Interesting

By John Grey

I use that horrible  

coward’s word “interesting” 

to describe your painting. 

Bad move. 

Now I have to find a way 

to fire myself as art critic, 

be hired on as lover. 

 

To be honest,  

the canvas looks like  

an unholy mess  

of blotches and streaks, 

scrawl and scribble. 

But that’s an opinion 

best left to a bitten tongue. 

 

But, despite my imagination’s 

best efforts, 

the positives aren’t coming. 

Wonderful contours,” 

A strikingly personal gesture.” 

An infinite labyrinth  

of pain and joy.” 

A volatile language 

of image.” 

 

In fact,  

my brain is, at the moment,  

this unholy mess  

of blotches and streaks, 

scrawl and scribble. 

So maybe my mind 

was your subject matter. 

Mm… interesting.

*

John Grey is an Australian author, published in Hawaii Pacific Review, Dalhousie Review and Qwerty, currently residing in the US.

And Finally, Thanks To Winter

Winter’s about to strike again and I’m excited. It’s almost March and we’re expecting 11 inches along the Wisconsin-Illinois border. The approach of snow and falling temps focuses the mind like few things can. I’m writing this in stages, while panic-buying groceries, because I can’t predict when I’ll be able to leave the house again. But while trapped, I’ll thread various plotlines – currently in my head — into a coherent narrative for a future novel. Here, art often depends on the whims of nature.

If you’re a creative person who lives above the 40th Parallel, you know January through March is a fertile time. After all, going outside is not only unpleasant, it can be dangerous. Your weather app’s warning to hunker down not only keeps you safe, it discourages visitors from interrupting your process. I must use this opportunity. I vow to disable my internet and silence my phone. I’ve consumed plenty of content created by others in recent weeks. Now it’s time to invent something of my own. Lean in, I tell myself, and don’t stop writing until the last pile of snow finally melts.

Hopefully, if you do the same, you’ll have a solid second draft by the time spring arrives. Well done! Now let it rest. It’s impossible to continue because robins are singing (when did they return?), daffodils are blooming, and trees are greening again. The whole earth is stirring with diversion — look a bunny!

See? Who can create when nature demands so much attention?

You might say we’ll be used to these distractions by summer, but you’d be wrong. Almost overnight, people’s clothes get more revealing. Engines rev and roar, and that sun; it rises early and stays up long after dinner. And when it finally gets low, I defy you not to be mesmerized by the sky turning orange, then tomato, then strawberry shake before fading to coal.

No, summer is for editing, a process that’s more craft than art. It’s about weeding words, mowing sentences, shearing off entire paragraphs. You’ve had three months away from your manuscript, so now you can review it with fresh eyes. With careful pruning, it’ll soon resemble a garden maze where your reader enters here, enjoys a laugh there, stumbles into trouble, then gets in even more trouble before ending at a koi pond where they can sit and ponder their journey.

Satisfied with it? Send it to your publisher.

The crisp air of autumn might tempt you to begin your next work, but I wouldn’t. Not yet. Inspiration awaits in apple orchards and bonfires. As the sun sets earlier each day, people begin sharing family lore, including hauntings, and everything is so compelling you realize you’re listening all the time – which is good. This is when you gather all those chronicles and tall tales, bottle them, and let the fermenting begin.

Before you know it, you’re in that period infused with nostalgia: the holidays. The smell of baked cookies and roasting meat sends me back to my grandma’s kitchen, where I stare at a picture of a Black Forest cake and struggle to decipher the recipe. Or was it flourless chocolate with raspberry? When I ask my cousin, he insists the kitchen belonged to my allergic aunt who used karob instead, which may explain my perusing a real dessert book. Nonetheless, competing memories reveal how stories evolve. Steep in these a while longer. And when the New Year begins, and the noise subsides, you’ll know the time for input is over. Go ahead — open that bottle of distilled experience and pour with abandon. Don’t worry about containing spills; there’ll be plenty of time to clean up later. A new wave of creation is underway up north!

If you live further south, where each day is graced with warmth and sunshine, and creativity transcends seasons, I truly envy you. Still, this supports my theory that geography and climate have a greater hold on the imagination than we realize. Whether your locale lets your taps run freely or only when the time is right, make a point of experiencing both. Consider swapping houses with yours truly. This way, I could – without irony — paint seven self-portraits enjoying ice cream outdoors and caption them Monday through Sunday. I wonder what you’d create in a place that’s pleasant for maybe 14 days every year.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to invade your neighborhood. Northern inhabitants like me appreciate how bad weather nourishes our dark side and, frankly, we don’t like being creative all the time. But if you ever get tired of endless sunshine, and yearn for the rhythm of seasons, come up here after the holidays. Barricade yourself against the snow and wind. And if your time up here proves fruitful, be sure to include winter in your acknowledgements. I would understand how un-ironic that is.

 

 

 

 

 

Remarks On “The Death Of The Author”

In 1967, French essayist and literary hypothesizer Roland G. Barthes¹ published The Death of the Author (La mort de l’auteur), which takes, as its central aim, the delegitimization of “the Author” (capitalization his) for the prioritization of “the reader,” a point arrived at by Barthes’ through his belief that textual signification reached a point of coalescence only through the reader, and not through the author (even though they are also readers).

The essay’s title (not so much its contents) has become a popular slogan, deployed in literary circles as de facto justification for narcissistic misinterpretation. Under its auspices, if an author(s) expresses something, directly or through their work(s), which a member of their readership dislikes, then, under the auspices of the “death of the author” that reader may declare the author(s) intention(s) void, henceforth, and instead, declare their own “reinterpretation(s)” the valid one(s), even if the passage(s) is/are clear in intent, or, is/are clarified directly by the author(s).

