12 Winters Blog

“Honored by the Error”: The Literary Friendship of Gass and Gaddis

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 21, 2022

The following paper was presented at the William Gaddis Centenary Conference, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, October 20-22, 2022. It was part of the opening panel on Friday, Oct. 21, “Historical Gaddis & Literary Gaddis.” I had the honor of introducing the keynote speaker, Steven Moore. See the end of this post for my introductory remarks.

Anyone who knows William Gaddis or William Gass more than just a little likely knows of their long friendship. They first met at the National Book Award ceremony April 21, 1976—Gass being one of the judges that gave the prize to J R—and when Gaddis was near death in 1998 Bill Gass was one of the last people he wanted to speak to. Unfortunately Gass received the message too garbled and too late, and that final telephone conversation never took place. Throughout their more than twenty-year friendship, they supported each other’s work in myriad ways, both publicly and privately, and they shared in the amusement of people confusing them due to their sound-alike names and similar ambitions when it came to the written word.

William Gaddis, 1922-1998

I’m ashamed to admit that I was nearly 40 when I learned of both writers practically simultaneously, which I hope indicts the shortcomings of the U.S.’s literary culture more severely than it does my own. What I mean is, I read Gass’s brilliant introduction to The Recognitions before embarking on my maiden voyage into Gaddis’s now-mythical inaugural novel. Indeed, Gass’s introduction is probably almost as well known as the novel itself, and quite possibly more frequently read than the masterpiece it precedes in the Penguin Classics edition. The intro took on a life of its own, being reprinted in various iterations and quoted countless times. Unlike the book it introduces, the piece’s brilliance was recognized (sorry) from the start. Michael Millman, senior editor at Viking Penguin, wrote to Gass on January 21, 1993: “Would you have any objections to our approaching The New York Times Book Review [sic] about running your introduction? In my experience . . . I can’t remember another time when we had an essay of this caliber as an introduction to one of our volumes. . . .”

William H. Gass, 1924-2017

As we recall, Gass begins the piece by talking about the enigmas and confusions surrounding William Gaddis. Writes Gass, “Even The New York Times, at one low point, attributed his third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, to that self-same and similarly sounding person. Yes, perhaps William Gaddis is not B. Traven after all, or J.D. Salinger, Ambrose Bierce, or Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps he is me” (179). What follows is where I borrowed for this paper’s title: “When I was congratulated,” continues Gass, “I was always gracious. When I was falsely credited, I was honored by the error.” In his tribute to Gaddis, in 1999, Gass said that he “could enjoy these mistakes, since Gaddis seemed equally amused” (204).

It’s difficult to say when the two writers became aware of each other’s work. They were close contemporaries. Gaddis was born in 1922, Gass in ’24. The Recognitions came out in 1955, the same decade that Gass’s earliest fiction began to appear (the literary journal Accent, published by University of Illinois-Urbana’s English Department, co-edited by Stanley Elkin, included three pieces by Gass in its Winter 1958 number). Gass’s writing began to appear here and there in this journal or that (unlikely to be on Gaddis’s radar), but his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, came out in 1966, quickly followed by In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (a collection of novellas and stories) and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (a wildly experimental novella), both in 1968, and Fiction and the Figures of Life (a collection of essays, including essays on the writer’s craft), in 1970. The essays were well regarded by Gass’s peers. We know, for example, that Cormac McCarthy acquired a copy of the collection while he was writing Child of God, published in ’73 (King 31).

It seems fair to assert, then, that by the ’70s both Gaddis and Gass had read one another, and apparently approvingly. In a Gaddis letter dated March 17, 1976, having to do with J R’s National Book Award nomination, he references Gass, writing to his second wife Judith, “But if the book selections are odd, the judges are even odder; a writer, a critic, and a complete idiot: Wm Gass, Mary McCarthy, and Maurice Dolbier” (Letters 310). Compared to the epithet he uses for Dolbier, a novelist among other things, too, the neutrality of “a writer” almost sounds like praise. That same year, 1976, Gass talks about Gaddis in his “Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review, specifically in response to Thomas LeClair’s question “Who are some living novelists you respect?” Gaddis makes the list. Gass says he admires Gaddis for the same reasons he admires John Barth: “What I like . . . is the unifying squeeze which that great intellectual grasp of his gives to his work, and the combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic pride and total control. I really admire a master” (37). Gass underscores Gaddis’s masterful control of the narrative apparatuses in his books.

Gass read his peers’ work and commented on it regularly, in interviews, guest lectures, critical articles, and book reviews. Gaddis, on the other hand, was not inclined to read his contemporaries. Steven Moore writes that “[h]e seemed to have little interest in the novels of those contemporaries with whom he is most often associated,” including Barth, Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, John Hawkes, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon. “William H. Gass was an exception,” says Moore, “whom he admired both personally and professionally” (William Gaddis 13). At the tribute to her father in 1999, Sarah Gaddis said, “William Gass was important to Gaddis. . . . He held Gass in the highest esteem for his work, and no other writer made him feel so understood” (150-151). This respect for Gass and his opinions, literary and otherwise, is made clear by Gaddis’s frequently quoting or paraphrasing his friend in letters to others over the years (e.g. see Letters pp. 423, 459, 464, 477 and 481); and his admiration for Gass’s abilities as a writer is put plainly in an April 13, 1994, letter to Michael Silverblatt, host of the literary radio program Bookworm: “Gass is for me our foremost writer, a magician with the language” (Letters 507).

Similarly, Gass’s admiration of Gaddis had a great deal to do with his poetic use of language. In a 1984 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman, Gass said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t have a chance” (91). In Gass’s introduction to The Recognitions he writes about the poetry of both that book and J R, saying: “. . . J R was as different from the earlier novel as Joyce from James. But do not put down what you have to go to J R yet, even if it is almost as musical as Finnegans Wake. . . . [W]e must always listen to the language; it is our first sign of the presence of a master’s hand; and when we do that, when we listen, it is because we have first pronounced the words and performed the text, so when we listen, we hear, hear ourselves singing the saying . . .” (184).

After their meeting at the National Book Award ceremony, the two writers became fast friends. The following year they were slated to be at a writers’ conference in Sarasota, Florida, and Gaddis’s participation was somewhat contingent on Gass’s being there, also. In a March 18 letter to Judith, Gaddis laments that other writers had canceled or declined—namely Barth, Susan Sontag, and Donald Barthelme—and says that “if Gass abruptly disappears I may be tempted to do the same.” Gaddis explains that he was looking forward to “hav[ing] a good & encouraging talk with William Gass [who is] coming with his wife [Mary].” Otherwise Gaddis had been “shying from readings and panels” because they interfered with his writing process. He notes that “Gass admires me because I’ve been able to stay out (till now), I admire him because he separates it all clearly & relaxedly in his head” (Letters 319). Later that year, Gaddis was scheduled to appear at an event closer to home, in Stonington, New York, for which—he says in a July 7, 1977, letter to Joy Williams and Rust Hills—he was “girding his loins.” Part of his trepidation was that “it won’t have Gass” (321).

Reading their personal correspondence, filled with warm regards and jokes that each man knows will land because of their kindred kinds of humor, it is obvious how much they genuinely liked each other. An excellent example of this tone appears in a letter to Gass dated August 25, 1980, in which Gaddis alludes to a previous trip to Washington University in St. Louis. Gaddis begins, “Dear Bill. Attending a stylish Hamptons opening of a very good painter [Polly Kraft] out here.” He believes that Gass will appreciate her art and has enclosed some slides of her paintings. He says, “I inveigled them from her on grounds of your sterling generous & rowdy character & Mary’s good looks.” Then, “I write this on the assumption that you are still alive, after day after day reports of 114° in St. Louis (my recollection being -10°)” (Letters 358). Gaddis had been in St. Louis in February 1979 for a three-week teaching session at Wash U. A few months beforehand (October 14, 1978) he wrote to his daughter Sarah about receiving “a letter from Washington Univ in St. Louis (where Bill Gass is)” with the teaching proposal. The letter was from Stanley Elkin, a writer who is “marvelous.” Gaddis says that he “accepted immediately . . . mostly for the prospect of rowdy time with Elkin & Gass & I’m really looking forward to it. I think we’ve all 3 got similar views on what good writing’s about plus highly compatible senses of humor” (Letters 341). He concludes the August 25, 1980, letter by encouraging Gass and his wife to visit him on Long Island when they can. It is an open invitation that Gaddis expresses in several letters.

Their relationship was not just about mutual admiration and sharing “rowdy” times together. They also did what they could to advance each other’s careers and reputations. Gass’s efforts on Gaddis’s behalf began with his judgment of J R for the National Book Award and continued for the next two decades. It included his writing the introduction for the Penguin edition of The Recognitions, and his being instrumental in bringing Gaddis to St. Louis to teach, and then again, in 1994, to contribute to a symposium on “The Writer and Religion.” What is more, Gass wrote a recommendation that contributed to Gaddis’s being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981. Gaddis wrote to him (April 12), “Do you KNOW what joy (read money, prestige, vainglory) your kind effort has contributed to this modest household?” (Letters 361). Gaddis, for his part, appeared to always have Gass’s best interests at heart. In the 1980 letter in which he references St. Louis’s harsh weather, he also writes that he “escaped Knopf for Viking (a move I’d encourage you in . . . enthusiastic leaves-you-alone . . .)”; and he recommends a specific editor at Viking he thinks Gass would like (Letters 358). In 1991 and ’92 Gass more or less sequestered himself at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, to complete, at long last, his novel The Tunnel, which he’d been writing since 1966. Gaddis wrote to him at his Santa Monica address to offer some comic relief (composing much of the letter in Huck Finn-esque dialect), as well as encouragement and support. He says, “[I]t would be something if we both finished these god dam books this same year 1992 . . .” (“Letter [January?] 1992”). Gaddis, presumably, is referring to A Frolic of His Own, published in 1994. Gaddis informs Gass that his daughter Sarah is soon to arrive in California also and closes by saying “let me know if theres [sic] anything I can do for you here.”

If one were to do a Venn diagram (so popular these days) of the two writers’ influences, there would of course be notable common ground. Both had a taste for some Medieval authors as well as Elizabethans, especially Donne and Shakespeare (Gaddis’s favorite play was As You Like It, while Gass counted Antony and Cleopatra as one of his “Fifty Literary Pillars” [Moore 11; Gass 36]). Contemporary European authors were among each man’s favorites, perhaps most notably Rilke, who was Gass’s literary lodestar. They had their differences too, however. Gaddis claimed to have read little of James Joyce, in spite of the critics who were convinced of the Irish writer’s influence; whereas Gass counted Ulysses and Finnegans Wake among his “pillars” and alluded to Joyce frequently in his nonfiction. Perhaps the most significant disagreement centered around Russian novelists, particularly Dostoevsky, whose place for Gaddis, says Steven Moore, was “paramount” (10).

This difference of opinion was comically and touchingly captured by Gass in his piece about the two writers’ participation in a trip to Soviet Russia in 1985, which included frigid visits to landmarks associated with Dostoevsky and especially his writing of Crime and Punishment. Gass was in the mood to be flippant and wanted Gaddis to be too. Writes Gass, “Gaddis’s love for the Russian novel—and for the predictable Russians at that—had surprised me, though in hindsight it shouldn’t have, if I’d kept The Recognitions fully in front of me . . .” (94). As such, Gaddis didn’t “relish [Gass’s] popping off” during the tour, and Gass’s wife Mary worked to keep his tongue in check by squeezing his arm when she knew he was about to say something that could prove regrettable. Gass continues, “I could see [Gaddis’s] youthful love glowing plainly when our group visited Dostoyevsky’s apartment. The sight of the master’s desk actually wet Willy’s eyes. I envied him. When my eyes moistened, it was only for Bette Davis, and such a shallow show of weakness made me angry with my soul” (196-97).

Gass concluded his tribute to his friend by recounting Gaddis’s arrival at a celebration in his honor in Cologne, Germany: “Gaddis slowly emerged into a starfall of flashbulbs worthy of the Academy Awards, the popping of a hundred corks” (205). I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I think it’s a swell idea. In fact, I like to imagine a Literary Great Beyond, a kind of Valhalla for writers instead of warriors. And if such a place did exist, I would hope that the great friends, Gaddis and Gass, were both greeted as novelist titans just as Gaddis was on that glorious Teutonic night.

Works Cited

Gaddis, Sarah. “A Note of Gratitude.” Conjunctions 33, 1999, pp. 149-51.

Gaddis, William. Letter to William H. Gass. [January?] 1992. Gass Papers, Washington University in St. Louis.

——. The Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.

Gass, William H. A Temple of Texts. Dalkey Archive Press, 2007.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author, The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 17-38.

Millman, Michael. Letter to William H. Gass. 21 Jan. 1993. Gass Papers, Washington University in St. Louis.

