12 Winters Blog

More Ulysses and the monetary value of literature

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 31, 2010

A couple of days ago I tweeted that I was “#amreading” Ulysses and one of my former students, via Facebook, expressed surprise that I was still reading Ulysses.  I have stopped periodically to focus my reading on other texts — for example, because I’m teaching this African American literature class right now and I’ve revamped the syllabus since the previous go-around, I’ve spent some quality time on classic slave narratives, and last week I took a couple of days to read some Wallace Thurman — but I’m also a slow (and careful) reader, so Ulysses is the sort of text that takes time.  I’ve been chipping away at it since around Christmas, and I’m less than halfway through, working on the “Cyclops” section presently.  The student who made the comment is a good one, and an avid reader.  Still, though, I’ve noticed that young folks — the dwindling few who still read for pleasure — are disinclined to read classics.  I use “classic” here to mean a text that challenges them intellectually, even just a little.  As such, the idea of reading something like Ulysses (an extreme example I realize) becomes increasingly alien to the culture’s mindset.

Something else I wanted to touch on here:  the monetary value of literature (that is, serious contemporary literature).  I was doing some research on William H. Gass, specifically his meganovel The Tunnel, which appeared in, I think, nineteen excerpted installments between 1966 (when he began writing it) and 1995 (when it was published in whole).  I was at Brookens Library at University of Illinois, Springfield, and I was tracking down various excerpts that appeared in journals like The Iowa Reivew and TriQuarterly.  I was astonished to see that a journal like The Iowa Review cost virtually the same in the 1970s as it does now, about $9 for a single issue.  Had the cost of literary journals kept pace with inflation, that $9 journal in, say, 1975, would cost more than $35 today ($35.49 to be exact, according to The Inflation Calculator online).  Working in the other direction, something worth $9 in 2009 should have cost $2.08 in 1975.  Publishing literary journals has always been a for-loss proposition for the vast, vast majority of such journals; and that hasn’t changed, except perhaps for the relatively new phenomenon of  ejournals, as opposed to traditional print journals, as ejournals have very little overhead cost.

What this data suggests to me is that literature — again, serious contemporary literature — was of greater value to the public at large (or at least the journal-buying public at large) thirty years ago.  That is to say, people were willing to spend more of their discretionary income on a literary journal in 1975 than they are now.  Journal editors today have difficulty moving print product.  Imagine if they were charging more than $35 for a single issue.  Contemporary literature in the form of hardback books is approaching that price tag, but journals are still roughly $9 per issue.  I daresay it would be almost impossible to sell a literary journal for thirty-five bucks, which is the main reason that serious contemporary literature is rarely published in hardback today.  University and other small press publishers release novels and story and poetry collections in paperback, with a significantly smaller price tag than hardback, and even then it’s an uphill battle to get folks to buy them.

This statistic — that the relative value of serious contemporary literature is about a quarter of what it was in 1975 — seems to jibe with how the culture feels to those of us who are compelled to produce serious literature.  Once in a while I’ll have students ask me who my favorite writers are, and I’ll throw out names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Gass, and they’ll respond with a “never heard of him.”  I know.

Speaking of eliterature, the first issue of Spilling Ink Review is scheduled to appear this week (which includes my story “Walkin’ the Dog”).  Meanwhile, I’ve been typing my manuscript “Weeping with an Ancient God” — long, and not very interesting story, but I haven’t had an electronic version of the novella, so I’m typing the manuscript (and making revisions along the way).  I’ll also type up some older short stories for which I no longer have electronic copies (e.g., “Fische Stories” that appeared in Glimmer Train Stories).  I’d like to publish “Weeping” as a novella with collected stories.  And of course I continue to work on The Authoress.  In another week, The Authoress will move to the top of my priority list, and I’ll be able to write at a much faster pace — very much looking forward to that.

tedmorrissey.com

More Ulysses, progress on Men of Winter

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 23, 2010

I’ve been reading “The Wandering Rocks” section of Ulysses and enjoying it very much.  I especially appreciate Joyce’s overlapping of images and micro-incidents to tie together otherwise disparate scenes.  Also, the language play, especially in the scenes centering on Stephen Dedalus, is breathtaking.  I frequently stop, go back, and re-read sentences and whole paragraphs, etc., in pure wonderment at what Joyce has managed.  Case in point:  Joyce writes, “She dances in a foul gloom where gum burns with garlic.  A sailorman, rustbearded, sips from a beaker rum and eyes her.  A long and seafed silent rut.  She dances, capers, wagging her sowish haunches and her hips, on her gross belly flapping a ruby egg” (p. 241 1990 Vintage International edition).  The word “seafed” is a good example, too, why one must pay close attention when reading; it’d be easy to misconstrue it as some sort of verb, when it’s actually a fairly straight forward adjective, like sea-fed, as in fed by the sea.  The hyphen would help, but gods bless Joyce for not giving us one there.  I’ve always liked compound words, like seafed, but I’ve found most editors are very uncomfortable with them.  When my story “Communion with the Dead” was published in The Chariton Review, the production editor broke apart several of my compound words, for examples, making “bluelight” into “blue light” and “steppingstone” into “stepping-stone.”  I stated my preferences but left the final version up to her (it was the first story I’d had published in sometime, thanks in large part to focusing on my doctoral studies, so I was just grateful to get something in print again and didn’t feel especially combative over it).  She opted in just about every case for the more conventional spellings.  I hope to publish a collection of stories eventually, and I figure I’ll set things as I’ve always wanted them in that volume.  I’ll need to turn away from Joyce for a couple of days as I’m teaching The Blacker the Berry (1929)  by Wallace Thurman in my African-American literature class, and I’ll need to spend some quality time with the text.

