12 Winters Blog

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, 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 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.

The New Lost Generation

Posted in October 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 27, 2019

Gertrude Stein is credited with coining the phrase “the Lost Generation” in referring to the young Americans who emerged from the First World War years with shattered belief systems. The brutality and totality of the conflict left them confused, hopeless and directionless. The values that previous generations could believe in, could rely on, had been eviscerated and subverted by the war’s carnage.

As a high school English teacher, as someone who has been teaching predominantly seniors for the last 37 years, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the image of a “lost generation” in the context of today’s seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. These are young people who have grown up with technology, who have had their own tablets and cell phones from an early age, who have lived much of their lives on social media.

The term “social” media seems, in retrospect, ironic because in fact their technology has cut them off from each other in meaningful and fruitful ways. They tend to exist in digital enclaves of like-minded others who repeat and reaffirm their view of the world — no matter how misguided or downright false that view may be.

Their Snapchat threads and Twitter feeds are filled with trivial details about each other’s lives, and “news” regarding athletes, entertainers, and flash-in-the-pan Internet celebrities.

Most do not read books, even for school if they can help it.

But the furthest lost of this New Lost Generation are those young people who have grown up in a Trump-supporting environment, which is almost without exception a Fox News environment, a Breitbart environment, an InfoWars environment. What little awareness of the broader world they have is refracted through these deliberately distorting lenses.

young women at trump rally

They wholeheartedly believe things like . . .

Mexicans and other Hispanic people are pouring unchecked into the country through an all but nonexistent border, murdering and raping and selling drugs while also reaping the benefits of hardworking Americans’ tax dollars with free housing, healthcare, and schooling.

Muslims are terrorists, and many such Muslim terrorists have crept into the United States through the southern border, embedded among the hordes of Mexican murderers, rapists and drug dealers.

Guns are inherently good, and the more “good people” who own guns the safer other “good people” would be. Mass shootings wouldn’t take place if more good people were carrying guns — apparently all the time, everywhere.

Christians are inherently better than non-Christians. The separation of Church and State is at the root of all our country’s problems. The government needs to be more overtly Christian, and so do public schools.

Socialism is inherently bad. Only lazy people want “free stuff.” Government handouts make people weak — and increase the national debt.

Public schools and universities are filled with liberal teachers and professors who want to indoctrinate conservative young people into being liberals with their radical and dangerous leftist ideas. Discussing issues related to ideologies and public policies is a form of leftist brainwashing that must be guarded against.

Journalists are the enemy of the people. Any reporting on the President and his supporters that is negative must be false, made up for malicious purposes.

Democrats advocate ideas that are not simply wrong: they are dangerous.

Meanwhile unwavering support of Donald Trump has taught this New Lost Generation that . . .

Disrespectful, name-calling rants on Twitter are fine. Even if those rants are racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic.

Spreading misinformation and baldfaced lies is fine. In fact, opinions are the new facts for the New Lost Generation.

Infidelity to your spouse is fine. Lying about it is fine. Paying off people to conceal it is fine. Conspiring with others to keep it a secret is fine.

Women are to be used, cast aside and (if necessary) bought.

Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are fine people.

Coequal branches of government is a myth. The Executive branch, especially the President, is supreme.

Checks-and-balances is a myth. Any attempted check is a conspiracy and a coup.

The Rule of Law is a myth. Officers of the court, members of Congress, requests for information and interviews, even subpoenas are powerless and meaningless. Laughable in fact.

The Constitution is meaningless.

Majority-rule is meaningless. Democracy is a pointless concept. The minority can rule if they play dirty enough, if they band together single-mindedly enough.

Accepting and even encouraging assistance from another country — including a geopolitical enemy — to win an election is fine. Only results matter. The method is without substance or consequence.

Making money — as much money as possible, in any way possible, partnered with anyone who can make it happen — should be one’s greatest goal in life. One shouldn’t let ethics, common decency or even the law stand in one’s way of making money.

If people or the environment is harmed, even destroyed, in the service of making money, so be it.

Claiming oneself a Christian without adhering, even remotely, to values associated with Christianity is fine. Saying the word is all that matters. Actions are something else entirely.

Donald Trump will be out of office someday, but his corrupt legacy will live on exponentially via the New Lost Generation — unless they can manage to find their way and save themselves. In spite of it all, I hold out hope. I must.

(Photo found here.)

Austen’s successful debut at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2019

Every summer central Illinoisans are treated to the pleasures of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, now in its 42nd season. The tradition has been to offer two works by Shakespeare and one of another sort. For the 2019 season, the non-Shakespeare offering is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), marking the first time Austen has been adapted for the ISF stage. I will cut to the chase: Go see it.

I attended the preview performance July 5. The evening’s sultriness did not discourage Festival fans from attending. The players, managing in their Regency garb, played to a sold-out house. In back, the artistic crew took a last look before finalizing the production for the summer. Among those taking notes was Deanna Jent, who adapted and directed Pride and Prejudice. Jent, a professor at Fontbonne University, also directed last summer’s performance of Merry Wives of Windsor. Those Regency costumes, which effectively broadcast the Austen vibe, were designed by Misti Bradford.

The central figure of the novel, strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet (second born of five daughters, all in search of husbands), was played by Aidaa Peerzada, who shone especially brightly when clashing on stage with prideful Mr. Darcy (Fred Geyer), but downright radiantly when on stage with the imperious Lady De Bourgh (Lisa Gaye Dixon). Peerzada and Geyer had a tall order to fill, almost as tall as a Regency gentleman’s hat, to capture the chemistry of one of literature’s most famous couples, and they have risen to the challenge admirably.

However, I must especially commend Dixon’s performance as the meddling Lady De Bourgh. The part has limited stage time, but Dixon commanded the space, just as the role required, and De Bourgh’s verbal sparring with Elizabeth brought out Peerzada’s best. Fourth of July  fireworks fizzled compared to Dixon and Peerzada’s pyrotechnics.

All of the performers added to the delightful adaptation, including Kevin McKillip (Mr. Bennet), Nisi Sturgis (Mrs. Bennet), Ashley Hart Adams (Jane Bennet, the eldest sister and Elizbeth’s special confidant), and Chauncy Thomas (the always affable Mr. Bingley). I especially appreciate McKillip’s sense of comedic timing. The veteran actor perhaps captures Jane Austen’s dry wit best of all the talented players in the cast — at times eliciting a roar from the audience merely by the perfect look.

The highlight of the production — for me, and it would seem the audience as a whole — was Jordan Coughtry’s interpretation of Mr. Collins, a cousin of Mr. Bennet who arrives to assess the Bennet property that he will one day inherit and to select which Bennet daughter he will marry (at least, that is his design). Coughtry is a remarkable Mr. Collins, sculpting Austen’s clownish clergyman into a character who is both true to the novelist’s original vision but also unique among the many actors who have portrayed him on the screen. Coughtry’s Collins is pompous, over-confident, insensitive — and yet wholly endearing . . . to the audience, that is, but not so much to the Bennets.

Coughtry is almost too good. He owns the stage in the first half of the play, which could be seen as problematic since Mr. Collins is a secondary character in Pride and Prejudice — important certainly, but normally one thinks of Elizabeth and Jane as dominating the reader’s attention. Perhaps fortunately, Mr. Collins’s stage time is lessened in the second half of the play, which allows Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, and other characters more central to the plot to shine a bit brighter.

Nevertheless, Coughtry’s Collins commands the largest laughs, and the audience always perked up when he stepped on stage.

My only concern regarding the production is that it closely resembles the Joe Wright-directed film version of 2005 (starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy; screenplay by Deborah Moggach). Rather than an adaptation of the novel, at times the Festival play seems more like a pastiche of the Joe Wright film. I recognize, however, that this is an idiosyncratic concern. Besides having taught the novel in college courses a few times, I have watched the film many, many times. It is one of my favorites, and I’ve shown it to classes more times than I can count. The typical Festival-goer would not be burdened with such familiarity.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting something like plagiarism or even mimicry, not at all. The unfolding of the play definitely adheres to Austen’s original work in ways that the Wright/Moggach film does not. In fact, one of the things I admire most about Deanna Jent’s adaptation is that she oftentimes advances the plot via characters’ narrating the action in third-person snippets taken from the pages of the novel, or nearly so. It is a clever way to compress the time span of the original and bring into the script some of Austen’s narrative voice — a treat for actors and audience alike.

Speaking of treats, Jent’s adaptation also makes terrific use of dance, as does Austen’s novel. In straitlaced Regency England, dancing was critical to courtship, and Austen’s Netherfield Ball scene is one of the greats in all of English-language literature. Likewise, Jent masterfully employs dance in the service of plot advancement, characterization, and mood-setting. (Sarah West is credited as dance captain for the ISF production, and Gregory Merriman as choreographer — kudos to both.)

It’s difficult to imagine a central Illinois summer without the Shakespeare Festival, and this production of Pride and Prejudice is yet another triumph in its proud history. I repeat: Go see it while you have the opportunity.

(As You Like It and Caesar are the Bardic offerings this summer.)

From Tender Buttons to the “Heart of the Country”: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass

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

The following paper, “From Tender Buttons to the ‘Heart of the Country’: Gertrude Stein’s Structural Influence on William H. Gass,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, the University of Louisville, Feb. 23, 2019, as part of the panel Material Readers and the Dynamics of Reception, chaired by Mark Mattes, University of Louisville. Other papers in the panel were “A Publication ‘edited by its readers’: Representation and Materiality in the Working-Class Newspaper Correspondence” by Emily Spunaugle, Wayne State University; and “Thirty Thoughts on Little House on the Prairie and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” [revised title] by Amy Gilley, Arkansas State University, Queretaro.


 

The author “wrote densely and brilliantly and beautifully and perversely and with intense contrivance and deep care and . . . skill” (108). Those too few who are intimately familiar with William H. Gass may have written this description regarding his contribution to belles-lettres. In fact, however, this is how Gass described one of his greatest influences, Gertrude Stein, in his landmark essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence” (1973). Gass always emphatically credited Stein’s influence on his work. He discovered her in graduate school, he said, and made the study of her writing a life-long occupation. (He studied at Cornell in the late 1940s, taking the Ph.D. in philosophy in 1954; and he passed away in 2017.) Yet in all his many discussions of Stein he never expressly linked her experimental poem Tender Buttons (1914) to his experimental short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1967). The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Stein’s early poem had a direct impact on both the substance and the structure of Gass’s story—a story that became the title piece in the collection which solidified his reputation on the national literary stage, and which became the prototype for his magnum opus, the novel The Tunnel, famously 26 years in the writing.

I’ve been presenting papers at the Louisville Conference for, I think, fourteen years, and for the last decade or so my papers have focused exclusively on William H. Gass. Since discovering the Master in 2008 I have become a self-described Gass scholar and disciple—the only one I believe. I must credit the conference specifically for this paper topic. I’m ashamed to admit that until this past year I hadn’t read Tender Buttons. It had been on my must-read list for decades, but last February while browsing the new books in their usual spot on the third floor of the Humanities Building, outside of conference registration, I happened upon a critical edition of Tender Buttons, edited by Leonard Diepeveen, and as soon as I flipped it open I experienced something like déjà vu. Simply, the look of Stein’s text on the page was uncannily similar to the physical appearance of Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” an odd plot-less tale carved up into sections, some brief, some longer, each with its own subtitle. Being well aware of Stein’s influence on Gass in general, I immediately became suspicious that Tender Buttons served as a model for “In the Heart,” and I’ve spent the past year investigating that belief (in fits and starts of course).

