Taking Off The Mask

There is a part of me that I don’t think anyone will ever like. I don’t only think it, actually. I know it. Because I’ve played that part in public before. I’ve acted it out, cloaked myself in it, and let people know that was who I was. No one liked it. Or almost no one. Most likely it was because of who I am and who I’m not. That part of me that I used to play was someone I’m not particularly fond of now, especially after I’ve spent years covering him up, seeing how people react to him and how he could have thought about things differently. When I was a teenager, I listened to all the depressing music that people association with not unintelligent, independent, non-conformist teenagers. The works. I said and read and posted and lived really depressing mantras. And you know what? No one really much liked me when I did that.  I’ve heard it said that moody introspection only works if you’re considerably taller and are able to play the guitar. And that pretty much hit the nail on the head for how well people responded to the person I was purporting myself to be. It was somewhat an act, because there were other facets to my personality, too. But the glaring thing was that part of me. So I changed it. Not quickly and not easily, but I realized that people liked being around me when I would laugh and joke and keep away from really depressing statements. I made that who I was. And for the most part, I’m still that person. But the mask I wear to appear appealing to others has that part removed from it.

Here’s the part where I actually talk about writing and not just myself. Ask any writer how it feels to have someone read their work. Go ahead, ask them. You will probably get an answer somewhere along the lines of a feeling of mingled shame and hope and somewhere around there, embarrassment–with maybe a dash of pride mixed in. More emotions than that are combined in that experience, but to go any farther into that rabbit hole would risk a loss of focus on my part. It is hard to ask anyone to read one’s work and even harder to actually get anyone to read one’s work. For after you’ve gotten the person to say the word “Yes” they still have to sit down and actually read the damn thing.

But now after beating around the bush for a while, I come to the point I want to make. Have you ever had someone read your writing in front of you? Like while you’re standing/sitting still while they actually read the words you put down in a private place somewhere, unsure anyone in the world would ever actually see it? It is nothing short of horrifying. The simple act of watching someone run their eyes over something from inside you is almost painful it’s so embarrassing. That’s an interesting word, by the way, isn’t it? “Embarrassing.” Em-bare-ass-ing. That’s like saying something goes through the process of making you bareassed. But why is this so embarrassing? Why does it make us feel like we’re back in that dream where we show up to school naked? I have a theory and it relates to that part of me that I know no one will ever like. That part I’ve tried so hard to hide, that part of me that is expressed and given a voice in my dreams where I show up to school naked. And it relates to that part of me that I put down on paper when I write.

My writing, my stuff, my work, whatever I happen to be calling it at the moment is a direct result of putting that part of myself that no one likes on paper. It’s the time where I’m able to take off that mask that I’ve been putting on for necessity of survival and to avoid looking like a huge fucking tool. From my other essay about writing as looking inward to reach out, it’s a bit obvious and hopefully you maybe read that one before reading this one. If not, that’s fine; if so, wonderful. And but so when putting down on paper that part of yourself that has not been given any air, any light, any say for so long except maybe from time to time in the music you listen to, in the books you read, the films you watch, you are giving voice to something that has long been ignored and left on its own–more importantly, you recognize how important and integral this part of you is, even if no one ever seems to respond to it in person. But these ways to get it out are passive, not the same as bringing that part out actively. That is where writing comes in for me. Writing is an act of taking off the mask. You finally free yourself from that wall that you put up between yourself and the world around you. The cruel irony is that often the part of yourself you put down in your work that no one responds to in real life is the very part that people respond to the most in your work. How does this happen, where when you bare your soul in person someone feels like you’re being indecent, but then when you are completely maskless in your work you are praised? Does honesty hold no weight in person? Because it definitely does in art. Art is your moment for honesty. And so isn’t it a little nerve-wracking when someone witnesses that part of yourself that you had vowed to relegate to the dungeons of your soul? At least when in the presence of others, lest you completely turn them off with your honesty and self-obsession? It is as if you went around your whole life with a mask on your face and then one day took a picture of yourself without the mask on, and then you proceeded to show that picture to someone while standing in front of them wearing your mask. Can you imagine what kind of horrors and embarassments and wild possibilities would run through you at that point? It’s probably one of the most conflicting and uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in, to be honest.   And isn’t that both a little sad and a little admirable that people have this kind of conflict about showing that part of themselves? It’s a little sad in that we are told never to give a shit what people think about us and to do what we want because we want to and so it’s an acknowledgement of the outside world’s effect on us. But it’s also admirable in the sense that we know this part of ourselves has never been well-liked and we may even be ridiculed for it–but at least we are facing that fear in order to say something about ourselves and about everything and anything on this big spinning ball of rock. For all I know lawyers might relate everything in the world to law and doctors to medicine–what I know about is writing and so the filter that all information goes through first is the filter of writing. And it’s this filter that has allowed me to take off the mask that I oblige myself to wear every day. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked it!

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Dictionary Daily: Zephyr

Okay, so lately while reading Infinite Jest for the second time, I suddenly happened upon a word that I haven’t thought of for a long time: zephyr. And seeing as how I haven’t done one of these dictionary daily things in forever and I love me some archaic words, as we probably all know after reading my other D.D. posts, I decided I’d do a little riff on the word zephyr.

I think I first encountered this word in college when reading the poetry of the Romantics. I was confused as to what the hell a Zephyr was–sounded liked some fake mythical animal or something that had the head of a zebra and the body of a fir tree or some crazy shit. I wasn’t too far wrong. The word’s origin is mythological in nature. In Greek Mythology, Zephyrus was the name given to the personification of the West Wind, so said to be the most favorable of all the directional winds, in addition to being the bringer of light spring and early summer breezes. If this wasn’t cool enough, authors as distinguished as Chaucer and Shakespeare have used Zephyrus or just plain “zephyrs” to refer to wind. In fact, it may even be Shakespeare himself in Cymbeline who is the first author to refer to a light, pleasant wind as a “zephyr”– “They are as gentle as zephyrs blowing the violet, not wagging his sweet head.” Yes, I got lots of this from wikipedia, but now it’s in my head and will likely never leave. I just liked the idea that these two giants of the early canon both had a hand in Zephyrus becoming zephyr.

