I live in Indian country. Well, to be accurate, everyone in North America lives in Indian country. What I mean is that I live in one of the parts that still has actual Indians living in it.
I grew up in Mississauga, a city west of Toronto, ironically named for the tribe that once lived there. I was told as a child that they were extinct. I’ve recently learned that they were actually pushed to sell their land to the Crown, to make room for incoming colonists, and were forced to relocate. In any case, extinct or simply shoved out of the way, I never laid eyes on a native person, an “Indian,” until I was well into adulthood.
Here on the West Coast, it’s different. This is Nuu-chah-nulth territory, and there are lots of Nuu-chah-nulth people around, living both on the reserves and in the towns. The “Indians” I learned about as a child seemed mythical: elusive as fairies, capable and all-knowing like superheroes, and nearly magical in their ability to slip silently through the landscape. The real Indians, though — the ones I know now — are my friends and neighbors, even an ex-boyfriend.
So what’s that got to do with anything? The thing is, when you think of Indians as something of the past, and perhaps not quite as real people at all (since you’ve never actually gotten to know one) it can be hard to understand where they are coming from. Then suddenly something pops up: the Red Power occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971; the violent Oka land dispute between the Mohawk people and a small town in Québec, in 1990; or, in recent months, the movement known as Idle No More (#IdleNoMore).
It’s easy to wonder: Well, what’s this about? What do they want this time? And anyway, wasn’t this all settled a long time ago?
Well, no it wasn’t. A lot of what Idle No More is about is outstanding treaty issues. In some regions, treaties were signed between the indigenous people and the government, but the government has not kept its part of the agreement. In other regions, treaties have still never even been negotiated or signed at all; some sort of agreement needs to be made.
Although Idle No More started as a grassroots movement in Canada, the issues at its heart affect indigenous people across North America, and indeed in many other parts of the world. For example, in 1868, the U.S. Government signed a peace treaty with the Lakota Nation, guaranteeing the Black Hills as native land. Less than a decade later (following the discovery of “gold in them thar hills”) the government reneged on that agreement. The Lakota are still pushing them to honor it.
There is a lot of history — a lot of history — that has never made its way into the history books. So it’s very timely that a book by a dual American/Canadian scholar, who is part Cherokee, has appeared. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, by Thomas King, was published in November — just as the first peeps about Idle No More were threading their way around Twitter.
The Inconvenient Indian is a history of both the contacts and the contracts made between the settlers of North America and their descendents and the indigenous people. Thomas King is the first to admit that, as a history, his book is not complete — nor is it even balanced or unbiased. But it does at least fill in some of the gaps that our other incomplete and biased history books have left out.
So, for anyone who has been wondering what the current state of native unrest is all about, you need to look back. The Inconvenient Indian is a good way to start.
The first bookshop I worked at was in the middle of the busiest street in the hippest neighborhood in a city that prizes itself on being one of the most readerly places in the US. It had an eclectic clientele — everyone from blue-haired oldsters who’d grown up just blocks away in the days of streetcars to brawny bearded dudes in search of more-or-less artful pictures of male nudes to tech company dorks who never took their earbuds out. Tattoos abounded, and if you wanted someone to buy a particular book you didn’t talk about it because the customers were generally too cool to ask for help. Instead you wrote a recommendation card that said, “This is really weird — you’ll love it.” The walls were white, the aisles were wide, the books were symmetrically stacked, and people were drawn in by dozens of face-out covers in the windows, over-sized collections by obscure painters and cutting-edge designers. There were no cats.
The second bookshop was in a suburban neighborhood of the same city, but it often seemed like it was in another country. The shelves were rough-hewn cedar, with antique typewriters in a line on top, and the floor was scattered with mismatched Oriental rugs. You didn’t have to align books carefully on tables, but you did have to pick up the ones that kids knocked over. Each customer was culturally pretty similar to the next, and if you wanted to sell something that hadn’t already been made into a movie, you had to spend a long time in conversation and you had to finish up by saying, “I know it sounds a little weird, but you might like it. Oprah did.” No cats, but you wouldn’t have been surprised to find one there.
I used to like to illustrate the difference between these places by juxtaposing two conversations. In the first case, in the first store, a woman approached the counter and said without preamble, “Do you have cunt?” I cocked my head and squinted. Having just come off a weekend marathon of every Deadwood episode ever filmed, my head was aswim with misogyny and baroque profanity. For a moment, possessed by the demon Swearengen, I thought to say, “We have such a superfluity, my doxy, that our whiskey no longer needs be stored in barrels.” But I remembered who and where I was before I spoke, and instead pointed her toward our women’s studies section and a book by Inga Muscio. Cunt, specifically. It’s a manifesto of female independence and self-esteem, and it regularly cropped up in the lower reaches of our bestseller list.
The second conversation came years later in the second store. Another young woman walked up and said, “There’s this book I’m looking for, kind of a women’s issues thing, and it’s named after a female body part, but I don’t want to say what it is.” A veteran by now, I told her I thought I knew the book she meant and called it up on the computer to show her the title. Vehement response: “NO! It’s like a health thing.” I couldn’t imagine what other book was so taboo it couldn’t be named aloud, so I showed her where she might look and left her alone. After a while, she returned to the counter in triumph with Boobs in hand. By Elisabeth Squires, subtitled A Guide to Your Girls.
