05 December 2003

Novelist Richard Powers: He's A Dessert Topping And A Floor Wax!

Oh fer Crissakes, Dick!
Get off yer ass and do something
brilliant already, wouldja?
 Posted by Hello

Dear Greg:

I was reading The Paris Review last night (I know you find that astounding) and came across an interview with a novelist by the name of Richard Powers. I had read an excerpt from one of his novels that was published in the same issue. The first paragraph struck me as a bit much – what seemed to be a protracted description of daybreak over Washington, DC on Easter Sunday, 1939. Something about "magenta coating marble" and so on that I thought was really laying it on a little thick. But as I gradually discovered the intent of the piece - which was to recall the day that Marian Anderson, the famous African American contralto, sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial – the emotional mass and speed of it increased until it seemed that the prose that I thought at first was florid wasn't nearly enough to contain it.

I don't know if you're familiar with Marian Anderson, but she was the toast of Europe at a time when she wasn't allowed to sing in most American concert halls because she was black. She wound up singing at the Lincoln Memorial that Sunday morning because the Daughters of the American Revolution had somehow disallowed her from singing in the usual venues in Washington, DC. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a member of the DAR at the time, withdrew her membership. Then the Secretary of the Interior, a fellow by the name of Inkes, stepped in and used his jurisdiction over the parks and monuments of DC to schedule the event at the Lincoln Memorial, thus sidestepping segregation laws. The DAR retaliated by sending an order to the Secretary of the Interior for 200 tickets, obviously hoping to "shut out" the performance by holding the tickets and not showing for the event. The Secretary sent a message back saying that he couldn't hold 200 tickets for them as the event was free and open to the general public, performance conditions that New Deal Era racists often referred to as "nigger heaven". Ironically, a small slice of heaven is what it turned out to be. On Easter Sunday morning 1939, Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 25,000 (arguably the largest performance in American history to that date) that was so varied in composition of race, sex and class that it could only be described as America.

I read the interview, and it turns out this guy Powers has written six novels, all of which have been nominated for the Book Critics Circle Award and/or a National Book Award. He was also the recipient of a Macarthur "genius" grant. Number of books sold? Dick. Now here's the interesting part. He's a Cognitive Scientist. He's at the computer science end of the field, and uses his skills to build what he calls a "war chest" with his earnings to buy him time to write books. His strengths were math and logic. All of this gives me a great deal of hope. As I said to you previously, I believed that there were no good science writers, and although that may still be true, here's a guy who's a scientist who writes some pretty damn good prose that more often than not deals with scientific issues. (Of course, the Marian Anderson piece isn't one of those, but his other novels do deal with scientific issues like artificial intelligence either in whole or to a degree.)

Here's part of the interview he gave in The Paris Review. I think it gives a perspective of racism that is very rarely heard, or at least one that I hadn't thought of.


We often think that racism is driven by a hatred of difference, a fear of difference, and a desire to annihilate difference and create a kind of sameness. Surely those things are inherent in racism. But just as important is an understanding of the degree to which racism is driven by a fear of similarities. We love and hate and we embrace and we mistreat and we exclude, not as a function of how little the other category overlaps with us, but as a function of how close the boundary is. If what looks so different from me is not that different, what happens to my sense of uniqueness?


Which leads to violence.


I think it's a strong contributor. Destroy that thing that would destroy our own uniqueness. Once you formulate it that way, and you take a look at this sense of how deeply motivated we are to preserve some illusory uniqueness that was never there, suddenly there's this great sense of lightness to the realization that losing yourself might not be all that bad of a thing. It is one of the glories of this country to realize that no matter how badly we've bungled this issue for four hundred years, the present is permeated by this possibility of losing yourself in something that isn't you, of culture becoming mongrel in all the best and richest possible ways.

I know this is taking a bit of a leap off the subject, but I feel the issue of having my uniqueness destroyed most keenly when it comes to participating in popular culture. For instance, reading the same books that everyone else does. I just tried reading Jonathan Franzen's hugely popular novel "The Corrections", and found that I couldn't bear it. The prose was good, but the whole time that I was reading it, it's almost as though I could feel the weight of the opinions of others, as though what I would "get" out of reading the novel had already been quantified, as if there were a right and a wrong way to interpret it. It felt confining. I think that any work of literature needs to expand, needs to be left alone and not overexposed so much that popular consumption and the mass of like opinions of it begins to limit its scope and meaning for the individual. That's why I read a literary quarterly that has a circulation of 2,000 and is mostly written by nobodies (with a few well–known authors thrown in to keep the coffers full, I suppose). Don't get me wrong. It's not that I think that popular writers like Franzen or Michael Chabon aren't good. It's just that I don't feel compelled to read something that feels like it has a popular opinion that comes with it, ready–made for me to adopt. I guess I developed that sentiment early via my unconventional tastes in music (thanks to you). Here I was, eight or nine years old, with a musical palette that included everything from Wild Man Fischer to Sinfonia Antarctica, when my friends were exclusively listening to the Osmonds because everyone else did. The Osmonds were shite and I knew it, and I wasn't about to change my tastes just because everyone else like them. Perhaps it’s the same sort of agency that we talked about before, only this time it's about maintaining authenticity and independence in one's own tastes rather than in one's art or talents.

I guess that's going to be all for now. I'm having one of those days when I can feel that "poisonous fog" closing in, and am going to go do something about it before it takes too strong a hold.
Cheers, and give my best to Marie.