Though zephyr is a word still used today, it is semi-archaic, now being surpassed in favorability by words like breeze and the like.  I think the reason that this word still has some sort of effect on me is that I love how the word is not only a descriptor, but it goes beyond description and becomes representative of  wind. In essence, the word zephyr is also an onomatopoeia.  The word zephyr itself sounds like a whishing wind (whishing also being an onomatopoeia–love that word as well, better make a note). Zephyr can also be used in the adjectival sense and even awkwardly in verb-form if the writer is so inclined, but the true beauty of the word lies in the combination of the relationship between sound and meaning, the capturing almost completely the thing that is supposed to be meant by the word itself. The best comparison I can make when making this point is by saying that Shakespeare might have been correct when he said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I think he would have been wrong if he had used the word zephyr in his quote. No other word for a light wind would be as perfect as zephyr–though breeze is a convenient and newly developed synonym for wind, the handful of breaths and wind-like sounds in zephyr make breeze no match for zephyr in the battle for being le mot juste–just the right word. So after my pretentious post, I will remove my head from my ass and exclaim to the poets, “BRING BACK THE ZEPHYR!” Thank you to all those who listen!

Grasping the Wind: Describing the Nature and Features of Voice

We all know the feeling. We sit on our couches and our eyes move left to right and down the page, following the words this master has created. How do we know he’s a master? Well, just look! The way the writer uses the words, runs them together in strings of perfection that create the uninterrupted fictive dream. The writer uses his knowledge of his craft to a T. And what’s more? He sounds like no other writer. He sounds, in a word, like himself. It’s just impossible to think that he sounds like anyone else out there writing or having written. This magic, this seeming like one’s self is in my opinion the pinnacle of what a writer should aspire to. This pinnacle has a name and it’s bandied about in all circles of publishing, writing, and critiquing. It’s referred to as voice.

Okay, so we know what voice looks like when we see it. We know all the agents and editors and publishers and even our selves are looking for it. So why the hell can’t we find it? Why is it so damn unattainable? And worse, why is it we can’t see it in ourselves? When I was younger I spent way more time than was necessary or even helpful in trying to decide if I had found my voice yet. The answer, as you might have guessed, was no–I hadn’t found my voice yet. Like most, I didn’t even know what it would look like when I did it because it was my work I was trying to assess as having voice or not. What few people will tell you is the necessary tenets or qualities of voice and how it is attained. Now, this won’t be an end-all be all treatise on “5 FAIL-SAFE WAYS TO MAKE SURE YOU FIND YOUR VOICE!” Hardly. Though it would be wonderful to have something like that laid out in front of us so that all we would have to do would be to follow the recipe. Or would we? The point is that writing is far too mystical, alchemical, and artful for it to be as simple as all that. However, I will try to give some sort of bearing on how to go about finding your voice.

First, the definition. Last year, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop and one of the first talks given was given by the Tin House editors. It was called the “Tin House View” and had to do with voice and why it was so important and, more importantly, just what the fuck it was. During the conversation, it was the Editor in Chief of Tin House Magazine, Rob Spillman who said, when asked to elaborate on the concept of voice, that voice was “having a sense of authority that tells the reader that the writer who wrote this knows what he is doing and is telling this story for a reason.” Definition one, right there. I hope a lightbulb is going off in your head as you read this, because it did to me when I sat and listened to this talk. Rob’s words pulled some sort of veil from my eyes and there it was: an actual almost touchable definition of voice.

The second definition of voice comes from a completely difference source. This summer I spent lots of time smoking various substances and lounging around the backyard with my favorite fellow writers. One day we got into a discussion about Quentin Tarantino (who I hate and who my friends seem to have some sort of affection for). I contended that it seemed like he was a one-trick pony who used violence as both a means and an ends and pretty much nothing else. My friends argued and I was finally persuaded to try and watch Kill Bill. The dialogue ended there, but then my friend Aaron said something that caught my attention.  He said, essentially, that the thing that made him admire Tarantino so much was that everything he did in his films seemed to have been on purpose, for a specific reason. Nothing was random or an accident. It just fit. Now, that didn’t necessarily convince me that Tarantino was great–but it did spark an idea in me that that was exactly what voice was. Filmmakers–Kubrick, Cohens, Fincher, Bergman–just like writers, end up developing a style (see: voice) that is recognizable almost at all times. Though this definition is very much like the previous one, I’d like to point out how it is not. The first definition concerned itself with authority, meaning staking a claim for respect and attention. Declaring oneself to be serious and worthy of consideration. This second definition focuses much more on intent of the artist and the perception of his work. In a word, this definition is concerned with control. The ability to control one’s work to the point that everything he does seems on purpose. This is the definition I will mostly be focusing on, though as I focus on the second definition, glimpses of the former one will continually rear up. Because the first definition is the one we have the least control over, seeing as how it relies on the perception of the reader to recognize the writer’s authority. But on the other hand, the second definition contains something in it that we can do something about, because it refers to action, to control, to agency. The first definition is the final product that should be arrived at after mastering the second one.

Okay, so now I’m going to ask you to forget about voice. Why? Because it’s for all intents and purposes, useless. Then what the fuck was all that going on about for (checks the word counter at the bottom left here…)950 words (that’s before the parenthetical)? I’ll tell you. If you want, go open a document right now and start writing like yourself. Write a story sounding like yourself. How far did you get? I know how it went, at least I know how it went for me when I used to try that: nowhere. The reason for that is because I was basically trying to reach the thing in an equation that lies on the other side of the equal sign separate from everything else. I was trying to reach the sum without investigating and mastering each of the parts. That’s called cheating (or so my high school Algebra teacher not so kindly informed me years ago).  Voice in fiction is what happens when all of the other parts of the alchemical process that is writing has been mastered (which are never really mastered, by the way). If you really want to reach your voice, look at your own writing that’s already there. It’s there. Just like the David was already there in the marble–all Michelangelo had to do was trim the excess. That’s your job as well.

Your writing is you. Your voice is you translated into your writing. Now all that’s left is to decide what reflects you. What do you concern yourself with when you write? These are the basis of everything in your writing. Character, point of view, setting, dialogue, description, and style (word usage, sentence length, cadence, etc.): these are the ingredients to your writing and to your voice. They are also the ingredients to the craft, the art that we dedicate ourselves to for some reason. The characters you write about, the places that shape your characters and say something about your stories, the ways in which people speak or don’t speak, the details you decide to turn your spotlight on, the images that strike you and seem to be yours you understanding them so well, the way in which you decide to construct your sentences and the words you choose to use–these are all the things that go into creating the marble block. Every piece has a meaning. It’s for you to decide what the meaning is. And here is where I leave you. From here on out, my advice, in fact, anyone else’s advice as you write that first draft and build up your marble block will cease to help. This is where writing is undeniably an art. No one can do it for you and you will never be able to do it unless you put yourself and only yourself into it. This is where all the agency in the world is in your hands. Nowhere else will you have as much control and responsibility as you do right here. I hope this inspires you, because god damn it, it inspires me. The idea that I’m the only one responsible for what becomes of this block of marble in front of me? People would most definitely kill to feel like they have this much control over something in their lives. We are the gifted ones who choose to do this as a profession, maybe if we can’t do it full time, even as a hobby. Some days it may feel like a curse, some days we have to open a vein and bleed to write. Some days it comes so easily we look back and think: who the hell wrote that? It’s a mysterious process we’re involved in and all the while we’re building up to the point where we have to trim the excess of the draft, the marble block we’ve created. This last part is where we surely shape the block into the David, into our voice. This part is called revision. And it’s all about coolness under pressure, of level-headedness–not the white-hot burn of inspiration.