I got a lot of mileage out of that comparison: one bookshop as forum for outspoken freethinkers versus another as refuge for herd followers and nervous nellies. I preferred the place where Murakami outsold Grisham to the one that stocked Sarah Palin alongside Barack Obama, obviously. But the more time I spent in that second store, the more I appreciated it. While the first store was visibly avant-garde, behind the scenes it couldn’t have been more traditional. Author visits were documented with a Polaroid camera in use since the 1980s, accounts were kept in pencil in a ledger, and the owner wanted nothing to do with newfangled notions like the internet. At store number two, the look was old but the owner’s ideas were fresh: daily electronic ordering of inventory, emailed newsletters, and an all-around willingness to keep up with the times.
Stepping out of a Chomskyite echo chamber turned out to be a benefit too. Sure, I had to grit my teeth and ring up the ravings of Ann Coulter on occasion, but that helped keep my faculties sharp. I realized something about the homogeneity of hipsterdom, and learned firsthand about the subtleties of suburbia. The most important lesson, though, was that presence is better than absence. Store number one closed not long after I left it, and store number two keeps chugging along in its fortieth year. Between Boobs and nothing, I’ll take Boobs.
As a kid, my favorite bookstore was a small place tucked away in the corner of a typical retail space in Riverside, CA. It was called “Imagine That,” and I would regularly beg and plead my parents to set me loose in it. I was a voracious reader from a young age and could be relied upon to devour books whole over the course of a single afternoon. My parents probably figured there were worse things to be addicted to and were only too happy to fan those literary flames, so I ended up at “Imagine That” fairly often and public libraries took care of any interstitial weeks — I didn’t get that much allowance). To this day, I can recall what it felt like to pass through the entryway: a heady admixture of accomplishment (for the books I had finished that furnished the reason for my return), excitement (for the yet-to-be-discovered stories waiting inside), and reassurance (that there still were and always would be more books to read, more worlds to discover).
The opening pages of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore contain a paean to just that sort of feeling:
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up — three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.
The titular store is found in San Francisco and is discovered by our protagonist Clay Jannon while he’s wandering around town looking for “Help Wanted” signs. After speaking with Mr. Penumbra himself and passing the cursory job interview with flying colors, Clay begins working the night shift. While there are shorter shelves up front that offer typical bestseller/literature/genre books for sale like any other bookstore, the massive shelves in the back actually comprise the Waybacklist, a lending library for various curious characters who wander in throughout Clay’s night shifts. When he starts trying to figure out what these books are actually for (along with who the people requesting them are), the pageturner of a plot really takes off.
Sloan smartly situates the bookstore in San Francisco, as it allows him to effortlessly juxtapose the musty old books in Mr. Penumbra’s with the sparkling digital world of Silicon Valley. Various characters in the novel function as emissaries from the two initially disparate worlds. On the modern technological side, there’s Clay’s friend, Kat, who works in data visualization for Google. Also Neel, a childhood friend of Clay’s who used to nerd out on fantasy books with him and still answers to his RPG character’s name, and now owns a successful digital effects studio. On the more archaic side are people like Clay’s bookstore clerk compatriot Oliver (working on a doctorate in archaeology) and, of course, the mysterious Mr. Penumbra himself (whose image in my head occupied various points on the spectrum between Gandalf and Mad Men’s Bert Cooper over the course of the story). It might have been easy to have these worlds and their representatives clash in order to generate predictable conflict, but what Sloan accomplishes is a bit more intricate.
Clay becomes the fulcrum that these two worlds are able to balance on, the conduit through which they are able to communicate with each other in pursuit of answers to the various puzzles set up throughout the story. In so doing, Sloan sets the table for a measured consideration of the assumptions behind the supposed archaic-modern technological divide, especially as concerns books. At various points, I found myself taking stock of my own unconscious assumptions about the value and utility of books and ebooks, bindings and ereaders. Working for a bookstore myself these past six years, I have often found it too easy to slip into facile reveries of “the old days,” before the bookselling industry was upended by various devices whose popularity was rivaled only by their convenience when it came to finding and purchasing ebooks. Were all physical bookstores going to die the death of a thousand (well, more like a hundred million) downloads? In the novel, Jad, one of Google’s employees, puts it this way when he meets Clay:
“Not a Googler,” I confess. “I work at an old bookstore.”
“Oh, cool,” Jad says. Then he darkens: “Except, I mean. Sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“Well. For putting you guys out of business.” He says it very matter-of-factly.
“Wait, which guys?”
Jad continues, “I mean, once we’ve got everything scanned, and cheap reading devices are ubiquitous…nobody’s going to need bookstores, right?”
While various Jads were sounding the bookstore’s death knell when those first ereader sales numbers came out and kept climbing over the following months and years, it hasn’t happened quite as universally as originally predicted. Upon consideration, I find that my initial anti-ebook posturing has also died down (and can admit that my reflexive “real books just smell better” argument was never all that compelling to begin with). The bookstore I work for has managed to survive, and just recently began selling a few ereading devices on which to read the ebooks marketed on our website, right alongside our new and used books. Maybe both sides on this presumed book/ebook battlefield have benefited from a closer look at their own unique pros and cons? At any rate, the discussion has become more nuanced for me than it was in those early alarmist days.