Moore, Steven. William Gaddis: Expanded Edition, Bloomsbury, 2015.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Keynote Introduction of Steven Moore

Introducing Steven Moore (foreground) at Holmes Lounge, Washington University, St. Louis, as part of the William Gaddis Centenary Conference. (Photo: Mary Henderson Gass)

I don’t recall the context, but some twenty years ago I said “Everything I know about William Gaddis I learned from Steven Moore.” For the past few weeks, in anticipation of this conference, I’ve been getting back into a William Gaddis state of mind, and it occurred to me that the statement is still true. Everything I know about William Gaddis I learned from Steven Moore. Like so many of us, I first encountered Steven’s scholarship while grappling with The Recognitions. His Reader’s Guide, first published in 1982, was an invaluable lifeline. A revised edition appeared in 1995, and an edition translated into German was brought out in 1998. As my own interests were sparked by Gaddis’s work, Steven continued to be my guide, especially his critical biography of Gaddis and his books, simply titled William Gaddis—both the 1989 edition, and the expanded edition of 2015. As if being the founder and leading voice of William Gaddis studies wasn’t enough, Steven has produced scholarship in an impressively diverse range of areas; perhaps most notable are his two volumes of The Novel, An Alternative History, the latter of which won the Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism in 2013. However, one of the more obscure credits on his bibliography is the most personally meaningful to me. In 2012 I was finalizing my first academic book for publication—a postmodern take on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf—and my publisher was hoping I could land a scholar of note to write the book’s foreword. I was hoping that too. A few years earlier I’d had one brief exchange of emails with Steven. He’d actually contacted me for assistance with a Gaddis project (I think he was editing the letters). In my recollection I was little to no help. However, that one exchange encouraged me to reach out to Steven about writing the foreword. To my surprise, he agreed to do it. I sent him the manuscript and in short order he’d written a wonderfully insightful, not to mention generous, opening for the monograph. My only concern was reading reviews that would say something like “What a terrific foreword—it’s too bad Steven Moore couldn’t have written the whole book.” Luckily for us all, Steven has written several whole books, and he’s not done yet. This coming spring, Zerogram Press will release his memoir Dalkey Days about his time with the legendary Dalkey Archive Press from 1987-96. We have to wait a bit for the book, but our time of waiting to hear this keynote address—on “New Directions for Gaddis Scholarship”—is over. Please help me welcome Steven Moore.

Joyce’s Ulysses as a Catalog of Narrative Techniques for MFA Candidates

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 22, 2022

(The following paper was presented at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Feb. 26, 2022, moderated by Yasminda Choate, Seminole State College.)

I must say regarding the title of this talk: what it lacks in cleverness it at least makes up for in near-childlike self-explanation. I’m going to discuss why focusing an entire course on a single daunting text like Ulysses is worthwhile, at least in the setting of an MFA program; and I’m going to offer some specific suggestions for reading focuses and writing assignments. (It’s not one of those papers you run into at conferences sometimes, a paper that purports to be about how waxed fruit influenced the writing style of Gertrude Stein, and ten minutes in the presenter hasn’t yet mentioned waxed fruit, Gertrude Stein, or writing style, or, for that matter, writing.)

First some further context: I teach in an MFA in Writing program that has both on-campus and online courses of the two traditional varieties: workshop and literature. I teach online literature courses exclusively. Nevertheless, I do think this course, or this kind of course, could work just as well in-person. I have the luxury of designing my own courses. Maybe three years ago, I decided to pitch a course with a singular focus: James Joyce’s legendarily difficult novel Ulysses. My thinking was that it would be a great text for discussing a wide array of narrative techniques, all gathered together in one unruly place. Also, for people planning to be fiction writers (meaning probably novelists) and perhaps wanting to be college teachers themselves, being familiar with the book that many consider the greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century, if not of all time, would be beneficial—if for no other reason than to avoid embarrassment at some future department mixer.

I’ve now taught the course several times (four?), and it’s scheduled again for this summer. From my perspective it’s been a success, and also a blast to teach. Student evaluations support my perspective. (Pro tip: I call the course “Joyce’s Ulysses” to try to avoid confusion; nevertheless, I do get the occasional student hoping to take a deep dive into Homer—which would also be a great course.) The course attracts students with a variety of motives, but a common one is that they’ve tried reading Ulysses before—and have had to limp, defeated, from the field of battle (a nod to Ulysses’ first publishers, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson). Or, often, it sat on a shelf, untouched, glaring arrogantly at its owner for years. Now, with some guidance and the motivation of a grade hanging in the balance, they hope to slay the beast, or at least land a scratch.

I can relate. I’m among those who tried and failed a few times to read Ulysses before finally getting through the text in its entirety. So as a recovering Ulysses failure, I can speak to the students on their own level of self-loathing, and offer them the sort of encouragement they need to not drop the course after seeing the reading requirements. When I started teaching Ulysses we had eleven-week sessions; then the program was revised to offer eight-week sessions. The book was a bear to teach in eleven weeks, so eight is extra challenging. Yet doable.

We look at two episodes per week, and tackle an inhumane amount of material the penultimate week, episodes 16, 17, and 18; that is, Part III, “Eumaeus,” “Ithaca,” and “Penelope,” some 150 pages—which isn’t unusual in a typical grad course, but it’s 150 pages of Ulysses, capped off by Molly Bloom’s nearly punctuation-free, stream-of-consciousness monologue. To accommodate the move from eleven weeks to eight weeks, I basically cut Part I, the three opening episodes that focus on Stephen Dedalus, and begin in earnest with Leopold Bloom starting his day in Episode 4, “Calypso.” I provide a summary of those opening episodes and encourage students to read them even though they aren’t required per se.

I stress—again and again—that our purpose is not to unlock all the literary mysteries of the novel. Joyce specialists (of which I am decidedly not one) devote whole careers to the book, or only individual episodes. Rather, we want to achieve a basic understanding of what happens in the book, yes, but more importantly we want to lift the hood and see what Joyce was up to in individual episodes, and in the structure of the novel as a whole. In other words, we’re reading the novel as practicing writers, not as literary scholars. I hope to spark an interest in Joyce so that later in life students may feel warm and fuzzy enough about Ulysses to return to it, and to engage with other Joyce texts. Typically I do have a few students who’ve been bitten by the Joyce bug by the end of the session, and they ask for recommendations about where to go next, unaided. Finnegans Wake?, they sometimes ask. God no. I generally recommend Dubliners, and even more specifically “The Dead,” which is available in stand-alone critical editions if a reader is so inclined.

Another piece of advice I offer at the outset: The novel features a cast of thousands, and trying to synthesize all of the characters into your gray matter for easy recall later is probably one of the reading habits that leads to so many normally successful readers giving up in a hailstorm of self-condemnation. Instead, I say, there are just three main characters—Stephen, Bloom, and Molly—so keep an eye out for them. As long as you have a sense of what they do in the novel, from episode to episode, until you reach the Promised Land of “Yes” at the end of 18, then you’re doing just fine.

(We do get into some literary analysis, and one of the aspects we talk about is the novel’s unusually encyclopedic nature, and that Joyce didn’t intend, probably, for it to be read like a typical novel. There’s just too much data to try to hold in one’s head from start to finish. I will admit that in spite of reading the novel from stem to stern at least twice, and some sections multiple times, and even having published about it, plus taught it multiple times, it’s not uncommon for me to read an article or hear a presentation on the novel, and think, “That happens in Ulysses? Really? That sounds interesting.”)

Students are required to write weekly discussion posts based on the episodes, and I give them something concrete to glom onto. I share with them the famous Ulysses schemas, the Gilbert and the Linati, and ask them to write about how two of the elements operate in the week’s readings. Again, I don’t pretend that this an approach that will help them penetrate to the core of the novel’s meaning. Rather, as writers we’re looking at ways that Joyce tried to unify eighteen episodes, or chapters, that use increasingly experimental techniques of storytelling and shift point of view frequently. The schemas are one method, as are the running parallels with Homer’s Odyssey (which are often hard to spot even when one knows to look for them). Another unifying element is Joyce’s attention to chronology, with the narrative unfolding in more or less accurate time over 24 hours. Finally, there is Joyce’s attention to the point of obsession regarding the geography of Dublin in June 1904.

The novel is famous for its stream-of-consciousness narration, which nowadays isn’t exactly revolutionary. Joyce is, however, a master of the technique so a closer examination of almost any episode can lead to a fruitful discussion of how it’s working in detail. “Penelope,” of course, is the example par excellence of interior monologue. To mimic the randomness of one’s thought process, Joyce uses almost no punctuation for more than 30 pages, a section broken into only eight “sentences.” Nevertheless, we can isolate specific thoughts and images. How does Joyce manage it, without the traditional use of punctuation?

Every episode offers a multitude of techniques that could be of value to fiction writers, but in the interest of time here are some approaches that stand out to me.

Episode 4, “Calypso.” The opening three episodes, focused on Stephen Dedalus, establish a realistic chronological approach in the novel, from the start of Stephen’s day at the Martello tower to his meeting with Mr. Deasy to his walk along the strand. Then, abruptly, in this fourth episode time is reset to around 8:00 as we’re introduced to Leopold Bloom. From then on time in the novel unfolds consistently. The lesson: Don’t be afraid to break your own rules.

Episode 6, “Hades.” Bloom takes a carriage ride with three men who are also attending Paddy Dignam’s funeral. Bloom is both part of the group and yet set apart from his companions because of his Jewish heritage and being seen as a quasi-foreigner. This feeling, of being alone in a crowd, is exquisitely human and has obviously been explored by writers and artists throughout history, but no one does it better than Joyce in this iconic episode. The lesson: How to create a character who is both accepted into a social circle while simultaneously being excluded from it.

Episode 7, “Aeolus.” Bloom visits the Freeman newspaper offices, where he has a series of encounters, including with Stephen for the first time in the novel. This episode initiates Joyce’s more overtly experimental techniques as he breaks up the narrative with frequent headline-like insertions throughout. These headlines were a relatively late addition to the episode as it was published without them in The Little Review. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to play with narrative techniques and step from behind the curtain as the storyteller.

Episode 9, “Scylla and Charybdis.” Here Stephen expounds on his theory regarding Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the National Library with a group of fellow literati. His theory has been alluded to previously in the novel. Intertextuality—bringing other texts to bear on the narrative’s primary text—happens frequently in Ulysses. Indeed, Homer’s Odyssey serving as a structural apparatus is itself intertextual. But the use of Hamlet as a well-known literary figure (perhaps the best-known literary figure) to amplify the novel’s own concerns about parent-child relationships, among other issues, is worthy of careful study. Lesson: Bring other texts into conversation with your own narrative.

Episode 10, “Wandering Rocks.” In this scene our attention wanders between a host of different characters and objects. Very little happens in terms of advancing the novel’s plot, but Joyce brings together many of the characters and items of significance we’ve already encountered. Many see this odd episode—with its cinematically sweeping point of view—as a way to tie the earlier (more conventional) chapters of the novel to the later (more experimental) chapters. Lesson: Chapters can have principal objectives other than to advance the plot or evolve characterization; they can serve more purely artistic functions.

Episode 12, “Cyclops.” We join Bloom in Barney Kiernan’s pub, but from the point of view of a new anonymous, first-person narrator. Besides the switch in POV, Joyce also plays with various prose styles, including Irish mythological, legalistic, journalistic, and biblical. This episode, then, breaks two cardinal rules young writers often learn in workshop: to be consistent when it comes to (1) point of view and (2) voice. Without warning, Joyce switches from third- to first-person, and then injects some thirty different prose styles into the telling. Lesson: Know the rules so that you can break them; or, the only rule when it comes to telling a compelling story is that there are no rules.

Episode 14, “Oxen of the Sun.” Joyce takes the technique of Episode 12—the use of multiple prose styles—and goes even further by emulating the evolution of the English language, from its Latin/Germanic roots to Anglo-Saxon to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Defoe to Lamb, and many more. The plot advances at the Holles Street maternity hospital, but it does so via this history of the stages of the English language. Lesson: Have fun. Don’t be afraid to toy with voices and styles within the same piece.

Episode 15, “Circe.” We find ourselves in Nighttown, Dublin’s red-light district, but now the storytelling mode is dramatic. The episode unfolds as a play script, complete with character names and stage directions. The lesson: Go ahead. Begin in one mode and switch to another; then back again, or whatever you feel like doing.

Episode 17, “Ithaca.” Bloom and Stephen walk to Bloom’s residence, an important plot advancement, especially in light of the novel’s Odyssey subtext, but now it’s told via a series questions and answers, resembling, most say, either catechism or Socratic dialogue. Lesson: Why the heck not?

And like Bloom, we return to Episode 18 and No. 7 Eccles Street.

A quick word or two on other kinds of writing assignments one might assign, besides the weekly posts tied to the schemas. For their final project, I have students try their hand at one or more experimental techniques they’ve encountered in the book, creating their own original scene. It’s a two-part assignment. There’s the creative writing itself; then there’s an analytical element in which they identify the episodes and techniques they used as inspiration, quoting and citing from the novel as needed.

In the original eleven-week version of the course, I attempted an ambitious midterm paper. I had students access an episode as it first appeared in either The Little Review or The Egoist (using the Modernist Journals Project online), and compare it to the 1922 book version, identifying Joyce’s revisions and speculating as to why Joyce may have made the changes (almost always additions) that he did. That is, what did he gain through revision? I think it’s a terrific assignment, but, as I say, ambitious, and students were not terribly successful with it. It is perhaps too labor intensive when up against the amount of reading students have to do just to keep pace with the syllabus. So when we went to eight-week sessions, I dropped the assignment. My main purpose was to emphasize the importance of revision and how much care Joyce took in revising his work. I think it’s a potentially fruitful exercise, and maybe given a longer time frame and the right students, it could be a reasonable assignment. (By the way, I did the activity myself, based on Episode 9, “Scylla and Charybdis,” and the brief article was published at Academia Letters—if you want to see an example of what I have in mind with the assignment.)