So here we are. The last step of the process, which is kind of a never-ending one if you think about it. Whereas the writer in the heat of writing the first draft simply stops when he reaches the end, the process of revising is the last painful part for most writers. Having to go back and point out all the pockmarks and acne scars in this one, big enormous darling of his, the writer most likely (as I do) balks at the task, naively hoping that maybe there won’t be anything wrong with the work, that it will be an unstoppable Kerouac-ian bull of a book. You will be wrong. And I’m not so sure that Kerouac wasn’t just a bit of a liar, claiming that he didn’t edit anything of On the Road–it’s a nice thought, but probably a lie. And so the writer goes back and highlights, underlines, draws arrows, puts question marks on his beautiful darling. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, after applying the requisite flourishes and corrections, he then asks his friends, his most trusted advisors and respected colleagues to get in on the action, marking their own doubts in the form of question marks and underlines and what not. Though this seems indecent, this will actually be the most helpful part of the entire process, so pay attention. The time will soon come when your writer buddies will gather together and talk about your work. Take notes. They say what was good, what they thought was working, what  connections they saw between character, setting, description, dialogue, theme, etc. Then they will say what problems they had with it. Take notes. They will ask if you intended certain things, they will suggest improvements to draw the theme tighter or to flesh out characters, or any other number of things. Takes notes. Get a damn tape recorder. Anything to remember all these things flying around the air that could be useful. Just remember this: no matter who these people are–friends, colleagues, lovers, brothers or sisters, brothers or sisters in law, your word is law when it comes to your own work. You can take all their advice or none. The most important thing is that you learn what problems readers other than yourself are finding and that you find ways to fix those problems. Simple. I hope.

So there you are. After you have written something and edited it, revised it within an inch of its life, hopefully you will have something that reflects your voice. After the product is finished, maybe give it to the same people who revised it and maybe even give it to someone who hasn’t, someone who doesn’t read much or hasn’t read your stuff. My brother hardly reads at all, but he’s one of my best friends. We have late-night conversations that run until the sun rises. He gives great advise and he’s incredibly smart. So I give him a story of mine when I think it’s ready to go out. His word normally tells me when something is ready to go out. I ask him to let me know if it seems like whoever wrote this knows what he’s doing, like everything is doing what it’s doing because it’s supposed to be that way. This is where the first criterion of voice comes into play. By the end of your revision process, your story should claim an authority, claim that it deserves to be listened to and that you know what you’re doing. And maybe even more importantly, it should seem by the end of your story that it is being told for a reason. If your reader finishes with your story and says to himself, “Why the hell did I read this?” Or “What’s the point?” somewhere along the way the story lost the reader. This is not to say that every reader will respond the same way to your story. But if your most trusted readers are still missing the point, it’s back to the drawing board.

At this point I feel like I should say something really inspirational about voice and all writing in general. I guess all I have to say is that I hope that every day at some point while you’re writing your story, poem, or essay that you look up and stop and think how lucky you are to be doing this–to be crafting something that is drudged up from within and shines as an example of who you are, of what and how and when and where and, maybe most importantly, why you are. If, in the end of your story, after all that work, you feel like you have achieved this, then you will be luckier than most who attempt it–and, most likely, you will have found your voice.

Fear and Loathing at the Writing Desk

Sometimes even I, after writing 2500 words in a night, come back to the words I wrote and wonder whether or not they are worth anything. At night, when in the throes of a writing streak, if I’m not careful, if I don’t separate one part of myself from the other, they begin to speak to one another, and the result is not pretty. It’s like allowing two of your ex-girlfriends to somehow meet with you in the room. Suddenly all your idiosyncrasies and tics and annoying habits and picadillos all come out and you find yourself in a severe state of self-loathing coupled with a bemused wonder at how you ever allowed those two parts of you to ever converge. This same thing happens when my pre-frontal cortex (or, as I like to call him, the fucking nag) somehow is allowed to interact with my right cerebral cortex–suddenly I suck at everything, this sentence is too long, that phrase is almost stock it’s so cliched. Why use that word? It’s totally redundant if you use a different word right in front of it, makes it way more concise. Why the hell would your character say that and on and on.

Doing the writing has always been for me a precarious balancing act and I’m sure it has for most people. However, I guess I find that the longer I do this thing, the easier it’s become for me to run along the gangplank which I happen to be on and not fall off into the abyss of self-doubt and hyper-editing (or worse, manuscript-burning). But, all the same, I can’t help wishing that I had a mentor. Not like the university teachers who helped us as much as they could (and some helped more than others). I keep going back to the things I read about DFW and Don DeLillo and I keep trying to find anything that they had written to each other. Wallace was in a real writerly existential crisis and he called out for help from one author who was already extremely well-established and who Wallace admired above many others. And that message in the bottle came back with more support than Wallace could have ever hoped for. I’m sure this encouragement and communication with someone who had been where Wallace had been and beyond helped Wallace summon the strength to finish Infinite Jest. I wish I had that. The feeling is even more acute today, where the Tin House Workshop is in its first full day (since it’s past midnight) which means that this year I am missing the thing that gave me such a kick in the ass, even kicking me right up out of a month-long depression that I had settled into since the very day I graduated. I feel lucky that my core group of support seems to be coming back together, if not slowly. I hope that by this time next year I will have a finely edited novel to shop around and to have work shopped. Some days it feels a long way off and other days it feels right around the corner. I just passed the climax of my novel and now it’s all over but the crying.

But after the crying comes the cutting–months and months of tearing down my work. And I’m sure everyone knows by now that that’s my least favorite part of the beast. Having said all that, I’m sure I would be freaking out far more if I didn’t know that I had at least three great readers who will give the best commentary possible once my book is finished. And they’ve done a great job not asking too much in the way of details from me since I’ve gotten on this kick of not giving away the fire too quickly and letting it stew. I think above all the thing that I fear is that the book will be a failure–something completely devoid of empathy and sincerity and that I will have poured all this into something that can not and never did hold water at all. I think the mentor thing would be of most use here, where you can only ask advice of someone who has already been in the throes of what you’re experiencing, has transcended it, and will be able to confidently tell you it’s going to be okay and that it will pass. As I say this, I see a link between myself and a drug addict in need of a sponsor–someone who’s been through it, who knows what it’s like, and to tell you it will pass and it gets better. “Hello, my name is Ry and I am a writer.” This seems like it could become quite a one-sided relationship, this sponsor or mentor, something along the lines of the Wallace story, “The Depressed Person” where someone calls a friend just to pour out all her insecurities and apologies and not good enoughs, which only serve to make her more alienated from her friends than if she just kept her shit to herself. Hopefully if I ever do get the balls to send that message out in the bottle, there will be someone on the other shore kind enough to talk me down, slap me in the face, and hand me a glass of whiskey and, having done all that, tell me to get back to work. And maybe to tell me that he (or she) believes in me. Or maybe more importantly, to tell me to believe in myself.

