in" thing which separated the pods from the human mob.

Now it's your turn and you want to read a poem about the absence of being human. As you stand there waiting to deliver in the usual genteel pod monotone, you see, instead of the audience, flashes of the pod mansion you were raised in, your seldom-there fake-smile pod parents, the European nanny, your hours on the computer, your subsequent classrooms, your pod training leading to this pod point as a well-lauded New York pod writer; you see the cold world outside and the beggarly homeless guy with his archaic "poems," then you see snowflakes-- inexplicably a tear appears in your eye, a trace of a mechanism, of a memory that you're not really a pod after all-- the shocking truth-- so you bolt from the podium in horror your pod conditioning incomplete writing career over to the reality of the blackness the streets the sky outside to vanish like a dropout like an undergrounder into the unknown.
(This essay originally appeared in March 2009 on the Happy America Literature blog.)