When one declares biographical information and authorial intention irrelevant to a textual fictive work, it is pertinent to ask why such persons read a particular author? Within the framework of “death of the author” theology, they’re all the same, merely another jumble of text which can be extrapolated any which way one pleases. Indeed, one can rightly ask: why read any fiction at all? Why not read a instruction manual or a signpost, which can then be “reinterpreted” so as to make it amenable to the reader’s hermetic and fragile sensibilities?

In the observation of this practice, what one witnesses is not merely the death of authorial intent, but the death of art as a distinctive practice, for art, in any classical sense, can no more exist without authorial intention, and its evaluation, than it can without an audience.

§

… literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes. (Barthes, The Death of the Author)

The pronouncement is made after a digression on Sarrasine, a novella by Balzac concerning a man who falls in love with a castrato disguised as a female who the protagonist describes (obviously incorrectly) as a near-perfect distillation of womanhood. Barthes declares that, in such lines, it is impossible to tell who is speaking, the protagonist or Balzac or “universal wisdom” or “romantic psychology” (though all of these “voices” would, of necessity, be under the direction of Balzac’s, yet Barthes, for a reason never stated, classes them as if they were distinct persons), hence his reference to the ‘oblique’ nature of literature.

Literature is indeed a composite, but it is in no way an “oblique into which every subject escapes” (the subject of desire—for the author, the successful completion and warm reception of his creation—cannot, de jure, vanish into itself) nor a “trap where all identity is lost” for literary style is every bit as distinctive as a fingerprint (ie. stylometry). Barthes is correct insofar as he realizes that there can be multiple “voices” within a work, but this in no way invalidates the stewardship of the author or authors (as in a collaborative effort). Indeed, upon the topic, Barthes himself writes “Balzac, speaking of a castrato…” as if he already understands and accepts what he attempts to undermine—that there is but a singular guide (a master “voice”). That admission, itself, undermines the whole premise.

§

Probably this has always been the case: once an action is recounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to act directly upon reality — that is, finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol — this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins. (Barthes)

Intransitivity is a verb property (in distinction to transitivity). Intransitive ends, then, are those which exclude questions of what or whom, confining description instead to the where, when and how—already they are not “external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol.”

§

Nevertheless, the feeling about this phenomenon has been variable; in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius”

Narrative is, at its point of origin, always undertaken by a person, regardless of the character or stage of development of the narrator’s society. The reason why those who performed ancestral narratives did not claim (creative narrative) genius is rather obvious, they did not create the stories they communicated, and knew that others would know it—one would not expect to hear a modern playwright adapting Macbeth to claim (creative narrative) “genius” in the enterprise, and if one did hear such a pronouncement, he or she would likely be swiftly reproached for it.

§

…it is logical that with regard to literature it should be positivism, resume and the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s “person” The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author…

His low opinion of authors is again clear in his encircling of person with quotation marks, as if the “person” of the author were merely an illusion, a view which is more elaborately expressed in Empire of Signs (1982), in which he speaks emphatically of undoing “our own reality” (page 6).

Returning to his essay—If one is speaking of literary history or biographies of writers then the writer should take center stage (particularly in the latter example). To say that “biographies of writers” should not be “centered on the author” is the same as saying that biographies shouldn’t exist. That, of course, does not mean one should not mention reader’s reactions and the change effected by the public reception of a text; consequently it may (or may not) be fair to criticize a historical (but not biographical) work concerning literature which sets out to cover a given period comprehensively, and yet focuses on an author (or set of authors) at the expense of all else.

§

Though the Author’s empire is still very powerful (recent criticism has often merely consolidated it), it is evident that for a long time now certain writers have attempted to topple it. In France, Mallarme² was doubtless the first to see and foresee in its full extent the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it; for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist — that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”…

There is little to be said of this passage other than that Barthes is confused as to the topic of agency. He deploys “speaks” metaphorically, of course, and yet, to consider his example in the literal register proves clarifying—for language cannot act or perform of its own accord anymore than a organ can play itself or a candle kindle its own flame.

Barthes then digresses, at considerable length, on a number of writers, including the previously mentioned Mallarme, as well as Proust. I’ll not dwell upon these passages, as they are merely reiterations of his previously mentioned belief that “language… speaks, not the author,” to which one might sardonically reply, “It is the coconut which uses amphioctopus marginatus, not amphioctopus marginatus which uses the coconut.”

§

… linguistics has just furnished the destruction of the Author with a precious analytic instrument by showing that utterance in its entirety is a void process, which functions perfectly without requiring to be filled by the person of the interlocutors: linguistically, the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I: language knows a “subject,” not a “person,” end this subject, void outside of the very utterance which defines it, suffices to make language “work,” that is, to exhaust it.

A void, in any literal sense, would be void of any ‘process’ One may talk all one likes about what rocks are like in the absence of sensing apparatuses to perceive them, but it doesn’t fundamentally matter, for there would then be nothing for the rocks to matter to. They would be, but they would not, could not, matter. The case is the same with regard to language. Language does not know a ‘subject.’ Language does not know. Language is not an agent.

§

The absence of the Author (with Brecht, we might speak here of a real ‘alienation:’ the Author diminishing like a tiny figure at the far end of the literary stage) is not only a historical fact or an act of writing: it utterly transforms the modern text (or — what is the same thing — the text is henceforth written and read so that in it, on every level, the Author absents himself). Time, first of all, is no longer the same. The Author, when we believe in him, is always conceived as the past of his own book: the book and the author take their places of their own accord on the same line, cast as a before and an after: the Author is supposed to feed the book — that is, he pre-exists it, thinks, suffers, lives for it; he maintains with his work the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child. Quite the contrary, the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing, he is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now.