A similar process occurs for the characters in the novel, as Clay enlists his various friends’ and associates’ help in discovering the hidden messages of the books in Mr. Penumbra’s store. Decoding sessions at Google headquarters are carried out by technological whiz kids making use of their company’s vast processing power, but are given advice and direction by those who have pored over the various tomes in the bookstore for decades and have never owned a cell phone. A hidden, subterranean library containing centuries’ worth of moldering, handwritten codices has its contents scanned and converted into text files, the better to divine their secrets via CPUs. By having Clay serve as a go-between for the digital-analog divide (and a winning one, at that), Sloan makes a compelling case for cooperation as the only way to utilize all these technologies to their full potential. His protagonist effectively dissolves the assumed antagonism between the old and the new, to the benefit of all involved. That Sloan is able to juggle these ideas while keeping the plot compelling, the puzzles intriguing and the characters believable (and often hilarious) is no mean feat.
I also appreciated the chance that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore gave me to dwell on the question of what it is physical bookstores still provide me that can never be replicated by electronic equivalents. I think it has to be the quality of the space itself, that particular vertiginous feeling I get when surrounded by humanity’s endless stories and ideas. When Clay walked into Penumbra’s store in those opening pages and marveled at its shelves rising into the dimly lit stratosphere, I knew exactly how he felt and turned the page feeling that old exhilaration well up in me once more. A novel that can conjure up this authentically reverential feeling while also exuding excitement for future reading technologies and possibilities is a rare beast indeed, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
So: fucking Django Unchained.
At this point, it seems everyone in America has something to say about the movie, even those who haven’t yet seen it (like a certain crabby Knicks fan who shall remain nameless). For someone such as myself, who holds Quentin Tarantino up as the greatest filmmaker working today (other than maybe the Coen Brothers), it’s been a blast watching the shit-storm stir around his latest twisted masterpiece.
As much as I’ve enjoyed taking part in the larger debate over the racial and historical politics surrounding the film, I would like to use my space here to address a specific point made about Tarantino that has been driving me up the wall since first I came across it a couple of years ago. It has to do with the regard that many hold Tarantino in: that he is a shallow filmmaker; that he makes movies full of sound and fury, which signify nothing.
You would think that the various debates that have sprung up around Django Unchained would be enough to disprove this lazy criticism, however, it’s one that remains prevalent. In one of David Foster Wallace’s most popular pieces of cultural journalism, David Lynch Keeps His Head, Wallace ends up comparing his main subject to Tarantino. Here is the conclusion that Wallace comes to:
“Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching someone’s ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.”
That’s probably the most famous line from that essay, and one I see trotted out every time a new Tarantino film is released. And I can understand why: it’s a damn good line. It’s funny and it’s succinct, and it would be pretty insightful if it weren’t for the fact that it’s flat-out wrong.
The films to which Wallace is referring are David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). The second part of the sentence refers to the discarded human ear which is discovered at the beginning of Blue Velvet and kicks off the plot. There’s no disputing Lynch’s fascination with the tactile object — Wallace is perfectly able to distill and express what makes Lynch’s brand of surrealism unique. It’s the set-up of his declaration, which refers to the infamous scene in Dogs, wherein the psychotic Mr. White uses a straight-razor to hack off a captive police officer’s ear, all to the sounds of Steel Wheeler’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, where Wallace ends up undercutting his entire point.
That scene is not only still the most iconic Tarantino has ever shot, it’s also one of the most misrepresented in all of film history. In the same way people misremember certain lines in films (“Play it again, Sam”), they seem to forget what they actually were shown. Back when the film first came out, that scene apparently caused people to faint, vomit and walk out of theaters in droves. Wes Craven expressed his disgust at watching a man’s ear get cut-off. Wallace likewise seems to find the spectacle gratuitous. That’s a fair enough reaction, except for one little thing:
You don’t actually see the man’s ear get cut off. Tarantino doesn’t show it. He doesn’t show the blade moving into the flesh, he doesn’t show the blood pouring out, he doesn’t even show the two men struggling as the mutilation occurs for more than a quick second. Instead, during that most infamous of scenes which people have convinced themselves they actually saw, the camera very noticeably moves over to the top of the wall behind them, focusing on a bit of graffiti that reads: WATCH YOUR HEAD.
We don’t watch a man’s ear getting cut off. Instead we notice the movement of the camera. We are brought to this visual punchline. We hear the sounds of the cop’s muffled screaming and the gruff demanding of Mr. Blond for him to hold still, as well as the sounds of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ mingling with the human suffering. But we never actually watch the ear getting cut off.
Wallace not only gets this scene technically wrong, he also disproves his own point: in this scene, Tarantino is interested in everything but the physical violence. He’s interested in the technical formalism of the medium, he’s interested in transgressive black humor, he’s interested in human power dynamics, he’s interested in the sense of surrealism that comes from juxtaposing violence with kitschy pop, and he’s interested in the very real horror that is caused by violence.
Late in Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a character has his eyelids sewn open so that he can watch as he is further mutilated and murdered. The description is pretty graphic. Would it be fair to say that David Foster Wallace is only interested in watching a man’s eyelids sewn open? Of course not. So what leg does he have to stand on when accusing Tarantino of such a shallow interest in violence?
Wallace was, without a doubt, a moralist. Tarantino is, without a doubt, not a moralist. These two schools of artists have never gotten along and it’s a fool’s errand to try and bridge such a gap.
The second part of the answer, I think, relates to the difference in the two gentleman’s chosen medium of artistic expression. Wallace was well-known for being an anti-snob in his literary tastes, going so far as to assign such populist bestsellers as Red Dragon and The Stand to his students. Yet it seems that he does not give the same respect to artists in the medium of film. His Tarantino dis isn’t the only example of this; there’s also a quote from him accusing Paul Thomas Anderson of giving into a grad-school sense of artistic pretentiousness in his film Magnolia. That’s a fair enough critique, but it’s one that could just as easily be leveled against any of Wallace’s books, especially the ones he wrote in grad-school.