As I think about this idea of belief in oneself, I begin to realize that our insecurities are some of our greatest strengths. What do we talk about in our writing? I don’t talk about how fucking smart I am, or how much I’ve read and I’m sure you don’t either. We talk about how we hate the shapes of our noses, how we don’t want to fail–we express that in our writing–or at least I hope we do. Because that’s honest. That’s real. Speaking about our strengths, in an odd way, serves to alienate us from our readers, but when discussing or addressing our weaknesses, everyone is on board with it. I have to remember that and I hope you do, too. If something seems to be getting too close to you, don’t hold it at arm’s length–bring it closer, even close enough that you transcend the line of indecency. You can always go back to it later and make it less so. But I think we never know how far it is necessary to go until we go farther than we feel comfortable, then turn to look back.

For my closest writer friends, I hope this has been entertaining and maybe a little bit of an ah-ha! trigger. If not, hopefully it at least didn’t bore you to tears. For all the other folks who sometimes drop by my blog, I hope you enjoyed it too.

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
-Goethe

The Two Faces of Post-Modernism

Defining Post-Modernism is a bit of a shaky subject these days, seeing as how its inception was way back around 1950 (dates of this sort are shaky as well) and some even argue that writers are still toiling in that pigeon-hole today. My opinions on that tend to differ from the popular view of schools of literature, but I’ll save that for another post. The issue that concerns us today is one of the validity/worth of the entire school of Post-Modernism. Now, one would be foolish to try and deem an entire literary movement as completely useless and then move on to more important matters like coming up with a name for the new school of up and coming authors. I am no fan of the Post-Modernists in general, but my view of the Post-Modernists (in general) comes down to a very simple duality. On one hand, one school of the Post-Modernists uses black humor and the knowledge and recognition of the story as a man-made construct to identify more closely with the reader and get the reader to feel something unfelt before. The second school of Post-Modernists are a bunch of smug, intelligent, and purposefully confusing and/or obscure writers who enjoy leading their readers from pillar to post in a hunt that effectively ends nowhere except with the reader either confused or (rightfully) incredibly angry with the author. This second school of writers uses the knowledge of the story as a man made construct and flaunts it in the reader’s face in an attempt to seemingly take the reader from the story or to exemplify how empty the whole concept of the story and words themselves are. It is this second school of Post-Modernism which I aim to take issue with and argue against in the interest of fostering a better aim of the coming work that my generation will be producing–a sort of ars poetica, if I can use the term without just coming off looking like a regular arse. Not that I intend this essay to be a touchstone for authors the way that the essays of T.S. Eliot were for those of his generation. I would simply like to point a way through the thicket in which we find ourselves.

The most prominent author of what I consider to be the “soulful” Post-Modernists is none other than my favorite Post-Modernist, Kurt Vonnegut. His books are filled with Black Humor and even self-referential devices that add rather than detract from the book itself. An example of this self-reference comes in Slaughterhouse-Five where at the beginning of the book he tells the reader of how much difficulty he had writing the story about his experiences in World War II and the resistance he was met with (the wife of one of his war buddies). Rather than taking us out of the story, we instead empathize with a man whose side will eventually commit one of the worst firebombings in the history of man. And at the same time he sets up the character of Billy Pilgrim to be almost a time-traveling doppelganger for himself and rather than object to it, we allow it to go on because we are so invested with this character. Also, the knowledge of how difficult the composition of the novel was actually makes the reader more in a position to listen because of how much effort the author put forth and how important it was to the author to get it right. Self-reference in Vonnegut’s seminal work is the key to identification. The next place self-reference comes into Vonnegut’s work is in the book Breakfast of Champions–we have not gotten any mention of the author except in the preface until one of the very last scenes where Vonnegut suddenly puts himself inside the story. Before this, a reader of the main character Kilgore Trout’s books is given a book by Trout that claims that the reader is the only person in the world with individuality and free will–at this point, the reader goes home and beats his wife, son, and nine others before being taken into custody. This seems like a very important point, because after this happens, Vonnegut inserts himself into the story and gives his character Kilgore Trout the permission to be free and under his own will. What is this supposed to mean to us as observers of this bizarre turn of events? I believe that seeing the reader (Duane) react the way he did when learning of his free will should make us hope that Kilgore Trout will avoid the same pratfall that his own reader fell prey to–and that in turn we will be rooting for ourselves as readers to remember that we are free and individual beings and to remember that everyone else has free will. I believe this was what Vonnegut intended, because in addition to his being a Humanist, he as a character talks to himself in the book, saying, “This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself. “I know,” I said. “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I told myself. “I know,” I said.” I believe that Vonnegut is attempting to rectify the damage done by Duane in Vonnegut’s writing a terrible book–and as penance, Vonnegut actually reveals something painful about himself in the very book that he seemed to think he had failed to write. Vonnegut’s mother actually had killed herself, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that Vonnegut used this deus ex machina as a way to create a meta-narrative that captures the true Humanistic empathy that he had tried (and allegedly failed) to achieve in the first place. This is admirable both because Vonnegut bares himself to us and also has the courage to admit that he has failed. This incredible ballsy action alone has my vote for the best Post-Modernist work out there. This idea of empathy is very important both in my explanation of Vonnegut’s effectiveness as well as my ultimate “division” between good and bad Post-Modernism.

Another author who has passed his prime, but who has used self-reference to very great effect is Philip Roth. Throughout most of his books Roth has used the persona of Nathan Zuckerman to speak in a fictional mode for the author himself. This method works on two fronts: first of all, the reader is given to engage with a narrator whose experiences are fictionalized, but very much a part of every day experiences of every day people. This sounds like a terribly boring way to engage with a story, but the way Roth does it is that he places his characters in situations that are able to be identified with by almost anyone. As an author, Roth does something that is not common in Post-Modernism by placing his characters in positions that are almost cliche in their familiarity, rather than the trend formed by some Post-Modernists in which characters and situations displayed are some of the most esoteric. It’s this engagement with the familiar and borderline cliche that makes Roth so different from the other members of his generation.