When I submitted this paper proposal to the conference committee last summer, I hypothesized that Stein’s influence on the piece was mainly structural—thus my title—but the further I’ve looked into it, I believe the connections are even greater.

A quick refresher on Tender Buttons, which was first published in New York by the avant-garde press Claire Marie in 1914. It is divided into three parts—Objects, Food, and Rooms—with each part being further divided into subtitled pieces, some as brief as a few words, others consisting of several paragraphs. At a glance, Tender Buttons appears to be prose, but Stein called it poetry (more on this to follow). It has the reputation for being all but incomprehensible—although many have taken a stab at unlocking its meanings, including Gass in the essay previously mentioned. Diepeeven states it plainly in the introduction to his critical edition: “For many readers, one could not read Tender Buttons, or understand what it was . . .” (10). I believe his for many readers is generous: most, nearly all would probably be more accurate. The trouble begins immediately with the opening section “A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.”:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. (33)

Similarly, Gass structured “In the Heart of the Heart of Country” as a series of small segments or vignettes, each with its own subtitle (some of which repeat). Among the subtitles are “A Place,” “Weather,” “My House,” “Vital Data,” and “My House, My Cat, My Company.” They vary in length from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs. The story’s first-person narrator is an aging poet who goes about describing his town, his neighbors, and himself; however, there is no easily discernible plot. As far as I know, I’m the only person to see the structure of Tender Buttons in “In the Heart,” and that may be because on the surface, and from the start, Gass invites readers to make comparisons to Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928). The story begins, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” with “B” standing for both a small Indiana town, Brookston, and Yeats’s Byzantium. Moreover, Yeats’s poem is about old age and the struggle to keep one’s artistic flame burning while one’s body slowly deteriorates toward death. Gass’s narrator is an aging poet who is “in retirement from love.” He says, “I’ve lost my years. . . . I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it to me now, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). So, thematically, there are definite correlations between Yeats’s poem and Gass’s story, in addition to the overt clue Gass provides in the opening sentence.

What is more, critics have noted that there are the same number of sections in the story as there are lines in “Sailing to Byzantium,” a fact that Gass did not dispute. In an interview Gass said, “It was pointed out by some anal observer [Larry McCaffery] that the sections of the story and the lines of the poem are the same [thirty-six]. And that’s true . . . That’s a little kind of imposed formality that I did to help shape the work” (qtd. in Hix 48). However, Gass’s acknowledgment is troublesome for a few reasons. McCaffery’s counting is based on the version of the story which appeared in the 1968 collection of the same title, a version which has been subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions, including in The William H. Gass Reader this past year. Yet in its original published form, in New American Review in 1967, the story had significantly fewer sections, only thirty. It’s possible that the difference in the number of sections (and other differences) are the result of editorial intervention; that is, perhaps the changes were necessary for its inclusion in the journal, to pare it back, for example, due to space limitations. The definitive answer to that question may lie in the massive Gass archive at Washington University in St. Louis, an archive which contains tens of thousands of pages (or more) of manuscript drafts, letters, and other material. I have visited the archive a handful of times and have spent perhaps a dozen hours seriously reading through the material there, but suffice it to say I’ve barely scratched proverbial surface.

Nevertheless, the archive’s contents provide the other reason I’m dubious about Gass’s acknowledgment that the number of lines of Yeats’s poem provided a guiding structure for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Among Gass’s papers are myriad drafts of the story which suggest his initial writing of the piece was fairly conventional, meaning that he composed long chunks of text, and then later he cut up and rearranged these smaller chunks until the story achieved its final form (well, one of its final forms). What is more, Gass played with numerous versions of the structure that resulted in its having fewer than thirty-six sections, the number necessary to match Yeats’s number of lines.  Gass made numbered lists and plugged in the various fragmented vignettes; then toyed with moving around the pieces. Some of these numbered lists suggest he had in mind twenty-four subtitled pieces (see figures 1, 2 and 3). Another list, more detailed and messier, reveals that Gass considered the pieces falling into four broad categories, A through D, (reminiscent of Stein’s three categories) of eight vignettes each for a grand total of thirty-two, four short of Yeats’s thirty-six lines (figure 4).

section numbers - no titles

Fig. 1. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

sectioins numbers - more titles

Fig. 2. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

section numbers - more notes

Fig. 3. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

increasing section numbers - many notes

Fig. 4. Photograph of a handwritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

draft of opening - where are you

Fig. 5. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

At this point in his career Gass wrote on a manual typewriter, so the rough drafts of “In the Heart” are on full-size sheets of paper; however, while revising he might rewrite the same paragraph, or part of a paragraph, multiple times on the same sheet (see figure 5, which became part of a long vignette subtitled “Education” in the latter half of the story, in both the 1967 and ’68 versions, section 21/32 and 16/30, respectively). Each of these pieces is suggestive of the index cards Gertrude Stein used to write, by hand, and arrange Tender Buttons (see Appendix B of Diepeveen’s critical edition). So it isn’t that their writing processes were similar while originally drafting their poem and story, but through the process of revision Gass seems to have pared down his longer chunks of text to crystalline bite-size bits of a similar heft to Stein’s index cards, at least in some cases. Gass invested a significant amount of time in considering and rearranging these bits of text, as evidenced by the numberings and revised numberings in the margins of the drafts (figure 6). Without further examination of his papers, I can’t say how pervasive this kind of paring down was in the process of writing “In the Heart,” but I can say it wasn’t wholly unique to this short story. His technique of isolating single paragraphs or parts of paragraphs and revising them again and again, often on the same sheet of typing paper, can be seen in the archive for other works. I can attest to the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968) and parts of The Tunnel (1995). For that matter, a kindred technique became part of the published draft of Middle C (2013), whereby the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, works on rewriting the same brief paragraph throughout the novel, rearranging sentences, substituting words, until he has it perfect. In fact, the reaching of the paragraph’s final form is a kind of climax in the novel.

ms page with numbered sectiions revised

Fig. 6. Photograph of a manually typewritten page by William H. Gass as part of the drafting of “In the Heart of Heart of the Country.” Washington University Archives. Photo by the Author.

I want to return to Stein’s profound influence on Gass, which he made no bones about. In his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” in which Gass identified the books (and authors) who were most influential on his development as a writer, he listed Stein’s Three Lives and said, “I knew I had found the woman my work would marry” (54). Anyone who knows Gass at all probably knows that his greatest influence was the German poet Rilke. It’s true that Rilke is everywhere in Gass’s work, and he wrote a book about the difficulty of translating Rilke (Reading Rilke, 1999), which he tried his hand at himself. Gass said that Rilke helped to solidify ideas he’d had for years which he’d gotten from other great writers, like Stein: “. . . I had certainly come across and become enamored of Gertrude Stein a lot earlier and Flaubert somewhat, also—they all came together; Rilke just brought them together. . . . He sort of coalesced it all for me.” In particular “Rilke discovers that the poet’s aim is to add something to reality rather than comment on it or express something, to be something” (Ammon 161). Ultimately, said Gass, “you have an [art] object sitting there which is the result of this big cycle from objects observed by the poet or painter and it’s not that the painting is about anything; it is a transformation and a new object in the world” (162).

This concept is key to understanding Gass’s work. His stories, novellas and novels are not interested in advancing a plot via narration—as one would normally think of as the defining feature of fiction—but rather his stories, novellas and novels are interested in being works of art. The characters and their actions (the term plot doesn’t really apply) are a means to an end, and that end is to create a unique piece of literary art. This core artistic aim in Gass can be traced to Gertrude Stein’s philosophy of aesthetics, and Tender Buttons may be her most pure expression of that aesthetic. By the same token, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” may be Gass’s starkest example of the sort of fiction he would become infamous for, fiction which downplayed the typical foci on character development and plot, and instead emphasized stylistic components and thematic repetition.

Stein spoke of her narrative philosophy on numerous occasions, but her second lecture at the University of Chicago in 1935 zeroed in on this aspect of her writing process most directly. “Lecture 2” deals with the distinction between prose and poetry as they had been evolving in the modernist movement after the First World War, a movement of which Stein had been the vanguard for more than twenty years by the time she delivered her Chicago lectures. She said, as only she could,

When one used to think of narrative one meant telling of what is happening in successive moments of its happening the quality of telling depending upon the conviction of the one telling that there was a distinct succession in happening, that one thing happened after something else and since that happening in succession was a profound conviction in every one then really there was no difference whether any one began in the beginning or the middle or the ending because since narrative was a progressive telling of things that were progressively happening it really did not make any difference where you were at what moment you were in your happening since the important part of telling anything was the conviction that anything that everything was progressively happening. But now we have changed all that we really have. (17)

If I may, before modernism prose was defined by the narrative quality of cause and effect, of one event leading to another and then another and another in a story or novel, say. In modernism, however, prose has become like poetry in that there is “not a sense of anything being successively happening” (19). Prose is no longer “being a successive thing but being something existing. That is then the difference between narrative as it has been and narrative as it is now,” explained Stein (20). Or as Liesl M. Olson paraphrases the key idea in her foreword to Narration: “A ‘modern’ narrative need not have an event, according to Stein; nothing need ‘happen’” (ix-x). Thus, Stein called Tender Buttons poetry because even though it has the outward trappings of prose (sentences and paragraphs), ontologically it is poetry in that each piece stands alone as a carefully crafted, multilayered thing of linguistic art. There is no traditional narrative substructure of things happening to characters via cause and effect.

In his essay “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” Gass said that Tender Buttons is written “in a kind of code . . . a coding which dangerously confounds the surface . . . [which often] effects a concealment.” This concealment, though, is key to understanding Stein’s genius, “because the object of art is to make more beautiful that which is, and since that which is is rarely beautiful, often awkward and ugly and ill-arranged, it must be sometimes sheeted like a corpse, or dissolved into its elements and put together afresh, aright, and originally” (105). This objective of art was embraced by Gass throughout his career as he frequently tried to make the ugly beautiful via the beauty of his language. In The Tunnel, the centerpiece of oeuvre, for example, Gass wrote beautifully about the Holocaust, and attempted to redeem his deplorable first-person narrator through the loveliness of his language.

Gass’s emphasis on language over plot, on style over characterization has made some readers consider his novellas and novels long prose poems, placing them in the same arena as Tender Buttons. Unlike Stein, however, Gass insisted he was not adept at writing poetry. He did say, though, that the best poets of his generation were writers of fiction, naming in particular John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis (Saltzman 91). It would’ve been the height of egotism to list himself, but his was a name that often appeared among them. He readily acknowledged his frequent use of devices more typically attached to poetry. Among his “quirks” he listed in his essay “Retrospection” are “whoring and metaphoring” and “jingling,” which includes his love of alliteration and limericks.

I’ll end where I began. One of the reasons it’s worth considering if Tender Buttons was a model of sorts for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is because Gass stated explicitly that the short story’s structure led him to his most ambitious work, The Tunnel. He said in an interview with Bradford Morrow, “[The Tunnel] also elaborates the structure of the story in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. [The novel’s] in sections roughly seventy pages long, instead of paragraphs. These are musically organized. There are sections within sections: It’s sectioned up like an insect or a worm.” I believe there is much more to learn about the story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by reading it alongside Stein’s techniques in Tender Buttons; therefore, by extension, Stein’s enigmatic experimental poem may also whisper some clues in our ears, sibyl-like, to help us better comprehend the many levels of The Tunnel.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G. “Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 149-170.