One can see how ironically authoritative Barthes takes his own absence of authority to be by declaring his baseless assertion to be “a historical fact.” This assertion of simultaneousness is clearly untrue, for the simple reason that the author must think of what is to be written before he or she writes.

§

This is because (or: it follows that) to write can no longer designate an operation of recording, of observing, of representing, of “painting” (as the Classic writers put it), but rather what the linguisticians, following the vocabulary of the Oxford school, call a performative, a rare verbal form (exclusively given to the first person and to the present), in which utterance has no other content than the act by which it is uttered… the modern writer, having buried the Author, can therefore no longer believe, according to the “pathos” of his predecessors, that his hand is too slow for his thought or his passion, and that in consequence, making a law out of necessity, he must accentuate this gap and endlessly “elaborate” his form; for him, on the contrary, his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin — or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin.

If writing is, as Barthes asserts, “no longer… an operation of recording, of observing, of representing…” then he could in no way record, observe or represent any lack of representation and is saying that he can say nothing.

§

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, both sublime and comical and whose profound absurdity precisely designates the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing, to oppose some by others, so as never to sustain himself by just one of them; if he wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum… Succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.

A text does consist of a line of words. That is all it consists of. Such a line may contain (and “release”) a single meaning (theological or otherwise) or a multiplicity of meanings; which it contains is dependent upon intention and the presentation and apperception thereof. Misinterpretation in no wise invalids this fact. For example, if an author writes a particular line with a single purpose, regardless of the interpretations of others, the originary meaning will always remain the same, that is to say, just as intended.

In his domain, the artist is absolute.

§

From this point he notes that since writing cannot be truly deciphered (since it can never mean anything definitively), literary criticism must also be done away with (curiously, he did not, after his essay’s completion, tender his resignation to the trade), along with god, reason, science and law.

… criticism (even “new criticism”) should be overthrown along with the Author.

… to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.

The overthrown of criticism is a natural conclusion of the evacuation of meaning from authorship, and is just as mistaken for the same reasons. His railing against three hypostases in one ousia is shoehorned in suddenly, but isn’t wholly incorrect, for to refuse to “arrest meaning” is indeed to refuse reason, science and law, but it is not to refuse God, for one can easily apply reason, engage in science and construct and follow law, without any belief in providence whatsoever. All of this, however, is far afield of authorship and its supposed demise.

§

He then returns to Balzac, repeats the lines with which he opened his piece and concludes thusly,

… the true locus of writing is reading.

… a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted. This is why it is absurd to hear the new writing condemned in the name of a humanism which hypocritically appoints itself the champion of the reader’s rights. The reader has never been the concern of classical criticism; for it, there is no other man in literature but the one who writes. We are now beginning to be the dupes no longer of such antiphrases, by which our society proudly champions precisely what it dismisses, ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.

One of the reasons why “the death of the author” has become so popular is because of the high regard it supposedly has for the reader, which is taken up as a rallying cry—Barthes and his acolytes striking out against supposed ivory tower art snobs—and yet, consider his opinion of the readers in this last passage. For Barthes, readers are “without biography” and “psychology” merely a vector for the transmission of signification. This is well in keeping with the rest of the article, but it is completely out of step with the contemporary valorizations of the “death of the author.” Further, not only does there not need to be any antipathic bifurcation between authors and readers, there cannot be, for that is to propose a waltz without a partner where the loner refuses to box-step and the music plays itself. Or as Lamos of Films Lie put it,

The death of the Author is also the inability to create, invent, or be original. It is the spinning out of control into the abyss of multiple meanings and inevitable meaninglessness.

A declaration nullified by its very pronouncement.

In closing, I am reminded of a quote by Simon Leys, who, in his essay The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote, wrote,

Literary critics do fulfil a very important role… but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism. One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous.


Sources

  1. Alan KcKee. (2003) Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide. SAGE publications.
  2. Eric Wayne. (2018) “The Death of the Author” Debunked. Art & Crit.
  3. Gemma Khaicy. (2013) Why hackers should be afraid of how they write. The Sydney Morning Herald.
  4. Honore de Balzac. (1830) Sarrasine. Project Gutenberg (2010-2016).
  5. Jane Alison. (2019) Beyond the Narrative Arc. The Paris Review.
  6. James Wood. (2020) What is at Stake When We Write Literary Criticism?
  7. Joris-Karl Huysmans, translated by Keene Wallace. (1891 French; 1928 Eng.) Las-bas. Originally published by Tresse & Stock.
  8. Jeanne Willette. (2013) Roland Barthes: Structuralism. Art History Unstuffed.
  9. Joseph M. Pierre. (2015) Culturally sanctioned suicide: Euthanasia, seppuku and terrorist martyrdom. World Journal of Psychiatry.
  10. Lamos Ignoramos. (—) The Death of the Author: Roland Barthes and the Collapse of Meaning. Filmslie.
  11. Maddie Crum. (2016) ‘Fight Club’ Author Reflects On Violence & Masculinity, 20 Years Later. Huffington Post (USA).
  12. Michael Karlsberg. (2005) The Power of Discourse & The Discourse of Power: Pursuing Peace Through Discourse Intervention. International Journal of Peace Studies, volume 10, number 1.
  13. Pierre Haski. (2014) The Death of Simon Lays, Fierce Opponent of French Maoist Intellectuals. Not Bored (English Translation).
  14. Roland Barthes. (1982) Empire of Signs. Hill & Wang.
  15. Roland Barthes. (1967) The Death of the Author. English: Aspen, no. 5-6.
  16. Simon Leys. (2013) The Hall Of Uselessness: Collected Essays. The New York Review Of Books.
  17. T. S. Eliot. (1919) Tradition and the Individual Talent. The Egoist (later published in The Sacred Wood).
  18. Tulipsandmondays. (2014) A Case Against ‘Death of the Author’ Theory. Ididn’twantanyflowers.