It’s especially interesting to be teaching Ulysses during its centenary year—an event that will add even more resources from which one might draw (not that there was a shortage previously). If you teach in the right circumstances, I encourage you to consider a course on Ulysses. Or if not that large, loose, baggy monster, maybe another long, challenging text. I’ve thought about War and Peace, but in eight weeks that would be quite a battle. I welcome suggestions.  

Preface to ‘Mrs Saville’–2021 Reboot

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 15, 2021

My novel Mrs Saville was published in 2018, although it had begun to appear two years earlier in serialized installments at Strands Lit Sphere. It was important to me that the book come out in 2018, the bicentennial year of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, because, as the cover makes plain, Mrs Saville is “a novel that begins where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ends.”

I thought it was appropriate homage to the novel, and the author, that inspired my sequel; and I hoped it would be a statement readers would find intriguing. In retrospect, tying Mrs Saville so overtly to Mary Shelley’s classic may have been a marketing misstep. Mrs Saville has been languishing without readers for going on three years — a situation I hope to ease in 2021.

I’ve been teaching Frankenstein for more than twenty years, and I always begin our study by noting that students probably think they know the basic story already, but in fact what they know is a greatly simplified misrepresentation of what Mary Shelley wrote as a profoundly depressed, yet highly motivated, as well as eclectically educated, teenager. The novel was published anonymously in January 1818. In spite of a small initial press run, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus caused an immediate stir among readers and reviewers alike.

Several editions soon followed, as did stage productions that proved highly profitable (not to Mary, however, as modern copyright laws did not yet exist). Beginning with the stage adaptations and continuing with screen adaptations almost the moment cinema was invented (Thomas Edison’s film company produced the first Frankenstein movie, a silent film, in 1910), the novel was reduced to a simplistic horror story about a mute monster terrorizing his creator and anyone unlucky enough to encounter him.

This basic narrative was solidified in the cultural psyche with director James Whales’ wildly popular 1931 movie Frankenstein, and Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the creature (bolts in his neck and all) became emblematic of Mary Shelley’s novel, even though the movie and the monster have little to do with what she created on the page. In the film, Karloff’s creature is an inarticulate fiend, unable to control his emotions and his strength.

The Whales film, like the adaptations that came before and the majority to follow, misrepresented Frankenstein, the novel, as a story about a frightening, out-of-control monster. So, perhaps, my tying Mrs Saville directly to the novel may encourage would-be readers to think my book is just the further exploits of a monster running amok. Such an assumption about Mrs Saville would be as far from the truth as the stage and film adaptations have been from Mary Shelley’s original.

Readers who open the pages of Frankenstein soon find out just how watered-down the story has become in the popular imagination. Scholar Susan J. Wolfson covers the misrepresentation well in her introduction to the Longman Cultural Edition of the 1818 text. Frankenstein is

a vibrant intersection of interlocking cultural concerns: the claims of humanity against scientific exploration; the relationship between ‘monsters’ and their creators; the questionable judgments by which physical difference is termed monstrous; the responsibility of society for the violent behavior of those to whom it refuses care, compassion, even basic decency; the relationships between men and women, and parents and children (and the symbolic version in care-givers and care-receivers); and the psychological dynamics of repression, doubling, and alter egos.

Wolfson’s description accurately represents the novel for which I wrote a sequel. A lot is going on in Frankenstein, and (I like to believe) a lot is going on in Mrs Saville. That said, I don’t want to make my novel out to be a dry, introspective treatise. Far from it. Nor was Mary Shelley’s. Regarding her book’s genesis, she tells us in the introduction to the novel’s 1831 edition:

I busied myself to think of a story; . . . One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror–one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.

In writing Mrs Saville, similar goals were foremost in my mind as well. Otherwise, my sequel would be unworthy of its connection to Frankenstein, a book I have loved nearly all of my adult life.

When a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wrote that Mrs Saville is “a fantastically chilling psychodrama intelligently woven into literary history,” I felt that I had hit my mark. Moreover, in an unsolicited review, the novelist Spenser Stephens said of the book: “The author fits the pieces together with a seamless and terrifying logic. He shows a nuanced understanding of the darkness that lives within us all.”

I was gratified by these early assessments, and further gratified when Mrs Saville began to receive some critical distinctions. It was a quarterfinalist for the ScreenCraft Cinematic Novel Award in 2018, and the same year the novel was a finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award. Then in 2020 Mrs Saville won the Manhattan Book Award in the category of literary fiction.

I felt that the accolades, modest though they be, vindicated the artistic risks I took with the novel. I wanted Mrs Saville to seem an artifact of the same time period and the same place as its impetus; that is, London at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I tried to achieve this effect primarily through two means. Like Mary Shelley’s original, I used an epistolary structure (a novel told via a series of letters). I also imagined Margaret Saville, my narrator, as a woman similar to Shelley in that she was largely self-educated via her own voracious reading.

My novel also needed to be in British English, as opposed to American English, meaning spellings, expressions, punctuation style, syntax, and so forth in the manner that Mary Shelley used in the early 1800s. I found that I had difficulty composing while keeping in mind British English’s differences from modern American English, so I decided to write the first drafts as I was accustomed to writing; then to convert my Americanisms into nineteenth-century British vernacular in the processes of revising and editing. I found, then, that the unfamiliar style didn’t impede my creativity.

In spite of the work I’d put into writing Mrs Saville, and its good reviews and modest accomplishments, finding readers for the book has proven a considerable challenge. I wasn’t able to capitalize on its winning the Manhattan Book Award to any great extent because I was notified of the prize in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was peaking again. Furious debates were raging everywhere about opening up businesses, etc., and whether or not schools should open in August. Everyone, including me, was distracted by weightier matters than a novel’s winning a prize.

I promoted Mrs Saville on social media, and I purchased advertisements here and there (spending more money than I care to recall . . . in the thousands of dollars), but none of it accomplished much as far as attracting readers. Nearly every writer is facing this challenge. It is estimated that more than 3 million books are published each year, and yet only a handful of authors account for the vast majority of books sales, according to EPJ Data Science.

Writers trying to build a readership face a classic catch-22: Librarians and bookstore managers are reluctant to devote shelf space to an author that readers don’t recognize; and readers don’t recognize these authors because librarians and bookstore managers are reluctant to devote shelf space to them.

So, instead of relying on social media and costly advertising, for this promotional reboot I’m targeting book clubs in hopes of getting Mrs Saville directly into the hands of readers. From the start, however, there’s an obstacle. Book clubbers don’t tend to buy books, preferring to borrow them from libraries — therefore, if libraries haven’t acquired your title, book clubs will most likely pass.

To overcome this obstacle, I’m happy to send interested book clubs copies of Mrs Saville. I’d much rather spend money on getting my books out into the world, as opposed to buying a few meager inches of expensive and inconsequential advertising space. Moreover, I’ll be happy to speak with groups, in person or via Skype or Zoom, etc. I’m happy to do readings and interviews — essentially anything to connect with potential readers.

Here is the novel’s description:

Margaret Saville’s husband has been away on business for weeks and has stopped replying to her letters. Her brother, Robert Walton, has suddenly returned after three years at sea, having barely survived his exploratory voyage to the northern pole. She still grieves the death of her youngest child as she does her best to raise her surviving children, Felix and Agatha. The depth of her brother’s trauma becomes clear, so that she must add his health and sanity to her list of cares. A bright spot seems to be a new friendship with a young woman who has just returned to England from the Continent, but Margaret soon discovers that her friend, Mary Shelley, has difficulties of her own, including an eccentric poet husband, Percy, and a book she is struggling to write. Margaret’s story unfolds in a series of letters to her absent husband, desperate for him to return or at least to acknowledge her epistles and confirm that he is well. She is lonely, grief-stricken and afraid, yet in these darkest of times a spirit of independence begins to awaken. ‘Mrs Saville’ begins where Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ ends. The paperback edition includes the short story “A Wintering Place” and an Afterword by the author.

It’s important to note that even though Mrs Saville is a sequel to Frankenstein, it’s not necessary to have read Frankenstein in order to understand and (I trust) enjoy my novel.

Anyone interested in talking with me about using Mrs Saville for their book club or another literary function, please contact me through my website — tedmorrissey.com — or email me, jtedmorrissey [at] gmail [dot] com.

I’ve always written, and I’ve always written in the same state as most writers — largely without readers. I will always write, but some readers would be nice.

Preface to ‘First Kings and Other Stories’

Posted in December 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 24, 2020

I am delighted that Wordrunner eChapbooks has brought out First Kings and Other Stories, which functions on multiple levels. It is, as the title implies, a collection of stand-alone stories. The stories are interconnected, though, and work together as an independent novella. They also represent a work in progress–a novel that takes place over a 24-hour period in 1907 (as I am envisioning it now).

This larger work in progress is a further evolution of a concept I experimented with in my novel Crowsong for the Stricken (2017), in that each piece was designed to work on the microcosmic as well as the macrocosmic level, meaning that each piece could be read as a fully realized short story while also contributing a vital piece to the macrocosm of the novel. Crowsong was mainly set in 1957, in an isolated, unnamed Midwestern village, but the narrative structure is deliberately indeterminate. That is, my hope was that readers would encounter the twelve pieces in an order of their own choosing. The various possible combinations would change the reader’s experience of the novel as a whole. I called it a “prismatic novel” for this reason.

I am trying to take the idea further in this current work in progress. Similar to Crowsong, each piece is intended to function on both the micro- and macrocosmic levels, but the structure is much tighter, both in terms of narrative timing and in the number of interlocking pieces. It is challenging. Not infrequently, when writing, I think of a plot advancement or some other detail that would work quite nicely in the limited world of the short story, but it would throw off, or even contradict, something in the more expansive world of the novel of which it is also part. At the same time, the connective tissue I’m building within each piece so that it harmonizes with the whole must fit seamlessly in the short story, too.

So far it seems to be working. The title story, “First Kings,” appeared originally in North American Review and was reprinted in Sequestrum. The second piece, “Hosea,” was published by Belle Ombre. Quite honestly, it was the third story, “The Widow’s Son,” that prompted me to send the entire manuscript (as it stood at the time) to Wordrunner when they put out a call for novella-length submissions. “The Widow’s Son,” at just over 8,300 words, is about twice as long as either “First Kings” or “Hosea,” and its length would make it a difficult placement with literary journals. Once one writes beyond 5,000 words it becomes increasingly difficult to place. I had only just begun to circulate “The Widow’s Son,” to one or two places, when I saw the Wordrunner notice.

Wordrunner responded promptly, and publication was scheduled for December 2020. In the intervening months I continued the work in progress, mainly producing one new piece, “The Buzite.” I mentioned it to Jo-Anne Rosen, the editor with whom I was working at Wordrunner, but I felt trying to include it in the First Kings collection would throw the three pieces out of balance. I think I was right about that, so “The Buzite” is currently making the literary-journal rounds (as is another brand-new, somewhat fragmentary piece, “The Appearance of Horses”).

It has been a wonderfully rewarding experience working with Jo-Anne Rosen and Wordrunner. One issue we discussed has to do with the pieces’ titles, which are obviously derived from the Bible. Yet the connections between the titles and their stories isn’t crystal clear. Jo-Anne was in favor of adding epigraphs to each story in an attempt to connect the dots, so to speak, for readers. I tend to like epigraphs in my books, so I was open to the idea and tried to find some suitable quotes from the Bible. It proved harder than I imagined. I didn’t much like any of the quotes I came up with for their stories, but suggested a compromise whereby we would use one as an epigraph for the collection as a whole. Jo-Anne wisely, and diplomatically, demurred.

The problem, I discovered, is that the biblical associations are deliberately abstract and multifaceted, and trying to pin an epigraph to the stories forced a more limited and more concrete connection. I very much believe in the notion that interpreting a piece of writing is a partnership between writer and reader. When it comes to finding associations between the biblical references and the texts of the narratives, I prefer for readers to have free imaginative rein. I obviously have something in mind, but I believe readers could come up with cleverer and more interesting ideas. It’s one of the joys of reading, after all.

Writing a novel–or any long work, imaginative or otherwise–can be a lonely business. It requires countless hours of being alone, to write, to research, to think, to wonder. I like to have some human contact regarding the work along the way, which is why I send out pieces as a work progresses. The editors who see fit to publish them provide more encouragement than they can know. Wordrunner eChapbooks’ publishing First Kings and Other Stories has provided me a great deal of satisfaction as well as artistic fuel. It will be years yet before the larger work is complete, but all the editors who will have helped it along the way are invaluable to the process and truly appreciated

First Kings and Other Stories is available via Smashwords, Kindle, and at the Wordrunner site. Visit the book’s site at my author page, and access the sell sheet here.

Preface to ‘The Artist Spoke’

Posted in October 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 27, 2020

Like all novels, The Artist Spoke is about many things — some that I, as the author, am privy to, and some, as the author, I am not. One of the things it’s about (I know) is what it means to be a writer when the book, as an art form, is gasping its final breaths. Why labor over a novel, a story, a poem, an essay when you’re certain almost no one is going to read it?

It’s a question I’ve been contemplating, on various levels, for a number of years — as a writer certainly, but also as a publisher, a teacher, a librarian, and a reader. I have found solace in the words of my literary idol William H. Gass: “Whatever work [the contemporary American writer] does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. . . . Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art.”