Gass, William H. “Fifty Literary Pillars.” A Temple of Texts, Dalkey Archive, 2007, pp. 29-60.

—. “Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence.” The World within the Word. Basic Books, 1978, pp. 63-123.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories. Godine, 1981, pp. 172-206.

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

Hix, H. L. Understanding William H. Gass, U of South Carolina P, 2002.

Morrow, Bradford. “An Interview: William H. Gass.” Conjunctions, no. 4, 1983, pp. 14-29. Available online http://www.conjunctions.com/print/article/william-h-gass-c4.

Olson, Liesl M. Foreword. Narration by Gertrude Stein, The U of Chicago P, 2010, pp. vii-xii.

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.

Stein, Gertrude. Narration. The U of Chicago P, 2010.

—. Tender Buttons. Edited by Leonard Diepeveen, Broadview, 2018.

 

Interview with Grant Tracey: A Fourth Face

Posted in July 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 11, 2018

As a publisher, one of your hopes when working with an author is to facilitate their creative productivity — to not only bring out their completed work but to also establish a relationship that nurtures their imagination and their ambition. When I met Grant Tracey in 2015, over coffee in his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, he confided some frustration. He hadn’t published a book since 2009, a collection of short fiction, and he had plenty of material for a new book, but he’d come home from the most recent AWP Conference feeling overwhelmed and downtrodden. Various sessions he’d attended had implored authors to be cyber-beings, with websites and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and in general to embrace all sorts of newfangled media.

 

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Grant, however, wasn’t interested in any of that. He was a storyteller, and he wanted to focus on his craft, not get bogged down in the world of the Net. I only knew Grant by reputation, as the longstanding fiction editor of the venerable North American Review, the longest continuously published literary journal in the country (in fact, my wife and I were in town for the magazine’s bicentennial celebration conference). I definitely wanted Grant and his work to be part of Twelve Winters Press, regardless of whether or not he had any interest in being a cyber warrior. Certainly, a vigorous Web presence can only help sales, but what matters to me most is the quality of the writing — and the quality of Grant’s writing wasn’t in question at all.

I went away from that conversation with a handshake agreement to bring out a new collection of stories (which evolved into Final Stanzas, released later that year in paperback and e-book, then, a bit later, as a unique audiobook). In the process of working on the project with Grant, I discovered he’d also written a detective novel (his first full-length novel). My curiosity piqued, I asked to see the manuscript, wherein I was introduced to Hayden Fuller, an ex-pro hockey player turned private eye, navigating the mean streets of 1960s Toronto (Grant’s true hometown).

It turned out that detective noir was Grant’s first love as a writer. We published Cheap Amusements, the debut Hayden Fuller Mystery, in 2016, and in the process unleashed a torrent of inspired prose from Grant, complex stories he’d been percolating for years apparently. Twelve Winters has just released the second Hayden Fuller Mystery, A Fourth Face (in hardcover, paperback and Kindle), and Grant has already delivered the third installment of the series, which we plan to bring out next year, while Grant is researching and writing the already outlined fourth book.

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I coaxed Grant into slowing down the composing process long enough to answer a few questions about this newest release, and what follows are his thought-provoking and entertaining responses. (See also my interviews with Grant about Cheap Amusements and Final Stanzas; in addition, we published Grant’s memoir regarding the impetus of Hayden Fuller in an e-book, Toronto, 1965: Cheap Amusements’ Beat.)

Hayden Fuller is back in A Fourth Face. Trying to avoid any spoilers, what’s your protagonist up to in this new novel?

A former teammate, Bobby Ehle, is suspected of murdering his wife and asks Hayden for his help. Bobby has a history of domestic violence, but Hayden believes in the possibility of his innocence and takes the case. From there the trail takes him into a world of dangerous and experimental psychedelic drugs (the mind altering Red 45), quack doctors with their phony cosmetics and plastic surgeries, and a terrorist organization, N’oublie jamais, bent on destroying Expo 67. Hayden also goes on an inner journey, confronting for the first time, the traumas of his own past. The pace is quick, and the violence accelerates.

The title of the novel is a call back to Cheap Amusements and that novel’s exploration of the “third face,” an idea, first expressed by writer/director Samuel Fuller. He believed that we all have private and public faces, but also a third face, ones that we don’t even know we have until faced with trauma or extreme stress, like Fuller experienced on the battle lines in World War II. The third face is the repressed primordial impulse that we all carry. In A Fourth Face, reporter Stana Younger suggests that it, the fourth side of our complex selves, represses what the third side did, denying its culpability and reality. So if, Bobby, in third-face mode, did murder his wife, the fourth face denies what the third did, saying that the third face is not a part of the “real” Bobby Ehle.

Oh, a couple of footnotes. One: this novel, in part, was inspired by the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, where Terry Lennox asks Philip Marlowe to help him out of a possible “domestic jam.” Marlowe, in the Robert Altman film version, comes to discover that Lennox did kill his wife. Two: the Red 45 subplot is something Mickey Spillane might have concocted for a Mike Hammer thriller. No doubt, Spillane’s later Mike Hammer offering, Survival Zero, was an influence on A Fourth Face. Chandler and Spillane are among my favorite writers of crime noir.

I’m sure in the writing of this new Hayden Fuller Mystery you got to know Hayden even better. What did you learn about him? Was there anything especially surprising that you didn’t know before about your protagonist?

Two things. One, there’s a big reveal in the novel that I don’t want to give away, but that plot turn totally surprised me. Hayden came to me in a dream and told me about what had happened in his past, so I just had to work that into the book. It becomes a big part of the inner journey in Neon Kiss, and I think Hayden’s trauma helps explain the violence of the first book’s ending or “execution.” I didn’t feel that I needed to explain Hayden’s actions in Cheap Amusements, but this novel helps contextualize the debut novel’s final moments.

Second, I had no idea what was going to happen to Hayden’s relationship with Stana Younger (which seemed to be over at the end of Cheap Amusements), but relationships are complicated so I allowed the two characters to surprise me with where they were at, and where they were headed as friends, and as possible rekindled lovers. People, emotions, are complicated and I allowed for that messiness, muddy quality, to grab hold of me.

There’s a sensitivity, vulnerability to Hayden that is a part of me, and I guess as I keep writing him, taking risks, I’m surprised at how much I’m willing to explore and reveal of who he is, and in turn, who I am.

It seems like you’re really in the groove now writing about Hayden. You wrote A Fourth Face pretty quickly, and you’ve already completed a draft of the third Hayden Mystery, with plans for a fourth developing. My sense, then, is that you feel really comfortable with Hayden and the world you’ve created for him. How would you describe your comfort level with the characters and their world, and would you agree that the writing of the novels is coming along fairly easily at this point?

When you first suggested to me that with Cheap Amusements we had a series here and not just a one-off, I have to admit I was both extremely elated but also scared. Did I have it in me to continue to write not just this character but plots full of surprising twists, turns, and deceptions? But once I started writing the second novel (which I drafted in just under 40 days, writing every day) things just flowed and the fear went away. Hayden’s voice was overwhelming, there from the beginning, grabbing a hold of me. It’s me, but not me. Hayden’s a smart-ass, sensitive, and like Holden Caulfield, has little patience with phonies. The voice is a good fit with my sensibilities.

My writing style, for this series, is full of allusions. For example, Top Cop Sal Lambertino now wears suits instead of policeman blues, and Hayden describes his outfit as “Sloan Wilson grays,” a reference to a great novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. That’s part of Hayden’s voice, as is the short-jabs of sentences, the quirky one-liners, and the eyes tuned to psychological subtexts.

Stana Younger is also evolving into a character I really like. She’s tough, pragmatic, and fighting to make her way in the male-dominated field of reporting. After the first novel, she may have struck some readers as a femme-fatale, but such labels are too limiting. She’s a complex person who has made some bad decisions in the past, but she’s decent, caring, and committed to empowering the underdogs and outliers. She is also a great resource, with her police connections and fact-finding skills, providing Hayden with much needed information on each case. Sal is the no-nonsense, best friend, the state-sanctioned authority figure, a top cop. And the nattily-attired gangster Babe Migano also helps out Hayden, when it serves his interests. He is an underworld figure who straddles the line between genuine charm and menace. Migano is a cross between 1960s Rod Steiger and Jackie Gleason. If you can imagine that.

Do you feel Hayden is evolving organically, or are you having to coax his character along from time to time?

I never have to coax him. He always surprises me. I’m an impulse writer, comfortable with uncertainty, never knowing what will turn up next. But I trust in the process, my instincts, choices the characters make, that the journey we take will be a meaningful one. I begin with a plot outline and of course the big so what: who killed whom and why, but once the writing begins subplots emerge, side characters elbow their way on stage, and the novel takes me on a series of detours and highways I hadn’t expected to travel. The original plot outline changes dramatically.

I do know that I want each book to have a “hey wow” finish (like Dr. No’s island blowing up at the end of a Bond film), but I don’t pre-plan the shock ending. Somewhere on the journey, maybe three-fourths through, I see it and write toward it. Spillane, by contrast, often began his novels with the shock ending and then worked his way to find how to get there.

The goal is to entertain readers with a thriller, a good whodunit, but also to give them a lead character who is real and not just solving a crime but discovering in the process of detection who he is. The inner and outer stories.

On the one hand, you know a lot about Hayden and his world from your own experiences and interests—hockey, Toronto, the 1960s, etc.—but I’m sure some research or fact-checking is needed from time to time. Can you talk about how much research has gone into the writing of the books so far?

Crime books. As I mentioned before, I read the old masters: McBain, Chandler, Spillane, Thompson. I also admire John D. Macdonald, Richard Stark, Benjamin Black, and Max Allan Collins. Together they help inform, not so much an aesthetic, but a back drop of possibilities, contexts for my own writing in terms of plotting choices.

Movies. My fashion sense grows out of 60s fare: Honey West, The Green Hornet, Route 66, and Naked City. And any film with Paul Newman. Coolest cat ever.

Hockey books about the original six era. For A Fourth Face I read and re-read Roch Carrier’s Our Life with the Rocket; Benoît Malançon’s The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard; and Jean Béliveau’s My Life in Hockey to contextualize 1955’s “The Richard Riot,” which is an important backstory to the N’oublie jamais movement in the novel. I also read Pierre Berton’s 1967 to get a greater appreciation for that year’s Expo in Montreal.

When Cheap Amusements came out in 2016 you were able to give several readings, some in your own backyard and others in Chicago and elsewhere. How did those readings go? How did people respond to Hayden Fuller and the book?

The readings are a lot of fun. I get into it, becoming all the characters, inhabiting their spaces, and I want to give the audience the best performance I have in me that night. I want them to enjoy the energy with which I write.

Fans of mysteries are pretty knowledgeable so when they ask me about influences on my work and I mention writers I admire they know who I’m talking about and they can make those connections. I think one of the things audiences respond to in my books is the comic touches to Hayden’s voice. They like his smart-ass asides, his use of cultural allusions, and his brand of not-so-subtle understatement.

People also like the plotting. They say it’s complex (in a good way) and full of surprising turns.

Moreover, audiences seem to like that Hayden is a former hockey player (at least when I read in hockey towns like Minnesota and Chicago that was the case). That wrinkle gives the book a different flavor. In the 1950s and 60s, William Campbell Gault wrote a series of detective novels featuring Brock (“the Rock”) Callahan, a former lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, who is now a private eye in the City of Angels. My series, in part, is inspired by his earlier series.

In addition to being a writer, editor, teacher (among other things), you’re also an experienced stage actor. How does your acting inform your presentations of Hayden, etc., when you give readings?