Footnotes

¹ Roland Gerard Barthes was a literary critic and scholar of semiotics educated at the University of Paris and the author of numerous works including, Writing Degree Zero (1968), Empires of Signs (1983) and Criticism and Truth (1987).

² Etienne Mallarme (pen-name: Stephane Mallarme) was a French poet and literary critic, a contemporary of Rilke, Yeats and Verlaine. Mallarme was highly regarded by Huysmans, who praised the poet’s writing extensively in his 1884 novel À rebours.

Circular 2/1/20

PROSE

From Cajun Mutt Press: Little Hymn In One Part by Mike James.

“Once, he found a perfectly good leather dog leash re-used to wrangle passing clouds.” (James, Little Hymn In One Part)

From Every Day Fiction: Marathon Girl by Tim Boiteau.

“Water station nine. Hydration, raisins, and knives, knives, knives. Knives for slashing, slicing and cutting, for gutting and jabbing, sticking and skewering — for stabbing in the back. The attendant eyes my blood-spattered arm approvingly.

I snatch up another blade. And another.” (Boiteau, Marathon Girl)

From New Pop Lit: Hamburger Hill by John Higgins.

“He took the proffered hand like a hiker’s foot and gently shook it.” (Higgins, Hamburger Hill)

From The Story Hive: Fox, Wolf & Dragon (part one) by R.C.D.

“… she was a giant magical spider, and possibly the creator of the whole world-” (R.C.D., Fox, Wolf & Dragon)


VERSE

From Jane Dougherty Writes: Groundwater by Jane Dougherty.

“… ash falls with small explosions, red / flowers before the grey and dusty end.” (Dougherty, Groundwater)

From The Drabble: Gains by The Cheesesellers Wife.

“What do we gain and gather in all those places we go?” (TCW, Gains)


ESSAYS

From Clint Smith Fiction: Intoning Malone by Clint Smith.


 

Fiction Is Not (Intrinsically) A Lie

In 1923, Pablo Picasso, for The Arts: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Covering All Phases of Ancient and Modern Art, said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched, and re-searched, for the way to put over his lies, he would never accomplish any thing.”

The filmmaker Jean Cocteau said something similar in Le Paquet Rouge (Comœdia, 1927), wherein he wrote, “I am a lie that tells the truth.”

On January 9, 2009, at the Rochester Jewish Community Center Book Festival, the journalist and novelist Abraham “Abe” Rothman, said, “Serious fiction is a lie that tells the truth.”

It would be Rothman’s reformulation of the sentiment which would prove out over Cocteau and Picasso’s and has since been widely circulated, in various further permutations, prominently and predictably by men and women of letters (such as John Dufresne, author of The Lie That Tells the Truth).

The persistence and popularity of this adage is curious, given its spuriousness (when taken literally).

All lies are fictions, but not all fictions are lies.

To lie (from the Old English legan) is to attempt to convince some person or persons that a thing or things is true, even though one knows the thing or things asserted are false. To lie is to communicate to one’s interlocutor(s) with deceptive intent.

Rothman defined the word at the end of his aforementioned speech, “a lie–that is, a made-up, imagined untrue creation.”

This is not an accurate description of the fiction author, nor is it an accurate description of a lie. A imagined untruth may be a lie, or it may be a mistake, or it may be madness; one cannot say with certainty, as Rothman’s description elides the centrality of intention. Further, it is erroneous to conflate the “made-up” and the “imagined” with the “untrue.” Consider this from Terrance Klein of America Magazine, “Pablo Picasso once famously said that art is a lie that tells a truth. He’s right. There is something artificial about a work of art.”

Klein is, I contend, mistaken.

To explain: All extant houses were imagined (made-up) before they were built and are yet as real as their creators. And so it is for the fiction writer. Huysmans’ Durtal is not a real person, but he is a real fictional person, and is only ever presented as such. Verne’s Nautilus was no more false than a draftsman’s architectural sketch. Yet, given that fiction writing is an art, it is artificial, and not “natural” which, due the squamous vitiations of contemporary philosophy, is, as if by providential decree, conflated with falsity / deception / inauthenticity, even though the acquisition of truth, of authenticity, requires the intensification and extension of artifice, not its minimalization; for one cannot attest to the truth or falsity of a phenomena which evades the congenital senses without first developing new senses (ie. telescopes, infrared cameras, Geiger counters…) and concepts to interpret, govern and implement them, and such apparatuses emerge only through the invention, or rediscovery, of grounding and controlling concepts, which fiction, in no small measure, can, readily and guilelessly, provide.


Sources

  1. — (—) Art Is A Lie That Makes Us Realize Truth. Quote Investigator.
  2. — (—) lie. Etymology Online.
  3. Abraham Rothberg. (2010) Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Edteck Press.
  4. Terrance Klein. (2012) The Assumption: A Lie That Tells The Truth. America: The Jesuit Review.

Embrace Rejection

The following work is a transcript of the keynote speech for Rock Valley College’s 35th Annual Writing Awards Ceremony, delivered by WNIJ broadcaster and author Dan Klefstad (Shepherd & the Professor).


