The history of my race in America is the history of selling out. But would you rather have it put more nicely?
There’s a story about New York that I want to tell everyone who asks me what I think about the city, but can’t, because it’s kind of hard to explain. It took place two years ago, when I was trying to be a literary journalist at Flavorwire. I “already was,” but because the editorial director had changed hands with the co-founder of Buzzfeed, and the editor in chief of the New York Observer, and suddenly I had to reprove myself in her eyes since she did not bother to read my previous articles.
She called me in for a meeting about the interviews I was going to do. She asked me who I wanted to interview, and I listed a few authors, including Rachel Kushner, who’d just released a book a few weeks ago. She said a lot of the writers I picked were “expected,” and heavily promoted, though not necessarily good, something she’d just said over lunch with her agent Amanda Urban. The name Amanda Urban was intended to shut me up, and I did. Over lunch, Amanda Urban was telling her that she’d just gone down to Iowa, but was unimpressed by any of the writers there because they all want to subvert the tradition without knowing what the tradition is. “That’s because they’re all trying to write like Ben Marcus, who’s the head of the fiction program,” my editor said. According to her, there was a publicity machine that was dominating what got covered in Flavorwire. “The thing with Rachel Kushner is that if you look at the window displays of Barnes and Noble, they’ll have her book right on the front, and then everybody reviews it in all the major newspapers.”
Actually, Ben Marcus is not the director of Iowa, and didn’t even go there. He went to Columbia, but he’s not even the director of Colombia. That’s Sam Lipsyte. I knew this at the time, but I didn’t say it, because I needed her to hire me. I needed her to think that I was out of my league, and impressed by all her fancy opinions. A couple weeks later, I did my interview with Rachel Kushner, for the fourth time as my editor requested, and because she thought it concentrated too much on the art of fiction, and not on the publishing industry, she fired me.
In fact, I know Rachel Kushner’s book had not been displayed in any Barnes and Noble that year, because her publishers, Scribner, had been the only house of the big four to not pay the marketing premium. No matter. By then I’d already learned what I needed to know about power, who has it and who doesn’t, about what it takes to be a gay Chinese writer in New York, and the importance of getting your fact straight.
Another unrelated incident, but also funny: a friend of mine were talking, just before I was about to leave the city. I was sick of it, tired of playing the professional game, and the sexual Darwinism of Brooklyn’s gay scene, which is actually a nicer way of saying racism. He said firmly, “All your experiences in the gay world over the last year has been directly influenced from what you read in E.B. White.” I was speechless. He must of thought he’d struck a nerve, because I couldn’t say anything in response. I was actually thinking, “I’m sure he meant to say Edmund White.”
The man who chronicled his sex life with hundreds, if not thousands, of gay men in New York during the 1970s, mixed up with the author of Charlotte’s Web. I never corrected him because by that time a week later, I was already gone.
I recently read on some blog that said art was masturbation unless it found someone else to interact with it. It was in response to a gay graduate straight out of art school who, reportedly, will stage a performance art piece in Spring 2014 where he will lose his virginity to a live audience. The fact this act will be performed is, I guess, important to establish the art as not masturbatory.
Some people prefer the metaphor that if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. I prefer the sexual, but really, call it what you will. It seems that I’ve arrived at a point on a road paved by life experiences from the last two years, and my recent retreat into solipsistic hermitage, but I’ve reached yet again an unprecedentedly pessimistic height, so grotesquely sophisticated that it has transcended itself and has begun to look like optimism.
Gertrude Stein, who’s Tender Buttons was appreciated by basically no one in her lifetime, said famously that she writes for herself and strangers. I also write for myself and strangers. I interpret strangers as people I will never met, who are either dead or alive, but will never come in contact with me. They are, in effect, the masked spectators in Sleep No More who watch as I fuck myself.
This is where I differ from the anonymous blogger. Art is not masturbation. It’s an act of fucking yourself, which is in my estimation the highest and most spiritually profound forms of human experience. If there is an audience at all (and I’m adamant that an audience outside of the artist’s own consciousness is ultimately unnecessary for art to be made), it’s not so much as sex as it is ejaculating over someone else’s orifice. Their participation is optional. Whether they like it or not, the ejaculation happens anyway. Yet, the application is only topical, because art is not rape. It’s a self-consummation, something wholly autonomous and sovereign, what Thomas Aquinas called “thisness.” Aquinas of course, was drawing his definition of art from the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. God, the Son, and The Holy Spirit are three entities in one, autonomously and perpetually revolving around each other. What Aquinas could not say, and what I am saying now, is that God is basically fucking himself for all of eternity. I hope to do the same, with or without you.
