Saturday, April 24, 2010

Avid for Athens

You can help bring Avid Bookshop to Athens, Georgia, by voting for them in the Pepsi Refresh Everything.


This past week we received finished copies of foreign editions of a couple of our books: The Drop Edge of Yonder in French and Some Things That Meant the World to Me in Italian.
Some Things That Meant the World to Me is published in Italy by Elliot Edizioni.
The Drop Edge of Yonder is published as 'Zebulon' in France by Editions Christian Bourgois.
Erotomania: A Romance is published in Spain by Tusquets Editores.
The cover that I really love is the Egon Schiele painting for Erotomania.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Our Bright Future

Barnes & Noble will sell their Nook in Best Buy stores. Amazon's Kindle will be available in Target. This week, in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, Barnes & Noble announced they will return to television advertising to spotlight the Nook.

Here's my pull-quote:
"Companies will have to create demand, which will take a lot of advertising," says Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Put into context, Kindle sales "account for 2% of Amazon's revenue and its e-book sales account for an additional 1.5%." Once the handful of multi-national corporations who stand to profit lobby people through advertising and successfully convince them that they absolutely need these e-readers, then those percentages will rise.


I originally wrote this piece last fall that they posted at The Rumpus. From the time our distributor made the opportunity available to us in the winter of 2008/2009, we basically dragged our heels on making our titles available electronically until this spring. Now, three of our titles are available for download as e-books (Some Things That Meant the World to Me, by Joshua Mohr; The Drop Edge of Yonder, by Rudolph Wurlitzer; I Smile Back, by Amy Koppelman).

I'm on the fence about doing more, and I'd love to hear back thoughts and opinions.

My concern -- as the e-newsletter Shelf Awareness points out -- is that "Amazon seems to be engaging in some odd pricing strategies . . . pricing some hardcover and paperback bestsellers at e-book levels." They're taking a dramatic loss selling these hardcover books that retail for $25 at this price, further elbowing out local independent bookstores while single-handedly setting an industry-wide pricing standard of $9.99. This amounts to Amazon devaluing everything that a writer or a publisher does!



I have several messages saved permanently on my cellphone’s voicemail. Every month or so I trudge through the parade, when I’m required to re-save them. There’s a message from my wife and business cohort, Eliza, telling me that our daughter, Rio, has successfully managed to stand on her own. Another one, chronicling Rio’s first steps. Several from Rio, as some words inch out, Eliza gently prodding her along in the background.

And then there’s a stew of Two Dollar Radio-related messages. There’s one from independent publicist Lauren Cerand, saying that she saw Erotomania: A Romance, a novel by Francis Levy, in the window at City Lights. I also have saved messages from nearly every one of the authors we’ve published at Two Dollar Radio over the last two years informing me that their author-copies have arrived. They sound satisfied, and what they have to say always makes me smile.

I remember talking with Larry Shainberg, whose book Crust we published last October. I was asking Larry about Samuel Beckett, whom he was fortunate enough to meet on a handful of occasions and befriend (Larry also wrote a Pushcart-winning monograph on Beckett for The Paris Review). Larry told me that he went to see Beckett in Europe, and the pair was returning to the hotel where Beckett was staying when the desk clerk provided him with his mail, which contained the author-copies of one of his books. I don’t recall that Larry mentioned which book of Beckett’s it was, but I remember him saying that it didn’t matter whether it was your first book or your fiftieth, there’s still that feeling of intense satisfaction and joy that arrives with finally holding your book in your hands.

As a publisher, I derive a great deal of satisfaction myself when the finished book arrives. Recently, when copies of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s second and third novels, Flats and Quake, which we’re re-issuing in a back-to-back edition, came from the printer I immediately broke out my camera and took pictures. Certainly, some of the glee could be attributed to the fact that the book looked as we intended: we were nervous about the flipped/upside-down pages.

I’ve learned that publishing is a drawn-out process that above all demands patience. There is that initial burst of enthusiasm after reading a remarkable submission, then the re-kindled energy over presenting the title to the reps at sales conference, but the real flood of excitement comes upon holding the finished product in my hands. That’s when it’s real, the transition complete, when I find its spot on the bookshelf in my office: it is now a book.

As a publisher we’ve dragged our heels in embracing e-books (or even acknowledging their presence). Through our distributor, Consortium, we’re able to partake in their parent company’s program, that allows publishers to make their books available electronically rather painlessly, albeit with a modest fee. But it took us at least eight months to sign the contract, and we’re still, now, months later, resolving any further contract entanglements with authors.