Congratulations in advance to the writers who will be recognized tonight. I look forward to reading your work and sharing the stage with you at future author events. And to those who don’t receive an award: Take heart, you will be recognized one day. And, one day, you might even get the publishing contract your novel, academic paper, or memoir deserves. But I think we should all prepare ourselves for an industry that is structured to say No to your work.  That’s the default. Your job is to be so brilliant you force publishers and agents to flip the switch when they encounter your words.

I’ve published many times, but I’ve also been rejected hundreds of times. In 2016, I got my first traditional contract for a novel – actually, a fictional memoir — about a woman who’s a veteran, cop, and single mother.  I realized I’d need some reviews, so I sent another round of query letters. The reviews couldn’t have been more varied. They ranged from “Unconventional and refreshing” to – quote — “It read like the ramblings of a crazy woman, and for a short amount of time that’s fine, but not for 267 pages!” Then she added: “Many thanks to the author for providing me a digital copy of this book.”

I am living proof that bad reviews and rejection letters will make you stronger…if you let them. One of the people who inspired me is not a writer, but a freelance I-T worker featured on NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast. His name is Jason Comley, a 30-something who spiraled into depression and paranoia after his wife left him. She found someone who was taller than he was and wealthier. Comley’s feelings about himself got so bad that he became afraid to leave the house and meet new people. In his words: “I had nowhere to go, and no one to hang out with… so I just broke down and started crying.” Comley realized he was afraid, so he asked himself: afraid of what?

“I’m afraid of rejection,” he realized.

So Comley resolved to get over his fear. He decided to make a game out of rejection, and this is what I recommend you do. He made a point of getting rejected at least once every day by someone. After a while, it felt good to get rejected all the time because, as Comley put it: “I disobeyed fear.”

Disobeyed. Comley really hit on something there. I never thought that fear depended on our obedience. But it does. And it’s not like fear is the criminal justice system – it can’t lock you in prison if you disobey. There’s no enforcement mechanism! And if nobody can prosecute you for disobeying fear… then rejection is an empty threat.

So how does a writer play Comley’s rejection game?  You write something, you submit it to a publisher. Pick a publication you aspire to be in or an agent you want to represent you. Then pick several more. Write, submit – don’t even wait for the replies because those take weeks. Write, submit, and embrace the “No thanks” emails when they start coming in.

And remember: The publishing industry has No as its default. Even after you get a good edit, the gatekeepers who are flooded with manuscripts will try to find a reason to keep you out. Dare them to. Because content is subjective and if they don’t like your work now, they might like it later. Or another publisher might take a chance with you.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on all the times publishers got it wrong. They said No to authors who’d go on to be blockbusters. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter pitch was rejected a dozen times. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, got 24 rejections. Stephen King rejected himself initially — He threw out the first chapters to, Carrie. Fortunately, his wife fished the crumpled pages out of the garbage and made him finish it, which he did. Then it got thirty rejections. The list goes on and on, so I’m guessing several people here could – eventually – land a major contract or get into a prestigious journal. You just have to keep trying.

Some of you may have been studying the market for the type of writing you do. You have a pretty good idea how your manuscript will fit in, and you can tell an agent or publisher at least three titles that resemble your work. That’s a benefit because publishers would rather repeat someone else’s success than take a chance on something unfamiliar. If you take this route, I hope you make lots of money. There is no shame in playing it safe and cashing a check. It means one day you’ll have the freedom to take a risk, to experiment, to try to advance the craft in the way you think it should go. When you’re ready to do this, that’s the book I’ll read.

For those here who don’t care about the existing market and who insist on being original… you’re after my own heart. You’re the writer other writers will love – and maybe even give you a couch to sleep on when your meal ticket dumps you. One day, and it may take a really long time, enough of the reading public will catch up to you. They’ll like how you test the limits of their expectations – even their patience. They’ll appreciate how you helped them see the world differently. But for many years, all those risks you’re taking with form, character, and plot will be poison to publishers. And when you do finally publish, the reviewers will savage you.

Embrace their attacks. Any professional reviewer who takes the time to bash you in public has at least taken the time to read your work. You got under their skin and they will remember you.

(lean in) Send them another book. Let them shoot you full of arrows again. Someday, long after, they’ll encounter you at a writer conference or online chatroom, and they’ll see you survived them. You kept writing – despite their criticism – and managed to find an audience and build on it. They couldn’t keep you down. They will respect that.

A moment ago, I said “You managed to find an audience and build on it.” This is inevitable for any writer, or any artist, who has talent and keeps working to improve. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the theory that it takes 10-thousand hours to become a master of your craft. He explores this in his book Outlier. In one chapter, he calculates all the hours the Beatles rehearsed privately and played publicly before their landmark album Meet the Beatles came out in 1964. Ten thousand hours. In another chapter, Gladwell calculates all the hours Bill Gates wrote computer code – starting in high school — before co-founding Microsoft in 1975. Ten thousand hours.  I think it’s safe for you to expect a similar time investment. The Beatles were in their early 20s when they hit it big. Bill Gates was the same age.

How old are you?  Take a moment and think how many hours you have been writing and re-writing in class or on your own time. You might be closer to 10K than you realize.

At some point in your efforts to get published, you’ll walk into a bit of luck. I’m a big believer that people who strive make their own luck. The agents and publishers who have the power to keep you in obscurity just can’t help themselves when they see someone struggling to get their manuscript through the door. In my case, a handful of agents offered advice – They took precious moments from their day to write me an email saying why my manuscript wasn’t working for them and offered suggestions for improving it. If this happens to you, treat that advice like gold. Thank them, revise again, and then re-submit.