In an interview with the New York Times during the release of Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino, when addressing his tendency to not judge his characters morally, said the following: “I just want the same freedom that a novelist has. You can write a novel about a bastard, but it can be totally interesting.” I would argue that same can and should be said in regards to violence. No one is rushing to judge Wallace’s scenes of horrific violence, which are plenty. They ought to give the same deference to filmmakers such as Tarantino.
 To argue with another part of Wallace’s take: he claims that Lynch is one of the bigger influences on Tarantino’s films, going so far as to say that the ear cutting scene is directly influenced by Blue Velvet. This might not be the case; however much of an influence Lynch had on Tarantino (and I honestly don’t think it was much at all), the bigger influence comes from exploitation films which have been depicting the kind of surreal violence Wallace chalks up to Lynch for far longer than Lynch has. This includes the original Django, which contains a scene where a man gets his ear cut off. And then subsequently fed to him. And then he gets shot in the back. It’s a pretty sweet movie.
 Which is not to say the man isn’t interested in violence, clearly he is. But it’s overtly dismissive to charge it as shallow. It is often times sadistic (as in the head shooting scene in Pulp Fiction, which is played for laughs), it is often times critical (the casual violence of chattel slavery in Django Unchained); it is often times realistic (the long, slow, utterly unbearable pain of a gut-shot wound in Reservoir Dogs), banal (the car trunk scene in Jackie Brown), and cartoonish (the spraying fountains of blood in Kill Bill). It can be used to repulse and horrify us (the first murder in Death Proof) or give us powerful catharsis (killing Hitler and the German high command in Inglorious Basterds). No one has explored the full range of cinematic violence like Quentin Tarantino. To charge it as shallow is to ignore all of the evidence, to say he’s only interested in seeing the ear get cut off is to miss the goddamn point entirely.
 There is some moralizing on QT’s behalf in terms of how a lot of the characters in Django Unchained are portrayed. But come on, they’re goddamn slave owners.
In comics, nothing stays dead. Characters whose deaths clog the news over and over and over one year are assured of their resurrection the next. Series are constantly cancelled then revived. And it’s not just characters or their series; the last few years have proved that even comics publishing formats don’t stay dead.
For their first 50 years or so, American comics were virtually synonymous with the short (usually 32 or so pages), magazine-style publications once commonly found at newsstands and drug stores. The conventional wisdom of the last decade and a half, though, has been that the floppy (as the traditional format is often called) comic is passing from the shelf of history, increasingly superseded by graphic novels and, more recently, digital downloads. But it wouldn’t be comics if the floppy weren’t now resurgent thanks to a new crop of boutique and micro-publishers focusing mini and traditional, floppy comics.
While their format recalls the primary-color super heroics of youth, these publishers—Hic and Hoc, Domino, Oily, Retrofit, Space Face, to name a few—offer formally and artistically challenging indie/alternative/art comics. Their focus on floppy comics distinguishes them from their more established alternative counterparts, such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, which have virtually abandoned the floppy in favor of the graphic novel. With the ever-shrinking number of comics shops (fewer than 3,000 in the U.S., down from a 1990s peak of almost 10,000), and the increasing consolidation of those stores around Marvel, DC, and Image, floppies no longer make sense for larger publishers. But the micro-publishers are driven less by economic imperatives (most don’t have payrolls to meet) than by what they enjoy.
“When the mid-sized publishers stopped printing floppy comic books there was this hole created,” says Charles Forsman, the cartoonist who started Oily Comics in early 2012. “A lot of people missed what was in that hole. Something needed to fill [it].”
The love of floppies also inspired acclaimed indie cartoonist Brian “Box” Brown to found Retrofit Comics in 2011.
“I was jealous of fans of superhero comics,’” says Brown. ”Superhero fans can get multiple new issues of comics every Wednesday for a couple of bucks. The cheap, stapled comic pamphlet has fallen out of favor for alternative comics publishers. But while the economics of the stapled comic pamphlet has made it less profitable, the format is still an excellent one for readers and creators.”
While Brown and Forsman both focus on floppies, their comics aren’t as physically similar as those shipped every week by Marvel and DC. While most mainstream comics share the same pagecount, trim size, and paper types, the micro-publishers’ output varies significantly. Retrofit’s comics resemble the size and length of those from Marvel and DC, while Oily’s are 12-page hand folded and stapled, black and white mini comics.
“Mini comics, for me, is a special thing … they provide an intimacy that is hard to get from a screen or a book printed overseas. Someone probably put it together by hand, one-by-one, in their underwear while watching TV,” says Forsman. “It can be like getting a hand-written letter in the mail.”
Because floppies are cheaper to produce than slicker mainstream comics, the micro-publishers can support more experimentation.
“Oily is … a low-stakes environment,” says Forsman. “I started [The End of the Fucking World] after finishing a pretty labor-intensive comic. I wanted to do something fast and fun. So I try to get that idea across to the artists I invite to make an Oily book. To sort of help them push away expectations of themselves or their readers to free them up to have fun.”
The more manageable economics also allow developing or noncommercial cartoonists to reach a larger audience.
“There is a wealth of excellent comic artists working all over the world that remain ‘undiscovered,’” says Brown. “One of my goals with Retrofit is to spread that wealth around.”