Part of my reluctance is my inability to resolve in my mind the bitter truth of what we’ll be stamping our brand upon. As a publisher, I know e-books are a cheaper product – both to produce and consume (providing you can foot the tab for the e-reader) – and I’m certain that writers do too. What makes anyone believe that readers won’t arrive at this realization as well? Once the honeymoon with their sleek new gadget ends, they’ll start to demand more for their money. As a commenter to Nick Harakaway’s blog post on e-books points out: “I wouldn’t pay more than $10 for an eBook, because at more than that, I want more than I’m getting. I want a dust jacket, I want something physical. There’s an inherent belief (and I agree) e should never cost as much as its old world equivalent. You really do get less.”

Gimmicks such as Simon and Schuster’s snigger-trigger “Vook” are just the tip of the iceberg. Soon, because of the lack of page-count constraints, e-books will come complete with deleted chapters, a writer’s and editor’s cut, and alternate endings. The result will resemble more a videogame fantasia than a traditional “book.” And I don’t want to read that.

As Emily Pullen, of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, so aptly points out in a blog post: “Creating digital literature and harnessing the medium’s unique capabilities requires a specialized knowledge of programming languages. As such, it is software engineers and computer programmers (the techies) who are best suited to use this new literary medium, not the traditional Writer.”

Most likely, it will be several years and rungs on the evolutionary ladder of the Vook before even its initial potential can be imagined. In the meantime, at Two Dollar Radio we’ll casually make our books available electronically. At our size, the potential fifty dollars a month from e-book sales can make a difference. But I don’t expect many messages from authors calling to share their enthusiasm at their e-books arriving. And I won’t blame them.


As a post-script, I'd like to mention that of the three writers I notified that their "e-book" was available, only one wrote back, (a succinct "Cool!") while the others casually disacknowledged my note. No writer spends their hours toiling by themselves in a dark room to birth an electronic book into the world.

There's this amazing preface to Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, which I'm really stoked to read (finish), where Lanier says: "The vast fanning out of fates of these words will take place almost entirely in the lifeless world of pure information. Real human eyes will read these words in only a tiny minority of the cases.

"And yet it is you, the person, the rarity among my readers, I hope to reach.

"The words in this book are written for people, not computers."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stickups by the Stuck Up

It used to be thieves that robbed banks. John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James. They pulled off some of the great heists of the l9th and 20th centuries. There was a science to safe cracking. Great holdups predicated on complex planning and timing were the stuff of movies like Thief and The Bank Job.  But in the 21st century, the nature of criminality has taken a new turn. Banks rob from themselves and from their own customers. Recent descriptions of what has gone on in the world of banking resemble the process that occurs when the body attacks itself at the onset of auto-immune disease. Former treasury secretary Robert Rubin, under questioning by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, is hard put to explain actions that were the equivalent of an attack on the very institution he was supposed to be helping to guide (“Panel Criticizes Oversight of Citi by Two Execs,” NYT, 4/8/10).  HSBC and UBS are accused of allowing clients to avoid taxes by actively abetting the creation of off-shore accounts (“2 Charged in International Tax Evasion Scheme Said to Involve HSBC," NYT, 4/15/10). Lehman Brothers uses creative accounting to hide losses (“Lehman Channeled Risks Through ‘Alter Ego’ Firm,” NYT, 4/12/10), and Goldman Sachs is accused of betting against the very products that it was selling to its own customers (“S.E.C. Accuses Goldman of Fraud in Housing Deal,” NYT, 4/17/10). There have always been financial scandals, and the precincts of so-called respectable finance have never been freed from their Long Term Capitals, their Enrons, their Ivan Boeskys, Marc Richs and Michael Milkens. But it does appear that in the last decade the tide has really turned. The stickups are being perpetrated by the stuck up. There are very few reports of masked men entering banks today (even by neophytes of the kind Al Pacino played in Dog Day Afternoon), and if you look at the doors on today’s bank vaults, it is obvious that nothing short of a tactical nuclear device would be able to dislodge them from their hinges. The real threat seems to lie not with the so-called robbers, but with the guys in wingtips and rep ties sitting confidently behind their desks and holding the combination. Aren’t these the same Masters of the Universe Tom Wolfe wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities? Are you going to trust them with your money?

[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]

Bryan Charles’ “Wowee Zowee” and Shawn Vandor’s “Fire at the End of the Rainbow”

The latest from Continuum’s stellar 33 1/3 series of little rock ‘n roll books is Bryan Charles’ treatise on Pavement’s third album WOWEE ZOWEE. Charles, author of the funny and affecting novel “Grab on to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way” (itself a Pavement song lyric; you could say Bryan is a fan), interviewed all band members and various label staff and recording engineers, venturing to Memphis and generally keeping his unyielding love for the band and the album stuffed into a mason jar of intrepid journalistic inquiry. The launch for Wowee Zowee will be held at Brooklyn’s WORD bookstore on Wednesday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m. Charles will read and sign and answer Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog’s questions.