Speaking of submissions… Industry insiders will tell you they don’t like it when you submit to every publisher who handles science fiction or horror or literary criticism. They do have a point when they say “Hey, we invested valuable time reading your submission and then you went with this other publisher (or agent).” My thoughts on this are simple and direct: They have all the power. You are at a disadvantage. You need to do what’s best for your manuscript, so I recommend you don’t become too concerned when they complain about investing a little time in you. THAT’S THEIR JOB. Now, you can play fair and say in your query letter that you’re submitting to everyone and that you’ll inform them when you get an offer. Do this but know you don’t owe them anything more.

Let’s fast forward a few years. You have a brilliant manuscript and got a professional edit. You finally found a publisher who believes in your book or article and signed the contract. Congratulations — Welcome to the world of literary promotion!

You might know that each author must be the chief marketer of their work. Even large publishers with marketing staff can only do so much. Most publishers will give you resources and advice, but they don’t have the staff to sell your book. So how do you pick up their slack and start selling?

You can spend a lot of money paying for marketing services and, believe me, there are a lot of people out there who offer various packages and rates – and none of them can offer you any metrics on how successful their services are. Let’s be clear: marketing is an art not a science. With this in mind, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned through my own experience, and that begins with this: Never pay for promotion.

I’ve never paid a penny. But I have spent many more hours marketing my writing than actually writing. I still don’t know how I feel about that, and I cannot point to any metrics saying my marketing efforts are paying off. But I feel like I’m moving the ball forward and that’s got to mean something. I’m still in the game. I’m… here… after all, so I must be doing something right. So what did I do?

I looked up book bloggers. These are readers, just like you and me, except they maintain blogs containing their reviews plus other cute features like “First Line Friday” or “Short Story Sunday” or “Monday Memoir.” Each one has a TBR or “to be read” stack that’s a mile high and I wanted to see if they’d move my book up. So I pitched them with the following line: “Looking for extra content for your blog? How about an email Q & A?”  And a surprising number of bloggers jumped on this. They sent me a list of questions, I answered within a day or two, and – Voila – there’s my interview on their blog, plus my photo and a link to the Amazon “buy page” for my book.

It was the easiest thing I could do with my time, and now I have bloggers who are curious about me and my work. And it only takes one if they’re part of a network, so I recommend you focus on these. Many bloggers have agreements with other bloggers where they share posts on their websites, and then post the links on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Let me give you an example:

Two years ago, Love Books Group reviewed four of my vampire stories that will be included in my next book. This Scottish blog gave me a good review, included a photo of me, and links to my other work available on Amazon. That’s not remarkable. Here’s what is:

18 UK-based bloggers shared it on their sites and tweeted it. Each member of this network averages 15,000 Twitter followers, and they’re also active on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

15,000 x 18 equals… I don’t care what the number is, THAT is a network that’s too important to ignore.

It includes blogs like Chat About Books, Keeper of Pages, Linda’s Book Blog, Between the Lines, Bits About Books, and Swirl & Thread. Each of them got to know me after I pitched an interview. Then I pitched my first vampire story “The Caretaker” and three of them gave enthusiastic reviews.

In my experience, when one of them likes you, you’re in. It’s not necessary for them to like everything you write. The blogger at Swirl & Thread, for example, doesn’t like vampires. Keeper of Pages loved my story “The Caretaker” but was not happy with my novel Shepherd & the Professor.  This experience taught me something about what works and what doesn’t with certain readers.

That’s how I got free publicity and laid the groundwork for sales of my forthcoming novel. If you write creative fiction, I recommend you get in this network or something similar. If you’re an academic writer, find a journal that gets quoted in popular media. And in both cases, be sure to let your local media know about the attention you’re getting — because reporters tend to chase the same stories and, depending on what else is going on in the news, you might be the story for one day.

It seems ridiculous to have to say this, because you’re all polite people, but being nice makes all the difference. Sadly, not everyone gets this, and I feel sorry for the writer who responds angrily to a bad review. The bloggers I know consider an attack on one an attack on all, and they will shut out any author who insults them.

When I saw this on Twitter, it resembled an excommunication. I felt certain the offending author’s writing would never again see the light of day, and he would die frozen and alone knowing it was his own damned fault. Which, of course, it was.

It doesn’t need to end this way. Don’t like that two-star rating? Suck it up and say “Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea,” and thank them for their time. If the reviewer had a specific complaint, consider that when you write your next book or article. Then pitch them again.

It’s worth noting that amateur bloggers devote enormous amounts of time reading books and maintaining their sites. Ever wonder why? The ones I know don’t get paid for reviews, although they make a little money from selling ad space. They do it because they love books so much that they need to share their feelings about them — even to total strangers. They also enjoy getting to know authors. They really want to shout your name from the rooftops. All you have to do is give them a reason to do so.

Another way to promote your writing is through podcasts. Authors writing on any subject can reach new audiences by producing their own podcasts or getting invited on better-known ones. Any podcast that allows you to read an excerpt and talk about your work is worth investigating. A very well produced one lives on the Rockford Writers Guild website. Their “Guildy Pleasures” podcast features two Pushcart-prize winners, plus excellent emerging authors. I was the first guest, reading five of my vampire stories. Podcasts are great for authors because they’re sharable on social media, and you can track metrics like “full listens.” But the audience is getting more and more sophisticated so there’s less tolerance for schlocky production than, say, a decade ago. If you get invited to a podcast, make sure you do your part and rehearse the excerpt you want to read, and make sure you know exactly how you’ll answer basic interview questions like “What inspired you to write this book or article?” Nobody wants to listen to meandering answers, and nobody wants to hear an author stumble their way through a reading.