The keys to acting are empathy and authenticity. Placing yourself in the spaces inhabited by others and fully understanding, appreciating, without judging, where each character is coming from. Acting is also about keeping it simple and true. Direct, honest. That’s what I try to do in my writing, and that’s what I try to do when I read, inhabit every space. Ron Carlson, in his great book, Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story, says that direct dialogue is a place of genuine freedom; those are the spaces where characters exist outside the modulated voice of the writer. As a writer, when you engage in dialogue, you have to take on each character’s agendas: what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Or maybe, I should say, you have to allow the characters to take you on surprising journeys. When they speak let them lead. Don’t fit them into a pre-defined agenda. Listen to what they have to tell you. And from there the plot will shift.

I’m also a big fan of the actorly beats. Those are the moment-to-moment choices an actor makes, following the impulses of the dialogue and what’s happening in the scene with his acting partner and within the play’s given circumstances. I’m always aware of beats when I read and let them spin me with surprises.

I also use a lot of beats in my writing. Not just in terms of shifts in dialogue, but I like, as did Ernest Hemingway, using brief descriptors, to create pauses, and thus increase the tension and psychological subtext of each moment. For example, two characters are talking and character A notices character B is chewing on her shirt collar. This is a beat. A pause. And it implies something within the given circumstances of the moment.

Tell us about the Gas Station Pulp Mystery series which you’ve started editing since the last time we talked (about Cheap Amusements).

It’s an imprint series of the North American Review Press that publishes a once-a-year crime novel. I love pulp fiction and the series blends that genre with the inner-directed drive of literary fiction. So I’m seeking character-driven pulp stories, loaded with action but also psychological nuance. Our first book in the series, Black Fin by Mary Frisbee, will be forthcoming soon. I’m currently reading material for our second Gas Station Pulp book.

Neon Kiss is the third Hayden Fuller Mystery (which the Press is planning to get out in 2019). What was your inspiration for the third book?

In the early 1980s I was visiting San Francisco and someone approached me on Geary Street and asked a bunch of questions, trying to figure out my faith (at the time I was an agnostic existentialist). Anyway, I made some disparaging comments about fundamentalists and how I couldn’t get behind their concept of a conditional God: receive my love if you do these things. My idea then was, if there is a God, he loves and accepts all. The fella really dug that comment and said something about how my idea of love fit right in with his church, and the notion of surrendering ourselves over to the way, giving up worldly things, and he invited me to attend a service that afternoon.

I thought about it. The fella had charisma. But, ultimately, I didn’t go. I was a bit freaked out to be honest with you. But I often wondered what would have happened to me if I did go? Would I have wound up in a commune somewhere? I know, I know. I’m sounding a little paranoid here, but a writer has to run with those imagined probabilities. That episode on Geary Street, in part, became the inspiration for the story.

Moreover, I wanted to tell a story about control. How people with dominant personalities and charismatic charm can control those who are less outgoing. At the heart of the novel is an abusive story: one sibling controlled by a megalomaniacal older sibling, who wants to “dismantle the universe,” and thus create his own reality. Twisted relationships of power I find endlessly interesting.

I’m sure at some level Dashiell’s Hammett’s The Dain Curse had a hand in my writing of Neon Kiss as does my fascination/repulsion with cults. John Buell’s The Pyx, in terms of subject matter and structure, was also an inspiration.

When I first drafted the novel, the young runaway woman, at the center of the story, was white. She falls into the cult and becomes the key to Hayden solving the double mystery (what happened to his father and who is behind the cult’s nefarious goings on). However, after visiting and being transformed by my experiences at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in July 2017, I decided to make the young woman Métis. I was really struck with the injustices First Nations Peoples faced at the hands of the Canadian Government.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, if a native mom raised a child alone, there could possibly be a knock at her door and that child would be taken out of the biological mother’s home and raised by a white couple. This was so shocking to me (and don’t get me started on residential schools and natives being force to learn white laws and ways) that I was compelled to revise my novel and put a Métis presence at the center of it. Like I said, the visit to the museum was transformative. If you haven’t gone. Do so. I was inspired.

This theme of human rights injustice will be revisited in the fourth Fuller novel, Shot/Reverse-Shot.

And lastly, the novel is a continuation of what happens in A Fourth Face, and here Hayden further explores his troubled relationship with his father. That becomes the novel’s inner journey.

I know you have big plans for the fourth book—you’ve even landed a sabbatical to assist the writing of it. What can you tell us about that Hayden project?

It’s 1966. Hayden is back in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and he has just won the Stanley Cup. An independent film producer wants to make an indie film, sort of a sappy Canadian Disney thing, and uses several Habs players as extras, filming that year’s Stanley Cup final versus Detroit for footage in his film.

Danny Davis, a minor character in Cheap Amusements will be more prominently featured this time around. Stana Younger, now living with Hayden, and working for a Montreal newspaper will also be strongly featured.

However, back to the main plot line. The indie, hockey producer used to make graphic sexploitation films, stuff in the spirit of the Defilers, and although he’s trying to go all family friendly, his sexploitation chickens come home to roost, and after one of the stars of his film is murdered, a Habs player is blamed for the killing. Hayden, an extra on the film, tries to prove his pal’s innocence.

The journey takes him into a world of sexploitation film-making, First Nations People’s Land rights, and a badass motorcycle club, the Northern Arrows. The title, Shot/Reverse-Shot is double-voiced: a film term, but also indicative of bullets flying.

I’ll be living for four weeks in Montreal, spring 2019, to both write the novel and explore the city and spot locations for the novel’s main lines of action. It’ll be a big challenge for me. I know Toronto really well, but I’ve never been to Montreal before. It has been a long-time dream, going back to my days at Trent University and hearing friends from Montreal (Ivan LeCouvie and Dave Coons), regale me with stories about fountains, bistros, and St. Urbain’s Street. I’m really excited to soak up the culture. If ever so briefly.

But, alas, I’ll always be a Leafs fan.

It would appear Hayden Fuller is taking up just about all your creative writing energy. Is that true, or are you working on some other projects, too?

I’ve started to branch out. At first Hayden was taking up all my time. I was constantly reading other crime novels, detective series, to find inspiration for future Fuller novels.

It takes a lot of energy to write a novel, but the Fuller books have given me the courage to try writing longer works, one-offs, outside the Hayden series. I just finished drafting a stand-alone crime novel, Winsome, sort of modeled on Geoffrey Homes’s Build My Gallows High and William P. McGivern’s Odds Against Tomorrow in which a 36-year-old cab driver, living in Winsome, a small upstate New York town, is confronted with the demons of his past (a prior kidnapping case) and is thus blackmailed into returning to a life of crime (a bank heist). A former radio operator in Korea, Eddie Sands is a good person who has made bad choices. He also suffers from PTSD.

The story is set in 1966, seven years after a 1959 failed kidnapping case in which Eddie’s wife, Karen, double-crossed Eddie and his pal Sy, and led the police to the boy’s location. The child didn’t press charges because Eddie and Karen treated him so well. He claimed only Sy was involved in the kidnapping. Sy, who didn’t treat the kid so well, was captured, and in true gangland code, didn’t rat the other two out. Eddie and Karen have taken on new last names and now live in relative anonymity. She’s a waitress. Together they share a home in a trailer park.

I had my good friend Mitchell D. Strauss read it (he also shoots my author photos for the Hayden Fuller series), and he gave me some really great revision strategies that I’m going to adopt over the next four months. Hopefully by Thanksgiving, I’ll have the new, improved Winsome ready to shop around.

Recently, I’ve also tried my hand at writing short crime stories. “Sun on Prospect Street, 1938” is a 1900-word hit men story inspired by an Edward Hopper painting hanging at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The painting made me think of two people sitting in a car, looking at an empty street, preparing to do what they have to do. It’s a humdinger!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m just grateful for the opportunity to write what has always been a passion of mine: detective stories. I began writing my first stories in high school, featuring Rick Dragon, Cleveland’s toughest private eye (I’d never been to Cleveland, but the rust-belt town appealed to my love of grime and the smell of dust and dirt). Story titles such as “Accidents Will Happen” (I was a huge Elvis Costello fan back then) and “It All Makes a Lot of Sense” tells you all you need to know. In my MA workshops, I wrote literary fiction and detective stories (as a matter of fact, mobster Babe Migano first appears in a story I wrote way back in the fall of 1984. I think it was called “Find the Girl.”).

However, in workshops, I was often made to feel that detective fiction was less than, that I should be aspiring to write a story worthy of inclusion in an O. Henry Award anthology. My work was taken to be highly stylized and labeled “parody.” What, really? Parody. Come on, now. Raymond Chandler’s not a parodic writer. Neither am I.

We’re both stylized writers, but not parodic. Chandler sought to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime fiction. There are a lot of links between Farewell My Lovely and the Great Gatsby: the yearning for an irretrievable past; a man searching for his lost love; the doomed romanticism of the narrative voice. Anyway, in such a workshop environment, I shoveled my love of crime detection under smoldering leaves, but it was always there, hiding around the edges of my literary stories.

In 2008 the landscape shifted and genre hybridization became more and more apparent in the world of literary publishing, as stories borrowed from speculative camps and you saw a host of literary hyphenates. I’m not a postmodernist writer. I’m a high modernist; however, not to give away any spoilers, I do, at the end of A Fourth Face, deconstruct, or at least, gray up the binaries, of the classic Mickey Spillane ending: Mike Hammer rescuing a badly beaten and tied-up Velda from a gang of communists or degenerates or communist degenerates if you like.

Anyway, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m really writing what I love and I thank you, Ted, and Twelve Winters for allowing me to pursue what got me into writing in the first place. As Sam Spade toasts in The Maltese Falcon: “Success. To crime!”


Grant Tracey is an English professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film and creative writing, and has been the fiction editor of the North American Review for over seventeen years. He has published nearly fifty short stories, four collections of fiction, and articles on Samuel Fuller and James Cagney. His collections are Final Stanzas, Lovers & Strangers, Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe, and Playing Mac: A Novella in Two Acts, and Other Scenes. In 2016 Grant published his debut crime novel, Cheap Amusements, the first Hayden Fuller Mystery. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Grant was the recipient of an Iowa Regents Award for Faculty Excellence in 2013. In addition to his writing, editing and teaching, Grant has acted in over thirty community theater productions. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Locating Our Common Humanity through Expressive Writing

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 24, 2018

The following was the opening keynote address at the Fifth International Conference on Language, Society and Culture in Asian Contexts, “Inclusiveness and Sustainability of Asian Societies,” Hue City, Vietnam, May 25 – 26, 2018.

Expressive Writing 14 - title frame

When the conference committee graciously invited me to speak to you, my first response was to go to the conference’s website and read about its overarching objective, which, I discovered, has to do with breaking down cultural barriers between nations. Even though I do not regularly travel between nations, it is an idea with which I am profoundly familiar. In the United States, the election of our current president has dramatized the theory that we have within our borders two distinct cultures, two dominant ideologies, two divisive world views which threaten to tear us into two separate nations. Or perhaps a better way of contextualizing the situation is to say that the wound caused by our Civil War which nearly broke us in two 150 years ago has never actually healed—and the current administration has merely made us painfully aware of what has always been true.

One can despair when one considers the seeming hopelessness of bridging political, ideological and cultural divides. Emotions run deep, and people are quick to anger and to become defensive when their worldview, when their belief system is challenged. In my classroom, I encourage my students to engage in discussions of the issues that divide them: gun control, immigration, gay rights, reproductive rights, among many others. I daresay that little progress appears to be made in convincing either side to alter their perceptions.