Give me your answer, do
I love protein
More than you think I do
I’ve been reading Dubliners, and digging it, and finding it strange, and I realized why I thought it was so strange is because it wasn’t goth. Likely, because it’s Irish, and at that point in the teens, there wasn’t much of a tradition of gothic literature in Ireland. Today in America, gothic literature is so overpowering that it’s taken as the norm. The strangeness of the grotesque has simply been assimilated into the reality of American consciousness. The New Yorker, the great publisher of upper middle-brow fiction, will have stories of festering dead babies and women dancing naked with only one breast after surgery, and we don’t really think anything of it.
I think it’s safe to say that the two most influential American authors of the 20th century were William Faulkner, for the novel, and Flannery O’Connor, for the short story. Both wrote deep, southern grotesques that centered around the fanatic and the crazy. It also is not a coincidence that both dealt explicitly with race and religion, and now in the 21st century of America, those are still the topics that are most relevant today. The Left cannot resolve the question of race, and the Right cannot resolve the question of religion. So it’s not surprise that Faulkner and O’Connor are still alive today, perhaps more alive than when they were originally published
In an essay about her work, O’Connor wrote about how people in her native Georgia, the setting in which she set most of her stories, complained of her depiction of it. They said Georgia was a nice place, and there were not murderers stalking the streets shooting families of five, or crooks disguised as Bible salesmen looking to steal a wooden leg. She said that realism was not the point—her fiction was larger than life, visionary, and disturbing, because, in my mind, it access a register of truth, a kind of American sensibility to confront its own ugliness.
In the 1950s, Georgia may not have the Georgia of O’Connor’s stories. Yet in 2013, after Charles Manson, the staged revolutions from the CIA abroad, terrorism, hate crimes, mass shootings, and Trayvon Martin, the gap between reality and fiction just might not be so large anymore. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that O’Connor is now more popular than ever.
Marilynne Robinson is the greatest living American writer. No other writer has so elegantly and successfully and revolutionarily communicated what it means to be alive in the contemporary age of global and multicultural theocracy. She is a direct descendent of the minds that create the fabric of American thought: Melville, Emerson, Faulkner, and yet points to an age that neither of these authors embodied, but could only prophesy. Marilynne Robinson is the fulfillment of their prophecy. If it is true that the contemporary age is typified by a multicultural paranoia, a “war of civilizations” not against blacks and whites, but of race determined and expressed by religion, then the relevance and potency of culture is defined by how we see good and evil. The survival and existence of American consciousness is dependent on these questions: the moral question of what is good and what is evil. A friend recently told me that the works of Marilynne Robinson were too indebted to religion, though I could not disagree more. While Marilynne Robinson herself may never claim to be greater than the Calvinist tradition from which she draws, her novels speak for themselves. They swallow religion whole.
Home is the greatest of her three novels. It is perhaps the only novel that, in my mind, has achieved the weight of a spiritual text itself. It is ironically the least lauded of her novels. Whereas each of her novels has won an award, (PEN/Hemingway, Pulitzer, Orange, respectively), the third seems to be the most devalued and is from an organization that no longer exists. (Personally, I find her most famous novel which won the Pulitzer to be the least compelling).
Why this is, I have no idea. Despite Robinson’s derision for the comedy of manners as a genre, Home is a loving and empathetic comedy of manners for Congregationalist hospitality. The levity, humor, and tragedy of Home is largely centered around the Kabuki dance that the characters do around each other: an abundance of apologies, intrusions, concessions, and grace. Yet its lasting legacy is its quality to be, in a way, a dramatic tragedy disguised as a novel, in the sense that Goethe once said that Shakespeare’s tragedies were novels disguised as dramatic tragedies. In Home, the fate of her characters is a result not of circumstance, but of their nature, which inevitably brings about the tragedy of Jack’s exile from Gilead, a dark foreshadowing for his possible damnation, a death as tragic as Prince Hamlet’s.