Gass shows up, explicitly, a couple of times in The Artist Spoke. I use most of the above quote as an epigraph for Part II of the novel, “Americana.” Then later, the two main characters, Chris Krafft and Beth Winterberry, visit a bookstore where they briefly discuss Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life and specifically its concluding piece “The Artist and Society.” I read the essay often, as a reminder — a kind of mantra — that what I do, answering the call of the “reckless inner need,” is not only worthwhile but important.

Quoting the Master again: “[The world] does not want its artists, after all. It especially does not want the virtues which artists must employ in the act of their work lifted out of prose and paint and plaster into life.” Gass goes on to discuss these virtues, which include honesty, presence, unity, awareness, sensuality, and totality (that is, “an accurate and profound assessment of the proportion and value of things”).

Gass concludes the essay, written toward the end of the 1960s (the Vietnam era), by saying that “the artist is an enemy of the state [. . . but also] an enemy of every ordinary revolution [. . . because] he undermines everything.” That is, to be true to their art, artists must be ready to stand alone. As soon as they lend their voice to a cause, their art becomes something else, like propaganda, jingoism, a corporate slogan.

The Artist Spoke is a departure for me in several ways. For one, it has a contemporary setting. When I began writing the novel, in late 2015 or early 2016, I even intended for it to have a somewhat futuristic setting — but when it takes five years to write a novel nowadays, the future quickly becomes the now, if not the past. My other novels and novellas have been set in the past: Men of Winter (early twentieth century, First World War-ish), Figures in Blue (also early twentieth century), Weeping with an Ancient God (July 1842), An Untimely Frost (1830s), Crowsong for the Stricken (1950s, mainly), and Mrs Saville (1816 or 17).

I prefer writing in a past setting. My current project is set in 1907 (the first three episodes are going to be published by Wordrunner as an e-novella or abbreviated collection, First Kings and Other Stories). I like the definitiveness of the past, and I enjoy reading history — so doing research is one of the most pleasurable parts of the writing process. What rifle would the hunter have been using? When did electricity come to that part of the country? How were corpses embalmed?

Though a devout atheist, I’m fascinated with the Bible, as a narrative and as a cultural artifact, so I often incorporate biblical elements into my fiction. I did this to some degree in Crowsong for the Stricken, but in the current project all the stories (episodes?) are rooted in Bible stories and biblical imagery, which is reflected in their titles: “First Kings,” “Hosea,” “The Widow’s Son,” and (the newest) “The Buzite.”

Religious faith is explored in The Artist Spoke as well. For instance, the novel asks, is faith in literature — or devotion to a particular author — not a kind of religion, and one that could be more meaningful than a traditional religion? A faith’s liturgy, after all, is at the core of its beliefs (in theory). Are not Joyceans, then, a kind of congregation? People who consider life’s meaning through the lenses of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake or another Joyce text, like “The Dead”?

For me, though a fan and admirer of Joyce, my religion is rooted in the writings of William H. Gass. They help me to understand the world and to sort through my own opinions and feelings regarding what the world offers up to me, like a pandemic, like a country where many of its citizens refuse to take precautions against spreading the virus, believing it to be some sort of hoax or conspiracy. Gass said, “One of the themes of my work is that people certainly do not want to know the truth, and they construct all sorts of idiocies to avoid facing it.” Amen.

Reading Gass helps me to cope with what is going on in the country right now. I would want that sort of solace for anyone, for everyone — but one needs to read literature and read it well and read it often. And those days are quickly coming to an end.

Another way that The Artist Spoke is a departure for me is that I feel I have stepped from behind a curtain to acknowledge that the book is all me: I wrote it, I took the photographs, I designed the book, I designed the cover, I edited it. I have done everything. I have been slowly inching my way into full view. With my last book, Mrs Saville, I was essentially out but was perhaps not quite as vocal about it.

Self-publishing is still seen by many as “vanity publishing.” In other artistic fields, taking charge of your own art is viewed as rebellious and bold: musicians who create their own labels, fashion designers who found their own boutiques, visual artists who start their own galleries, etc. The simple truth is that commercial publishing houses are not interested in what I’m doing in my writing, thus literary agents aren’t either. Nevertheless, I still feel that “reckless inner need”; and, what is more, I enjoy the entire process. I love writing the stories and novels, and I enjoy designing the books and illustrating them.

By taking control of the whole process, I can shape the book into a unified artistic expression. The design can complement the words. I’ve had run-ins over the years with editors, and I’ve been disappointed by the efforts of graphic designers who didn’t seem to get my work (perhaps they didn’t read it, or comprehend it).

That said, I do have an ego, so I seek publication for pieces of my books as I work on them (perhaps I am more sensitive to the charge of vanity publishing than I like to let on). Most of The Artist Spoke appeared in print, here and there, prior to the novel’s full publication, in Floyd County Moonshine, Lakeview Journal, Adelaide Magazine, Central American Literary Review, and Litbreak Magazine. I say in the Acknowledgments, “I wrote this book in fits and starts, often losing my way, at one point abandoning it for nearly two years. The editors who saw something of value in the work and published pieces of it over time provided more encouragement than they can know.”

My ego also hopes at least a few people read and enjoy The Artist Spoke, but I didn’t write it for a mass audience. Ultimately, I suppose, I wrote it for an audience of one. In any case, I give it to the world, to take or to leave. Gass-speed, little book.

An Open Letter to the 30%

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 17, 2020

As a schoolteacher my number-one priority is my students’ safety. An English and speech teacher, I’m charged with improving their reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking skills, but, by mandate, curricular objectives are secondary to assuring my students’ physical and emotional well-being. To that end, I appeal to the 30 percent of parents in my district who appear open to reason and rationality: Keep your children home. Allow them to be remote learners for their safety and the safety of your family.

The Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics analyzed the school district’s “Return to Learning” plans and found them “insufficient.” In other words, the schools are not safe. The Academy’s final recommendation: “We recommend schools not open, unless the recommended modifications/clarifications are made to protect the health and safety of students and staff.” (see the report)

The Academy, which analyzed the plans at the request of the Illinois Education Association and our local association, identified five areas of concern: 1) the classrooms are overcrowded and cannot establish the three feet or six feet of social distancing recommended, depending on the age of the students; 2) students move from class to class in the upper grades, which makes keeping areas sanitized next to impossible; 3) the hallways and stairwells are overcrowded and cannot establish proper social distancing during passing periods, regardless of traffic flow; 4) during lunch, an extended time when masks cannot be worn, students are crowded into spaces that are too small and unventilated; and 5) bathroom hygiene is questionable.

If the schools could rectify these problems, then they could be deemed safe by the Academy, but they cannot. In spite of everyone’s best efforts — from administrators to teachers to aides to custodians to cooks to bus drivers and to the students themselves (who have been amazingly cooperative) — the physical reality of the buildings and the way human beings function cannot be overcome. Making the schools safe from Covid-19 infection is literally impossible.

We have been operating in a hybrid model that splits the student body into two groups who have been attending two days a week (Mondays are non-attendance days devoted to remote learning and planning). The hybrid model was not safe, according to the Academy’s standards, but it came closer to being acceptable. During the first quarter, we had Covid-positive students and staff, and many people had to quarantine or isolate.

According to surveys, the relative success of the hybrid model was irrelevant to about 70% of parents in the district, and they wanted to see the schools go to full attendance. The Board of Education acquiesced to the majority, even though Covid numbers are on the rise in the country, in the state, in the county, in the community, and in the school buildings. Thus far, no amount of data or logic or appeal to compassion has been able to move the Board off their decision to start full attendance beginning next week.

It is a surreal situation for those of us who are trapped. In recognition of the schools’ dangerousness, students have been allowed to opt for full remote from the start of the year. At first it was a small percentage (about 10 percent at the high school), but it grew throughout the first nine weeks; and since the Board’s decision to move to full attendance, there has been a spike in students moving to full-remote status, especially among older students.

Moreover, teachers who have special medical situations — confirmed by a doctor — are being allowed to teach remotely now that we are transitioning to full attendance. I’m thankful that some teachers are allowed that option. However, for the rest of us — those who cannot establish a medical necessity for teaching remotely — we have no choice. We must teach in buildings that the American Academy of Pediatrics deems unsafe, and the Board, too, must understand on some level are unsafe: otherwise, why would they allow students and some staff to opt out of attendance?

This letter is addressed to the 30 percent of parents who seem open to logic and rationality based on scientific data. The other 70 percent — who, I would wager, are getting their information from faulty sources — are beyond being reached at this point.

For the sake of your children’s safety and the safety of your families, do not send them into unsafe school buildings. My colleagues and I will continue to do our best to make their remote-learning experiences beneficial. It can never be the same as in-person learning, but at the same time in-person learning during a deadly pandemic is not the school situation we’re all used to either.

I know remote learning is challenging for many students and parents — perhaps traumatic for some. I get it, and I sympathize. But the difficulties have no bearing on whether or not schools are safe. They are not. We must deal with the problems associated with remote learning — no question — but the solution is not to send children into dangerous spaces.

Again, I write and post this because I am mandated by law to safeguard the health and safety of the children in my charge. At this time, in-person learning is inherently dangerous, and I would be shirking my responsibility as an educator (and, frankly, as a human being) to turn a blind-eye to the reality of the situation.

The photo is not from my school. It is from this site: https://www.kunr.org/post/special-education-faces-additional-challenges-person-learning-during-covid-19#stream/0

The Loss of the Literary Voice and Its Consequences

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 23, 2019

The following paper was presented at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal, July 23-25, 2019, on “Remembering Lost Voices.” The panel was titled “The Reading Public: Recovering Reader Experiences and Agency.” Other papers were “Recovering the Lost Voices of Nonprofessional Readers” by Tomas Oliver Beebee, Penn State; “Unplugged Reading: Digital Disconnect as a Form of Resistance” by Cátia Ferreira, Católica Portuguesa; and “Recovering Voices Lost: The Reader-Listener as Secondary Witness” by Eden Wales Freedman, Mount Mercy. Helen Groth, New South Wales, served as (impromptu) chair and discussant.


Be forewarned: This paper likely proposes more questions than it offers anything remotely resembling solutions. But as we know framing the proper questions, or framing the questions properly, is a necessary step in any process which hopes to advance some positive effect. Much of this paper is based on the writings and observations of American author William H. Gass (1924-2017), of whom I’ve been a devotee (some may say “disciple”) for a decade. In 1968, at the height of Vietnam War protests, Gass published the essay “The Artist and Society,” in which he states “[naturally] the artist is an enemy of the state . . . [who] is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there.” He goes on to say that “[artful] books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times” (287, 288). Then Gass asks, “How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” That is, Gass seemed to believe that artists, including literary artists like himself, could have a profound impact on society, enough of an impact to sway governments from one policy position to another, through the sheer force of their art. Reading his words and others’, and taking in other forms of art, could, in fact, alter human consciousness.

Gass of course was hardly alone in this observation, and it may have been believable in 1968 when the Counterculture, led by the United States’ youth and the country’s intellectuals, were reshaping public opinion on the war in Southeast Asia. But changes were already afoot that would undercut the reformative powers of literature, and Gass’s optimism for that matter. In retrospect we can see that many such changes were afoot by the late sixties, but in this paper I want to concern myself chiefly with two: the corporate takeover of the publishing industry, and the coming of age of the Internet and, with it, social media.1

Gass at the podium

Indeed, Gass’s change of heart, from one of optimism to one of pessimism, can be seen in the preface he wrote in 1976 for the re-release of his seminal story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968): “The public spends its money at the movies. It fills [sports] stadia with cheers; dances to organized noise; while books die quietly, and more rapidly than their authors. Mammon has no interest in their service” (xiii). He continues, “The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the societal and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose” (xviii). So in less than a decade, Gass went from suggesting that literature could remake human consciousness and reform government policy, to believing that serious writing had no impact on society whatsoever.

What the heck happened?

One of the things that happened was the corporate takeover of the publishing industry. The process was largely undocumented when André Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books (2000). “In Europe and in America,” writes Schiffrin, “publishing has a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession. Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books” (5). However, in the turbulent sixties, large conglomerates began acquiring publishing houses. Schiffrin continues, “It is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much as possible” (5, emphasis in original). Schiffrin’s study is wide-ranging and thorough, but he focuses particular attention on the demise of Pantheon, where he’d been managing director for a number of years when it was acquired by Random House, which in turn was purchased by media mogul S. I. Newhouse, who inevitably insisted on changes to try to increase profits, unreasonably and unrealistically so, according to Schiffrin: “As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind of revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do. . . . New targets have therefore been set in the range of 12-15 percent, three to four times what publishing houses have made in the past” (118-19).

Andre Schiffin

Schiffrin documents in detail the mechanisms put in place to try to flog more profits out of the book business, but for our interests perhaps the most fundamental change was the expectation that every title must make a profit, and not just a modest profit. Before the corporate takeover of publishing, it was common practice for publishers to bring out authors’ first books, knowing they would likely lose money and that it may take years and several books before an author found enough of an audience to be profitable. In the meantime, other titles on a publisher’s list could subsidize the nurturing of a new(er) author. A good example is Cormac McCarthy, who is now a household name among readers of contemporary fiction. But McCarthy’s status as an award-winning and best-selling author was a longtime coming. As Daniel Robert King notes in Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016), “Random House took on [in 1965] and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, McCarthy’s longevity at Random House was due to the loyalty and hardheadedness of his editor Albert Erskine, who insisted that McCarthy’s early titles stay in print in spite of their anemic sales, even in paperback (32-33).