02 December 2003

Suckled At The Teats Of Woolly Nuns, High In The Windblown Sierra Nevada

Italo Calvino > Me Posted by Hello

Dear Greg:

I've concluded that there aren't enough hours in the day to write letters. I've been limiting myself to one per day, and I've limited the length to four pages. Still this doesn't seem to be enough. It's as though all the letters that I didn't write over the years are suddenly coming to the surface like some sort of suppressed memory.[1]

I got another issue of The Paris Review yesterday. Teresa has had to put up with my mewling and wretchedness over having an almost three–week literature drought. When she saw the package in the mailbox, she threw her hands heavenward and shouted "At last! A reason to live!"

I'm currently reading the correspondences by Italo Calvino (The Castle of Crossed Destinies, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler), letters that he wrote home while he was a Ford Foundation Grant Recipient and living in New York City in 1959. He has fascinating observations about American culture in the late 50's, some of which make me think that our current political situation is simply our natural mode of state which is occasionally interrupted by such humanists as Roosevelt and Kennedy. Calvino talks about the climate of McCarthyism, but with a noticeable lack of criticism or surprise. Remember, this guy had just come over from Franco's fascist Spain. However, his remarks about American capitalism are priceless; he uses terms like "propaganda" without any pejorative overtone, and recommends that anyone who was going to have their children schooled in America should first send them to Merrill Lynch to study for two years, and then on to college to study the arts and letters. (Merrill Lynch, by the way, does have a student program, or at least did in 1959.) He marvels at the size of American automobiles, which at the time were sporting impossibly–sized fins (even the cabs, he says), and entertains the idea of hiring [renting] one just so he can feel more American. What really made me laugh was his description of the beatniks, whom he continually refers to as "filthy". He gives especially palpable descriptions of Allen Ginsberg's beard and mode of dress. There's one passage about how one of his Ford colleagues, a twenty–six year old writer from France who was wretchedly poor and sported a frightened little beard that clung to his chin for mercy (my description, not Calvino's) got taken back to Ginsberg's apartment. Ginsberg and his "wife" of course attempted to seduce this poor little guy, who later reported to Calvino that Ginsberg lived in a great deal of modern style, kept a tidy apartment, and only got dirty and dressed in mismatched thrift garb when he went out to the coffee houses. The more I hear stories like that, the more I believe that Kerouac and Ginsberg and the rest either inspired a generation that was nothing like themselves, or they manipulated a generation into a style of living that they did not share at all. Either way, they knew the beats, knew their tastes, and knew how to capitalize on them, that's for sure. They were champions of a culture that fancied itself disenfranchised, a culture that they also concurrently participated in outwardly and despised privately, as the evidence indicates.

I was going through all the writing samples that I have scattered here and there all over my computer, looking for a few pieces that might be representative of my body of work. After a while it became apparent that I have no body of work, that most of what I have completed sucks, and the mass of which is unfinished. I don't mean to sound like I'm getting down on myself, because there's nothing that I can really do to undo all the crap I've already committed to paper, other than to write more material that's better, and thus redeem myself. I think that it's an evolutionary necessity, this aversion to one's own work. Konrad Lorenz talks about intra–specific aversion which causes members on the same species to spread themselves around the available habitat if only to stay out of each other's way and avoid wearing out the ecosystem in one spot. I can see parallels in the life of writing. Not only is writing a solitary pursuit, but writers have a sort of bifurcated drive that keeps them away from other writers (through the application of stinging and unsolicited criticisms and whatnot), and away from their own works through endogenous loathing. And of course there's the other corollary: a writer, dropping a manuscript and moving away from it is akin to say, bears crapping around the perimeter of their domain. Or beatniks bathing in their own filth. I digress.

So I've come to the conclusion that all my previous works simultaneously sucks and blows, which is a party trick I thought was reserved for brass players who were short on money. ("Five bucks says I can keep bubbles coming out of this straw for fifteen minutes!") My only recourse, or penance if you prefer, is to create a lot more work that is markedly superior. Since I haven't enjoyed any sort of success or fame with my fiction to this point, then I can safely avoid association with anything that I've written previously, or at least burn it all, and have no one be the wiser. Moreover, I can look like I sprang into literary history fully formed, like a sort of Venus on the Half–Shell, albeit with a sagging belly, an appendectomy scar, and a frightened little beard. Once I'm famous, I can tell everyone that I never put a word to paper until I was forty one. I'll tell them that previous to that, I was a feral man–child who communicated through a complicated series of gestures, grunts and farts. Then one day, as my story shall continue, I was beaten with a copy of The Paris Review by a disgruntled coffee house owner who found me rooting in the garbage. The rest is history. I think this is a brilliant plan, and it obviously requires your complete cooperation and sworn oath of silence. Better yet, you should play the part of my only–slightly–more–developed feral brother, and limit your responses to single syllables if approached by the press. Tell them we were raised by Episcopalians in the wild, and suckled at the teats of wooly nuns high in the windblown Sierra Nevadas.

Drat and blast! Now I'm out of time. I have to go do something stupid and meaningless, like work. The sooner I get out of this having to work business and get on with doing what I want to do, the better. Like Confucius said, the man who finds a job that he loves never has to work a day in his life.

Cheers, and give my best to Marie,
[1] Suppressed memory, such as the term is used by pop psychologists and defense lawyers, is something that I do not believe in. Just wanted to be clear on that.