Discovering these publishers in 2012 revolutionized and revitalized my interest in comics. I’ve read 40 or 50 graphic novels a year for the last 10 years or so, basically ignored mini and floppy comics, and was starting to feel that I’d seen virtually everything the English-language market could offer. There were titles I enjoyed, some I even loved, but very few that excited me. The immediacy that Forsman talks about, Brown’s thrill of discovering a new cartoonist (Forsman was that cartoonist for me; his The End of the Fucking World is a chilling, and admirably subdued, chronicle of the development of a teenage sociopath) made comics seem new to me again. Amid a calcified mainstream comics market, that’s practically a super heroic feat.
Interested in sampling these publishers? Check out:
The End of the Fucking World, by Charles Forsman. Oily Comics
Retrofit Five Pack, by Brendan Leach, L. Nichols, Tom Hart, John Martz, and Nathan Schreiber. Retrofit Comics
Molecules, by Michael DeForge. Space Face Books
DemonTears, by Bernie McGovern. Hic and Hoc Publications
When the most influential poet of the 20th Century penned The Waste Land in 1922, he was also dutifully employed as a clerk in a London bank. And by “bank” I don’t mean your neighborhood credit union where they raffle-off family getaways to Disney and give lollipops to cute kids, but an austere English bank with officers who wore bowler hats and secretly idolized the pre-transformation Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
T.S. Eliot worked in the foreign transactions department at Lloyd’s bank from 1917 until 1925 (from the age of 29 until he was 37). He punched in Monday through Friday (plus one Saturday a month) from 9:15 am to 5:30 pm. Like many Americans today, he only qualified for two weeks of vacation a year.
Historian Russell Kirk ,in his essential book on Eliot, Eliot and His Age (1971), writes that the publication and success of The Waste Land both changed, and didn’t change Eliot’s circumstances: “Like other poets before him, Eliot woke to find himself famous; but still he labored in the cellars of Lloyd’s bank.” And by referring to the cellar here, Kirk is not being metaphorical. The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”
And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.” Eliot eventually took a post with famed publisher Faber & Faber where he worked for decades, eventually earning the title of Director. And Eliot was no figurehead at the publishing house; this was not a “writer-in-residence” gig — Eliot had to bring his business acumen to work each day. Faber colleague Frank Morley remembered that “Eliot had a theory you were not likely to lose money on the books you didn’t publish.”
If Mr. Eliot had to have a day job, why is it that writers and poets today are so cagey about what they do to pay the bills? We all know that book reviews and smart literary novels do not put one on the road to financial independence. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of letters has so much been written, by so many, for so little compensation. And while nobody except maybe Jonathan Franzen and Bill O’Reilly (no political or emotive relationship is implied by this coupling) are making a bundle from book sales, why does it always hurt when you discover that a promising novelist is also the associate editor for Grillin’ Times USA, the official trade publication for the American Outdoor Grilling Manufacturers Association?
Putting aside literary-aligned occupations in “the industry,” like teaching in MFA programs or working in publishing, there are a lot of T.S. Eliot clerk jobs out there, but they are far from “cool” or relevant to “the writing life.” When we think of writers and day jobs, we tend to think of famous writers and their colorful and/or romantic experiences with the work world. We have William Faulkner who worked as the postmaster at the University of Mississippi where, according to legend, he wrote fiction during his work hours and pretty much ignored everyone around him. In the 1960s, the drunken bard Charles Bukowski worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, where he probably terrorized an entire generation of mail-receiving Angelenos. And then there are the dream gigs for writers, like Ernest Hemingway’s freelance work as a foreign correspondent in Paris for the Toronto Star Weekly. (Are they still hiring?)
When I learned that critic and famed literary blogger Maud Newton worked full-time as a legal writer, I was devastated. Maud Newton? The woman with 156,000 followers on Twitter, who knows every book person worth knowing, and has been on C-Span Book TV, she needs a day job? Isn’t there like a NEA grant for an irreplaceably significant literary personage?
From that point forward I decided that I would, for the sake of my own sanity, assume every writer I stumbled across was making a killing from writing. It’s easier that way. If I learn of a promising young novelist, I assume he wakes up each morning in a fabulous pre-war Manhattan apartment, owns a DeLonghi espresso machine and works on his book each day for three to six hours, depending on his mood. In the late afternoon, he strolls downstairs to the mailbox and gathers up a medley of foreign and domestic royalty checks.
On my own website, in my worryingly thin “About” section, I make no mention of the fact that I work full-time in the marketing department of a software company. Why? Maybe for the same reason that pop singers used to hide that they were married — it just doesn’t fit the image. It’s far more romantic to think of Jack Kerouac working as a railroad brakeman, zipping through the American landscape on the California Zephyr, than it is to ponder Eliot in the basement, Dr. William Carlos Williams treating a dying woman or the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (2004-2006) working as an executive at Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Company in Nebraska. That’s why I’ll stick with denial, thank you very much.
When I email this piece to Full Stop, I will picture an expansive, crowed Manhattan publishing office with dozens of staffers: kind of like the one depicted in Mad Men, but without the booze and typewriters. I’ll imagine that Editor-in-Chief Alex Shephard and Managing Editor Jesse Montgomery have just arrived in the office, Starbucks in hand, ready for a full day of well-compensated, literary-type imaginings that come with robust health insurance plans, a pension and lots of publishing junkets to Paris and London. Around noon, maybe Zadie Smith or perhaps Jeffrey Eugenides will stop by the office, and everyone will go for a lunch of pine nut salads with feta and avocado slices (no lunchtime cocktails in the 21st Century!). Maybe they’ll meet up with several young novelists who are living comfortably on their publishing advances! It would be a world where writers are well-paid and filled-to-the-brim with creative mojo; a world where they don’t have to do anything else but immerse themselves in the splendor of literature and craft and interior investigations. It would be a world so gentle, and so unrealistic, that maybe we wouldn’t need The Waste Land or The Sound and The Fury or even Shakespeare’s tragedies. Maybe it would be a universe too perfect to produce literature: a strange, unrecognizable world where Eliot couldn’t imagine J. Alfred Prufrock and those “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells,” a world where bright young men and women never grow old, and never learn to wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled.
