Category Archives: Considerations

Mystery, Manners, Warnings

“I don’t know how the subject is handled now, or if it is handled at all, but when I went to school I observed a number of ways in which the industrious teacher of English could ignore the nature of literature, but continue to teach the subject.

The most popular of these was simply to teach literary history instead. The emphasis was on what was written when, and what was going on in the world at that time. Now I don’t think this is a discipline to be despised. Certainly students need to know these things. The historical sense is greatly in decay. Perhaps students live in an eternal present now, and it’s necessary to get across to them that a Viking ship was not equipped like the Queen Mary and that Lord Byron didn’t get to Greece by air. At the same time, this is not teaching literature, and it is not enough to sustain the student’s interest in it when he leaves school.

Then I found that another popular way to avoid teaching literature was to be concerned exclusively with the author and his psychology. Why was Hawthorne melancholy and what made Poe drink liquor and why did Henry James like England better than America? These ruminations can take up endless time and postpone indefinitely any consideration of the work itself. Actually, a work of art exists without its author from the moment the words are on paper, and the more complete the work, the less important it is who wrote it or why. If you’re studying literature, the intentions of the writer have to be found in the work itself, and not in his life. Psychology is an interesting subject but hardly the main consideration for the teacher of English.

Neither is sociology. When I went to school, a novel might be read in an English class because it represented a certain social problem of topical interest. Good fiction deals with human nature. If it uses material that is topical, it still does not use it for a topical purpose, and if topics are what you want anyway, you are better referred to a newspaper.”

                                              –Flannery O’Connor, “The Teaching of Literature”

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Witch-hunt

“We will not consider submissions that include prejudice, racism, xenophobia, classism, sexism, ableism, fat-shaming, homophobia, gratuitous violence, etc. We reserve the right to reject such submissions outright and no longer read submissions from that author. We also reserve the right to remove content from our journal if an author is known to be harassing or abusive.”

Welcome, censorship.

 

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Formal Folly

“He’s a great reader—I don’t think you can be a writer otherwise.” (Guy Davenport)

“We regret to inform you that your submission hasn’t been selected for publication. Thanks for sending us ‘————.’ While this work isn’t a fit for us, as fellow writers, we share in the rigors of the submission process and wish you the best.”

Where to begin? Nobody died, nobody died. Not in the making, the offering, the declining.

As for rigors, I’m not exactly expending many calories sitting in a chair, clicking a button.

I have yet to receive a proper rejection: “As fellow readers…”

“I took ‘creative writing’ at Duke, under Bill Blackburn, in a class with Bill Styron and Mac Hyman (No Time for Sergeants). The result was that I was paralyzed for years, until I saw that if I wanted to write I would have to do it the way I wanted to, without thinking of myself as ‘a writer’ (I still don’t).

The breakthrough came when I realized that I mustn’t write about anything from my own experience, or anybody I’ve known, but to work with pure imagination, and to work with that hiatus between the mind and the world in which the pragmatic always fails and the imagination has to take over.” (Guy Davenport)

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I will refuse.

“You get up on your little 21-inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business.

The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there is no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

                                                                                  –from The Network

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Back When

“Wasn’t there a time when American writers were let alone by personality mongers and publicity monsters?”

                                                                                  –Jack Kerouac

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Confessional

I don’t write to be liked, I don’t write for acceptance. Countering a steady diet of rejection, I remind myself of this:

“It is not surprising therefore that the most representative literature of our times is light, easy literature, which, without any sense of shame, sets out to be—as its primary and almost exclusive objective—entertaining. But let’s be clear: I am not in any way condemning the authors of this entertainment literature because, notwithstanding the levity of their texts, they include some really talented writers. If today it is rare to see literary adventures as daring as those of Joyce, Woolf, Rilke or Borges, it is not just down to the writers. For the culture in which we live does not favour, but rather discourages, the indefatigable efforts that produce works that require of the readers an intellectual concentration almost as great as that of their writers. Today’s readers require easy books that entertain them and this demand creates a pressure that becomes a powerful incentive to writers.”

This, from Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture, a highly sobering, indispensable discourse on the current state of arts and letters.