The same applies to bookstore or radio appearances. I can’t tell you how many times I attended events where an author showed up and it was clear they weren’t prepared. Or they stood, chin down, quietly reading their words without any emotion or emphasis. Remember: You have one chance to make a good impression on your audience – so knock ‘em dead.

I hope I made a good impression with you. One day when my career has stalled, and you’re headlining a publishing or academic conference, I might want to hitch my wagon to your rising star. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to help your career. If you think it may help to drop my name, feel free to do so.

I gave you A LOT of things to remember tonight. The short version is: write your very best work, get a professional edit, get 100 agents to reject you, pay nothing for promotion, be nice, and rehearse.

Thank you for inviting me. And remember me when you’re famous!

Circular 1/22/20

PROSE

From Fictive Dream: Delirium by John C. Mannone.

“The brick-lumps sifted through the black morph into swarms of fire ants with glassy-grit teeth.” (Delirium)

From Spelk: Letters to Dead People by Foster Trecost.

“I sometimes write letters to my father, but he doesn’t read them.”

“How do you know?”

“Because dead people can’t read letters.” (Letters to Dead People)

From The Drabble: Dreams of Unspecified Crimes by Howie Good.

“I think it was Freud who said dreams are the day’s dark residue.” (Dreams of Unspecified Crimes)


VERSE

From Caliath: To Taste of Salt by João-Maria.

“What’s it like to bow up?, that rotten soliphsism of yours by which suns dawn merely to candle your rooms…” (To Taste of Salt)


ESSAYS

From Art & Crit: “The Death of the Author” Debunked by Eric Wayne.

The belief that “the author is dead” is one of the unquestioned bad ideas that has become gospel in the art world. It’s usually just asserted — along with its companion notions that originality is impossible, and the artist’s intent is irrelevant — as if to deny it is as hopelessly naive as denying evolution. (Wayne)

From New Pop Lit: Do Awards Matter? by Karl Wenclas.

Awards ceremonies, like hall of fames– sports, music, and otherwise– are in reality highly successful PR appendages to their particular industry. (Wenclas)


 

Circular 12/25/19 (Yuletide Edition)

Regular readers of the site will be aware that circulars have been few and far between of late. That is not because I’ve discontinued the series, but simply because I’ve been focused on various other projects (namely music composition and writing). With that said—Merry Christmas! to all our readers and supporters.

— K. E., Logos Editor.


LOGOS RECAP

From Matt Wildermuth, four classically inspired poems (Hubris, Prospero, Leaving Ogygia, and Ysatters-Kasja).

From Dan Klefstad Elevens (2001) – an new excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Fiona’s Guardians.

From yours truly, chapters 1 through 15 of The Dauntless Rook (a novella), the remasters of the tracks Suzerainty (a march) and Blood For Butterflies (a organ-driven leitmotif), as well as a new arrangement of the track Legerdemain (a waltz) and a short essay on the etymology of culture.

Additionally, for those interested in downloading site-published tracks, the Logos patreon-exclusive music archive is now live (and will be updated daily).


LITERATURE (verse and prose)

From New Pop Lit, the Tale of the Christmas Bear.

From The American Literary Blog, a republication of a Christmas poem, written by the Virginian, W. G. McCabe during the Civil War.


VISUAL ART

From the always colorful Examining The Odd, a vibrant, eye-catching illustration.

From PMu at the Daily Doodle, a charming Christmas tree sketch.

And a statue of the Roman Sun-God Mithras (whose birthday is Dec. 25th).


MUSIC

For your listening pleasure, a wonderful performance of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie Overture by Jonathan Scott on the great Willis Organ of Hereford Cathedral. If the title doesn’t sound familiar to you, give it a listen and you might be surprised that you’ve heard (a part of) it somewhere before.


HISTORY & CULTURE

One of the most enduring icons of yuletide in America (and various other places around the world) is Santa Claus. When one thinks of Jolly Ole St. Nick one is likely to conjure an image very similar to that created by the American artist Thomas Nast in 1881, an illustration which Smithsonian Magazine describes as “the face that launched a thousand Christmas letters.”

From SciHub, a fascinating article on the first radio broadcast in the U.S. conducted by Reginald Fessenden on Christmas Eve, 1906.

And lastly, I recently provided the sound-design for a Monologue On Roman Satire by the talented Miss White.


 

Life In/Verse

thoughts flow through the air

like drifts of grey ash from a burning tower,

scorching across white sheets

like cigarette burns.

to some, words sound foreign and strange—

no rhyme or reason—

but not to those who listen

in tongues.

for sooth

of my Muse’s vanity,

compulsion rules.

mad scribblings abound.

i disturb the peace of blank pages

with the moving pictures of my silent film,

fettering time

before it dissolves like sugar in the rain. 75_1nails_book

Experimental Archaeologist Wulf Hein’s Remarks Concerning The Hohlenstein-Stadel Löwenmensch

§00 The Löwenmensch of Hohlenstein-Stadel, discovered in the Lone River valley, in Southern Germany (which was occupied from the Middle Palaeolithic through the Neolithic), is the oldest known piece of man-made figurative art ever discovered. Given this, a considerable number of theories have been developed in a attempt to explain the statuette’s role in ancient Aurignacian society.
§01 Experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein of Archaeo-technik, who, in 2009 was commissioned to create a replica of the Löwenmensch, was, despite his busy schedule, kind enough to share his thoughts concerning the importance of the ancient work of art with me.
“Personally,” Hein remarked during our correspondence, “I believe that the LM [lion-man] was object to some kind of worshipping, most probably functioning as a hunting charme, because according to the latest research the mouth region of the statuette was frequently rubbed with some red substance, perhaps blood.”