However, when my students access other aspects of their lives—when they move away from issues related to ideologies—they instantly have things in common. In fact, I would assert, they have everything in common. When I ask them to access their emotions—their joys, their disappointments, their frustrations, their achievements—they speak the same language, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal, straight or gay, gun-owning or gun-controlling, gendered or gender-neutral, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. That is to say, when they are asked to communicate expressively, students, above all else, are human.

Expressive Writing 1Which brings me at long last to my thesis: Through expressive writing, we can locate our common humanity. In other words, what divides us tends to be the product of intellect, while what unites us is our emotional responses to the world.

Allow me to take a moment to define some terms, especially to define them as I am using them in this presentation. The key term, obviously, is “expressive” writing, by which I mean writing that explores and communicates one’s emotional reaction to a given situation, generally a situation that one has experienced personally. I am adopting and somewhat adapting concepts discussed by James Britton, who identified three writing functions: transactional, expressive, and poetic. Briefly, “transactional” writing aims to inform and/or persuade the audience through the manipulation of primary- and secondary-source material (i.e. “research”), and in this transactional mode the writer’s self all but disappears. Transactional writing, in academic settings, takes the form of analyses and research-based reports, wherein personal experience, even in the form of anecdotal evidence, is frowned upon almost to the point of nonexistence, especially in the sciences but even in the humanities.

As Jeff Park remarks in his book Writing at the Edge, transactional writing is by far the dominant mode in the academy, while expressive writing “continues to be underdeveloped” (25). Returning to James Britton’s terms, the other modes besides “transactional” are “expressive” and “poetic.” Here things can become confusing. By “poetic,” Britton means something made out of language for language’s own sake but having little to do with writers’ expressing their feelings on the subject. Riddles, puns, acrostics, limericks may be examples of poetic language use in the way that Britton is defining the term.

Generally, though, poetry refers to writing that is highly personal and expressive. Therefore, when I use the phrase “expressive writing” I am using it as synonymous with what, in the U.S., we most often term “creative writing,” which includes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (or the personal essay). Adding to the confusion is the fact that writers can certainly create stories, novels, poems, and essays that are not especially expressive of their emotions. They may be trying to entertain, to titillate, or to expound on some subject, but they are not trying to communicate a personal experience and how it affected them on an emotional level.

Here, today, I am specifically advocating expressive writing as a means to breaking down or through cultural barriers.

Educators have long advocated reading as a key to developing empathy in students, including empathy for people of other cultures. I certainly agree that reading about other sorts of people can spark interest and understanding, which can in turn lead to empathy. More often that not in the U.S., however, reading literature is the sole means of encouraging empathy in the humanities. Empathy development is not bolstered routinely with expressive writing, and that, I believe, is a mistake. We should be having our students write expressively—and, importantly, sharing their writing through some means of publication (more on this in a moment).

While literary study may be only one component of fostering empathy, it is through literary study that we can most vividly see evidence of our common humanity, which is so often obscured by our politics and competing ideologies. I do not want to get too sidetracked here, but I am referring to the concept of archetypal narratives which seem to spring from a common past that transcends geography and culture. I give as just one example, in brief, the narrative of the woebegone sailor who, driven off course, finds himself and his men trapped inside the dwelling of a man-eating giant. Through his cleverness and courage, the sailor manages to blind the giant and escape the dwelling by hiding amongst the giant’s grazing flock. Whether one recognizes this as the story of Odysseus, or of Sinbad, or of the Man with No Legs depends on whether one is familiar with a Greek, Persian, or Korean literary tradition.

In essence, then, the tale of the woebegone sailor is foundational in Western, Middle Eastern, and Eastern cultures (to use Western distinctions)—a tale so ancient no one can cite its precise origin. These parts of the world are sharply divided when it comes to religions and political ideologies, yet the tale of the woebegone sailor must speak to us all: the disorientation and frustration of being lost, the primal fear of being trapped by a predator of superior power, the exhilaration of resourcefulness, and the joy of our life-preserving escape: all peoples, everywhere, can relate to these emotional registers in the common story.

Through expressive writing—that is, writing that accesses and communicates our emotions rather than our ideologies—students from diverse backgrounds can locate their common humanity, and see there is as much that unites us as there is that divides us.

Expressive Writing 2This topic is obviously complex, and I can only begin, here, to outline some of its component parts, but I will touch on the following areas: the theories which underpin the effectiveness of expressive writing for fostering empathy; the likelihood of students engaging in traumatic writing when given the opportunity to express themselves; some of the side benefits of expressive writing; the importance of publishing, and not just creating, the results of expressive writing; and some concrete classroom practices if one is inclined to use expressive writing in their curriculum.

Theories about expressive writing & empathy

First, then, how does expressive (or creative) writing create a connection between writer and reader that goes beyond, that goes deeper than other sorts of modes of communication? To respond, I turn to the work of Marcelle Freiman, who is especially interested in the cognitive connections between creative writers and their readers. Building on the work of cognitive scientists like Gerrig, Oatley and Djikic, Freiman asserts that “human long-term memory” is not only “‘based on memory’” but also “‘actively generates meaning’” (133). Thus, the act of writing helps writers to organize their thoughts and reconstruct memories—including all the associations those memories evoke—and it creates “an extended, externalised mental model” which readers are invited to enter. A well-wrought narrative can make a reader experience the story as if they had direct involvement in it. I am referring to the phenomenon of being lost in a story, to which nearly everyone can relate.

Freiman theorizes that the phenomenon is caused by the reader in essence “‘writing’ the text (in the mind) while reading” (134). Here she quotes Hawkes directly: “[Writers] thus involve us in the dangerous, exhilarating activity of creating our worlds now, together with the author, as we go along” (135, emphasis in the original). Freiman is suggesting that the relationship between writer and reader goes beyond being complementary into the realm of genuine partnership; the writer and reader are literally working together to create meaning. This process of shared responsibility in the text is true of all writing, says Freiman, but it has an enhanced dynamic when it comes to expressive writing: “This capacity for the writing of the creative or literary text occurs, perhaps, even more vividly ‘as experience’ because now the process involves imagination, including experiential representations of referents such as perceptions and emotions, in the language that writes what is imaginatively construed, to be read by a reader” (135). I want to underscore the words perceptions and emotions as these are key elements in an act of empathy. Understanding how others perceive their world and the emotions their perceptions elicit is absolutely vital to seeing people as people and not merely avatars for the ideologies they appear to represent.Expressive Writing 3

Likelihood of students writing about trauma

Let me move on to the question, why are students likely to write about trauma when given the opportunity to write expressively? When left to choose their own subject, many students will, of course, elect to write about happy things, which is valid. Writing about successes, about favorite memories, about the love of family and friends are all legitimate responses to an open-ended task to compose; and others can relate to positive experiences. But many, many students will choose to write about a traumatic experience in their lives, and it is due to the nature of trauma. The term “trauma” is slippery, and it is used to describe a vast array of life experiences; thus, depending on how widely or how narrowly one defines what constitutes “trauma,” the number of people who are suffering from some level of traumatic stress fluctuates up and down. Various studies identify between a quarter and three-quarters of the U.S. population as having had some kind of traumatic experience.1 People who have been traumatized tend to want to write about the experience, either explicitly or implicitly. Studies in the field of neuropsychology have suggested that trauma-related language dominates the linguistic functioning of victims.2 As MacCurdy observes, “Invariably writers gravitate to their difficult stories, the ones that cause the most pain and confusion . . .” (15).Expressive Writing 4

Because the academy does not privilege expressive writing, relatively few educators are trained to facilitate it, and, consequently, to respond to students’ writing about their traumatic experiences. When students elect to write about traumatic episodes in their lives, the complexities of the writing classroom multiply exponentially. The most immediate question educators must ask themselves is “Which is more important: the student’s acquisition of writing skills, or the student’s emotional welfare, which may be improved by engaging the traumatic event?” Before responding to my own question, I should say that communicating one’s trauma is a standard practice in therapy, either through one-on-one discussions with one’s therapist, in a group-therapy setting, or through writing (or some combination of these basic approaches). Once a teacher encourages students to engage their trauma in the classroom, the distinction between teacher and therapist can become murky. MacCurdy attempts to draw a distinction when she writes, “Teachers are advisers, mentors, and role models. Listening with compassion helps to fulfill those responsibilities and creates the trust needed for the student to delve into a difficult topic. . .  . However, teachers are not therapists. While a therapist may listen and then counsel, teachers listen and, if appropriate, suggest counseling and other professional services” (6).

I find no fault with MacCurdy’s assessment other than to say that she makes it plain why teaching—and perhaps especially teaching writing—is more art than science. Knowing when and how to respond to students’ work relies almost entirely on professional judgment; there are no clear-cut guidelines to follow, as much as we may wish at times there were.3

Benefits of expressive writing

So, writing about trauma can have therapeutic benefits for students. If one looks at that aspect of trauma writing—potential emotional benefits—certain pedagogical difficulties emerge regarding the sort of work students produce (in essence, how fragmentary or how complete it may be or must be), the ways in which it should be assessed (according to traditional guidelines for written work or by some other kind of rubric), and whether or not it should be shared with others (that is, published). How one responds to each of these issues may depend in large part on the end goal. If the end goal is for students to produce something that is most definitely going to be shared with others (versus something mainly for their own experiencing of the process), then the pedagogy must shift accordingly.Expressive Writing 5

Again, we are in the realm of art more than of science. The difference between students writing something only for themselves and students writing something which will be shared with others may lie in how the teacher contextualizes the act of writing and the possible benefits of sharing highly personal experiences. Allow me to say what may be needless to say: The best writing—the best art—is generally rooted in the highly personal experience. In order to create texts that are meaningful, and emotionally and intellectually engaging for readers, writers must be willing to reveal their most personal and their most private experiences and ideas. Marguerite MacRobert recommends that writers use techniques similar to those employed by method actors (à la Stanislavski). She says, “Writers are often spoken of as observers, and many writing workshops hone observation skills, but what Stanislavski says of acting could be emphasised in writing too: openness to experience as it occurs and being able to access emotional memories are crucial writing abilities. . . .” (353).