On the Men of Winter front, the publisher is moving forward with it and has assigned an editor and graphic designer to my book.  I was contacted by the graphic designer, Julie McAnary, yesterday.  After checking out her website, I’m especially pleased and excited that she’s been assigned my cover.  I had roughed out an idea for the cover using Word, but I’m also quite open to her developing some cover designs as well (again, especially since looking at her work online).  In the past, when designing A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity, I’d used Quark and then Adobe InDesign, but I no longer have access to either software so I wasn’t able to pull my cover idea together in the way I imagine it — but that’s all right: I’m comfortable with Julie’s handling the work and am looking forward to seeing what she comes up with.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on The Authoress.  I’m in a section that is especially challenging, as the narrator is observing multiple frenetic things happening at once.  I know it will require much work, much writing and rewriting, to get right — but that’s the fun of it.  I enjoy sitting down with a draft and going through it with the proverbial finetooth comb, adding and taking away and rewording.  I’ve always found that when I revise I almost always add (and reword).  Very rarely do I feel that I’ve overwritten a section; my journalistically bred barebones style tends to make my first drafts under- rather than overcooked.  My academic year is all but over (save for the African-American lit class, which runs to the end of June), so I’m chomping at the bit to get to writing and working on The Authoress in summertime earnest.

“Walkin’ the Dog” has been taken by Spilling Ink Review and will be included in the journal’s inaugural issue, which is supposed to be out June 1 (very fast turn around, but that’s one of the advantages of epublishing).  I’m very pleased and impressed with their website, and look forward to seeing what they do with my story.  SIR, which is edited by Amy Burns, will also publish an annual anthology in print, but not with everything that’s been online.  With the publication of “Walkin’ the Dog” I’m out of stories; I’ve published every story I’ve written (well, every one since I finished my master’s and had something of a clue as to what I was doing) — which is a sort of odd feeling.  I’m so used to looking for outlets and sending off stories (and receiving rejection after rejection before someone says yes), it’ll be strange not to go through that process:  But I’m not complaining. tedmorrissey.com

Ulysses, African-American Authors, et al.

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 16, 2010

I continue to make my way through Ulysses.  This morning I finished reading episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis.”  It was especially meaningful to me for several reasons.  It’s a highly literary episode, as the characters, especially Stephen Dedalus and the poet A. E., discuss Shakespeare and, in particular, their various theories about Hamlet (and Hamlet and king Hamlet).  Before reading Ulysses, I had not seen the parallels between Homer’s Odyssey — a text that I’ve taught for years — and Hamlet, a text that I’ve taught but it’s been awhile. Both, for instance, are very much concerned with the absent father (Odysseus and king Hamlet), and in both the returned father spurs them to violence against intruders to their home (the suitors and Claudius).  The bipolarity of faithful Penelope versus faithless Gertrude is interesting, too.

Perhaps the most intriguing notion to come out of my reading of episode nine, however, is the idea that Joyce was exploring the dichotomy between Aristotle’s rationalism (represented by the cliff-dwelling Scylla) and Plato’s more organic idealism (the maelstrom Charybdis).  I’ve been teaching and studying the Odyssey for years, but I’ve never thought of Odysseus as having to navigate between these philosophical poles — and the dangers associated with sailing too closely to one or the other.  We can see this metaphor played out in our everyday lives.  In education, for example, it seems that the Aristotelean has run amok with an overemphasis on standardized testing (crystallized in the politically named “No Child Left Behind” legislation) to the detriment of the more flexible and organic pedagogies, associated in this paradigm with the Platonic.  That is, President Bush and the architects of NCLB wanted to treat students as if they were software that could be tweaked into superior performance — and dismissing the complexly organic nature of complex human organisms.  Standardized testing has its place in education, but we mustn’t sail too closely to the rocks; a more moderate course is needed.