Cormac McCarthy

But such loyalty would come to an end when corporations took over the industry, and editors were pitted against each other to reach ever-increasing profit expectations. Decisions about which titles to acquire, how large the print runs should be, and whether or not a contract should be offered for a second book from an author increasingly became the purview of the accounting and marketing departments, and not editorial. By 1990, corporate publishers only wanted to publish books that warranted 100,000 press runs. Anything less wasn’t worth the effort, according to Marty Asher, with the Book-of-the-Month Club and then Vintage (qtd. in Schiffrin 106). Obviously such bottom-line-minded expectations would make it foolhardy for an editor to take on a first book from just about any author, even a Cormac-McCarthy-to-be.

This emphasis on profit also impacted representations of ideology. By and large, corporations are run by conservatives (think Rupert Murdach), so it hasn’t just been new authors who have been silenced but any author writing from a liberal perspective. For a time, this corporate bias toward conservatism was somewhat offset by university and independent publishers, but they, too, have been impacted by changes in the publishing world, either due to acquisitions or universities which have had to be more money-minded to stay afloat. It is worth noting that André Schiffrin’s book on the demise of independent publishing is nearly twenty years old. On nearly every front things have gotten worse since 2000. Today there are essentially five commercial publishers remaining in the United States, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the so-called “Big Five”: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (Scholastic is number-six, thanks in large part to their publishing the Harry Potter series) (Milliot). These publishers account for more than eighty percent of sales in the U.S.

All of this has led to a homogenization in publishing. It is fiscally safer to publish book after book by the same few dozen authors (James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, etc.) than take a chance on a new voice, or if it is a new author, it’s a new author whose book sounds very much like one that proved successful. The runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, for example, gave birth to a new genre: “teen paranormal romance,” essentially beautiful but troubled young women falling in love with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, sea monsters, etc.—Prince Charmings, with fangs, fur, chills or gills.

Meanwhile, along came the Internet. Towards the end of Schiffrin’s book on publishing, again, which came out in 2000, he was mildly optimistic that technological advances could be an avenue for worthwhile books to reach readers. In a sense, his optimism was well-founded. The rise of e-readers and print-on-demand books, in both hardcover and paperback, has made it possible for almost anyone to get their words into print. For example, in 2012 I established Twelve Winters Press, a print-on-demand and digital publisher, to produce my own books as well as other worthy books whose authors were frustrated in finding outlets for their work. We’ve averaged four to six titles per year, mainly fiction, but also poetry and children’s books. Our books are available globally and are reasonably priced. Titles have won awards, and one of our books recently won best cover design in the category of fiction.

We’re only missing one element to be considered a rousing success in independent publishing: readers, also known as book sales. Practically no one will read our books. It is extremely difficult to get our books reviewed—and literally impossible to get them reviewed by major reviewers—and when they are reviewed, reviewers seem duty-bound to moderate their praise with some bit of negative criticism. But it probably wouldn’t matter. Even glowing book reviews have little to no impact on sales. Nearly all of the prestigious book competitions are off limits to small, independent publishers. Either their entry fees are too high, or they require a minimum print run that small presses can’t attain. We’ve had some success in indie competitions, but even they are expensive by small-press standards, and, again, success doesn’t translate to sales. We advertise our books and authors through social media, and for the last couple of years we’ve spent $2,000 to $3,000 annually on traditional advertising, including ads in The New York Review of Books. Practically nada, almost literally nothing. I may as well have shoveled all that cash into an incinerator.

The problem is that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans are readers, and those who are readers are not interested in well-written, challenging texts. Data on how little Americans read, in every age group, are readily available. What is difficult to discern in the numbers is how little literature is being read. Surveys and studies tend to identify how frequently novels are being read, but it would seem that the vast majority of those books are mysteries, thrillers and other light genres. Perhaps one way of getting some idea of how much literature is being read is to compare it to poetry. According to Statista, eleven percent of Americans claim to read poetry on a regular basis. The reliability of these numbers is suspect, of course, but it may give us some sense of the situation.

One difficulty is answering the question, How does one define literature? William Gass seemed to have a working definition at least, one that he shared in a 1981 interview when he said, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of these things is always problematic” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once a leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

If not serious fiction, then, what is being published, especially by the Big Five commercial publishers? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . .  They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). Indeed, in the early 1970s Gass saw the trend developing of a negative correlation between the quality of the writing (the seriousness of it) and its likelihood for being published at all. Regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, Gass said that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it” (McCauley 12). It was published eventually, in 1995, after nearly thirty years of literary labor. By then Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

In essence, then, our culture—really, Western culture—has lost the literary voice: today’s Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Lawrence, Gass, and so on. It’s an uphill struggle to find a publisher, and once found an even steeper struggle to find readers. Who today would publish Ulysses, leave be Finnegans Wake? If published, perhaps self-published, who would read it?

My time for this presentation grows short, so let me shift gears to the issue of What does it matter that less and less literature is being read? For one thing, I see the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which is synonymous with racism, White Nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and a host of other evils, as being related to the loss of the literary voice. This topic is clearly complex, and I can only barely begin to introduce it here, but we know that Trump supporters are in the minority in the United States, perhaps thirty to forty percent of the population, and we know that most of those Trump supporters live in non-urban areas—places where the demographic of white, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal folks reside in insulated enclaves. They are fed their news and their views from conservative outlets and from Trump himself via Twitter, Fox News, Breitbart, etc. Meanwhile, we know that reading increases awareness of others—let’s say capital “O” Others—and study after study has shown that reading about those not like ourselves also fosters empathy.

Interwoven here is the subject of censorship, which I want to touch on briefly. In The Business of Books, Schiffrin discusses how right-leaning conglomerates overlook left-leaning authors, but beyond that editors in dog-eat-dog corporate publishing houses reject material for fear of its unpopularity, which would in turn adversely affect their pay and job security. Another disturbing trend is self-censorship among readers. It seems that the rising tide of conservatism is creating readers who won’t allow themselves to read material they deem immoral. A couple of anecdotes. In January I attended the MLA National Convention in Chicago, and one of the panels I went to was on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint turning fifty. Two of three Roth scholars were from Midwestern universities, and they said they hadn’t actually taught Portnoy’s for years because their graduate students are too squeamish to discuss the book in class. The third Roth person was a professor at Princeton, and he was nonplussed. Apparently he teaches his Ivy Leaguers Portnoy’s every other semester.

I had a similar experience just last quarter. For our final reading I had assigned William Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I had one grad student refuse to read it when he discovered it contained “raunchy” language. A couple of other students read it but were put off by its language and sexual subject matter. I’ve been thinking that a fascist society hardly needs to bother imprisoning writers and burning books in the square if they can create a culture where most people don’t like to read and even budding “intellectuals” censor themselves on moral or religious grounds.

Speaking of Gass, long before the deleterious effects of the Internet and cable news could be known, he saw the handwriting on the wall. In his commencement address to the Washington University (St. Louis) Class of 1979, Gass cautioned the grads: “We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality, the mismatch of theory with thing, the gap between program and practice. . . .  We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become” (“On Reading to Oneself” 222) The cure Gass advised is the reading of great books, “for reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response” (227). Elsewhere Gass emphasized that “the removal of bad belief [is] as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision [is] to the body it imperil[s]. To have a head full of nonsense is far worse that having a nose full of flu . . .” (“Retrospection” 51). He went on to recommend rigorous self-skepticism regarding one’s own ideas, “theorizing” about errors in thinking: “Skepticism,” he said, “was my rod, my staff, my exercise, and from fixes, my escape.”

We must make those who are prone to bigotry, who believe brown-skinned migrants deserve to be tossed in cages or left to perish in rivers and at sea, who are anxious to accept any fraudulent information that supports their worldview, who deny the threat of climate change in spite of the data, who believe healthcare is a privilege—we must make them self-skeptical, as Gass advised. We must get them in the habit of questioning their own beliefs. We must get them reading again. Or as Laurie Champion describes it, in her article on Thoreau and Bobbie Ann Mason, we must get people in “a transcendental state of mind that involves intellectual and spiritual searches that lead to clear sight” (57).

Doing that, no matter how difficult, must be our mission.

Note

I realize of course that I’m not the first person to lament the sorry state of serious writing in their time. Just a few examples: Emerson, Margaret Fuller and other Transcendentalists founded The Dial in 1840 due in large part to the dearth of decent reading material in spite of their periodical-rich time period. Victorian and Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett frequently clashed with the publishers for whom he worked because he felt they didn’t do enough to cultivate a more cosmopolitan appetite among England’s overly conservative and insulated readers. James Joyce famously exiled himself to the Continent mainly due to the sad state of Irish letters. A key difference perhaps, between these thens and now, is that there were a lot of people reading a lot of material, whereas today fewer and fewer people are reading, anything, period.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Champion, Laurie. “‘I Keep Looking Back to See Where I’ve Been’: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 47-58.

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf, 1970, pp. 276-288.

—. “On Reading to Oneself.” Habitations of the Word, Simon & Schuster, 1985, pp. 217-228.

—. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences. Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

McCauley, Carole Spearin. “William H. Gass.” Ammon, pp. 3-12.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Schiffrin, André. The Business of Books. Verso, 2000.

A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report

Posted in June 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on June 12, 2019

I’m excited about the release of my book A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report (available in paperback and Kindle editions). I’ve taken the Special Counsel’s nearly 450-page, single-spaced, heavily footnoted, and often redacted tome, and condensed it to about 80 highly readable pages, logically organized into four chapters, plus an Introduction which puts the report in context. Below is an excerpt of the book’s Introduction, but first here is its description in full:

“The Mueller Report,” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, may be the most important political and historical document produced in the 21st century, but it is extremely challenging to read, at nearly 450 single-spaced pages, with almost 2,400 footnotes, sentences, paragraphs and whole pages blacked out, and references to a vast number of people, many of whom have Russian or Ukrainian names that are difficult to process and retain. Award-winning author and educator Ted Morrissey has written a concise summary and analysis of Mueller’s report to assist those who are interested in its contents but find the complete report daunting. “A Concise Summary and Analysis” includes an Introduction and four chapters dealing with the most crucial material in Mueller’s full report: the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, Russia’s cyber warfare on the United States, the President’s possible obstruction of justice, and Mueller’s legal analysis. “A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report” includes clear citations to the original for those who want to read in more detail about specific issues, and it provides just enough context to make the most complex issues easier to understand. Each chapter is separated into subtitled sections to make it even easier to follow. Don’t rely on hearsay and biased reporting in the media. Read for yourself what it says in “The Mueller Report” without spending months wading through all 450 heavily footnoted and frustratingly redacted pages.

Mueller in Brief Cover 1000

Let me begin where Robert S. Mueller III ends: No person—not even the President of the United States—is above the law. This is the point on which Mueller chose to end his Office’s “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” more familiarly known as The Mueller Report, submitted to William P. Barr, the recently confirmed Attorney General, on March 22, 2019. After nearly two years of extraordinarily tight-lipped investigation (by a Special Counsel’s Office which consisted at its peak of forty personnel working alongside and in coordination with forty FBI agents and other Bureau staff), Mueller filed a two-volume report of nearly 450 pages—one volume discussing Russia’s contacts with members of the Trump team and the Russians’ efforts to sway the election in Trump’s favor; and the other volume discussing the President’s efforts to obstruct the investigations and the legal issues related to matters uncovered by the Special Counsel.

Upon its submission, Attorney General Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Republicans in Congress, and conservative media (especially Fox News) began the process of misrepresenting the contents of The Mueller Report. Rather than immediately releasing The Report, to Congress and the American people, Bill Barr, on March 24, gave to Congress a four-page summary of what he represented as Mueller’s conclusions: Mueller was not able to find evidence that Trump or members of his campaign conspired with Russia; and on the issue of obstruction of justice, while Mueller did not exonerate the President, Barr and Rosenstein decided there was not sufficient evidence to accuse Trump of committing a crime. When submitting his summary to Congress, Barr also made a public statement in which he communicated these same ideas.

Barr’s letter and his public statement gave Trump and his allies license (as if they needed any) to claim The Mueller Report was a total exoneration of the President and that the investigation had been—as he said repeatedly—a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.” The President also called for an investigation into the investigators, whom he had long characterized as members of a “deep state” liberal conspiracy intent on removing him from office, insinuating, too, that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were at the root of the plot, still angry over Clinton’s embarrassing loss in the 2016 election. The President accused the FBI of “spying” on his campaign. (As of this writing, Attorney General Barr has, in fact, initiated an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe and has, at times, supported Trump’s characterization of the FBI investigation as “spying.”)

When The Mueller Report was finally released, it was eye-opening as well as jaw-dropping on several levels: the numbers of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russians and Ukrainians, Russia’s wide-ranging and sophisticated efforts to help Trump win the election, and Trump’s efforts to derail or at least curtail the investigation—to most readers of The Report it was all rather shocking. But therein lay a problem: It was shocking to readers of The Report, and very few people were reading it, or even likely to read it.