Shawn Vandor’s debut collection of stories “Fire at the End of the Rainbow” is one of three coolly attractive books published by the Key West-based Sand Paper Press earlier this year. The press, in “limited operation” since 2003, recently ramped up production with “Fire” and two collections of poems: Stuart Krimko’s “The Sweetness of Herbert” and Arlo Haskell’s “Joker.” The trio is intended as a set, and they are certainly complementary in their Key West-esque peach, cornflower and strawberry pastel covers. All three Sand Paper Press authors toured the West Coast together this February and March. I can personally attest that Vandor’s deadpan delivery of the scatological little doozie titled “Manhood, a Cautionary Tale” at LA’s David Kordansky Gallery brought the damn house down.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Reality Bites

What if someone took David Shields's Reality Hunger, a nonfiction screed about appropriation made up entirely of other authors’ sentences, and simply appropriated it? But doesn’t reality sometimes trump the best fictional offerings? For instance, Saturday’s Times reported the case of a 16-year-old New Jersey boy who was arrested for "activating a public-address system in a Wal-Mart store … and ordering 'all black people' to leave.” What is one to do with a piece of news like this? Is it a failure of education, a litmus test about in-grown racism and prejudice in our society, or does the incident merely illustrate the weaknesses of the store’s intercom, as some Wal-Mart executives apparently believe? “The store’s parent company … issued a statement saying it had modified its intercom system at the store to prevent such breaches,” the Times piece said.

On Tuesday, the Times reported on the death of Wolfgang Wagner, the longtime director of the Bayreuth Festival. Katharina Wagner was Wolfgang’s daughter by his second wife, Gudrun. She had produced a partially nude Meistersinger at Bayreuth, which was booed by audiences. Along with half-sister Eva—the Times reported the two as not having "spoken to each other in many years”—Katharina was appointed to run the festival in 2008. The festival has long bent over backwards to distance itself from implications of Nazi leanings, due to Hitler’s renowned love for Wagner. (The Times reported in the same obit that Wolfgang's mother Winifred Wagner, “an ardent anti-Semite,” gave Hitler “the writing paper on which he composed ‘Mein Kampf.’”) Maybe Katharina should produce an opera at Bayreuth based on a genocidal 16-year-old let loose in an American discount store. After all, we’ve already had an opera about Jerry Springer, and a forthcoming opera about Enron is in the works. What better way for Bayreuth to finally expiate the sins of the past!
[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]

The New Culture

"Culture is increasingly an instrument to divide and differentiate communities. And the leveling pressures of globalization have at the same time provided more and more people with the technological resources to decide for themselves, culturally speaking, who they are and how they choose to be known, seen, distinguished from others."
I'm realizing how true this is, and how this applies to us as a press trying to reach an audience keen on reading edgy literature. And it seems like in time the favor will be to those developing culturally valuable artifacts, rather than those appealing to any sort of quick-hit popular sensibilities.
Fred Ramey, publisher of Unbridled Books, said to me in an email once that what seems to be changing is "the fragmenting (via the internet) of the reading market," and I'm finding his sentiment to be unbelievably true.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Jersey Shore in the East Bay

San Francisco has many talented writers, and one of my favorites is K.M. Soehnlein. His first novel "The World of Normal Boys" was fantastic, funny, and devastating. Luckily for us, K.M. decided to revisit the characters from his debut romp with his new novel, "Robin & Ruby."

This Monday, April 19th, I'm thrilled to read in the East Bay with K.M. at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. The evening is themed around "not your usual" beach reading, as some of Soehnlein's new book is set on the Jersey Shore. The stage will be decorated with a makeshift boardwalk and sand. Will it also stink like cologne and garbage to truly duplicate the Garden State? Hmmm. I guess you'll have to come play with us to find out for sure.

I'm going to read from "Termite Parade" which I just got the galleys for this week. It looks fantastic. To be honest, there won't be a lot of "beach" in my excerpt, though I guarantee some "not your usual."

The event starts at 7. They'll be serving "sex on the beach" to set the mood... classy. Maybe in true Jersey Shore style, we can drink them out of each other's belly buttons.