The second face of Post-Modernism is the writers who delight in planting red herrings and playing around with their characters to the point of frustration and desertion. The first of these authors is Thomas Pynchon, whose book The Crying of Lot 49 will be the focus of this paragraph. However, his book, V. is another one I consider to be firmly in this vein. In the former, Pynchon’s character, Oedipa tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Trystero, a mysterious trumpet-shaped mark appearing on envelopes that have been sent without using a stamp. She suspects some sort of conspiracy and spends the entirety of the book looking for the answer to her questions, along the way discussing entropy, Maxwell’s Hammer, and many other mathematical and scientific subjects of interest. However, by the end of the book, absolutely nothing is resolved and the reader is left to wonder why he took the time to read these 15o pages he’s holding in his hand. And if he was in a particularly bad mood to begin with before reading the end of the story, said reader might just throw the book across the room. The reason I place Pynchon in this realm of Post-Modernists who are nihilistic and desert their readers is because, though Oedipa has a clear cause to pursue and lines of questioning to follow, we are left at the end of the book with her having not an answer at all, as if saying that the quest for answers is futile, even to the point that it is futile for readers to expect answers or even coherent plot endings from the authors whose works they happen to be reading. And those authors have the option of having us draw that conclusion–but if that is so, then readers have the option of calling their plots nihilistic and devoid of real heart. These books suffer from the symptom of having too much brains and not enough heart to satisfy the reader who reads to find something out about people.

If Pynchon has a penchant for frustrating readers, he is merely a peon in that arena when it comes to the real master of these types of books, Vladimir Nabokov. I’m not sure if Nabokov ever wrote a novel that didn’t fuck around with his readers and for this reason I will never acknowledge his anointed spot at the upper echelon of American writers. Nabokov’s novels that I will focus on in my argument are: Lolita and Pale Fire. First of all, the book Lolita, though having the possibility of being a touching novel (as touching as a novel written by a pedophile can be), ends up falling short because of Nabokov’s love of verbal pyrotechnics, drawing comparisons between him and the later David Foster Wallace. However, where Wallace succeeds in tearing down walls between himself, his characters, and his reader, that is where Nabokov completely fails. Throughout the story, Nabokov uses Humbert Humbert not as a man telling his own story of how he loved a girl and ended up loving a woman as his own mouthpiece with which to spout lots of verbal effluvium and alliterative rationalizations. Though the beginning of the story begins nicely, with Humbert Humbert setting his eyes on Lolita, the plot takes a turn for the worse as soon as Lolita’s mother dies and Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip. Soon enough, seesawing begins with the narrator–suddenly we can tell his is playing with us and there is no reason for Humbert not to have skipped straight to the climax of Lolita and him sleeping together and then moving the story along. Instead we are given pages upon pages of details about the road trip and by this time the reader begins to feel Nabokov behind Humbert Humbert, sitting there stringing the reader along to see what happens next. But nothing happens–even in the climactic scene, if you don’t pay attention, you miss everything! By the end of the book, you don’t care that Humbert kills someone who slept with Lolita, though they are the same person and you don’t care that Lolita is pregnant and Humbert finds that he is still in love with her. I can think of no greater failing for an author to have missed creating a feeling in a reader when there is so much potentially there for the reader to feel.

Second, the book Pale Fire is as far as I can tell, a book about the effects of the editor on posthumous works. The book  Pale Fire is actually a book of poetry, cantos written by the poet John Shade. The editor of the book is the one who has finally procured publication for Shade’s work. The editor, in addition, has an introductory note and appendix and afterword, thus overshadowing Shade’s contribution to his own work. Though Shade’s death is suspicious and our interest is aroused by the editor at the beginning, we begin to tire because we see that there will be no actual revelation about Shade’s murder, just more talking on the editor’s part in order to be heard under the guise of “giving informative background” about Shade and the editor’s relationship to Shade. Though we begin to suspect the editor himself, we are left by the end of the book, wondering whether the book was actually a poem or a book about a poem. Either way, the book becomes so up its own ass about the idea of critical theory taking over literature that it misses the fact that a book intending to critique this phenomena only served to become the prime example of it, thus rendering the point pointless. Again, all this would be forgiven if Nabokov had ever given us a character for whom we could root and for whom we could feel. We are given neither in either of these books.

I would write more on this subject, but I’m bored of it now, because I’m sick of analyzing lack of sincerity and I’ve had this saved on my wordpress queue for ever. So, I will leave you with this: sincerity is not something to be sneered at–it’s something that the very best of authors cultivate and strive their hardest toward. Honesty and sincerity dovetail, one can rarely be found without the other. And these authors who I have give compliments to have done just that. I encourage you to avoid the influence of the others who are basically terrible and in my mind strive toward neither sincerity nor honesty.

Adding A New Voice to The Argument, or: Raising The Din

Today I read an article by Farhod Manjoo called “Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.” Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I read a more backwards post about the topic of literary culture. The basic line of thought in the article (as is hinted by the title) is that Amazon.com is doing more for books, authors, and readers than any other organization. Throughout the article, we hear these arguments in favor of corporate shopping and participation over local, independent shopping experiences. The most brilliant part of the article is not the arguments in favor of “corporate culture,” but the word choices used by the journalist to create a sense of rhetorical unity with those already supporting his position as well as striking a patronizing stance toward independent bookstores, dismissing them as something blase and remnant of a time long past. In this post, I’ll be analyzing both the rhetorical choices made by the author, as well as contesting the false claims made by the author.

The first paragraph of the essay by Manjoo shows him creating a bond between the consumers upset by Amazon’s latest “bonehead” move of giving discounts to folks to who essentially turn spy at their local bookstore and report the cost of items back to Amazon. Manjoo then concludes his paragraph with an act of full disclosure by announcing that the magazine for which he writes is an Amazon affiliate and as such it gets a cut of Amazon’s profits when a customer clicks on an Amazon link on Slates page and buys something.” Here we see Manjoo lining up on the side of those upset with Amazon, apologizing for Amazon’s attempt at a short con, while in the next breath and paragraph he is preparing us for an even longer con by adding parenthetically that the Amazon promotion that had upset so many people only lasted for one day. This is a subtle rhetorical move used by Manjoo–though he is very upset by what Amazon did and believes “it deserves all the scorn you want to heap on it,” he is very subtly saying that what Amazon did is not that bad because it only went on for one day. The reason it only happened for one day, Manjoo fails to mention, is that the promotion offered by Amazon was a sort of corporate/retail trial balloon, if you will. In politics a trial balloon occurs when an idea is floated (from unspecific sources) that says that a political mind like the President is considering doing X–the reaction for/against that idea is then measured in order to gauge how angry the public would be if such a measure were to be made permanent. Amazon obviously registered a negative reaction and decided to down its balloon before things got too out of hand.