I will add anecdotally that when I took fiction writing workshops with the novelist Kent Haruf, in the opening class session Kent would always ask us to share something personal about ourselves that we had never shared with anyone else. The point of his exercise was that to be effective fiction writers we must be willing and able to share our most personal thoughts and experiences with our readers. Holding back leads to writing that is less than it could be. This sort of openness may seem like a tall order to expect of young students, but recall that traumatized students generally want to write about their traumatic experiences. In fact, they need to write about them. The pedagogical trick is not to get them to write personally, but to be willing to share their personal writing with others: to instill them with confidence, and to teach them that their sharing can benefit others, namely their readers.Expressive Writing 6

Given our setting and the conference’s overarching mission it is vital to note that expressive writing can transcend language barriers, and in fact can benefit from them. That is, students writing in languages other than their primary language (in English for instance) can be beneficial to the expressive-writing process in several ways. Here I will turn to the work of Owens and Brien, who developed a project in which international students attending universities in Australia wrote expressively in English with the goal of producing a published journal. Too often, international students’ language skills are viewed as a weakness or an obstacle to be overcome; however, Owens and Brien, among others (I included), advocate seeing these students’ language skills as a strength and an opportunity. They write, “[P]erceptions about the English skills of [Learners of English as an Alternative (or Additional) Language] have serious implications for large numbers of students, teachers, employers and, more broadly, the higher education industry. . . . [R]ecognising these learners as linguistically complex (rather than deficient) and finding new and enhanced methods to support their language needs . . . could transform both university practices and the students’ experience of those practices” (361-362). In particular, Owens and Brien advocate the use of creative writing as a way to foster these learners’ acquisition of alternative languages and to ease their assimilation into unfamiliar environments.Expressive Writing 7

In Owens and Brien’s project, they found that international students were drawn to writing about the difficulties associated with cultural assimilation. While writing in a language other than their mother tongue did present some challenges, there were also numerous benefits. They write, “[Alternative Language speakers] have both less (English) and more (languages other than English) lexical-syntactic-semantic knowledge than monolingual English speakers. They rely on a more restricted English resource but have alternative language options available to express meaning. . . . So, whilst mother tongue speakers may use their language creatively in response to situational characteristics, Alternative Language speakers may use English more creatively . . .” (362). What is more, the way Alternative Language speakers approach language may lead to particularly poetic constructions, say Owens and Brien. As someone who has taught Alternative Language speakers in creative writing workshops (especially speakers of Asian languages and, most often, speakers of Chinese), I can attest that even beginning creative writers can compose some startlingly beautiful phrases and images in English because of their knowledge of multiple languages, not in spite of it.Expressive Writing 8

Importance of sharing & publishing

It definitely goes without saying that if expressive writing is going to help break down cultural barriers, it must be shared across borders (both geographic and ideologic), which is where publication enters the discussion. Though discussing their project in the microcosm of their university settings, Owens and Brien found that Alternative Language students writing expressively benefited both the writers themselves and their audience: “It allows readers, such as academic staff as well as other students, to gain insight into the cross-cultural experience and develop greater empathy for the cultural sojourner” (369). Moreover, “the act of authoring such texts” can be “empowering” on multiple levels: “Promoting the creative and unique English language capacities of [Alternative Language students] . . . across English speaking host-communities, can help . . . build empathy, understanding and appreciation in a language context where they are conventionally de-valued” (369). Moreover, Jess-Cooke believes that students’ producing “a completed piece of work is a significant part of building self-esteem, and therefore contributes to wellbeing” (254).Expressive Writing 9

Fortunately, we live in a time when sharing writing (or video or audio) across the globe is relatively simple. Material can be posted to the Web of course. Texts can be made available to download to various sorts of e-readers (Kindle, etc.), and print-on-demand options make physically published anthologies readily and cheaply available via outlets like Amazon among many others. Speaking as a publisher and author, the challenge is not to make students’ writing available across cultural boundaries, but rather how to help others realize it is available in the flood of material that is published, one way or another, every day. Some estimates put the number of new book titles alone released each year in the neighborhood of a million. On any given day, several thousand new titles may become available. Unfortunately I have not solved this conundrum. I would say, as with any project, the way to begin, at least, is to start small. That is, micro-target specific audiences, perhaps via university networking opportunities, as afforded via conferences like this one. Work with colleagues in other countries to produce expressive writing and share it beyond physical borders. Perhaps combine the work of students from several countries in a single anthology to be shared and distributed amongst the project participants. Students’ texts could be captured via audio recordings and video performances, adding additional contextual layers to the communicated experiences.

Concrete classroom practices

I would like to end with a practical suggestion for a writing prompt. I have found that students respond quite effectively to what I call “A Moment of Clarity” narrative essay. I ask them to write about a time when they came to understand something about themselves or about their world due to a specific event in their lives. (I have provided the specific assignment and pre-drafting activity as an appendix to this presentation.) Some students write about positive things in their lives: learning the importance of teamwork or dedication, discovering what they want to do with their lives, embracing their spiritual selves, accepting their true sexuality, and so on. More students, though, tend to write about traumatic, life-transforming experiences: the death of a loved one, a near-death experience of their own, the separation of their parents, the crushing loss of a best friend or first girlfriend or boyfriend.

Allow me to share some brief excerpts of papers my students wrote this past year as a response to the “Moment of Clarity” prompt (the students have granted their permission, and I have obscured their identities):

Expressive Writing 10From a student whose boyfriend was driving recklessly and lost control of his car: “The convertible Mustang [car] flipped, pinning me underneath the vehicle. The only thing that kept me from getting my head smashed was the headrest that held it up just enough. I needed to stay calm. I couldn’t focus on anything else but the sound of the blood dripping on the ground. I tried to move my right arm and couldn’t.”

Expressive Writing 11From a student who struggled with the death of her grandmother after a long illness: “Now I understand that death occurs in everyone’s life and everyone is affected by it differently. She was in pain because of the cancer and all of the medicine she was taking. Seeing her in the casket was different because she looked peaceful and beautiful compared to the cancer’s effect on her. I have to let her go because I love her and she would not want me to be afraid or sad. She would want me to strive and achieve my goals and to live my life.”

Expressive Writing 12From a student who attempted suicide: “I spent my teenage years begging myself at night not to give up, not to kill myself. My first attempt at suicide was in 2015. I remember sitting in my room and the feeling rushed upon me. ‘You’re not good enough . . . you don’t deserve to live . . . just do it.’ I felt numb in that moment. I didn’t feel like a person. I got up and grabbed the bottle of pills. I begged myself to get help and go get my mother, but all I could think about was swallowing the pills and not being here anymore.”

Expressive Writing 13From a student who has given up her Christian faith: “I think how many Native Americans think. How we’re all connected and that you should put out what you want in return. I feel life is sacred, but so is the afterlife. The two worlds co-exist with one another. Death doesn’t mean the end of life, it’s just the beginning.”

These narratives were written by young people living in a small town in the heart of the United States, but I daresay they express feelings and concerns and issues that young people—that all people—face daily, no matter their culture, no matter their country, no matter their ideology.

Notes

  1. See Bessel A. Van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, editors. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. Guilford, 2007, p. 5.
  2.  See Jennifer J. Vasterling, and Chris R. Brewin, editors. Neuropsychology of PTSD: Biiological, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives, Guilford, 2005. In particular see Joseph I. Constans. “Information-Processing Biases in PTSD,” Vasterling and Brewin, pp. 105-130.
  3. See Ted Morrissey. Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts: The Psychological Basis of Postmodern Hermeneutics, Edwin Mellen, 2016. In particular see Chapter 7, “Pedagogical Implications and Conclusions,” pp. 185-224.

Works Cited

Freiman, Marcelle. “A ‘Cognitive Turn’ in Creative Writing — Cognition, Body and Imagination.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 127-142.

Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. “Should Creative Writing Courses Teach Ways of Building Resilience?” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 249-259.

MacCurdy, Marian Mesrodian. The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. U of Massachusetts P, 2007.

MacRobert, Marguerite. “Exploring an Acting Method to Contain the Potential Madness of the Creative Process: Mental Health and Writing with Emotion.” International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 9, no. 3, 2012, pp. 349-360.

Owens, Alison R., and Donna L. Brien. “Writing Themselves: Using Creative Writing to Facilitate International Student Accounts of Their Intercultural Experience.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 11, no. 3, 2014, pp. 359-374.

Park, Jeff. Writing at the Edge: Narrative and Writing Process Theory. Peter Lang, 2005.

Jailbreak!: William Gass’s Lifelong Work to Free Himself from the Imprisonment of Print

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2018

This paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, University of Louisville, on February 23, 2018. Due to a last-minute change, I chaired the panel, Temporalities of Revision. Other panelists were Kelly Kiehl, University of Cincinnati; and Sarah-Jordan Stout, Rice University. The paper is dedicated to William H. Gass, who passed away December 6, 2017.

 


 

In the annals of American experimental fiction, William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife holds a place of reverence due, mainly, to its ambitious (some may say, excessive) experimentation: nineteen different typefaces (varying in point sizes, with unusual placements and movements on the pages), and copious graphic elements, including several photos of a nude model. The odd little novella first appeared in 1968 as TriQuarterly supplement No. 2 – in its most experimental format, which included a variety of paper stock in addition to its other eccentricities – then in a hardcover edition from Knopf (1971) and later a paperback edition from Dalkey Archive (1989). The Knopf and Dalkey editions maintained the original design, minus the use of various paper stock.

Willie Masters’ occupies a place of infamy in Postmodern circles: No one faults Gass’s ambitions. However, the odd little book hasn’t garnered much, well, affection over the years either, which I think is a crying shame. Even Gass himself wasn’t overly generous regarding the end result. In the Art of Fiction interview (1976) he stated,

I was trying out some things. Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says: “Oh yeah, I get the idea,” but that’s all there is to get, the idea. I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects. (Conversations 22)

He was, I think, a little too hard on himself. I am moved by the book; it affects me, but perhaps not quite as Gass would have hoped. And Gass may have changed his opinion of Willie Masters’ success over time. In the essay “Anywhere but Kansas” which first appeared in The Iowa Review in 1994 (nearly thirty years after writing Willie Masters’ and on the cusp of The Tunnel’s publication, which required a gestation of nearly that length of time and which makes use of many of the techniques in its infamous predecessor), Gass discusses the importance of experimentation: “An experiment, I would learn much later, . . . had to arise from a real dissatisfaction with existing knowledge. There was a gap to be filled, a fracture to be repaired, an opening to be made” (29). The public at large, he says, only admires experiments that work; however, for the experimenters themselves, an unsuccessful experiment may bring its own kind of success. “In the lab,” writes Gass, “a ‘no’ may not elicit cheers; it is nevertheless a bearer of important information” (30). He may, then, have learned some important narrative lessons from Willie Masters’, lessons he took to heart during the three decades he labored on The Tunnel, which shares some of Willie Masters’ techniques, but significantly toned down.

Gass imposingWhat is more, three decades later, Gass felt just as strongly about the need for writers to engage in experimentation for the sake of their art: “[I]t is . . .  repeatedly necessary for writers to shake the system by breaking its rules, ridiculing its lingo, and disdaining whatever is in intellectual fashion. To follow fashion is to play the pup” (Conversations 30). Gass may not have achieved the aesthetic affects he was aiming for in Willie Masters’ in 1968, but, in retrospect, he seemed to value his own efforts — though he doesn’t say so explicitly.

As wildly experimental as Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife turned out to be, it was tamer than Gass had in mind1. A visit to the Gass Papers at Washington University in St. Louis, where Gass taught philosophy from 1969 to 1999, can give us some sense of what the author had in mind from the start, working only with a manual typewriter, pen or pencil, straight edge, scissors and glue, plus other objects like fabric and newspaper clippings. In part what Gass was trying to achieve was bridging the gap between writer and reader by making the narrative come to life, so to speak, in the reader’s hands. That is, rather than simply describing things — that is, providing symbols for things — which evoke intellectual and (hopefully) emotional responses in the reader, Gass wanted the thing itself to become part of the reader’s world. In essence, the book itself becomes a performance piece in the reader’s world — akin perhaps to the playwright’s task in moving from script to performed play. One writes of a pistol on the page, which becomes a real pistol on the stage, one which discharges so that the audience members can actually hear its bang and actually smell its smoke.

Gass may encourage this comparison by including a play as one of the multiple narratives at work in Willie Masters’, whose overarching narrative is Babs Masters’ seduction of the reader into her lonely text. One of the best examples of Gass’s attempt to move from manuscript into the reader’s reality is via a set of coffee-cup rings that appear on several pages. A new section of the novella begins, “The muddy circle you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on the leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup” ([37]). But just as the theatrical pistol is only a prop, Gass immediately acknowledges that the dark-brown circle is not actually a ring from his cup: “Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realize, this book is many removes from anything I’ve set pen, hand, or cup to.” The author attempts to enter the reader’s reality more corporeally than authors typically do, but, ultimately, that gap can only be bridged so far.