As a teacher, writer, librarian and publisher I am more aware than most (in fact I am reminded of it almost daily) that the United States has become a country predominantly of non-readers. It is a challenge to get Americans to read a news article of more than a few paragraphs, leave be a document like The Mueller Report, which presents challenges to even avid readers. It is long, nearly 450 single-spaced pages. It has frequent redactions, interrupting sentences and even disappearing entire paragraphs and whole pages. It is heavily footnoted (2,375 footnotes to be exact). The majority of the footnotes are purely documentary, supplying a citation for a given source, but many of the footnotes are several sentences in length and provide important, eyebrow-raising information themselves. While much of The Report is narrative and tells an intriguing story (oftentimes reading like a Robert Ludlum spy novel), overall it is not organized chronologically. Finally, there is a vast cast of characters to keep in mind as one reads, and many of those characters are Russians or Ukrainians with names that American readers do not easily process and retain.

To date, very few Americans have read The Mueller Report. Even members of Congress, especially Republicans, have not read Mueller’s findings. That is the opinion, for example, of Justin Amash, a Republican Representative from Michigan, who has been the only Republican calling for Trump’s impeachment and openly criticizing Attorney General Barr for his misrepresentations of The Report and for assisting Trump in blocking congressional investigations (even refusing to respond to congressional subpoenas). Amash said that he supported Trump’s impeachment because he actually read The Mueller Report, unlike the majority of his colleagues. Amash conducted a town hall in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, on May 28, 2019, and was met with standing ovations for his stance on protecting the Constitution over protecting the President. In a video clip that was widely aired a woman who identified as a Trump supporter was interviewed after Amash’s town hall, and she acknowledged that Amash’s descriptions of Trump’s behavior were truly surprising; she said she did not know there was anything negative about Trump in Mueller’s report.

It is anecdotal of course, but the woman may well represent the majority of Americans who get their news from right-wing outlets like Fox.

My hope in writing A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report is that more people will become informed about the true contents of Robert Mueller’s report and the findings of the Special Counsel’s two-year investigation.

Regarding my summary and analysis, I have tried to limit myself to the contents of Robert Mueller’s report, and not add a lot of contextual material and updated information that has arisen in the weeks since The Report’s publication. My primary goal was to produce an accurate but attractively readable text, so it would have been counterproductive to write a 300-page summary of Mueller’s 450-page report. In other words, I tried to keep it short while also including the most pertinent information. Nevertheless, from time to time I did find it helpful to include some background information, or to add clarity based on more recent events. I think in each case it is clear that I am adding to The Report, and not drawing from it, in these rare instances.

Throughout I have cited the page numbers from The Mueller Report where I am getting the quoted material or specific paraphrase. It should be an easy task to verify my summary and to read further from The Report itself.

Also, I have organized the summary a bit differently than Mueller organized his report because it seems to me that each volume has two distinct subject matters. Volume I deals with both contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russians or Ukrainians, and Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election, so I have separated these into Chapters 1 and 2 of my summary. Similarly, Volume II discusses Trump’s possible obstruction of justice, and the legal issues surrounding the President’s actions, so Chapters 3 and 4 cover these topics, respectively.

Finally, my original notion was to write a distinct summary followed by a brief analysis (my own take on the events and the issues at hand), but I decided a more effective approach was to provide small doses of analysis along the way. Again, as with the contextual additions, I believe my analytical insertions stand apart from the text of the summary itself. For one thing, if an analysis is Mueller’s, and not my own, it is clearly cited.

Writing Too Good to Publish

Posted in April 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 21, 2019

The following paper — “Writing Too Good to Publish: A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland” — was presented at the North American Review Writing Conference, April 19-21, 2019, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of the panel “Published Worlds.” Other papers presented were “Something About a Frying Pan and a Fire: Why I Gave up a Tenured Position and Launched a Publishing Imprint” by Kathy Flann, and “To Publish or Not to Publish” by Sayeed Ahmad.


 

I want to begin by updating the title of this talk. To the main title “Writing Too Good to Publish,” I’m adding “A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland.” I see my presentation as a semi-formal prologue to a paper I’m presenting in July at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon. That paper is on the loss of the literary voice and its ramifications for society. Today my main objective is to generate some thought and discussion, and I’m building my talk around observations by my literary idol William H. Gass, who quipped in a 1971 interview, regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it,” adding, “I live on that hope.” Gass was suggesting, nearly fifty years ago, that in the publishing world there was emerging a negative correlation between the quality of a book and its likelihood for publication.

Gass imposingSo at the root of my talk is the question: Has Gass’s darkly humorous prediction come true? That is, in 2019 can one produce such a well-written book that no publisher will touch it—or at least no major publisher? Since I’ve gone to the trouble of proposing this topic for the writing conference and putting together some thoughts regarding it, you can no doubt surmise that my answer to the question is yes.

First, I acknowledge that my working thesis is bathed in subjectivity. What, for example, constitutes a “good book”? What did Gass mean by the term in 1971, and is his meaning relevant today? For that matter, what is a “major” publisher?

This last question is perhaps the simplest to answer, so I’ll begin there. When I refer to major publishers, I’m thinking of what Publisher’s Weekly calls the “Big Five” (Milliot), commercial publishers who have the wherewithal to publish an author in a massive press run, and promote the work in a way that will get it reviewed by the top reviewers, put it in the running for prestigious prizes, prominently placed in bookstores, and purchased by libraries far and wide. Publisher’s Weekly identifies the Big Five as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (at least as of 2017). Just outside the Big Five is Scholastic. A quick perusal of book spines in Barnes & Noble (the only nationwide bookseller remaining) would suggest there are a lot more commercial publishers than a mere handful, but it’s misleading because these big publishers have been buying up smaller presses for decades, so what appear to be dozens of New York-based publishers are in fact entities which fall under the auspices of a few parent companies.

Cormac McCarthyFor these parent companies, profit is the number-one driving force; in fact, nearly the only force. The situation is efficiently summarized in Daniel Robert King’s Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016). McCarthy’s first publisher was Random House, but “[b]y 1962 Random House was on the path to becoming a big business” (21). King goes on, “In the context of the American publishing industry as a whole, it was the purchase of Random House by RCA in 1965 that marked the real beginning” of book publishers being purchased by corporations whose main financial interest wasn’t publishing books (22). During McCarthy’s time at Random House, presidents came and went, and with each successor there may have been more attention paid to profit and less to literary quality. Perhaps the low point was reached in 1980 with the installment of Alberto Vitale, a former banker who André Schiffrin describes as a “business man with a thuggish disposition and a thoroughly anti-intellectual attitude—the pose of a rough-and-ready street fighter who gets things done and isn’t afraid to do what it takes to make as much money as possible” (qtd. in King 22-23). Chief among Vitale’s changes to the Random House modus operandi, writes Schiffrin, was “that each book should make a profit on its own and that one title should no longer be allowed to subsidize another” (23). This pressure for each book to make a profit has led to a high turnover rate among editors at corporate publishing houses, and agents have replaced editors as “the fixed points in authors’ lives,” according to Schiffrin (23).

By extension, then, agents have had to become more preoccupied with profit potential than the weighty quality of the work. Being a literary agent is not charity work, after all, so what good does it do to take on a project unless one is reasonably certain it can catch the eye of a market-minded editor?

Up until the corporate takeover of the publishing world, which began in the 1960s, editors at places like Random House would find talented writers and nurture their careers until sales could catch up. As King notes, “Random House took on and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, it was due to the persistence of McCarthy’s editor Albert Erskine that McCarthy’s earliest titles even stayed in print. Had it not been for Erskine’s clout and consistent badgering, Random House might have let McCarthy’s titles go out of print (32-33). Ultimately, McCarthy’s novels were moved to Knopf, which by then, in the early 1990s, had been fully acquired by Random House as an imprint for its “loss leaders”—“low-selling books which add prestige to a company’s name . . . despite their underwhelming sales” (103-104).

Knopf was William Gass’s publisher as well, beginning with the hardcover reprint of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in 1971. The outrageously experimental novella was originally published as a special supplement by the literary journal TriQuarterly in 1968. Nineteen seventy-one was of course the year Gass made his comment about writing such a good book no one would publish it. Knopf did publish it, in 1995, and it won a few accolades, including the American Book Award in 1996, but it must have been commercially challenging, especially given Gass’s ambitions for the book’s design. For example, the hardcover edition includes several full-color illustrations. HarperCollins produced a paperback edition in 1996, and just three years later Gass appealed to the small press Dalkey Archive to produce another paperback edition to keep The Tunnel in print. (In 1989, Dalkey began reprinting Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in paperback.)

Gass worked on The Tunnel for 26 years, and various parts of it were published in more than a dozen literary journals (and in two instances, limited and signed editions by boutique presses). Meanwhile, the publishing industry went through its transformations, along with the reading public. Gass labored on The Tunnel for nearly three decades (along with numerous other projects) in spite of the fact he didn’t expect the novel to receive a hero’s welcome once it was published. He said in 1981, for example, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of these things is always problematic. It isn’t simply that I have a small audience. Most of the writers I admire don’t really have much of an audience” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly more aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once the leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

Indeed, by the time The Tunnel finally emerged in book form, Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

So as the publishing industry transformed from the 1960s onward, with a greater and greater emphasis on profit over literary merit, what sorts of writers were being picked up by the Big Five? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). The Internet Age was still an embryo when Gass made this observation. Since then, how much faster have our minds become, how much more inclined toward simplistic texts that can be skimmed at a lightning pace—if read at all?

Obviously, the historical and cultural forces which have led us here are too complicated to explore in such a brief talk, but it may be worth noting that the corporate takeover of the publishing industry and reading’s decline in popularity have been concurrent with the rise and fall of literary postmodernism. Anis Shivani has suggested that by the end of the twentieth century too many fiction writers were engaged in a “pale” imitation of postmodern pioneers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover (Shivani et al. 226). He said, “We’re suffering in different ways from the huge wave of appropriation, mixing, and flattening that carried all of us along with it” (227). Shivani further argues that the postmodern effort to “reconcile high and low” culture proved to be a failed experiment. Young writers’ “reverence for junk is too great; they haven’t known anything else but video culture, and they can’t think past it, let alone ironize time and space, restructure it in new narrative” as early postmodernists, like Kurt Vonnegut, were able to do (227). I have only begun to consider possible correlations between the current state of affairs in writing and publishing, and the rise and fall of postmodernism—but I wanted to at least underscore the fact they are historical bedfellows.

I feel I have a unique vantage point regarding the literary landscape. I’m a writer of the sort of stuff spurned by the Big Five. My short fiction and novel excerpts have appeared in nearly 70 journals (including Glimmer Train and Southern Humanities Review) and have earned a few distinctions, but agents and larger publishers remain enthusiastically disinterested. I’ve been teaching high school English in the heartland for 36 years, and I’ve witnessed, in brutal proximity, teenagers’ shrinking interest in reading—reading anything, leave be challenging literature. Indeed, more and more they find the idea of being a reader amusingly quaint and wholly incomprehensible. As a small-press publisher, I’ve discovered that the world is filled with amazing writers and poets who have awe-inspiring manuscripts, but there are practically no readers to be had anywhere. Literally every title I’ve released since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 has taken a loss (in spite of almost no labor costs). As a librarian in my hometown library, I experience the phenomenon of avid readers checking out anything written by James Patterson (or his minions), Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts (or her alter ego J. D. Robb), Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.—but having no interest in sampling fare which may be a wrung or two juicier on the literary food-chain.

Finally, as a lecturer in an online MFA program, I’ve had to reassess what my long-term goals should be. When I first started teaching for Lindenwood University in 2016, I assumed my graduate students would want to be James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or at the very least Ernest Hemingway—but I quickly discovered that for most their aspirations were quite different. They want to be J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, and, yes, James Patterson. I do what I can to open their eyes to other possibilities, but who am I to say their aims are too low? Who am I to doom them to near-certain obscurity by browbeating them in the general direction of Finnegans Wake? Instead, if they so choose, I hope to make them the best version of James Patterson they can be: perhaps to write like James Patterson on his very best day (or the very best day of whichever writer in his stable is writing his book).

Where, then, does that leave us—we dwindling few who love to read and write challenging texts? Gass had to come to terms with this question himself—although he was able to ride the inertial momentum of mid-century publishing to at least maintain his place on Knopf’s list. In my dreariest moods I look to the preface he wrote for the paperback edition of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and I’ll leave you with the Master’s words:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that. (xviii-xix)

 

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Gass, William H. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Shivani, Anis, et al. “Symposium: Is Postmodernism in decline? Why or why not? How do you assess its legacy?” Boulevard, vol. 26, nos. 1-2, 2010, pp. 226-246.

Illinois Shakespeare Festival’s Measure for Measure a must-see production

Posted in July 2021 by Ted Morrissey on July 16, 2021

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a comedy, but comedy meant something different in the seventeenth century, as did tragedy. Rooted in the traditions of Greek theater, the labels had to do with structure and the elements each sort of play was expected to have, not whether the plots were tragic or comic, as we use the terms today. The endings of each sort tend to be a telltale sign. Tragedies end in death (maybe lots of them . . . think Hamlet); comedies end in marriage (which is a polite metaphor for what is presumed to happen on the wedding night, let’s call it procreation, the opposite of death . . . think Much Ado About Nothing).

