The Death of American Letters

The Open Sentence: A Statement Masquerading as a Manifesto

I say this now because as I'm continuing to write my extended, in depth criticism of Atlas Shrugged, there are going to be times when the close reading will require the engagement of aesthetic rather than political or philosophical concerns. As I'm trying to show that it is the worst book ever written, it is necessary to take on not only the bad ideas in the book and the quality of the storytelling, but also the quality of the craftsmanship at the level of the language. In order that people know where I'm coming from, I figured it would be better to lay it all out here in a brief abstract rather than have to constantly re-state things about what I think makes for good and bad writing within each individual piece.

In writing, where the content is not primarily concerned with the communications of facts or criticism of some form whether it be literal or cultural—that is to say, where it is not political/philosophical treatise, some sort of non-fiction, or the interpretation of other work—I take to be primitive several statements by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Among them:

"Philosophy ought to be written only as a form of poetry."

"What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

"What can be shewn cannot be said."

"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical."

"We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense conditions are ideal, but also, because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk, therefore we need friction. Back to the rough ground."

"If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

"In a large number of cases, though not for all, the meaning of a word is it's use in a language-game."

No Really, Dune Fucking Sucks: Part One, an introduction to the project

Lots of people really likeDune. It's spawned a movie, a couple of TV mini-series, several video games, at least one comic book adaptation, and a continuing series of books written by the book's late author's son in order to cash in on the gullible mouth breathers who think there is value in the franchise. The pro-Dune camp believes that this book and the series it spawned are "classic," "masterfully crafted," "well-planned," novels. Do a quick google search, and you will find no shortage of people who are willing to ascribe adjective phrases like "beautifully written," "elegant," and "brillant" to this novel.

I respectfully—well, sort of— disagree with this assessment, and taking a page out of slacktivist's close reading of Left Behind, given how widespread respect for Dune is even occasionally outside of the science fiction ghetto, I think it's high time someone pointed out how terribly flawed, immoral, and transparently lacking in complexity Dune actually is.

I don't know how many entries this is going to take, but beginning next week after I've been able to procure another copy of the book, I'll be posting a page by page and occasionally line-by-line commentary on the book in the hopes of exposing it for the massively deficient and incompetent piece of literature that it is.

All comments are welcome, particularly from those who think that there's something of value in this trash that I'm missing.

I'm looking forward to the project and expect that it will take me some time to complete. I hope you all enjoy it, or at least learn to enjoy Dune a little bit less.

Open Letter to David Foster Wallace's Literary Executor

To Whom it May Concern,

I don't yet know who might be inheriting the job of dealing the with David Foster Wallace Nachlass but whoever you are out there in the world, this is a request to you. Let me be frank and to the point: Let us see it all.

Not knowing how much remains unpublished of Wallace's work, not knowing what provisions he may have made or requests he may have left for whoever it falls to to see to the administration of his remaing material, I think it needs to be said that we want it, and that in my opinion there is no way that the publication of any juvenalia, unfinished manuscripts, rejected by the author incomplete essays, or abandoned novels will in any way harm the legacy of the greatest American writer of the last 50 years.

My reasons for believing this are as follows:

1.) Wallace's brilliance is fixed in literary history by his already published work. It would have been fixed by Infinite Jest alone, but that in concert with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Girl with Curious Hair, Oblivion and Everything and More (which has been unjustly panned in this writer's estimation) has established an unassailable legacy of fine literary output. Anything additional, published correctly and with the understood caveat that it may not be up to the author's standards for his own work, will only add to our understanding of a literary giant the understanding of whom should be the work of anyone who cares about American letters. In short, the publication of everything can do no damage.

Plainsong Encomium for Another Dead Hero

I read Infinite Jest when I was eighteen. I picked it up on a lark at the Tower Records bookstore on Newbury Street in Boston. I needed something to read to take my mind off the music that had encompassed all of my waking brain time in my first semester at Berklee. It was thick and I figured it would keep me busy for a while at least. Little did I know.

Four months later, after dilligently working through that monster of a novel, I was quite possibly a different person. It was precisely the right book for me to read at precisely the right time in my life. I'm not sure it would be possible for me to state completely how much an influence his voice had on both my writing and my views on art in general. suffice it to say that I doubt there is anyone else I've ever read who had a greater impact.

This future that promises no more brilliance from that man's brain, when there should have been so much more, is not as good as the one we had a few days ago. His is a terrible loss to American literature.