Text with coffee ring 1

We can see that the coffee-ring idea was an early one in Gass’s conception of the book, and, in fact, was created no doubt by actual coffee.The circle returns later in the novella, but in a more metaphorical role according to the text it encircles: “This is the moon of daylight” ([52]). The circle multiplies to appear as five circles on the final two pages of the book, in two cases highlighting the inserted phrases “HERE BE DRAGONS” and “YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO ART — RETURN TO LIFE” ([58]). The final coffee-like ring appears on the facing page, which is a close-up of the female nude’s breasts and navel, with the ring encircling the latter.Others have noted that there are (at least) two female models used for the book: one whose image appears on the cover, and another whose images appear (possibly) eight times throughout the book. The final coffee ring appears on the torso of, it appears, the cover’s model. The interior version of Babs Masters is more, well, voluptuous than the cover and final coffee-ring Babs. Yet there is a striking difference between the cover and the final image:  The nude on the cover has no belly-button; it’s been airbrushed out. The final coffee-ring encircles and emphasizes the belly-button, however, maybe making us take note of its absence on the cover.

coffee rings - there be dragons

WM cover - no navel

navel - close up

Is it in fact, then, Babs represented on the cover of the book, or is it Eve? Gass would go on to use Eve as a metaphor with regularity in his fictions. Michael Hardin makes some provocative observations about Willie Masters’ in an article in Short Story, discussing both Gass’s novella and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979. Hardin notes, for example, that on the first page of the book Babs’s hand reaches toward the title just as the reader does in a rather hand-of-God sort of way:

The extended arm references Michelangelo’s Creation of Man, where God is extending his hand to spark life into Adam’s extended hand. The reader must decide whether Babs (the wife) is in the space of the creator or the created. . . . [G]iven the nature of the sexual politics of the text, one might argue that Babs is the creative spark passed between author (whose hand reaches out with the pen) and reader, God and Adam. (80-81)

hand of godPerhaps Hardin didn’t notice the MIA belly-button because he doesn’t bring Eve into the analysis even though it seems rife for her inclusion. By encircling Babs’s navel at the conclusion of the book (and returning to the cover model for the image), Gass signals that Eve/Babs is now only Babs, making the statement “You have fallen into art—return to life” especially provocative. It may be that our sojourn in the complicated text of Willie Masters’ – which Gass overtly parallels with our having sexual intercourse with Babs – is akin to the Fall, and when we reach the final page we are expelled from the textual Paradise, like hapless Adam and Eve; however, like Adam and Eve we have acquired a unique experience for which we are the richer, even if that richness is colored by sin. But since sin in this metaphor is art/sex, Gass implies sin ain’t such a bad thing, and, in fact, it (art, experiencing it, creating it) is the only thing that makes life worth living: An idea which Gass returned to again and again in his fiction, his essays, his criticism, and his interviews. In addition to being a voracious and eclectic reader, Gass said, in 1971, that he enjoyed “all” the arts, “especially perhaps ballet (when pure and not mucked up) and architecture. I was an opera nut when young. . . . I haunt museums when I can. In one sense, painting has influenced my theory of art more than almost anything, music my practice of it” (9). Gass’s interest in the visual is obviously reflected in his merging of text with pictorial elements. As a writer, he was about what all writers ought to be about, he said: “You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do” (26).

One of Gass’s ambitions in Willie Masters’ is to seduce the reader into reading the text carefully and thoughtfully – that is, deeply. Already in 1966, when he began work on the novella, Gass recognized that too many readers were impatiently speeding through texts, and (worse perhaps) too many writers were providing them material that enabled such shallow encounters. Gass said, “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” (25). Whenever one begins unpacking a Gass metaphor, the act, by necessity, becomes reductive. Nevertheless, for illustration’s sake, I’ll work my way through Gass’s attempted seduction of the reader in Willie Masters’ via his use of metaphor, wordplay, and imagery. I will force myself as best I can to hold onto a single strand and resist the text’s Siren song which could lead us in myriad directions (not to our doom, however).

One of several storylines Gass juggles in Willie Masters’ is a playscript featuring Ivan and Olga wherein Ivan finds a penis baked into his breakfast roll. At this point in the novella the carnival ride hasn’t become too topsy-turvy for the reader, but it’s about to begin spinning (nearly) out of control. Gass starts interrupting the playscript with footnotes which engage the reader in academic-sounding notes related, it seems, to the main narrative. The first footnote is signaled by an asterisk, and the second by two asterisks (just as Gass is using asterisks to represent other things in the text besides footnotes, so are these footnotes after all? — Or is Gass toying with us?). The second alleged footnote references John Locke’s Concerning Human Understanding (ha!) and discusses how “ideas” are “take[n] in,” “masticate[d]” and “swallow[ed] down” ([15], my emphasis on down). The footnote-like interruptions continue on the following pages, except on page [17] the footnote itself is interrupted with yet another typeface, in bold, which says, “Now that I’ve got you alone down here [i.e., at the bottom of the page], you bastard, don’t think I’m letting you get away easily, no sir, not you brother; anyway, how do you think you’re going to get out, down here where it’s dark and oily like an alley . . . ?” Suddenly “down here” is not the bottom of the page, but rather it’s Babs talking to us about her dark and oily sex, which she says is as “meaningless as Plato’s cave.” We, the blissful readers, have been lured there, in between Babs’s waiting legs, and there’s no easy way out.

Footnote - close up

foot pageThe complexities mount, so to speak, for twenty or more pages before we come (ugh) to the section that introduces us to the “muddy circle” — whose dark shape, like the opening of Plato’s cave perhaps, has even more symbolic weight than mere coffee-cup ring. We also note that the section begins with Babs’s bare leg and foot knocking down the enlarged “T” in “The” with which the paragraph starts, thus echoing the earlier seductive “footnote” ([37]). Gass’s playing with the convention of the footnote, a standard feature of annotated texts, appears to contradict its function, at first, but upon further contemplation (and multiple readings) it does not contradict it. That is, normally a footnote aids in clarifying a reference, and thereby maybe an entire passage, but the footnotes in Willie Masters’ seem to only muddy the narrative waters, obscuring instead of clarifying. However, we later realize that the footnotes are aiding our understanding of the novella as a whole, contributing to the convention that Gass is attempting to seduce us into a complex relationship with his book. Intercourse with Babs Masters cannot be a mere one-night stand; she gets into your head and won’t let you go — à la Fatal Attraction. (Luckily I don’t have a pet rabbit.)

Earlier I said that I am affected by Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I must acknowledge that its characters do not engage me on an emotional level, but the book itself – Gass’s ambitions and his achievements –are inspirational to me as a creative writer. A black-and-white photo of the Master hangs on the wall next to my desk; a line drawing, too, on the wall of our master bedroom, next to the door where it will be viewed most frequently; I have acquired 51 books either by Gass or which include his writing (among them first editions, rare books, and several bearing his autograph), and this isn’t counting the books about Gass’s work. I have surrounded myself by the Master and his words, including this literary call-to-arms at the end of Willie Masters’: “It’s not the languid pissing prose we’ve got, we need; but poetry, the human muse, full up, erect and on charge, impetuous and hot and loud and wild like Messalina going to the stews, or those damn rockets streaming headstrong into the stars.”

Amen, Master. Rest in peace, and in the knowledge some of us will carry on the good fight.

Notes

1. See “‘The Text Is Oozing Out’: William H. Gass and Transliteracy” by Clarence Wolfshohl, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 4, 1989, pp. 497-503, in which Wolfshohl shares some of his personal correspondence with Gass regarding Willie Masters’ and its production.: “The stains and the nude photos are as close as Gass comes to bringing the outside physical world into the hook, but he wanted much more. He also thought of having cloth tip-ins and a condom bookmark, and, in his own words, ‘lots of other nutty things.'”

2. I’d like to thank Joel Minor and the other archivists in the Special Collections Department of Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis for their assistance in examining the manuscript drafts of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. Visit William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence.

3. The photography in Willie Masters’ was by Burton L. Rudman. Gass had hoped for an older model to portray Babs, according to Wolfshohl (see note 1). The images of Gass’s original manuscript pages are by the author.

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “Anywhere but Kansas.” Tests of Time, The U of Chicago P, 2002, pp. 28-36.

—. Conversations with William H. Gass. Edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003.

—. Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Dalkey Archive, 1998.

Hardin, Michael. “Desiring Fragmented Bodies and Texts: William H. Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and Kathy Acker’s New York City in 1979.Short Story, vol. 11, no. 2, 2003, pp. 79-90.

 

 

Interview with Brady Harrison: The Dying Athabaskan

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 10, 2018

I’ve long been interested in the long story and novella; that is, literary work that falls in the gray-area length between a typical (nowadays) short story and a full-length novel — let’s say, about 5,000 words and 50,000 words. That’s an awfully large gap separating what most literary journals will consider and what most agents and commercial publishers will look at for book publication. Yet this is a fairly recent development in the publishing biz. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was commonplace for national magazines to publish longer pieces (often serially) which would then be picked up by a commercial publisher for book publication.

Think Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Joseph Conrad, resulting in works like A Christmas Carol, Cranford, The Cossacks, The Turn of the Screw, Ethan Frome, The Awakening, and Heart of Darkness, among many, many other great works that are powerful even though — or maybe because — they are not full-length novels.

My interest in the form led me to design a course on the long story and novella for Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program (online), which I’ll be teaching for the third time in summer quarter; and it led me to create the Publisher’s Long Story Prize via my literary press, Twelve Winters. The first calls went out in the summer of 2016, and the response was immediate. We appeared to strike a rich and largely untapped vein.  (See the Prizes’s page for further information.)

Dying Athabaskan - FRONT COVER 400From that initial round of submissions, we eventually culled our first winner: The Dying Athabaskan by Brady Harrison, a complex narrative about a freelance writer who embarks on discovering the inspiration for a famous sculpture, The Dying Athabaskan. We recently released our first Long Story Prize winner in paperback and digital editions, and author Brady Harrison generously agreed to be interviewed about his book, his writing process, and today’s literary landscape, especially as it pertains to these in-between-length works of fiction. Here are Brady’s unedited responses.

TM: Even though my main literary love interest is William Gass, by the transitive property of literary love I’m also a fan of James Joyce, and I seem to see a lot of Joycean influence in The Dying Athabaskan: experimenting with varying forms; alluding to other books and artwork, often within the context of working-class drinking establishments; playing with language in the service of lyricism; and even your treatment of dialogue is very Joycean, from a mechanical perspective especially. In particular I’m seeing a lot of Ulysses. Am I projecting that onto your text, or would you count Joyce among your influences?

brady harrison v2 - 150 dpiBH: Joyce: absolutely, and for all the reasons you indicate:  the restless mind, the interest in experimentation and blending different genres, the love of language and how it sounds, and the love of books, music, art. And, the love of bars, of course. In addition to Joyce, my favorite writers are the anatomists, those writers of big, all-over-the-place narratives that refuse to settle on one storytelling mode or style, but that keep experimenting, keep trying out new ideas and ways of expressing them. I’m thinking here of those great comic, yet serious writers like Melville, Sterne, Diderot, Flann O’Brien, Flaubert (in Bouvard and Pécuchet), Woolf, Stein, and Sebald, among many others.  Oh, and Gass, though I know you’re a bigger fan than I am.  For language, the same folks, and Faulkner, too.  A list of my literary heroes. (For the record, I’m also a big fan of Margaret Atwood, despite O’Keevan’s dig.)