Sources
  1. João Zilhão & Francesco d’Errico. (2003) An Aurignacian «garden of Eden» in southern Germany? An alternative interpretation of the geissenklösterle and a critique of the Kulturpumpe model. Paleo. Revue d’archéologie préhistorique.
  2. Thomas Wynn, et al. (2009) Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Evolution of Human Conceptual Thought. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19:1, 73-83.
  3. Wulf Hein. (2013) Ivory Experimentation. Companion book to the exhibition The Return Of The Lion Man: History, Myth and Magic. Ulmer Museum.
  4. Wulf Hein. (—) Tusks & Tools. Private research manuscript to be published in l´anthroplogie.

Art & Ancestral Decision

§.00 Artistry is nothing without technicity, for the artist is nothing without his tools. Given that all tools are, at the first, conceptual, the ontological enterprise necessarily subtends both. Philosophy (as mental technicity) determines by way of an analysis of the haecceity of one’s muse(s) and subjects(s), which thus determines the technical venue(s) by which pertinent qualia may be internally refined and externally expressed (in art).

§.01 What is interesting to me, in light of this realization, is the way in which the artist (and not merely the designer) as a general matter, takes ontologic assertions (the real purpose of art is X but not Y), as givens, without consideration. The horror writer considers the nature of his work, but does not consider the collective, inter-generational enterprise which brought the entire genre into being and so must fail to apprehend its previous purpose(s), and thus what previously worked in the genre (what linguistic tactics to deploy) even if he has a solid grasp of its present purposes[s]). The painter does not generally realize, or, at the least, does not generally remark upon, the fact that his art is based upon the primacy of a particular privileging of objects (i.e. Futurism’s privileging of speed and the machine), if the issue is raised, such a consideration is likely to be considered trivial, when it is anything but, as the ordering of objects in a fine painting is of central importance to the purpose (whether it is clear or opaque, even to one’s self) of, not just a fine painting, but fine painting as a distinct artistic practice. And so it is with the author, the sculptor, the illustrator, the actor, the dancer and any other type of artist. Implicit internalization and affirmation of this kind should, if recognized, be given to critical reconsideration, for failure to do so can result in a concretized implicit conceptual frame, born of unspoken ontological decision (decision is not, of necessity, the truth and most ‘ontology’ is merely psychological gratification and defense)—what we might call the ancestral decision—which vitiates the very pathways by which one’s desired or considered art would, in their absence, profligate.

Notes on Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature (1893)—II

† continued from part I


§.08—Our author continues, remarking upon material modalities.

“Unless an author takes the material on which he writes out of his own head, that is to say, from his own observation, he is not worth reading. Book manufacturers, compilers, the common run of history writers, and many others of the same class, take their material immediately out of books; and the material goes straight to their finger-tips without even paying freight or undergoing examination as it passes through their heads, to say nothing of elaboration or revision. How very learned many a man would be if he knew everything that was in his own books! The consequence of this is that these writers talk in such a loose and vague manner, that the reader puzzles his brains in vain to understand what it is of which they are really thinking. They are thinking of nothing. It may now and then be the case that the book from which they copy has been composed exactly in the same way; so that writing of this sort is like a plaster cast of a cast; and in the end, the bare outline of the face, and that, too, hardly recognisable, is all that is left of your Antinous¹.” (A. Schopenhauer, The Art of Literature, p. 6)

§.09—“… a plaster cast of a cast,” how perfectly apt is this description; how many stories of ‘chosen ones,’ or the ‘girl interrupted,’ wherein the distinctive attributes are merely cosmetic—a name, a setting, a hairdo, a historical reference—yet the form and function is essentially the same as popular narratives preceding it. However, I differ from Schopenhauer in holding authors who “take their material immediately out of books” in such totalizing contempt; what is of paramount importance in the question of textual information acquisition is the quality of the information contained and (as he notes) its verification (for whatever qualities). Given that the information acquisition and exploitation from a text is fundamentally no different than any other kind of information acquisition and exploitation, it is mistaken to vitiate information derived from a text and information derived from studying a tree or a stone (ie. one’s own observation”). That is to say that the writer is always writing “out of his own head” a distinction that may seem trivially semantic, but which is conceptually crucial.


Sources

  1. Arthur Schopenhauer. (1893) The Art of Literature. Swan Sonnenschein & Co.; MacMillan & Co.
  2. Elena Martinique. (2016) Is Consumerism Depicted in Art Relevant a Relevant Critique of Contemporary Society and Culture? Widewalls.
  3. Farooq A. Kperogi. (2016) Myth of the Decline in Standard of English Usage and Grammar. Nigeria Village Square.
  4. Ranulf Higden, trans. John Travisa. (1364; eng. trans. 1865) Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Maonachi Cestrensis.
  5. R. L. S. (2015) Johnson: Language anxieties: A Long Decline. The Economist.
  6. Sabina Nedelius. (2017) The Myth of Language Decay: Do Youths Really Not Know How To Speak? The Historical Linguist Channel.
  7. Sarah Waters. (1995). The Most Famous Fairy in History: Antinous and Homosexual Fantasy. Journal of the History of Sexuality. University of Texas Press. 6 (2): 194–230.
  8. Steven Pinker. (2014) The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide To Writing In The 21st Century. Penguin.
  9. Stuart Henry. (1897) Hours With Famous Parisians. Way & Williams.
  10. Thomas Adajian. (2018) The Definition of Art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

End Notes

¹ Antinous (also Antinoüs or Antinoös) was a Bithynian Greek, friend and lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. After his mysterious death, the emperor deified Antinous and organized a cult in his honor. Schopenhauer, in the passage above, utilizes ‘Antinous’ as a metaphor for the artist’s creation.