Over the years, I've known a few brilliant people who decided to take their own lives. It never makes any sense. Having sat on that fence once or twice myself, I can't even fathom my own thoughts in that direction, and feel very grateful for the confidence I've found that I will never go there again. Suicide is one of the great tragedies of our form of life, a gesture at eternity that expresses a pain that defies words. I'm not a religious person, but I hope with all my being that whatever pain Wallace was feeling he has found some peace and relief from it now. I hope he knew at the end how much he and his work meant to people who, like me, had never even met him. We are all darkened a bit when our brightest lights go out. There is no question in my mind that David Foster Wallace was such a light.

Godspeed sir, my life has been better because of what you have given to us all. May you rest in peace.

Holy fucking shit David Foster Wallace Killed Himself!

Hanged himself. Jesus Christ.

More to follow as I process.

champion reported it first:

LA times confirms
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-wallace14-2008sep14,0,7461856.story

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.

Why n+1 is the Worst Literary Magazine on the Market

There's been a recent dust-up in the lit blogs over some criminally stupid things that n+1 printed about literary blogs. This after Keith Gessen's previous inflammatory remarks on the subject. One of the things they're on about lit blogs about is being publicity shills to the publishing industry, which is a bit ironic considering that emails published by the Elegant Variation reveal that Gessen was in fact trying to use the lit blogs for just that same purpose himself. But this hypocrisy is simply one way of underlining the obvious: n+1 is run by a cadre of pretentious, arrogant assholes with strange and insupportable ideas about literature and criticism, with Keith Gessen chief among them.

Let us not forget that n+1 is the organ that thinks normal people go on $130 dinner dates, get paid $40 an hour for copy-editing, and sleep with 10 people on a "busy but not extravagant Spring Break." But then n+1's essays always seem to follow a similar pattern: a mildly valid critical thought is blown up into Iraq proportions, and then addressed with a rapidly escalating series of inane and insupportable conclusions. This is true of the dating article (the notion that dating can be a pain in the ass is valid enough, but n+1 shines that through a perverse and distorted lens, projecting something alien and somewhat nauseating). Likewise with the Elif Batuman's article on the short story, which takes the problem of workshop fiction and somehow deduces that the problem with these stories involves too many proper names and implied familiarity—again, a perplexing, weird conclusion. And, of course, this is true with their criticisms of lit blogs.

Consider:

People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough.

...

The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction - "The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!" - or displeasure - "I shit on Dante!" So man hands on information to man.

...

Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic][pointed out by The Millions] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits - by their clicks you shall know them - and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses - fillips of contempt, wet kisses - aren't criticism.

Now, it's one thing to say that a lot of lit bloggers write shallow things, and certainly we see enough of "This book is SO great, you have to read it right now!" from certain quarters I won't name. But to then imply that the lit bloggers are somehow in the pocket of the publishing houses just because those publishing houses send them review copies, and give them recognition simply doesn't follow. In fact, that argument is better applied to profession newspaper and magazine reviewrs, such as n+1 editor Marco Roth. After all, they not only get free books, they get paid to write about them by giant corporations, who themselves get advertising money from the publishing houses. Blogs aren't on the payroll of publishing companies, and there is no more incentive for a lit blogger to print a positive review of The DaVinci Code than there is for printing one of Everyman, Black Swan Green, or the kind of small press books that blogs are known for championing like Stranger Things Happen or Home Land. Indeed n+1's attitude, including and especially the statement "responses aren't criticism," strikes one as a kind of petulant childishness, like a little girl sneering at a more popular girl and saying, "what a bitch!" Not just because there's plenty of good criticism in the blogosphere if you care to look, that's entirely beside the point. Blogs are not always meant to be literary magazines, and bloggers don't have to be critics. Bloggers are bloggers, and one of the things that separates a blog from a literary review is that in the medium of the blog a blogger can chat informally about books if she wants to. Complaining that blog posts aren't long and rigorous enough is kind of like complaining that some motorcycles don't have four wheel drive. It's not just stupid, it's bizarre.

Like The Elegant Variation, I too had an email correspondence with Keith Gessen, though I'm too much of a gentleman to print it. But I will report that among the things he said was that I was somehow "freeloading"* off his content by reading it when he put it up on his own website instead of buying the magazine. Keith Gessen is a weird little man and n+1 is a weird little magazine, and not a very good one at that. Frankly, you shouldn't buy it or read it or otherwise bother with it, and we'll all be better off when it (inevitably) goes under.

