Tiding You Over

I know it's been light around here lately — I've been busy then sick then busy again. Here's some reading to keep you occupied:

The Washington Post wonders if short stories are having their day, and why they don't sell as well as novels, with some interesting sales numbers.

The New York Times ponders what makes one book a best-seller and another a flop, and points out how backwards the publishing industry is.

And finally, Wet Asphalt alum and our nominee for greatest living critic Tom Bissell is looking for the resting places of the apostles. Which has nothing to do with fiction or poetry but is hella cool anyway.


“Dylan Thomas drunk himself
Into a coma so he would not know
What his poems were saying,”
Robert Duncan.

“When you write a sonnet,
You are not writing poetry,
But are playing tennis,
Playing tennis with the net up.
I hate Robert Frost,”
Lind Call.

“To be a genuine reader of poetry
One must get rid of unquestioned
Habits of mind and the assumptions
That the ordinary reader brings
To the act of reading, one must
Read the figurative as if literal,
The imaginative as if factual,
The metaphors as if direct statements
Of what is experienced, read
Symbolism as clear and distinct
Statements of actuality, do not
Interpret.,” Norris Benjamin.

I remember the Automat,
Mainly the automat on eighth street,
The automat in the fur district,
Dead minks carried on racks
That bump over the bricks
Of Eight Avenue, shirtless
Puerto Ricans fighting at midnight
Over a long black-haired girl
Who wore a long black dress
That covered her ankles
And their many ankle bracelets,
A Chinese laundry that returned
Loose shirts, stiff, their solid colors,
Pastels. Chinese laundry one block
From the automat.

It was a long time ago, before
Pornography replaced the fur business
On Eight street, a long time ago,
Before the “peep show.”

Yes, I remember the heyday
Of the Automat. There were
Then even communists and
Anarchists eating at the automat,
There was much talk of Peter Kropotkin,
It was an Age of Innocence.

The day I remember most
At the Automat
Was the day
After I put a nickel in a slot,
Turned a handle
And black coffee poured into a cup,
And I saw
A Stone Age man
Come into the Automat.
The Stone Age man
Looked so happy
When he inserted two nickels
And a slice
Of coconut cream pie
Came out on a saucer.
The Stone Age man
Was fascinated
That the insertion
Of two nickels
Would bring out food.
The Stone Age man
Spoke to me, said
“I had to kill animals
To get food.
I loved the animals,
But I had to kill
To get food.
Briars cut my ankles
As I hunted to get food.
Now, all I have to do
Is insert two nickels.
Now someone else climbs
The coconut tree,
Hacks off the coconut,
All I have to do
Is insert two nickels.
I like this New York City,
I like this civilization.”

At my table
At the Automatic
Was a New York born
And bred poet,
A subway mystic,
A sensitive man
Who had a mystic vision
When he heard
A subway squeak
Or saw bums
Sitting on benches
At the Subway exit
To the Cloisters.”
He wrote what he
Called “Deep Images.”
He confided to me
That he wished
He were a primitive.
He wished to live
As a primitive in
The Stone Age
When man
Was close to nature,
Close to Hawks,
Not subways,
Close to hand-dug wells,
Not faucets,
Close to the Mantis.
He cried, sobbing
“How I wish
I could have
Been a primitive.”

He continued to discourse,
“Even now
I get my news from trees,
If I can find a tree,
There are some trees
Coming out of iron
Over sand on sidewalks.
I get my news from trees,
Not newspapers.
All journalists are
Self-deceived fools,
These self-deceived fools
Keep writing lies,
And these fools are so
That these fools believe
They are writing
Factual, objective accounts
When these fools
Are writing lies.
Newspapers are the enemies
Of truth.
I get my news from trees.”

“A writer writes to unlearn
What he has received as truth.
The writer writes to express himself
And in this expression finds knowledge;
The writer writes to express himself
And know. A writer does not know
And express what he knows. If he knows
And expresses what he knows, he
Would only be less-than-a-mediocrity
And thus extremely popular,”
Norris Benjamin.

The Future of Book Reviews?

Critical Mass the blog of the National Book Critics Circle continues its campaign to save newspaper book reviews with coverage and participation in a protest over the elimination of the book review section in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A recent post from them, which I can't help but feel was aimed at least partially at us, says that bloggers and print reviews should all just get along, emphasizing that there are many great blogs out there, and not all reviewers are reactionary coots.

Meanwhile, the New York Times weighs in, writing:

To some authors and critics, these moves amount to yet one more nail in the coffin of literary culture. But some publishers and literary bloggers — not surprisingly — see it as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.

Of course, not everyone is so hot on the idea of blogging as the future, though others think print reviewers have it coming.

In deference to the NBCC I would like to say a few things on the subject of print reviewing versus online reviewing. It has been pointed out that the readership of lit blogs is different than the readership of newspapers. There is truth to this. Lit blogs and online magazines like this one tend to attract a certain kind of techno-savvy bibliophile, the kind of person who both wants to know about every hot new writer and is clued-in enough to be able to find the blogs that will tell her. The vast majority of book readers out there aren't this person, and there are still a lot of people who will just idly flip through the book pages of the New York Times or the Village Voice (or their online versions) just to see if there's anything interesting to keep an eye out for. These people don't want to check their RSS feeds every day to see what Ed is saying, not because Ed isn't interesting but because that's not how they want to spend their time. The vast majority of readers aren't hard-core bibliophiles, nor should they be. In fact, it is very important that we have a book world in which ordinary people will pick up novels in the same way that they'd go to see a movie or sit down to watch a television show. And this is the real reason we need book reviews, because (especially in the near-total absence of publicity) book reviews are how ordinary people find out about most books. And these book reviews can't just be on blogs that are primarily read by bibliophiles, because ordinary people won't read them.