You can find Robert Fay at robertfay.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFay1.
“Mr. Wolf said he would remember his nephew, who had written in the past about battling depression and suicidal thoughts, as a young man who ‘looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn’t necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult.’” -The New York Times
Aaron Swartz, a digital activist and Internet prodigy who helped invent RSS feeds and liberated the bulk of the JSTOR library, is in the process of being thoroughly eulogized by friends, family, journalists, and admirers in the days following his suicide. He suffered from chronic depression and died at 26.
How do we talk about the death of someone special who also battled some form of mental illness? What does it say about our society, about us?
I was struck by something Rick Perlstein wrote about Swartz in The Nation, “I remember always thinking that he always seemed too sensitive for this world we happen to live in, and I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him,” and Perlstein thankfully continues, “which also means hospitable to people like us.”
Perlstein is saying Swartz envisioned a more humane world — one that he tried to realize himself, no less — but he’s also saying that his unconventional vantage somehow doomed him from the start.
I flashed back to the book Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s epic tribute to his late friend and mentor, Delmore Schwartz. In the book, Humboldt, who stands in for Schwartz, is all memories and legacy, deceased from page one. He never stood a chance, Bellow seems to say. The narrator, a version of Bellow named Charlie Citrine, spends the book trying to decide whether to humanize, romanticize, or psychoanalyze the poet and intellectual who was dogged by mental illness.
Humboldt is both an archetype and a uniquely frustrating individual. He is Schwartz, according to several accounts. But Citrine laments that, as far as society is concerned, Humboldt is also “Edgar Allen Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter,” “Hart Crane over the side of a ship,” “John Berryman jumping from a bridge,” and every other tragic poet who gets one of those “mad-rotten-majesty pictures” in the New York Times when he “plows himself under.” It makes sense to equate experiences that are similar. Broadly speaking, Humboldt’s manic-depression is Jimi Hendrix’s classic Manic Depression; an independent, incisive friend’s transformation into a self-described “emotional toddler” is Aaron Swartz’s “streaks of pain…running through your head.”
The tragic/extraordinary archetype helps us understand the many creative, charismatic, talented people who have battled chronic depression, manic-depression (now referred to as bi-polar disorder), schizophrenia, or some other condition we label as mental illness. And yet, each of these people is oddly dehumanized when recalled as some inevitable force of nature, at once regarded as Superhuman Phenomenon and Uncontrollable Catastrophe. The message is clear: they were not meant for this world.
Bellow (via Citrine) takes issue with the conflation of wildly different personalities and intellects. Is it because he is determined to acknowledge each unstable talent as an individual, a human being? What does he find so infuriating about society’s instinct to martyr its creative and mentally unstable?
Bellow’s argument is that by martyring our ‘poets’ (which we can extend to mean ‘visionaries’), we let ourselves off the hook:
“The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering…So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, ‘If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either. Look at these good and tender and soft men, the best of us. They succumbed, poor loonies.’”
Bellow’s book does not aim to lionize a once great, tragically disturbed figure; it aims to earnestly reflect on how to be that person’s friend, both in life and in death, and how to value and continue the work that he started. This book is more about Citrine than Humboldt.
Today, the public can immediately process the death of someone like Aaron Swartz not only through a New York Times obituary, but also through the words of those who truly cared for him. Many are writing about what it was like to stand by him even when he rejected them, as well as offering a litany of the important work he was doing. We don’t have to wait for a biopic to come out ten years hence insinuating that his unfair persecution by the government contributed to his mental state; Lawrence Lessig said that, publicly and emphatically, right away. A petition has been mounted to “Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach.”
I started reading Humboldt’s Gift on a beach in August. When I got home, still dazed from the sun, I learned of the suicide of another poet and scholar, this one more lucid charm and less hermetic paranoia than the fictional Humboldt; this one my close friend.
My first thought was that I would just have to be that much better; work that much harder to bend the world to her vision.
My next thought, of course, was, “How could I have let this happen?” Because it was not inevitable.
When she was alive, I had also observed that my friend was “too sensitive for this world we happen to live in.” One night, we found a distraught cat on the street looking up at an abandoned building. We followed its gaze to three other cats in a window, comically looking down at their friend, who had apparently fallen. We couldn’t get into the building, nor was there anyone to call. My other friends and I were happy to admit that there was nothing we could do and continue on our way, but she could not be satisfied with that. She wanted to adopt the cat. When we insisted that she leave it alone, she fell into a melancholy that no one could coax her out of for the rest of the night. “Every living thing needs to be touched and loved,” she said.
I do not have a problem with comparing different people’s experiences of mental illness; that helps us to understand. I do take issue with conflating different aspects of mental illness when we are searching for a reason why someone took her own life. It may seem romantic to say she was too sensitive for this world, but it was not my friend’s deep empathy that made her kill herself (she managed to cope with the cat incident). Nor was it her position that social justice was worth fighting for. And it obviously was not her magnetic charisma, intelligence, or ability to get things done.