* This originally read "stealing." Keith Gessen wrote to correct me, that he had accused me of "freeloading" and not stealing. Looking back through the emails, this is correct.
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Don't Worry Keith, We Don't Like You Either

Keith Gessen doesn't like Lit Blogs. He also doesn't like McSweeney's or the Believer. He thinks lit bloggers are self-promoting whores who, unlike Keith Gessen, are selling our collective birthrights for a mess of review copy pottage. We're "freelance publicists" who are only doing what we're doing because we want attention. Of course, we'd all be starting literary magazines like N+1 if we were making 40 dollars an hour copy editing in the fantasy trustafarian world that Keith Gessen lives in. But most of us don't live in that world. Which is fine. As any reasonably intelligent person can determine from reading Keith Gessen's magazine, N+1 and co. generally don't know what the hell they're talking about, and their greatest claim to fame to date is the embarrassing literary "career" of Ben Kunkel who—going on three years later—has yet to live up to his own Madison Ave. "The Next Michael Chabon/Jonathan Lethem/Dave Eggers" hype. Now, I'm not saying the literary world of New York is composed entirely of elitist insider snobs who wouldn't know a good book if it smacked them in the face, but I'm pretty confident saying that of the editorial staff of N+1. Even when they get it right, as they do with Michel Houellebecq in the recent issue, it's for entirely the wrong reasons, Marco Roth praising him for being different from a whole canon of books that Roth qualifies in his first paragraph as not really representing the best of French Literature anyway. Reading N+1, I often have the impression that I'm reading the lit-critical output of that Monty Python sketch where all the inbred upper class twits blow themselves away with shotguns at the end. Here are people with nothing to say and all the room they want to say it, bought and paid for by god knows who, trading on minor celebrity in the hopes of improving that celebrity. That they have money and distribution and that there are a lot of other people who think like they do is unfortunate and incontrovertible, but it is not a good reason to listen to what they have to say. I, for one, am finally done staring at the train wreck and I'm going to move along and stop blocking traffic. I suggest that everyone else do the same.

Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too

Edit: Instead of reading this old thing, why don't you read How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept NaNoWriMo?

So November is "National Novel Writing Month", where people are challenged to write a complete 50,000 word novel in one month. The concept owes it's origins to the 24-hour Comics Day, originally thought up by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame), though the stated purposes of these two challenges could not be more divergent. The 24-Hour comic was invented because Scott McCloud was dismayed at how slowly his friend Steve Bissette was working. "I'll bet he could do a full length comic in a day if he wanted to!" He thought. Doing a comic in a day was an exercise to stir up the creative juices in a comics creator, and the 24 hour comic website includes a "Random story seed" section to help you pick something for your exercise. "Is this really the best way to make a great comic?" asks the FAQ. "Probably not, ... but that's not the real goal. The goal is to have the experience of trying. It's a creative exercise that can teach you a lot about what you're capable of." This is noble and interesting.

Rather than being an exercise for creators, "National Novel Writing Month," instead posits itself as a challenge for non-writers. Quoth the website:

Want to know what's wrong with American Letters?

Read Silliman's blog and his complaints about the School of Quietude. Read anything critical John Hollander or Robert Pinsky have ever written. Read Dana Gioia's infamous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" and the various responses to it. Hell, read the complaints of my co-editor Eric Rosenfield about the decline of readerly culture in North America. Read any number of complaints on various blogs and in various book arts pages of the nation's newspapers, liberal or conservative. One thing they all agree on is that something is wrong with American Literature. They all have their various candidates, be it conservative forces within academia or the encroaching politically correct daintiness of the academic left, the decline of free verse or the exclusion of the post-avant poets from mainstream publication. I would like to take the next 60 seconds of your life to present my candidate: the fact that idiots are in complete control of public education.

The policy states that acceptable books should provide a "Fair balanced socially appropriate portrayal of people with regard to race, creed, color, national origin, sex and disability."[sic]

I think that "Fair balanced" clause is the tipper.

I give you their agenda:

Books now cannot depict drinking alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, including "negative sexuality," implied or explicit nudity, cursing, violent crime or weapons, gambling, foul humor and "dark content."

These people are sour faced bigots who want sanitized, boring, vanilla culture full of productive, mindless worker bees. And if they can't have that, and they can't, then they want to make damn sure that everybody else is as miserable, ignorant, and awful as they are. Toward that end they have hijacked public education while the rest of us were asleep and are now busy bleaching out anything that they consider "naughty" or "unseemly" from the world. American culture is under attack by a group of rabid reactionaries hell bent on a form of cultural cleansing intended not to achieve their disingenously stated aims, but rather to drag us all kicking and screaming back to the nineteenth century world in which these deluded fools believe that everything will be better. These people are the enemy. This is red America.