I’ve also been (re-)reading some slave narratives as I’m currently teaching one of my favorite courses at the college, Introduction to African-American Authors.  I’ve taught it several times over the last four or five years, but I overhauled the syllabus, placing greater emphasis on the early slave narratives (Equiano, Prince, Douglass, and Jacobs), and also on the Harlem Renaissance.  Regarding the latter, this new emphasis has allowed the poetry of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes into the reading list, as well as the novella The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman.  For the conclusion of the course, I’ve also switched out Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) for The Bluest Eye (1970).  Of course, in revamping the syllabus the age-old problem has manifested itself:  for everything the syllabus giveth, it must taketh something else away.  In this case, I’ve lost some writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (and Walker’s concept of “womanism” as opposed to feminism).  These are great losses to be sure.  I’ll have to evaluate this incarnation of the course once we finish in mid-June.

I continue to work on The Authoress and am very pleased with how it’s taking shape.  I have a more solid sense of the ending, but it remains many, many words away, and I’m deliberately avoiding marrying myself to the ending as I envision it now — I want the narrative to have the autonomy to assert its own wishes and needs as we go along.  The fine folks at Punkin House Press are getting things in order.  I still haven’t been contacted by an editor there regarding Men of Winter, but it will no doubt happen soon.  Their plate is mighty full, to put it mildly.  Speaking of autonomy, PHP’s philosophy is to let writers have their own space to create and to promote themselves.  On the one hand, I very much appreciate this noble philosophy, but, on the other, some writers could probably use a bit more guidance when it comes to presenting themselves to the world.  I can offer no citation, but I’ve heard that when Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat”) would send his work to his publisher, the junior editors would draw straws to see who had to edit his writing, which was filled with misspellings and ungrammatical musings.  Creativity — even if a sort of genius creativity — does not necessarily make one a master of the English language, which is why the gods invented editors.

And speaking of unmasterful endeavors, I continue to tinker with tedmorrissey.com — but there probably isn’t a lot more to do until Men of Winter gets closer to an actual release date.

Ulysses and my new website

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 2, 2010

Somehow or another in my college coursework and general bibliomania, I managed to miss pretty much all of James Joyce, other than reading Dubliners (1914) in bits and pieces over the years and including “Araby” on my syllabus when I’ve taught Intro to Short Fiction at the college; and I’ve always considered my lack of familiarity with Joyce as an enormous gap in literary knowledge.  Hence one of my post-doctoral goals was to catch up on my reading of Joyce.  In the fall I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and over the winter I began Ulysses (1922).  Other pressures forced me to leave the text be for a time, but I’m back at it, and in the last week or so I’ve read the “Lotus Eaters,” “Hades” and “Aeolus” sections,  and I’m working on “Lestrygonians.”  Ulysses is a difficult text to be sure, and it requires focus.  There have been a few episodes in which I’ve become enthralled as a reader and have been lost in the story, but for the most part it has required some concerted effort to stay with the narrative threads and make some sense of them.  I doubt that I’ll pursue Joyce in a scholarly way, and I can’t see incorporating Joyce into my teaching other than via the stories from Dubliners, but it’s time well spent nevertheless.  From a creative writing standpoint, Joyce’s experimentation and narrative courage, if you will, are valuable lessons to be learned or at least to be reinforced.  I was inspired by the overall structure of Ulysses in the writing of the central section of The Authoress.

Speaking of The Authoress, writing has been going well.  Though with over 200 pages of manuscript, I feel that the story is still waxing; it may end up being a fairly long novel, which is all right:  I’ve always felt like the conclusion of Men of Winter was a bit rushed.  A literary agent had been waiting to see the completed manuscript for three years (not with bated breath, mind you — but I was ever mindful of her expressed interest and was anxious to get it into her mailbox).  And of course once she read it, she decided not to represent it anyway.  And I may be mistaken (whatever “mistake” means when it comes to art):  perhaps the conclusion is as it should be.

This past week I launched tedmorrissey.com, devoted to my creative writing endeavors.  It’s very much a work in progress, and pretty low-tech as websites go these days.  But it seems a virtual necessity to have a dedicated web presence as a contemporary author.  Once Men of Winter gets closer to release, I’ll add some additional features.  One of the things I need to work on, I feel, is a trailer for the novel — as far as I know it’s a twenty-first-century phenomenon to have a trailer for a book.  One of the folks I follow on Twitter makes trailers, so I’m thinking of approaching her, but I’m also considering making it myself.  It would definitely be a learning experience (like starting 12 Winters Blog and tedmorrissey.com).  The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House Press, a brand-new press, is coming along.  I can’t imagine the numbers of irons they have in the fire, as it were, attempting to launch a commercial printing house along with a vanity press, a marketplace for self-published books, and a literary journal — simultaneously.  God bless em.

I submitted a proposal to write a chapter for a book on the artist and society; my chapter would be about William H. Gass’s The Tunnel.  I should hear within a couple of weeks whether or not my proposal’s been accepted.  The chapter will be due September 1 if it’s accepted.  If it’s accepted, I’ll enjoy diving back into The Tunnel; but if it’s not, that will be time I’ll be able to devote to other projects — it’s a win-win either way.