It was literally and specifically the chemical imbalance that is unfortunately sometimes associated with a distinctive outlook and above average abilities. I cannot speak about Swartz, but I don’t think of my friend as a martyr. She was empowered when she fought for something she believed in; she was poetic when something tangible in the world saddened her; and she was only sometimes dangerously self-destructive when she was having a depressive episode.
Depression, like other mental illnesses, often manifests as an irrational episode, rather than a permanent condition. This is important to acknowledge. Swartz described his own depression in this way in a blog post from 2007. “Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either,” he explains.
Swartz goes on to repeat the often cited figure that depression affects one in six people in the US and to acknowledge that it is a condition that can and should be treated. He writes, “Sadly, depression (like other mental illnesses, especially addiction) is not seen as ‘real’ enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer (1 in 8) or AIDS (1 in 150).”
It’s never anyone’s fault when someone commits suicide. That said, a lot of people who struggle with things we can only try to imagine also contribute things to the world we cannot afford to lose. So, I prefer not to think about the tragic/extraordinary figure as a force of nature that we cannot approach or reckon with.
Rather, as many of those who knew Swartz are doing, we need to think about how to be that person’s friend, both in life and in death. To me, that means assigning people to keep constant watch when they are vulnerable; removing them from a situation that is taking a toll on their mental health whenever possible; and never letting their mental condition belie the true value of their genius, which can only be realized when it is put into practice.
Some perfectly reasonable people do inexplicable things on the Internet. A great aunt punctuates every thought dispensed through Facebook with “wheeeeeeeeeeeeee,” a former professor conveys even mundane, emotionless missives in all caps. In parsing these phenomena, I usually put totally bizarre behavior down to a digital native vs. non-native difference — a problem with bridging the gap between the world we live in and the world we live on, a failure to grasp the realness of the net. But there are all kinds of Internet weird — over-sharing weird, smiley-face overpopulation weird, for example. We’re all always learning how to be on the Internet, our online existence a continuous give and take as we adjust to our software, and as it adjusts to us.
Back in 1995, when email was beginning to seep into day-to-day communication, a set of guidelines for “the Internet community” was published by the Intel Network Working Group. What constantly emerges throughout this early attempt at coding behavior is a reminder to users that although online communication might take place in a weird world of blinking lights and flickering screens, it is fully a part of the world we bump around and breathe in.
The working group reminds us “…people with whom you communicate are located across the globe… Give them a chance to wake up, come to work, and login before assuming the mail didn’t arrive or that they don’t care.” They suggest we “remember that the recipient is a human being whose culture, language, and humor have different points of reference from your own.”
I am not old enough to have really known life pre-Internet. There was never a time when it didn’t seem natural that I would be able to send an instantaneous e-message to someone on the other side of the planet. Maybe this “netiquette” education reveals something of the process of adjustment that my elders went through.
But even if these cognitive gaps have been bridged as virtual and actual slip into more or less comfortable symbiosis in contemporary life, the most minute changes to our various interfaces can still require significant shifts in behavior. For example, about six months ago Facebook started indicating to users the precise time a message had been clicked on and seen by a recipient, evoking the distinct feeling of being watched, with behavior that once remained safely unseen becoming fully observable.
Although the Intel guide says “Always say goodbye, or some other farewell, and wait to see a farewell from the other person before killing the session,” as chat etiquette has actually developed, it is basically acceptable to disappear mid-conversation. Chat poses a constant negotiation of presence and absence. It’s ostensibly immediate but built on the invisibility of the interlocutor. Chat is about half-presence, half-engagement. I’ll chat with four people while also attempting to write this very blog post. I’ll engage intensely for 45 seconds, and then disappear for ten minutes. I understand this as my right, and it’s what I expect from others. But it also requires a little but of illusion, and the Facebook “seen at” feature potentially disrupts this illusion.
I could be off washing dishes, buying groceries, having just accidentally left my computer open in my room, my Facebook light deceivingly green. I’m not ignoring you. Of course not. These are the comforting assumptions that hold up our online relationships. Now “seen at” forces me to adjust my behavior. Facebook chat becomes like a playground game of hot lava. Those blinking boxes must not be clicked on, the illusion of absence shattered, and presence unmistakably registered.
Facebook is watching me, but I’m keeping an eye out too. This twisted dance is life now. Back in 1995, the Intel Network Working Group thought that maybe if they just got everything all ironed out at the very beginning, interaction on the web would be simple, straightforward, and civil.
“Wait overnight to send emotional responses to messages,” they implore. If only it were that easy.
I am coming to accept that I live a life on the periphery. I am not quite in the in circle, and not cool enough for those on the outside. So I set up camp in the margins and oscillate between the two. I am aware that I am about to sound very clichéd, nonetheless I feel the need to share this with you. Cue the sighs — I have this deep fascination with, and envy of, the ways people choose to express themselves through art.
In my peripheral life, with music as my base, I have come to appreciate the top 40 as much as the underground; however, I was not always able to share the two in the same space. Luckily for me, I have seen the margins grow over the past few years. Not only are there more oscillators, but music has morphed into this third space where popular and underground lines have blurred, and there is no better place to see this than in the new energy coming out of American and South African hip-hop.
Hip-hop has always spoken to, and about, those in the margins. It was, and still is, a creative outlet, a means for artists to address society as it exists as much as an entertaining escapism. Before hip-hop purists have me at the stake, we should remember that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” shared the same space as Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Forces’ “Planet Rock.”