So, yes, Measure for Measure is a comedy, but the issues it raises are quite serious. Likely written and first performed in 1604, it was Shakespeare’s twelfth and final comedy (as far as we can say), and the scholarly consensus is that Will had done all he cared to with the comedic form and was ready to take on more serious subjects, subjects which fit more easily into the tragic mode. Soon to follow, then, were Othello (probably the same year, 1604), Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra (all, let’s say, 1605-1606 – definitive dating is tricky).

This summer the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has accepted the challenge of presenting this most serious of comedies – and, as one would expect, given the Festival’s tradition of excellence, director Jenny McKnight, cast and crew have created a production that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Due to Covid restrictions, it is a lean cast of only ten players, making their achievement with such a complex text even more impressive. My wife and I saw the July 14 production on an absolutely ideal night for the Globe-like open-air theater.

Set in Vienna, the city-state’s Duke, Vincentio, places his Deputy, Angelo, in charge while he goes on a long journey. Vincentio has been lax in enforcing the laws of Vienna, and the city has become rife with corruption and debauchery. Bordellos and monasteries stand side by side. Angelo, in the duke’s absence, decides to exercise his power and set Vienna in order. The first person to be caught in Angelo’s legal snare is Claudio, who has gotten his intended one, Juliet, with child before their marriage. Claudio is sentenced to death by the overzealous Angelo. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who is on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. In actuality, the Duke does not leave the city, but disguises himself as a friar.

Much of the play’s action involves Vincentio (disguised as a friar usually), Angelo, and Isabella (played by Grant Goodman, Chauncy Thomas, and Isa Guitian, respectively). It is mainly through their impassioned exchanges that Measure for Measure explores issues of morality, legality, mercy, and salvation (among other weighty topics). Isabella is the dramatic focal point, as both Vincentio and Angelo desire her and use their positions of authority to claim her (or her body at least) for their own. In this regard, Guitian manages most of the play’s heavy lifting, and she does so with admirable flair. Goodman and Thomas prove worthy sparring partners.

From our contemporary perspective, there is definitely a #MeToo aspect to the play. Given events over the last several months in particular, involving George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner (and, sadly, so on and so on), I also found myself keenly focused on what the play says about the authority of the state to enact and enforce laws without accountability. In her Director’s Note, McKnight writes, “The world of Measure for Measure is a world out of balance, particularly where gender and power are concerned. Women have little agency, Men become intoxicated with the authority and status that they possess. Characters who represent the state, characters who represent the church, characters who represent the citizenry, and characters who represent the marginalized all seek – as Isabella demands – ‘justice, justice, justice, justice’.”

The director’s description of the world being “out of balance” is communicated in myriad ways, including particularly subtle and clever ones. I noted, for example, that Vincentio and Angelo (representatives of the state) wear tunics that appear almost metallic (suggesting the state’s power and rigidity), but their cut is asymmetrical (literally, from a sartorial perspective, out of balance). Susie L. High is credited with costume design for the production. I offer only this one costume-related example, but costuming is an especially important element in the Festival production, and I would encourage paying special attention to it.

On a related note, McKnight has devised an interesting framing device involving the costuming of the players. Shakespeare is fond of using clothing metaphors as a way of suggesting characters’ deceptive natures: they appear one thing, but in truth are something quite different. Nearly every character in Measure for Measure is hypocritical to a greater or lesser degree, and McKnight’s framing device seems to play with this Shakespearean conceit.

Measure for Measure is a serious comedy, but there are definitely funny bits. Several are expertly provided by the roguish characters of Lucio (Dan Matisa) and Pompey (Nathan Stark, who also plays the condemned, Claudio). The best comic material falls to Elbow, a “simple constable” (cut from a similar cloth as Much Ado’s Dogberry), and Rondale Gray plays the part to perfection.

All the Festival players deliver strong performances, several with dual roles: Lisa Gaye Dixon (Escalus/Francisca), Christian Castro (Froth/Friar Thomas, as well as fight captain), Nora McKirdle (Juliet), and Erica Cruz Hernández (Overdone/Marina).

Measure for Measure, along with The Winter’s Tale, is playing throughout July and into the first week of August. Both are must-see productions.

Illinois Shakespeare Festival delivers an endearing performance of The Winter’s Tale

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 12, 2021

Even among Shakespeare enthusiasts, The Winter’s Tale may be something of an acquired taste. It is a strange play. The contrast in tone between the opening acts’ heart-wrenching tragedy and the closing acts’ rollicking comedy has made it seem to many that Shakespeare fused together two very different plays, and perhaps not wholly successfully. In the eighteenth century, many saw The Winter’s Tale as a blemish on Shakespeare’s legacy. Alexander Pope included it among a handful of plays that were so poorly crafted they couldn’t have been the work of the Bard, who may have only contributed a few lines here and there to a flawed play that mistakenly bears his name. In 1756, the legendary Shakespearean David Garrick rescued the play by essentially amputating its first half and titling his revision Florizel and Perdita. A Dramatic Pastoral in Three Acts, Altered from The Winter’s Tale of Shakespeare.

Appreciation for the play grew over the centuries, but even in contemporary times it has been known as a problematic play to produce. There are those starkly contrasted halves, for one thing. Also, it is almost entirely a play of effect with very little attention devoted to cause. And, frankly, what are we going to do about the bear?

Always attracted to the odd literary duck, I fell in love with The Winter’s Tale on my first reading, more than forty years ago. My 18-year-old self probably couldn’t have articulated very well just why I found it so appealing, but my 58-year-old self can say without question it is, in fact, the play’s strangeness that I find so engaging. Shakespeare was taking a risk (actually several risks), which was nothing new, but these specific risks were unusual, even for him. There is evidence that his star had faded toward the end of his career; even his own King’s Men were inclined to perform other playwrights’ work. He must have been tempted to return to a style that packed houses just a few years before, or to mimic the plots of his colleagues who were now shining more brightly. Instead, he gives us The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest (both, probably, 1611)—plays that are so unusual they do not fit nicely into the three canonical categories of tragedies, comedies, and histories; instead, becoming known as romances.

I teach a graduate course in Shakespeare, and I always make sure to include The Winter’s Tale (in recent iterations, the other two plays are The Tempest and Othello, with The Taming of the Shrew on standby and sometimes getting the nod). I am so enamored of The Winter’s Tale it is difficult to imagine a production causing me to love it even more—but the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Rebekah Scallet, has done just that. Apollo held back the rains long enough for my wife and me to attend the July 11 performance, and we are in his divine debt.

The Festival was not in production last year, of course, because of the pandemic, a pandemic that we are still very much in the throes of; therefore, Covid-19 impacted the current production. Shakespearean theater is minimalist by its very nature, but Scallet managed to create an even more scaled-down performance. Most notably, the play is performed by a skeleton crew of just twelve actors, each of whom has at least two parts, some three. Doubling and tripling, etc., of roles in Shakespeare is not unusual, but generally it doesn’t involve actors handling two or three major roles in the same production. What is more, there are no ensemble actors who could add to the production’s energy onstage.

According to Scallet’s note in the program (online), the smaller cast was an effort to observe social distancing as much as possible, to create space between the actors. The strategy certainly tests the players’ mettle—and each meets the challenge with aplomb. Because of the strange nature of the play—its fusion of tragedy and comedy—the actors have to assume both kinds of roles, resonating at both ends of the spectrum, darkly serious and raucously comedic, at times turning on a dime (a sixpence?).

Dan Matisa, for example, takes on the lead role of King Leontes, who inexplicably comes up with the deranged notion that his very pregnant wife, Hermione (Erica Cruz Hernández), and dearest friend, Polixenes (Christian Castro), have been having an affair, and that the soon-to-arrive baby isn’t his. Leontes is positively venomous, ordering Hermione to be imprisoned and wanting the newborn baby girl to be burned alive. Matisa also plays Autolycus, the roguish prankster who is the source of much of the final acts’ merrymaking. The characters are diametrically opposed, yet Matisa manages both convincingly, with his Autolycus, especially, being among the best performances of that part I’ve seen.

Another standout for me is Grant Goodman, carrying the roles of Antigonus and the Shepherd who finds Leontes’ abandoned baby girl, Perdita (played delightfully by Isa Guitian, once she grows up). Antigonus convinces the enraged Leontes to spare the girl’s life, but as a compromise he must deliver her to the wilds of Bohemia and abandon her there. Again turning on that sixpence, Goodman’s Shepherd ushers in the transition from tragedy to comedy and is responsible for some of the biggest laughs in the second half of the play. Goodman’s chemistry with his Shepherd’s Son (Nathan Stark) is worth the price of admission by itself. Their comic timing is flawless.

Perhaps the best example of how the pared-down casting has led to some of the play’s most memorable moments comes in Act 5, scene 2, when Shakespeare compresses the action into a series of reports by three passing Gentlemen, updating Autolycus regarding what has transpired in King Leontes’ palace. In the Festival production, Autolycus is replaced by a Sicilian Attendant at Court (Ben Matthew), and the three Gentlemen’s reports are delivered via a positively protean performance from Chauncy Thomas, becoming The Gossips, inhabiting three distinct personas, one after another, much to the audience’s delight. Thanks to Matthew and Thomas (along with Scallet’s creativity), a scene which largely serves the function of hastening the plot in the original becomes a high point in the Festival production.

One of the alterations that Scallet makes is adding a prologue to the play, delivered from the upper tier of the stage by personified Time, played by Lisa Gaye Dixon (also Paulina). The personification of Time was one of the play’s features that turned early critics, like Pope, against it; and even in modern performances, directors often delete the character. Instead, Scallet leans into the narrative device, even adding, as I said, a new speech to open the play. The prologue puts the production in context, identifying that the pandemic has affected the production and in what ways, all in language worthy of Shakespeare’s original. Dixon’s stage presence, especially as Paulina, is commanding; and one senses that her fellow actors know they must achieve their best performances to keep from being overshadowed.

I must also underscore the performance of Rondale Gray (Cleomenes, Mariner, Florizel), whose energy and athleticism seem a throwback to the King’s Men themselves. The entire cast is wonderful, even those players not mentioned here in the interest of brevity.

I know I’ve experienced a great production when I begin to see a play I already know well in new ways. The ISF production of The Winter’s Tale definitely accomplished that. As mentioned earlier, we believe the play was first performed in 1611, and Shakespeare may have written it after an especially deadly outbreak of the plague which closed the London theaters for most of 1609 and 1610. The Festival’s staging of The Winter’s Tale seemed like history repeating itself. I felt great joy at being back in the Festival’s Globe-like theater after nearly two years, but I couldn’t help thinking of the half million Americans who lost their lives to Covid in the meantime (a half million and counting). In this context, the two distinct moods of the play seem exactly right: the fear and the darkness attached to the years of pestilence, contrasted with the pure joy of having survived when so many others did not. The theatergoers who saw the earliest performances of The Winter’s Tale must have felt a similar relief to what my wife and I experienced last night: the delight of returning to something close to normal, after so much fear and anxiety.

Moreover, in the play’s presentation of an out-of-control king who insists on a reality he has created from his own deluded imagination, I thought of what the country has experienced for the last five years (and continues to experience). I felt the desperation of Leontes’ councilors as they tried to bring him to his senses before destroying everything in the wake of his ego-driven fury. But no logic can alter his absurd ideas, not even a proclamation from Apollo’s oracle.

Finally, what about the bear? Those familiar with The Winter’s Tale know it has one of the oddest stage directions in the Shakespeare canon (presumably written by the Bard himself, and not a later editor). From Act 3, scene 3: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” We don’t know what Shakespeare had in mind. Some like to believe the King’s Men brought a live bear onstage to pursue Antigonus. Thanks to the popularity of bear-baiting in Shakespeare’s day and the popularity of performing bears, there were plenty of bears to be had in London, both wild and tamed. There were bear-baiting pits near the Globe in fact. Some believe Shakespeare had an actor dress in a bear costume, or maybe it was a special effect (a sound made offstage perhaps).

When I saw the Festival’s production in 2011, the director went with an enormous silhouette of a bear projected onto the stage’s backdrop along with a terrifying series of roars amplified via the sound system. It was neat. So when one attends a performance of The Winter’s Tale, there’s always the intriguing issue of how they will handle the bear.

You wish . . . you’ll just have to go see for yourself. Performances of The Winter’s Tale, along with Measure for Measure, will run throughout July into the first week of August. Go. You deserve it.

An open letter to school board members

Posted in August 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 2, 2020

School boards have been in the process of deciding what to do about school come mid-August, and essentially they’ve weighed three options: full attendance; full remote; or some hybrid combination in between. In my mind — and the minds of thousands of other educators — it should be a simple decision. By far the safest approach — the approach that would prevent students and adults from becoming infected at school — is full-remote learning. Yet many school boards are not opting for remote learning.

Allow me to make my case for remote learning. First, though, let me say that I began teaching in 1984, in East Moline, Illinois. After a few years I moved to Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where I taught for more than a decade before being recruited to come to Williamsville, Illinois, in 1998. So I’m embarking on my 38th year in the classroom, my 23rd here at Williamsville. Earlier this summer I put in my notice to retire in four years, so if I make it I’ll retire in 2024 with 42 years in the classroom.

What is more, while here in Williamsville the school board essentially paid for me to earn a pedagogically based Ph.D. from Illinois State University. Presumably their generosity was based at least in part on the idea it was a sound investment because they could avail themselves of the knowledge and wisdom I accrued in earning that quite rare degree.