In the second paragraph, we get that Manjoo is generally in favor of price comparison, but that he also understands physical retailers’ fears of the promotion that Amazon offered widespread. After this, he subtly shows how price-comparing is already in the works by presenting a hypothetical situation where a customer goes to Best Buy, has an employee show him a big-screen TV, and then goes home and purchases it for less on Amazon. This hypothetical situation is another way of lessening the pressure on Amazon by showing how they already create an atmosphere of price-comparison without needing to offer discounts to customers who report back with their findings, so what’s the big deal, really? Then Manjoo switches tone in the next sentence by saying that he gives quite a bit of money to Amazon, but is that any reason to be so “wantonly  callous about destroying its competitors?” The see-sawing effect of the second paragraph enables Manjoo to keep his good rapport with those who disagree with Amazon’s aformentioned policy (as well as their attempts to avoid taxation) while still allowing him to make little references to the idea that Amazon is really not doing any harm, thereby setting up his next paragraph where he shows the true target of this piece: Amazon’s competitors.

Beginning his third paragraph by saying how he was “primed to nod in agreement” with novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times piece taking on Amazon, Manjoo criticizes Russo’s argument against Amazon by saying that Russo made a critical and common mistake by not focusing “on the ways that that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores.” Here, Manjoo’s true target comes into view. His target is not the big electronics stores. The target of this article appears to be the independent bookstore. Manjoo, while appearing concerned about all the employees of big-box electronics stores, fails to note those employed by local independent booksellers and seems little concerned for their well-being. Instead, he zeroes in on the attack by characterizing bookstores as inefficient, user-antagonistic and mistakenly mythologized. The first mistake Manjoo makes is that he seems to believe that independent bookstores and Amazon are dedicated to the same things. They aren’t. And this is revealed in the arguments that Manjoo makes. Manjoo characterizes independents as inefficient–what he means by this is that everything is not easy and customers can’t do everything by themselves. This may be a cause for concern if all you are after is turning a profit. However, independent bookstores are not built on profit–rather, they generate profit by creating connections between themselves and those in the community and by helping the customers who walk through their doors find what they need. The second critique leveled at independent bookstores is that they are not user-friendly. If by user-friendly, Manjoo means that customers can’t do everything themselves and that nothing is instant, then he is correct. But the literal meaning of “user-friendly” finds itself heavily on the side of independent booksellers. Can any book-buyer say that he was given better customer service by a computer screen than by a real, live bookseller? Independent bookstores and booksellers thrive on relations with customers and as such, they see the customer in front of them as the most important person in the world–everything else goes by the wayside to find them that one book that they are looking for. Is that inefficient? Yes. Is that splitting and wasting resources? Maybe. Is that customer-friendly? You bet your ass. And that’s what independent booksellers do. If they have to spend 20 minutes personally calling other bookstores in the area, if they have to root through the stacks, not only out on the floor, but in the back of the store, they will to get that book in the customer’s hand. Yes, Amazon has a computerized, up to the moment inventory. But do they even care that a customer is satisfied? The text on the screen may say so, but does Jeff Bezos personally make sure they have been satisfied? No. Because the entire system of Amazon has been built to make people feel that they have been taken care of without having to make any extra effort for this to happen. Customer service online is a mirage. It doesn’t actually exist. That is why Amazon is so efficient. The third charge leveled against independent bookstores is that they are mistakenly mythologized. That is a matter of opinion. However, if one takes a look at what is going on in the world of authors and readers, who is standing up for independent bookstores? Certainly not those who are in the business of making money. Authors, artists, appreciators of art–those are the people who are standing up for indpendent bookstores. The makers and dreamers of dreams. Maybe I’m in the act of again mistakenly mythologizing something, but doesn’t it also have the ring of truth? Independent bookstores are not about profit. They are about experience, community, and support of the arts. Manjoo calls bookstores “cultish, moldering institutions” that are wrongly considered the only way to foster “real-life literary culture” (quote from author Tom Perotta). Manjoo then concludes the paragraph by sneerign at Russo’s claim that Amazon, unlike the brick an mortar bookstore “doesnt’ care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering literary culture. But where is Russo wrong in this? While Manjoo takes his time sneering at Russo’s claim, he does nothing to refute that Amazon cares nothing for the greater bookselling community. In fact, wasn’t it Manjoo himself who only a paragraph before was lamenting Amazon’s methods and asked, “But does it have to be so wantonly callous about destroying its competitors?” Here we see Manjoo’s facade as an Amazon skeptic revealed. His rapport established, he hones his argument in on the institution that has critiqued Amazon the most and that has the most cultural and community capital in its arsenal. But why? What would an affiliate of Amazon have to gain by attacking independent bookstores. Here’s what I think: The biggest competition that Amazon has is also the biggest voice that has spoken against it. Independent bookstores have been and will continue to be the most outspoken voice against corporate online book retailers like Amazon.

Next, Manjoo dismisses the claims that Amazon doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe as “completely bogus.” Then he says, “No company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.” Now that is completely bogus. Amazon has helped foster a national passion for buying, yes. But not for buying books. If that were so, Amazon would have been content years ago to remain a bookseller and create new ways for books to be relevant in today’s society. Instead, Amazon extended its reach and has assisted in fostering a national passion for convenience and consumption, with books thrown in a heap among other salable commodities including bean bag chairs, big screen TVs and electronic sex devices. After making this grand claim about Amazon’s being the savior of books, Manjoo gives no data and no examples whatsoever to back up his claim. Instead he lets it sit there, sure that his claim will remain without analysis. He doesn’t even attempt to use the Kindle as an example of helping books remain relevant–and even if he had, I would still point out that Amazon has again extended its reach beyond books with the new Kindle Fire, which not only allows for book reading, but also consumption of music and movies, just another finger in another pie. Attempting to strengthen his rapport, Manjoo says that he had previously believed that Amazon would go on to ruin the book industry and then pulls a 180 by announcing that “if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.” This constant switching of positions creates a whiplash effect and engages in a bit of rhetorical schizofrenia. Instead of telling us how he got from point A of fearing the end of book culture at Amazon’s hands to point Z of saying that the crushing of corner indies should be celebrated, Manjoo ends his paragraph and gets on to the next paragraph and on with further his argument.