The past few years have ushered in a new school of hip hop artists. They are young, daring, and sometimes uncomfortably obscene. They have introduced a new sound and flow that mostly runs parallel to but occasionally dips into the underground and the commercial. Most importantly, they embrace the periphery much more than I do, and are lauded for it.
2012 has been another good year for hip hop, and one of the best, if not the best, hip hop albums of the year came from a peripheral member, Kendrick Lamar, in “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.” His popular leading single was the catchiest anti-alcoholism song yet, and we gulped it up with gusto.
Artists such as Odd Future, Danny Brown, the A$AP Mob, Schoolboy Q, and Childish Gambino have challenged hip hop norms by fusing new sounds, flow patterns, and are speaking from a not-so-popular but still impactful space. Artists such as Azealia Banks and Mykki Blanco arguably deserve their own analysis as they defy the artistry in other terms. These artists are yet to command the commercial hip-hop scene; nevertheless they have created this new genre-bending blueprint and have definitely influenced their musical counterparts, and pop culture as a whole.
I have been excited about South Africa’s urban music scene for a while. The sounds coming out of the region suggest a new direction for it. For those of us in South Africa, there is a spring in our step that I believe always existed but was suppressed by this falsely projected African story à la W.E. Du Bois’ “double consciousness.”
For years, South Africa has struggled to tell its story, especially in literature, outside the confines of Apartheid, its horrid legacy, and in recent years the crisis of HIV/AIDS. As a result, there developed an expectation that our music should lament the same woes. The music that became popular outside of South Africa was often sentimental, and in some ways carried the historical grief. More notably, the music was for an older audience — no disrespect.
We have finally broken the “World Music” barrier, injected some youthfulness, and produced a sound that is as much hip-hop, europop, dub, and dubstep as it is uniquely South African. Our music is as much Ladysmith Black Mambazo as it is Spoek Mathambo, Dirty Paraffin, Die Antwoord, and Zaki Ibrahim.
This musical rebirth is telling of the new energy coming out of South Africa. What were once stark lines of divide have blurred into this alternative space for collaboration. The new music is experimental, funky, and at times provocative, shaking us out of our comfort zones and challenging us to rethink anew. The music speaks to a group who are aware of and shaped by South Africa’s past but are not bogged down by it. They are dancing to a new drum beat and expanding this third space to meld what was once divided.
The periphery has spoken and instead of oscillating between the two worlds, they have created an alternative where the popular and underground live simultaneously. This new energy is young and exciting, and shaping pop culture in tremendous ways. It is becoming cool to not be cool, and I am comfortable with that.
The first step to a literary life is an education. For most of us (nowadays) that means college, and for those of you trying to make the transition, here is some inspiration! (It works for grad school personal statements, too, for you student-loan burdened baristas out there.)
Two days ago I was walking down Seventh and I turned around and wondered why it was that I wasn’t going to Central Park, but I knew that it was because just a week before that I had seen a movie at my friends’ house and they served us Coca Colas and we drank them with paper straws — Who even has paper straws anymore? — The kind with stripes? But we had them as we ate the same popcorn that you’d normally have at a theater and I thought how great it would be to always be with people who thought about drinking out of paper straws as James Dean rides a motorcycle down a lonely highway into the city where he could hang out with me, and maybe let me wear his leather jacket (if you wait for just a second, I will tell you about college) and it brings to mind the want/need dichotomy (I need the jacket? I want James Dean). Will piling on books bring me closer to thought and will that bring me closer to you? Let me in to your college or I will pound on the gates, yelling “Let me in!” until they open. C’est la vie.
The teacher stands in front of the students. Fluorescent lights flicker. They cast off light that is gray and green. The teacher says something. The students write down what the teacher says. They write his words into spiral bound notebooks. The notebooks are on their desks. Their desks are in rows. I sit in one of these desks in a row. I do not hope for change. The bell rings. It is shrill. I walk to the meeting of the National Honors Society. I am the parliamentarian. I am organizing a blood drive.
I will write my essay myself. For my parents and my tutor have too much on their hands, with the photocopying of my resume, the assignment of standardized scores; they must recruit teachers to write recommendations. How wonderful is it to speak of oneself! At least, to think, with the grass just ceasing it’s growth and the last dead rustlings outside, that one fall will replace another fall and soon I will be at University! I think now, and I say I think because of course, though I have spoken to my cousins — Who are all doing quite well in school! — I do not know what exact pleasures await me, but I do know that a crispness, of mind, yes! And also of the air, of watching the birds head south again above me as I carry around my texts, that there will be a home for me among my classmates. My own capabilities being what they are, sometimes limited and sometimes less-so, that (and I do pose this question of limits to my parents, they see none, they claim) success awaits me no matter what it is I choose to do. It is with pleasure, then, that I offer myself to your institution.
I sit, fingers hovered over the slightly raised letters of the keyboard. As I type I feel my heart quicken with desire — I want to go to college. I see the professors, looming as they instruct me, their warm breath filling the classroom with knowledge. Their wise words instructing me. One by one, they will break my preconceived notions, tearing me to pieces (intellectually). Each revelation will torture me. “Could I have once thought this?” I will think, no. Every idea will bind me, until all that was left of my old self is a puddle of clay at their feet, ready to be molded by their strong hands as their fingers piece me together, and I am formed again in their image.
Nick looked at the river. It was moving quickly. He would not leave in the fall. (Please withdraw my application. There is nothing you can teach me. Regards, E. Hemingway).