Thus, I don’t think of myself as an expert in very many things, but after 38 years and a doctorate I believe I’ve earned the right to call myself an expert when it comes to schools, classrooms and kids. You wouldn’t want me rewiring your house, or grooming your dog, or organizing your stock portfolio — but when it comes to teaching school and working with children, I encourage you to pay attention.

There’s been talk all summer of “returning to school safely” — but the concept is a fairy tale. A lot of people seem to think that if we expand teachers’ roles to include becoming makeshift nurses, custodians and juvie prison guards, we can somehow prevent COVID-19 infection in the school.

We can’t. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Children are going to become infected. Some will have serious medical complications. Some will die. Adults in the building, especially teachers, will become infected. Some will have serious medical complications. Some will die.

Rather than going through all the reasons we won’t be able to keep schools free of Covid, let me, instead, point to the parable of professional sports. Various professional sports leagues have returned to action this summer, or tried to. Perhaps it began with the PGA golf tour in June, but then there were the hockey players of the NHL, and most recently Major League Baseball. Professional sports leagues, individual franchises, and the players themselves have unlimited resources to keep athletes free of COVID-19, and yet they haven’t been able to.

Every league had essentially the same strategy: Get athletes inside a Covid-free “bubble.” Test them for the virus constantly (in some cases twice a day). Isolate them from the general population (train in isolation, eat and sleep in isolation, travel in isolation). Have their environments professionally sanitized every day. And quarantine anyone in the bubble at the first sign of a Covid symptom.

Professional golf went one tournament before players and caddies started testing positive for Covid. Pro hockey players were experiencing an infection rate five times the average population. And we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks what’s been happening in Major League Baseball: multiple outbreaks and canceled games.

Doctors believe the problem is the very first step: Getting athletes inside the bubble free of infection. It appears nearly impossible. With people being asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, even with the most rigorous screening by professional medical personnel, someone with the virus is going to slip through. Then you have the situation of others being, in essence, trapped inside the bubble with a teammate or fellow competitor who is highly contagious.

So professional sports teams, with all their resources, can’t prevent the spread of infection. But somehow masked schoolteachers are going to provide an impenetrable shield against COVID-19 armed with thermometers, spray bottles and paper towels. The assertion would be comical if it weren’t deadly serious.

To repeat: The idea of a “safe” school is a fantasy.

Another important point — and again let me remind you this is coming from somebody who’s spent nearly four decades teaching school — has to do with quality of instruction. A lot of people advocating for in-person instruction are basing their argument on the premise that in-person instruction is superior to remote instruction. Under normal circumstances, I would wholeheartedly agree. But these circumstances are far from normal.

Teaching, in the best of times, is exhausting. We love teaching, but it wears us out physically, mentally and emotionally. Now, many teachers (including me) are being asked to teach both in-person and remotely, plus pitch in to monitor students’ health, and to clean desks, doors, cabinets, keyboards — wherever kids have been. Even still, kids and adults are going to have to eat and drink during the day, removing their masks for several minutes. Schools are considering building “mask breaks” into the schedule because it will be difficult for children and adults to wear masks for several hours without interruption. Moreover, maintaining social distancing at all times will be impossible.

Nurses who have been dealing with the novel coronavirus since March have been reaching out to schoolteachers with advice on how to avoid becoming infected and how to avoid bringing the virus home to their families. Besides masks, of course, teachers should wear face shields, goggles or at least eyeglasses, they recommend. Teachers should have separate work clothes and home clothes, including shoes, and their work clothes and shoes should not be allowed inside their homes. They recommend having a safe space, like the trunk of their car, to store their work clothes and shoes. They say that every day work clothes should go directly into the washing machine, and teachers should go directly into the shower. Directly. Every day.

So here’s the thing: Between the extra duties, the extra precautions, and the extra worries, teachers who are teaching in-person will be burned out by mid-September. Even if they haven’t contracted COVID-19 (and many will), they will be physically, mentally and emotionally wiped out. And the year is only getting started. Then what level of quality instruction will teachers be able to provide their students, in person or remotely? Within a matter of weeks, in-person faculty will more closely resemble the cast of The Walking Dead than enthusiastic and energetic educators.

It’s worth remembering, too, that we are only just beginning this fight. Life, including school life, won’t return to pre-Covid normal until people are vaccinated against the virus. The hope is that there will be a safe and effective vaccine by late 2020 or early 2021. But that’s just the first step (and an enormous one it is). Then the vaccine must be mass produced. Estimates vary between epidemiologists, but somewhere between 150 million to over 200 million Americans will have to be vaccinated in order to establish herd immunity. Meanwhile, a system for distributing and administering the vaccinations will have to be created (none exists presently). (link)

Therefore, even after the vaccine is found, it will take many months to vaccinate the numbers of people needed to establish a threshold of infection that would allow us to return to “normal.” In other words, educators will be dealing with COVID-19 well into the 2021-2022 school year, if not beyond. Decimating your faculty through overwork, over-worry, and infection within the first few weeks of this school year simply isn’t logical.

Defeating Covid is a marathon, and beginning school with a four-minute-mile pace is a flawed strategy. Teachers can make remote instruction effective — if we have the time, the energy and the support.

(Image is from a school in Germany, found here at CNN.com.)

Why e-learning should continue this fall

Posted in July 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2020

I understand why so many people want students to return to their classrooms this fall, along with their teachers and coaches and all the other school personnel who make education possible. I understand because I’m one of those people. I’m entering my 37th year teaching high school English, and nothing would make me happier than to sit down with a group of enthusiastic students and have a boisterous discussion about Macbeth or Beowulf, or to hear my speech students inform their classmates and me about their most beloved topics.

I miss the students. I miss talking to them, and teaching them, and making them laugh every so often. I miss it all.

Nevertheless, after staying abreast of the latest developments regarding COVID-19, and thinking through myriad scenarios, I’ve come to the conclusion that having in-school attendance in August would be foolhardy. The risks are too great, and the logistical challenges are too overwhelming.

Even though here in Illinois we were largely successful in flattening the curve — the mantra in the early days of Covid — we certainly didn’t vanquish the virus. Some of our neighboring states, like Iowa and Missouri, did very little to contain the spread. Locally there are people testing positive for the virus, and we’ve had several deaths in our community. Because of our early success in dealing with Covid, we’ve been moving from one reopening phase to the next like clockwork — but the reopening itself is due to economic and political pressure. It’s not based on the best advice of medical science.

As a country, we are losing our battle with the virus. Nationwide there are nearly 3 million confirmed cases, and we’ve recorded over 130,000 deaths (many epidemiologists believe our numbers are under-reported because in late 2019 and early 2020 we were not identifying people with COVID-19, and attributing their illnesses and deaths to other causes). I believe I had the virus in mid-March, just as our state was shutting down, but I was neither a movie star nor a professional athlete so I couldn’t get a confirming test. Luckily, I recovered fairly quickly without medical assistance. Weeks later an antibody test came back negative, but the antibody tests are unreliable for several reasons.

Having in-person school this fall would be a logistical nightmare. The one-two punch that the CDC has been recommending from the beginning — wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart — would be all but impossible to maintain in schools. Besides, recent studies have suggested social distancing isn’t very effective indoors since COVID-19 stays in the air longer and is more contagious when airborne than first believed.

To quote a recently published article, “Global experts: Ignoring airborne COVID spread risky” (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, 6 July 2020): “The authors [of a recent study] said that handwashing and physical distancing are appropriate—but not sufficient—to provide protection against respiratory microdroplets, particularly in poorly ventilated indoor environments such as those that have been at the center of several ‘superspreading’ events.”

I’m familiar with “poorly ventilated indoor environments,” more affectionately known as classrooms in my world.

The researchers concluded: “In order to control the pandemic, pending the availability of a vaccine, all routes of transmission must be interrupted.”

All routes of transmission must be interrupted. If we open schools this August, even in some modified way (with alternating days of attendance, for example), we will be providing countless routes of transmission. Even with our best efforts to enforce the wearing of masks and keep students as far apart as possible, there are going to be routes of transmission. In classrooms certainly. There are also buses, cafeterias, locker rooms, restrooms, hallways.

If a student tests positive for Covid, or if they find out they’ve been exposed, what then? What if that exposure was, say, on a Sunday and it’s now Wednesday when they find out their situation? Every student, teacher, custodian, cook that they’ve been around — should they be quarantined? Tested? What will that quarantining mean for their families?

Throughout my career, teaching at various schools, we’ve been figuring out ways to encourage students to come to school no matter what, with rewards and punishments. The goal has always been perfect attendance. Now we must reverse course and tell students to stay away if they have even the hint of a Covid symptom. Fall allergy season is fast approaching. Farmers are about to harvest their fields. Many, many students suffer from seasonal allergies and many suffer from asthma. From August to December every year they have coughs and runny noses and dripping sinuses.

How will we know if their Kleenex addiction is an allergy or COVID-19? How will they?

Ask any teacher. Ask how many boxes of tissue they go through in a normal year.

And what about teachers? Nationally one-third of schoolteachers are 50 or older. I’ll be 58 in September. According to the CDC, by the end of April more than 90% of the Covid deaths in the U.S. were people 55 or older. (link) Many older teachers have chronic health issues that put them further at risk. But even younger teachers can have health issues that place them in greater jeopardy in spite of their age.

If a teacher is exposed to Covid, or tests positive, they’ll have to be out of the classroom for at least two weeks (even with no serious medical consequences). In every school I’ve taught in, most of the substitute teachers were retired teachers in their fifties, sixties and even seventies. Even if they’d be willing to step in for a few weeks, should they? Should we ask them to? Is it even ethical? (After reading my post, a colleague pointed out that if substitute teachers step forward, they generally work in different buildings and for more than one district, which means subs could easily facilitate an outbreak themselves.)

I know that keeping children from going to school in person has significant drawbacks. I know it creates all kinds of obstacles for parents. Students suffer in many ways, especially perhaps special-needs students. I get it, I sympathize, and if I could I’d wave a Harry Potter-like wand and make it not so. I’d do it in a heartbeat.

In addition to nearly four decades of classroom teaching (seniors in high school predominantly), since 2016 I’ve also taught online graduate courses in a university’s MFA program. I learned that online teaching and in-person teaching are inherently different. A teacher must approach them differently, with different methods and different expectations. There’s a learning curve. It’s instinct to try to recreate your classroom curriculum in the virtual environment — to just shift everything from one to the other lock, stock and barrel.

Unfortunately, for the most part, that approach doesn’t work very well. Even for classroom veterans, online teaching requires rethinking and retooling. In order for it to be effective — to be meaningful and hopefully even enjoyable for students — requires considerable thought, investigation of online tools and platforms, development of methodology that is unique to web-based environments, and so forth.

For that matter, students have to learn to be online students, too. How they learn, how they keep track of their assignments, how they submit them, how they respond to feedback — everything is different online, and students, like teachers, will have a learning curve also.

This past March teachers in Illinois and many other states suddenly found themselves teaching online — literally with no preparation whatsoever. Teachers are professionals, and we adjusted as quickly and as best as we could — but it was far from ideal. The online teaching that students and parents experienced in March, April and May was not representative of what online teaching can be, with the requisite time to prepare.

The people who are in charge of deciding whether or not we return to the classroom in August, and, if so, under what circumstances and conditions, are under a great deal of pressure. I don’t envy them that. Various surveys and news stories have suggested that the majority of parents want their children to go back to their physical school this fall. I understand it. Like I said earlier, I want that too.

Also like I said earlier, in spite of the majority’s desire, the reality of the pandemic makes it ill-advised, even dangerous — for students, teachers, other educational personnel, students’ families, teachers’ families, the school’s community, and even the state and the country . . . even the world.

Here’s what I recommend: School this fall should be exclusively online (for all the reasons I’ve cited in this post, plus a lot more that I didn’t but could). Teachers should begin their professional duties in mid-August (or whatever their contracts dictate), and they should start the challenging and time-consuming process (if done well) of preparing for online teaching. Then have students join their online courses about mid-September. Hopefully by the end of 2020, the virus will be better contained (right now it’s skyrocketing out of control), and there will be a legitimate expectation for a vaccine or at least an effective treatment for COVID-19. Perhaps, with luck, we could resume in-class teaching in January 2021.

It may seem like a slow start to the year — having teachers begin serious preparation mid-August and bringing students into the mix mid-September — but even with an online approach there are innumerable details that must be attended to. Families, for instance, are going to need time to figure out how to make their life work if their children are not returning to the classroom in August (remember that teachers have families too). Schools must make sure they have everything they need to make online learning effective (which may require purchasing hardware, buying subscriptions, setting up platforms); and school districts need to help students have what they need at home to be successful (adequate computers, reliable web connection, etc.).

At present, the laws regarding school calendars would be problematic under the recommendation I’m making — but to my way of thinking those nuts and bolts shouldn’t supersede an approach that is best for students and all those concerned. The pandemic presents the most challenging educational situation in at least a century. Lawmakers should consider revising the rule book given these extraordinary circumstances.

I’ll reiterate that I don’t envy the people who have to make the tough decisions. I’m glad that many years ago I decided to spend my career hanging out with kids in the classroom, and leaving the big knuckle-biting decisions to others. Whatever they decide, I and every teacher will do our best to make schools safe and effective learning environments, as we always do.

We love and respect kids, and we’ll get them through this pandemic one way or another. Hopefully we’ll survive it too.