The first argument in favor of Amazon over independents makes me wonder if Manjoo has ever stepped into an independent bookstore and given it a try. Manjoo’s first argument centers on the different in recommendation and quality of customer satisfaction. Citing Amazon’s ability to give customer reviews, recommendations based on what you’ve previously read, and quick and easy search features, Manjoo claims that “Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like.” While this quote may be partially true, bookstores can also suggest books based on others you’ve read and in many different ways. Whereas Amazon may only give recommendations based on what other people who have read that book also bought, real competent bookstore employees can also give recommendations based on subject of the book, style of narration, point of view, qualities of characters, and/or time period, among others. Does Amazon ask, “So, do you like books with positive or negative endings?” Does it ask, “What things are you interested in?” So then a recommendation for both fiction and non-fiction books could be made on that? No, because it doesn’t have a soul. Amazon makes connections like a computer–booksellers make connections like humans. Though it’s true that customer reviews are in short supply, an internet connection can easily fix that and often comes in handy when a bookstore employee lets a customer check out reviews for himself online. With the rapid proliferation of smart phones, the customer usually is equipped with his own internet connection and thus renders this particular argument moot. Amazon’s search features are by far quicker and the computerized inventory allows them to keep track of their stock down to the number. This is true. But bookstores have their own resources, such as phoning other stores in the area to assess whether or not a customer would be able to attain a copy at another location (as Half-Price Books does). Also, indpendent bookstores do something Amazon doesn’t. They will actually send customers to another competing store if it means that the customer will be able to get his book. Amazon does use other booksellers and allows other sellers to use its site to sell books, but it always takes a profit. This is the difference between a place like Amazon and independent bookstores–independents exist in a far different capacity than Amazon does and they know it.

Manjoo then goes onto his next point, discussing the one advantage that brick and mortar stores used to have over online retailers–customers could read any book before they purchased it. But Manjoo now claims that the playground has been leveled by the advent of e-books and the ability of customers to read the first chapter of a book for free before purchasing it. And, Manjoo reminds us, “you can do all of this without leaving your couch.” Here we see again the two main things that Amazon has encouraged in American consumers: convenience and consumption, not love of books. It’s true that Amazon allows readers to preview the first chapter with no commitment. So does a bookstore. More than that, a bookstore will let you read the whole thing without bothering you once. I don’t know about you, but in my time I have certainly come across a book or two that has promised much in the first chapter that it could not live up to and didn’t end up living up to. Though Amazon is probably hindered by online piracy laws and is unable to provide an entire book without charge, Amazon knows that and more, they know that there’s no profit in allowing a customer to consume the entire product without any recompense. That’s just bad business. And inefficient. But bookstores don’t care about that. They are there to promote love of books and a sense of belonging and comfort, which Amazon knows–they compete with that sense of belonging and comfort by offering customers a different approach–they can get some of that free preview of a book with an added bonus–they don’t have to leave the house! This is Amazon’s genius at work. The first chapter is free and the customer doesn’t have to leave his home in order to do it. However, if the customer wants it to read the rest, he either has to order it by mail or buy the e-book, which arrives in less than a minute! By offering the customer the carrot of free convenience, Amazon then relies on consumer demand after the free carrot and then closes the sale by turning that same thing that was the draw of the product in the first place (convenience) back onto the customer, using it against him to get him to buy the product. The convenience is both the marketing and the thing that eventually prompts the sale and makes it so alluring. Fucking genius, if you ask me.

Manjoo’s next argument comes in the form of the financial inefficiency of brick and mortar bookstores. Taking into account rent, utilities, and employing a large number of employees, Manjoo says that the only way for independent booksellers to turn a profit is by selling everything at a ridiculously high markup, concluding that you could get two books from Amazon at the price you paid for one at a brick and mortar bookstore. While this may be true for certain bookstores, Manjoo neglects used and new bookstores like Half-Price Books that hardly ever sell books at the markup claimed by Manjoo (30 for hardback, 9-15 for paperback). Most of Manjoo’s argument about book pricing is centered on new books. However, when one looks at selling books that have been in print for years, his argument quickly fall apart. On Amazon’s website, they offer to sell the book Catch-22 for $10.88 + plus shipping. At my local bookstore, I purchased an old copy of the same book for 75 cents. The quality was fine, but it was a mass-market paperback. The newest edition was selling for 7.99 + tax. Figure the price and there you are. Brick and mortar wins over Amazon in that particular instance. I understand that that example is only a drop in the bucket. However, it just serves in one instance to dispute Manjoo’s claim about how bookstores price roughly 100 percent more than Amazon (referring to the 2 for the price of 1 claim).

Manjoo’s next paragraph is preoccupied with deeming the benefits of a bookstore as “ancillary” and trying to make an analogy between shopping at independent bookstores and shopping at Whole Foods, thereby labeling it all but burgeoise. With this paragraph we can almost see the writer typing this with his eyes closed and eyebrows raised in the same pose as those who fart in their crystal goblets and then smell it on an episode of South Park. The activities and benefits that Manjoo deems as secondary to the mission of a bookstore are misguidedly labeled as such. Activities like author readings, unlimited browsing time, etc. are considered by Manjoo to be nothing more than secondary activities and necessary to sustaining the relevance of bookstores. While these activities are necessary, they are the lifeblood of the literary culture that Manjoo spends the essay sneering at and are hardly secondary.

After this, we then get another rapport-generating confession from Manjoo who, in a hurt tone, says that what really rankles him is the “hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists like Russo, especially when they argue that readers who spurn indies are abandoning some kind of “local” literary culture.” Manjoo believes that folks who are in favor of independents attempt to bully people into seeing things their way, so much so that they become what Manjoo actually calls “cultist”. And this blog post will probably be seen in that light as well. We are then told that there is little that is “local” about local bookstores. A comparison is drawn between local bookstores and farmer’s markets and Manjoo argues that local bookstores’ shelves don’t have much to do with their own communities (certainly not as much as farmer’s markets do)–in fact, the product that Amazon sells is the same that is sold by local independent bookstores. It is argued that it’s the same all over. I guess it all comes down to where you focus the argument. If all we were talking about in this argument was product and business and capitalism and that “may the best man win” attitude, then I would say that Manjoo’s argument is basically sound. So far we’ve been subjected to the argument that Amazon is more efficient than independent bookstores. And what those in favor of brick and mortar bookstores are saying is that there is more to bookselling than turning a profit. I am a resident of one of the most independent bookstore-friendly towns in America, Seattle, Washington. We in Seattle understand that bookstores do more than sell books. They create a very important place for people of the community to come together and experience art and to expose and market literature in reading the only way possible with limited funds–having author readings and signings in their own place of business, as well as contributing to local and national charities and various other causes. What Manjoo refuses to see with his article is that the brick and mortar bookstore serves the role of the modern-day equivalent of the Greek “piazza” where people could meet and experience a sort of community devoid in our modern way of living (which Amazon contributes to by enabling us home shoppers to never leave the couch except to go and pick up our packages–or maybe not even that, because we just bought the latest model of the Kindle!)