This isn't to say that print is the only answer. Sites like Metacritic.com do an excellent job of aggregating reviews of the latest books and, just as importantly, putting them right next to movie and video game reviews as a natural part of the cultural world. (And not suspiciously missing as they are on, say, Technorati and Digg.) It's for this reason that I've often flirted with the idea of expanding Wet Asphalt to include coverage of film and television. Because, as bibliophiles, what we need to be doing is not just talking to other bibliophiles, but reaching out to the rest of the world. And that effort to reach out is also why book review sections in newspapers are so important. Because there are so many people in our culture today who seem to think books, and more-so fiction, and even more-so poetry, are all culturally irrelevant. And that's what this is really about, and what I think most people are missing. What we're witnessing is a shift between prose books as part of a larger cultural conversation to prose books as a niche market beloved by a small number of enthusiasts and ignored by everyone else. (Perplexingly enough, this is practically the opposite of what's happening right now with comics, graphic novels and manga.) This shift is a very bad thing for those of us who care about books, and our every effort needs to be in the direction of shifting things back.

And this is why I support the NBCC's efforts to save book review sections in newspapers, and why you should too.

After I Stopped Screaming

The blonde in the big ape's hand. Long before you had Rita Hayworth on that bed in a negligée or Marilyn standing over that grate with her skirt billowing up, there were all those pictures and posters and billboards of me, the blonde in the big ape's hand.

Fiction by Pamela Sargent

Round the Web on Friday

Probably the biggest single conversation starter in the Lit Blogosphere right now is the NBCC's blog Critial Mass's campaign to "save book reviewing" in the wake of a number of newspapers getting rid of or shortening drastically their book review sections. Right on, of course, to saving book review sections, but unfortunately what this has resulted in is a lot of NBCC members complaining about technology, which makes them sound like crotchety old people who just don't understand kids these days. And it's not just the Internet that bothers them but, um, television. You kids these days get away from that thing, it'll melt your brain! The TV causes all our problems! I'm old! ARRRR!

Chasing Ray has a a nice round-up and Ed Champion always knows the right things to poke fun at. But then, Ed's been tops on my list ever since he linked to our n+1 article along with a picture of that magazine's editors in such a way as to suggest "Look at these guys. Don't they just LOOK like a bunch of assholes?" Yes, Ed, yes they do.

Also, an article in the New York Review of Books about books about the novel reminds us what criticism looks like. Excellent.

Friday Recommendations

Cartoonist Patricia Storms has done a number of amusing literary-themed comic strips, the best of which is "The Amazing Adventures of Lethem and Chabon" which turns the titular twosome into superheroes battling against their arch-enemy, Candice Bushnell!

Nine Inch Nails new album, Year Zero has launched with an alternate reality game, in which listeners can track down easter eggs from the album and merchandice and various other clues to paint a portrait of a dystopian future in 2022. One interesting part of the game is that if you decode the bar code on the back of the CD, you get a url, exterminal.net. There, click on "Bardsley, G (Accomplice Surveillance Underway)" for a mini-short story told in multiple panels (you'll see what I mean) with accompanying photos. The way this is done is very interesting in terms of the potential for prose fiction in new media.

Also on the future-speculation front, Warren Ellis talks about the motivations behind making his new comic book, Doktor Sleepless. Ellis: "It's 2007 and the society does not yet understand how to operate water."

Lastly, go out and read Cynthia Ozick's article "Literary Entrails" in the new issue of Harper's Magazine. In it she talks about why Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus' protestations of a lack of readers are beside the point, and what literature is really missing is good criticism. (And in the process, she well-deservedly hands Marcus his own ass.) She singles out James Wood as the kind of critic we need more of in a way that makes me reconsider my dismissal of him as a reactionary—though she does point out that he is "sometimes faulted for narrow sympathies, and for depricating those styles and dispositions that escape the bounds of his particular credo." (ie. realism.) Scott Esposito has an interesting and thorough reaction to the article that's also worth reading.


At the center of labyrinth
alleys is a school with a plaque
reading, "No revving motor-
cycles during class." Perhaps
herds of Hell's Angels dropped
kick-stands by these Roman
walls and gunned a double-
fist salute to boys in uniform
trapped at their desks. The owner
of the corner shop will not
confirm it. Instead he sells
postcards, three for a pound,
counterfeit scenes of cathedrals,
the countryside, and gray skies.
But the wind shifts and the sun
shoots through the clouds
like a young bean plant. I take
a photo just to prove it was there.

Where for Art Thou Foetry?

While I think it's important to note that Cordle and his crew of followers often make connections between poets on the foetry discussion forums that are so tenuous they aren't far from claiming that poetry publishing is controlled by the Rothschild family in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations, the Ancient Order of Free and Accepted Masons and the Trilateral Commission, what gets lost in the hubbub is the fact that they actually make a good point: poetry publishing is rife with cronyism, gladhanding and pettiness.