Though why not aim high? And especially having read Joyce, Woolf, Rilke, Borges—why not aspire to join their ranks? To match what you admire?

So much talent today, effectively homogeneous: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

Believe. Go alone. They’re hardly critics, if all they express is opinion. A critical response must, at the least, situate the work in question. Reviewers—but who cares, except the vastly impressionable consumer?

Last word, Truman Capote: “…I’ll give you fifty dollars if you produced a writer who can honestly say he was ever helped by the prissy carpings and condescensions of reviewers.”

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“Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything.”

“Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign.”

                                                        –The Lessons of History

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Residual

It’s hard, when daily you’re forced to witness the works you treasure, to which you’ve devoted patience and breath, abused and devalued most by those who should be staunch advocates and defenders. I lean on Guy Davenport: “All of this points to our having a society that reads badly and communicates execrably about what we read.” We get what we deserve. We force-feed our children “pleasant, undemanding reading” and do everything to make sure that it positively stays down. Dare to object. Flannery O’Connor’s observation remains spot on: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.” That’s To Kill a Mockingbird, incapable of aging—of aging well. “Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.” How is that possible?

“The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.” That’s Richard Hofstadter decades before our great awakening, bolstered by the internet. “I will refuse.”

I lean on my friend and former mentor, Douglas Smith: “Writing and reading always swim together.”

Because an age may fail to recognize genius, or erringly (and stubbornly) approves some lesser talent—is hardly the determining factor: Shakespeare remains foremost…peerless, eminent, unrivaled. To those convinced all writing is equal (as all painting, music, etc.), and that judgment is arbitrary and wholly idiosyncratic (personal/subjective)—there’s really nothing much I can say.

 

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“Nothing for me.”

Thank you for sending us “—————————.” As writers, we understand how much work goes into creating and submitting your pieces. Unfortunately, this work does not fit in with the current issue on which we are working. We appreciate you taking the time to send to us, and we do hope that you’ll try us again.

It’s a business, that’s all. Pursuing publication in literary magazines takes a seasoned callus, a quick snicker for the form rejection concluding all correspondence with various selecting committees (editors…no—unless editing equals arranging, as a florist assembles disparate flowers in a slender vase). Peremptory form rejections enforce, as a common factor, power over. The imbalance always favors the selectors, never the writer. I’m not inclined to submit—I offer.

“As writers…” So they admire the sustained effort, long hours immersed in solitude, dead ends and sacrifice. Then why the dismissive form rejection? When I invest my work with hours, days, weeks, months, a year or more—and for an essay well short of a thousand words…the return is a pre-conceived, timid template with minimal investment from the respondent. And yet—I’m required to craft a witty cover letter, outlining personality and endeavor. I’m required to notify them immediately should I need to withdraw my work. I’m required, I’m required.

“As writers…” The implication: they’re better qualified, especially attuned to style and nuance, and more sensitive to subtlety and complexity than, say, a common reader. The correlation is hardly absolute. Flashback: the fine crop of graduate students commenting on my work lacked refined reading skills and sharp judgment, fondly rejecting outright anything that “did nothing for me.” They were prime for teaching, with swift recollection of names, dates, titles, first lines. Perfect for appeasing little inquiries.

I ask fair reading. I’ve stumped for that before. For those positioning themselves “as writers,” why no acknowledgment of mechanism or craft, which my work necessarily employs? Ah, I outpace myself. First they must know the devices.

“As writers…” Apparently in their vast reading this selection committee failed to register the lean etymology of the verb send. Heavily transitive, it has little force minus a direct object. Intransitive, send has scant leeway in its employment: e.g., “send out for pizza,” “send for an updated catalog.” Someone who can’t construct a simple sentence will grasp my writing? It’s a losing prospect. How easy to misread draught for drought… 

Abandon all hope, ye who submit here. All hope of adequate response, timely decision, engaged reading, professional conduct. No offense—I began writing years before many of these readers ever took a breath outside the womb. I eagerly submit to masterful writing. I’d much rather converse with Balzac, Dickinson, Defoe, Austen, Beckett, Shakespeare et al.

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