But, Manjoo asks, aren’t those employees and owners of bookstores benefiting from patrons’ decisions to buy local? Of course they are. So this means that since bookstores operate inefficiently, they are benefiting at the expense of someone in the economy and as such they are robbing the citizens of the opportunity to spend money on something else–namely “on authentically local cultural experiences” such as going to see local theater productions, visiting your local museum, or going to a farmer’s market. The problem with this logic is that Manjoo seems to see an authentically local cultural experience as something that you spend money on and that can only be quantified and that involve the consumption of commodities other than books. What’s more, out of all the “cultural experiences” listed by Manjoo (including bookstores) independent bookstore readings and signings, community book drives, or other volunteer opportunities are the only activities that do not charge anything and that do not necessitate a financial commitment. In order to give to a farmer’s market, you can’t just view the produce–you have to pay for it. To go to a museum, you have to pay quite a bit; to go to the theater, same thing. So Manjoo’s claim that brick and mortar bookstores rob citizens of other enriching opportunities is simply false.

The argument then draws a bead on what it thinks is the central point. Say someone doesn’t care about cultural experiences, Manjoo posits. Say they only care about books.”Then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.” Manoo says that the most critical flaw of Russo’s argument is this: he omits the “most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.” But what Manjoo doesn’t realize is this: that the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture isn’t about getting people to buy a whole heckload of books–it’s about getting as many people as possible to read a whole heckload of books. If this wasn’t the case, then why would libraries still be valuable resources even in today’s fast-moving world of computers and rapid information exchange? Librarians are warriors of an even more zealous caliber than independent booksellers. Readers and the act of reading is what librarians and booksellers get into the game for. Owning a business and making a profit is nice, but it’s not everything. If booksellers were in the business of making money, they wouldn’t be selling books. Amazon proved this by quickly moving on from selling books and selling other products–big screen TVs, other electronics, and nearly anything else you can name, essentially becoming the online Wal-Mart. Russo’s argument isn’t flawed because it doesn’t talk about making money from books because the name bookseller has the notion of making money from books already built into it. What independent booksellers really do is sell an experience and a belief in this culture that is kept alive by what Manjoo has deemed “cultish” and “moldering” institutions called bookstores.

“And here is where Amazon is unbeatable” Manjoo proclaims. Yes, Bezos will sell books at a lower price. But he also won’t lead you around his store and tell you how much he enjoyed a certain book or invite you to come around next week and attend a reading by a great local author for free. He also won’t let you sit in his store for all business hours reading the latest hardback for free. Then Manjoo touts the Kindle, “which has turned the whole world into a bookstore” and which turns customers “into monster book-buyers” and it also has started a self-publishing limb that lets anyone publish books. And finally it has also allowed magazine articles and essays to be bought. So basically Amazon is a money machine. Who hasn’t known this all along? And isn’t this part of the problem? Amazon has turned up another notch on the culture of convenience and has gone about quickly convincing us that this is for the good. But consider this: if the Internet suddenly broke down, if somehow the Internet was no longer working, what would become of Amazon? Where would it be in the scope of literary culture without a platform from which to sell? The reason I’m asking this question is because Manjoo’s last claim in his piece is that Amazon “is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.” What Amazon do is allow people to purchase books for cheaper than many places and as such, undercuts the competition and makes it a major player in the bookselling market. But what does it do for writers, the makers of these products, besides allowing anyone anywhere to publish work (which is probably not of quality and not fit for mass-readership). And what does it do in order to encourage that books and those involved with them receive a real and personable experience and that they feel like a part of a community?

The biggest problem that I see with Amazon is that they aren’t committed to what they sell in the same way that independent booksellers are. Brick and mortar stores stake their lives and livelihoods on their relationships with people and with the item that they are selling. The product they put out is a part of themselves and the people they support are a part of that as well. For Amazon, books are just another product that they can sell at a cheaper rate than many places can, because of their unique position of selling on the internet. Amazon seems to me to be the business equivalent of something without a soul and Manjoo seems to be its champion. He knows that bookstores are financially inefficient and so does everyone else. But what he doesn’t want to admit is that a book-reading culture does not thrive on buying books. It thrives on reading them. Books and plays have been written for thousands of years and for a good amount of time, they were not bought in the manner that they are now. The spirit that kept books alive then is the same as the spirit that keeps books alive now–the interaction and cooperation of people dedicated to stories. Not the ones who make the best profit from it.

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 6

A Book That Makes You Sad

This one was actually pretty easy for me to point to. Sad doesn’t really explain how this book makes me feel. Depressed and hopeless and numb is more like the word.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Anyone who has read this book should know why this book makes me depressed. The reason pretty much begins and ends with Judge Holden, possibly the most terrifying character ever written. This guy is a huge, John Goodman-looking hairless albino. Not only that, he’s a rapist, pedophile, murderer, and liar. If this isn’t bad enough, he is the character in the end who is victorious. In the end, he ends up killing (at best) the kid, who is pretty much the least evil character in the book and the hope for any kind of compassion.

The Judge isn’t the only thing making this book intensely depressing though. Another reason is that the book gives us the bloody history of how the West was truly won. This, I think, for any American is cause for concern. It’s ironic that I’m writing this post about a book retelling the bloody history of America on the 4th of July. But in the book we hear tales of women and children being killed and then sodomized. We hear of Native Americans being scalped and tortured. Almost everything about this book is amazingly bleak and depressing.

Lastly, the book advances the idea (mostly espoused by the Judge) that War is God and that violence is the foundation of human nature. Now the idea about violence being the foundation of human nature may be true and I may even be willing to believe that. Maybe not the core, but the foundation, sure. We are animals, after all. But the fact that the Judge seems untouchable and he is the one espousing this belief leaves me very sickened. The character Toadvine puts a gun to the Judge’s head, but decides not to kill him. In what kind of a world would this be allowed to continue? A rapist, liar, murderer is left alive while people are massacred in their homes and the characters with consciences are killed. Fucking hell that’s depressing.

I think the end is why the whole thing sticks in my craw so much. Just after the Judge kills the kid, we get this last passage: “Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing. He says that he will never die. THE END.”

What the hell kind of a way is that to leave the guy who is the cause of the suffering we see in the novel? Fuck. Yeah, the writing is beautiful. Haunting. Very memorable. The last two lines echo through my head every time I think of the book, but it’s depressing beyond belief when you get through the whole book hoping this guy is going to die and he ends up dancing, saying he will never die. I both hate and admire this book more than I can say. I really like McCarthy’s writing. “Suttree” is one of my favorite books, but some of McCarthy’s ideas in “Blood Meridian” depress me to no end. And usually I’m the person defending books like this that make people uncomfortable. But I guess there must be some sort of truth to it if it has such an effect on me. Anyway, that’s the book that makes me sad.