In a relatively brief narrative you offer a variety of perspectives and forms. Is this typical of your style, or is The Dying Athabaskan a departure in some ways?

Left to my own devices, this would be my style, but over the years I’ve found it’s easier to place stories that don’t change gears so often, that don’t mix forms, but rather that rely on a consistent point of view and more straight-forward narrative strategies. And, I’m mostly ok with that: the straight-forward story imposes a kind of discipline that I need, and reminds me that I’m not just writing for myself. I remember something that was going around on the web: “Shakespeare wrote for money.” Whenever I find myself wanting to experiment, to turn a story into a play or a letter or a tale from the Arabian nights, and then turn it back and then into something else again, I usually have to reel myself back in. In the case of The Dying Athabaskan, however, I think it works because Ritu, in the process of trying to understand whether or not a thing can mean, tries out any number of forms and approaches. She’s also trying to find out about herself, about her own powers and mind.

Mainstream publishers — even mainstream literary publishers — aren’t inclined to embrace narrative experimentation. Yet you wrote a long, experimental story, perhaps doubling the difficulty of finding a publisher. Can you speak to your interest in experimentation?

After working on stories for a few years, I wanted to try something longer, and wrote a novel about a real-life French poet-explorer set in North Africa in 1930, and I wrote it in the form of an explorer’s journal. It began realistically — what would it be like to travel in the Western Sahara, about the only place in the world that’s not a country, while trying to avoid capture by Berbers and Moors? — but soon enough the journal begins to mutate into other narrative forms and the narrator begins to meet other writer-adventurers who died before he was born, or were born after he died, and at least one of his guides keeps changing shapes and sizes. The narrator, disguised as a woman, begins to turn into a woman. Of course, I thought it was great, comic yet serious, and a number of publishers asked to review the ms.: no takers, and one perhaps made plain what the others were thinking: how could we possibly market so strange a novel about a gender-shifting Frenchman to American readers? Oh, and some sections were written in French, and much of the plot turned around a letter written and mailed to the un-hero before he was born. All to say, I learned my lesson: experimentation and a sort of wildness, at least as I managed them, seem not to be suited to the contemporary marketplace.  Or, maybe it wasn’t any good.

The Dying Athabaskan is the title story of a collection you’re shopping. How would you describe the other stories and their relationship to Athabaskan?

For a long time, the working title of the collection was “Sever,” and most of the stories turn around key moments when the protagonist breaks or severs ties with others or with themselves, usually through an act of emotional or physical violence. In The Dying Athabaskan, Brion wants desperately to sever himself from Sister, Briony breaks rather violently with Neil, and O’Keevan seems to want to push almost everyone away.  In another story, a no-longer-young man has finally resolved, at his mother’s urging, to leave his parents’ failing farm; in a third, a successful engineer abandons his family while on vacation. In a one page story, two friends follow through on a long-ago promise to murder, if a certain thing ever happens, a third buddy. And, then, having severed ties, how does a person go about reconnecting, reconciling, making peace?  Some of the stories are about trying to repair the damage done, or about trying to make meaningful connections where they seem unlikely. In one way or another, they all turn around that very human problem of loss and what to do about it. But I should add:  they’re not all as grim as I might be making them sound; some of them, I hope, are funny, and I’ll call the one about the brothers-by-choice killing their buddy a black comedy.

One of your pub credits is the journal The Long Story — a journal I’ve admired for years, decades perhaps (its editor has rejected my work several times) — which suggests that Athabaskan isn’t your first piece of long narrative fiction. Is the long story/novella a length/form you find yourself especially drawn to? And if so, why? (William Gass felt that the novella was his natural medium, and he was at his best writing in that in-between length, or perhaps his most comfortable.)

If I love the long, baggy, all-over-the-place anatomies (except Pynchon: can’t stand his work, save for The Crying of Lot 49, and have no idea why he’s so celebrated), I also love, equally, the novella, and routinely teach courses on the genre. My lure to students: “If, as Randall Jarrett famously remarked, a ‘novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,’ and if, as some readers protest, short stories simply cannot offer the richness and complexities of longer works, then what could be more perfect than the novella, that rare, gem-like form somewhere-in-between?” Really good novellas seem to achieve a degree of perfection — I’m not making that claim for myself! — that novels cannot, and seem to offer a richer tapestry than can usually be achieved in stories.

And, some writers, I think, achieve their best work in the form:  I think, for example, that Joyce Carol Oates does some of her best work in the novella, and she’s one of the few contemporary writers who works consistently in the genre. Same thing for Stephen King: while I find his novels way too long, he seems best when he self-edits yet gives plenty of character and just enough plot in works like “Stand by Me” or “The Mist.” The truly sublime novellas: there are many of course, but I would say, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, and any short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. In the latter case, every time I read one of her short works, I wonder, How does she do it? Oh, and many of Georges Simenon’s roman durs, outstanding.

Ok, to sort of get back to your question!  I was really lucky (and really honored) to place a story in The Long Story, a journal that, like you, I’ve admired forever. “The Guest” is a really tough thing to read:  it’s about a driver hitting a homeless person, who then sails through the front windshield, and the driver, rather than calling the police and ambulance, drives home and parks in the garage. When I first wrote the story, it was about twice as long: I wanted to honor the tradition in the novella of a frame narrative, and I told, alongside the story of the accident and its aftermath, the story of the narrator, an investigative journalist, and how and why he was dying.  Suffering a traumatic injury of his own, this will be his last work as a reporter. In the end, I cut the frame, and while the story certainly gained in intensity and focus, it also perhaps lost something, too.  All to say, I hope to keep working on the long story: call it the best of both worlds, novel and short fiction.

Long stories are so difficult to place these days, did you think about that as you were writing it? Did you consider restraining the narrative to try to keep it within a more publishable length? How difficult was it to find a publisher for Athabaskan?

I’ll be blunt: I’m damn lucky you created the Publisher’s Long Story Prize! Like most folks, I’d like to see my work into print, but at the same time I’m just perverse enough to also want to write what I want to write and the market be damned.  But you’re right:  I was taking a chance in writing that weird in-between length. At the same time, the long story or novella has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. I’m thinking of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series (though of course they mostly republish the “classics”) and a few literary journals have novella contests every other year or so.  There seems to be a modest market for the form, and it’s not unusual for collections by big guns like David Gates or George Saunders to include a long story.  And, as I say, Joyce Carol Oates (who’s a force of nature) routinely does her part to keep the form alive and well.

As you know, the Press publishes Grant Tracey’s Hayden Fuller Mystery Series, and Hayden is Grant’s alter ego ex-NHL star turned detective, gumshoeing his way through the mean streets of 1960s Toronto, where Grant grew up. Hockey is a major element in Athabaskan as well. Can you talk about hockey’s influence on your creative psyche growing up in Canada?

Grant 5Grant! The G-man! I love Cheap Amusements (and Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe) in no small part because of the hockey connections. And, I remember vividly the hard-boiled short films Grant made while we were in grad school:  in the Fuller mysteries, we get two of Grant’s passions, two-fisted action on and off the ice.  More on Grant in a moment.

Hockey? I guess you could say I’m about as Canadian as they come. I still play hockey two nights a week, skate in as many pond hockey tournaments as I can, and will often hang around after our games to watch other buddies play; I still count the Montreal Canadiens as my favorite team (the arch enemies of Grant’s beloved Toronto Maple Leafs) and try to catch their games on TV. I love everything about hockey: the speed, the way skates work on ice, the team play, the sheer thrill of scoring a goal. I also love weird things about the sport: I love the sounds of the game, and I’m fascinated by the way players talk to one another in mid-play. I’m a true rink-rat, for sure, always have been.

Ok, that’s a long preamble to a question that I probably can’t answer: hockey’s always been a big part of my life, but The Dying Athabaskan is my first story to include the game. Winter: that has shaped my imagination in every way possible, and hockey is a part of my winter mind: I find in so many of my stories that the cold creeps into the action, that snow and ice and how it feels to be out in winter creeps into the characters and how they move and perhaps even think. There’s a certain caution that comes with winter, but also a genuine exhilaration. I’m rambling: I know and love winter, I can say that much.

After selecting The Dying Athabaskan for the Publisher’s Long Story Prize, we learned that you and Grant have more in common than both being from Canada and writing about hockey. You actually went to grad school together. Can you dish a favorite grad school story on Grant?

Ok, this is the question I’ve been waiting for!  Grant was such a big part of my life in those days, and we’ve remained friends over the years. Back in the day, Grant had a punk rock show on the local public radio station, and he was kind enough to invite me, on several occasions, to sit in and have some time on the mic talking about the music and the history and evolution of punk. I remember the hot, cramped little booth at WEFT, and most of all I remember Grant’s passion and encyclopedic knowledge. What a blast it was: the Clash, Patti Smith, the Ramones, MC5, Iggy, X-Ray Spex, the Pistols, real old school turned up to 11. Grant was such a great host, and the show was on late, and who knows who was out there, listening, but we had such a brilliant time. (G-man:  if you’re reading this, hit me with your ultimate Spirit of ’77 playlist: now that the smoke has cleared, what’s the one, perfect show’s worth of songs?!)

One other story: one day, we hopped in his explode-able Pinto and drove from Champaign-Urbana to Washington, D.C., to see, at the Library of Congress, an alternative ending to Kiss Me Deadly a noir starring Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. We were just kids, and we had the time of our lives: Grant was doing research on hard-boiled films, and I had never seen the capital, and we talked music and movies and books for hours and hours. Did the alternative ending actually exist? That’s a secret.

You’re also attracted to the poetry and essay forms. Is one your strength, would you say? What are some of your current projects?

I enjoy trying out all forms, but I’m really committed to two: one of my heroes is that great wildman of American letters, Leslie Fiedler (who wrote many of his masterpieces while at the University of Montana), and when asked if he preferred writing articles or stories, he remarked that he saw no difference between writing stories and writing about stories.  I’ve taken that as my cue (as perhaps you have!), and these days I seem to divide my time about equally between fiction and scholarly research and writing. In terms of “creative writing” — truth be told, I can never understand why scholarly writing is not considered “creative” when, to my mind, it’s absolutely as creative as writing, say, stories, poems, or personal essays — I’m interested in narrative. So, I hope to find a good home for the collection of stories I’ve put together, and if that works out, I have a couple of ideas for novels. We’ll see. In my day job, I’m currently writing a book about, of all things, quantum physics and literary interpretation. I’m really enjoying the research—quantum physics is just so damn strange, even comic, at least to me—and hope to finish the book in the next year or so. I’m also co-editing a collection of essays on teaching Western American literature in colleges and universities. I can say this: I’ve been lucky: I’ve had the opportunity to work on things that interest me.


Brady Harrison’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Cerise Press, J Journal, The Long Story, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Serving House Journal, and Wascana Review, among literary journals others.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and recent poetry appears in the anthology, Poems Across the Big Sky II.  He is also edited two books on Montana literature, These Living Songs:  Reading Montana Poetry and All Our Stories Are Here:  Critical Approaches to Montana Literature.  His most recent book is Punk Rock Warlord:  The Life and Music of Joe Strummer.  He lives in Missoula, Montana, and teaches at the University of Montana. (Photo credits: Brady Harrison / David Baumstark; Grant Tracey / Mitchell D. Strauss)