Come out and support Soehnlein's amazing new read!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

L'Age d'Or

Even the stage sets of the famous ‘50s Lone Ranger TV series were primitive. The Lone Ranger and Tonto always seemed to arrive at the same mountain pass, with the same pair of boulders that looked a little worse for the wear. In essence, neither the Lone Ranger nor Tonto were going anywhere. They were not what today would be called socially mobile, either as fictional characters or as beneficiaries of the myth of the Wild West.
Let’s turn to another classic, The Life of Riley, with the all-but-forgotten William Bendix in the title role. The protagonist works in an aeronautics factory and carries one of those lunch boxes that look like a miniature airplane hanger. Looming in the background is the post-war prosperity of Imperial America. Riley works on an assembly line, but lives in a cheery split-level house with flower boxes on the window-sills. There is something value-free about his occupation. Though the series was made in the post-war period, plants that made aircraft consumed the war economy of the previous decade. The Life of Riley is the lighter side of the project. Riley bears no responsibility for the finished product or the murder that his productivity wreaks. He is merely a cog, taking orders from his superiors. He exemplifies the early Marx papers of 1848, with their emphasis on the alienation of the worker caused by two premises of capitalist production—division of labor and economies of scale. Yet he is as happy as a bird.
Exhibit three: The Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden is a New York City bus driver who lives in a tenement where the fire escape is as constant a part of the set as the boulders in The Lone Ranger. He has argumentative relationships with his wife Alice, his best friend Norton, and Norton’s wife Trixy. In the lingo of our current culture, Ralph and Alice would be described as a dysfunctional family, in which the wife parries an ever-increasing crescendo of insults from her sadistic husband. If Ralph’s rage were to cross the line from verbal to physical, he could easily be placed in the Joel Steinberg category, as his insults and character assassination are remorseless, unrelenting, and fundamentally aimed at extinguishing the will and identities of those closest to him.
The Golden Age of Television unwittingly echoed the Theater of the Absurd—epitomized by Beckett, Ionesco and Pinter—and it’s not hard to imagine scripts for The Lone Ranger, The Life of Riley, or The Honeymooners being performed in the tiny Théâtre de la Huchette, where Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and The Lesson have played in repertory since 1957. The spare, unchanging sets, the opaque humor of the dialogue, with its barely repressed violence, and the droning sense of time could easily turn the scripts for these popular ‘50s television series into the basis for a new avant-garde theater movement, which could be named after Buñuel’s famed surrealist masterpiece, L’Age d’Or.

[This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.]

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The People Who Watched Her Pass By

by Scott Bradfield

I don’t normally blog, and firmly believe that writers shouldn’t explain their work, or reply to reviews. I’ve decided to break all these rules for no other reason than I’m getting old and even more irritable than usual.

I didn’t have a purpose in writing The People Who Watched Her Pass By. As with my previous novels, I simply discovered the voice of a character who carried me along until I found out where she was going. Then I spent several years trying to give her, and her story, shape. Salome is three years old at the beginning of this short novel, when she is kidnapped by the boiler-repair man; she then travels across the States as a sort of itinerant serial darling of temporary families who adore children - but not so much that they want to get too involved. I like Sal because she’s self-determined, always growing and adapting to circumstances, and, despite everything that happens to her, she remains compassionate, vulnerable and observant. The world she travels through is rarely any of these things.

In the course of her young life, Sal learns to maintain a wide division between herself and the people she meets, for obvious reasons. We only know what we can determine through Sal’s perspective. We can’t always know or understand everything that happens to her. Neither can she.

It’s been inaccurately noted by one early reviewer that Sal is “abused” during the course of the novel. I think the word “abuse” is almost always misused in the modern lexicon; and it always means too many things to too many people. The reviewer also refers to an elderly female character, who has been seriously debilitated by a stroke long before she has Sal over for dinner, as a “pederast.” This is because, later in the novel, a group of peculiar people working for social services accuse this woman of, and imprison her for, “abuse.”

In those scenes I was not making light of child abuse in America (though I do find those scenes funny.) But I did see Sal’s world as a problem for her - one populated by people who never took the time to know or understand her, but who simply stood at their windows and observed her progress across their demarcated spaces until she was gone. Many of these people liked to throw around words like “abused” and “pederast.” Sometimes these people even worked in child-related government agencies.

Anyway, I hope you find the time to read the book (and Sal) for yourself.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Termite Parade - An Excerpt

Hating Beloved - the Post-Game Summary

by Scott Bradfield

In 2001, somebody called me on the phone six months before I was scheduled to speak in Berlin and asked what the title of my lecture would be. They were paying good money, so I felt I should try something new - a “personal essay.”

My desk at UCONN was covered with these terrible How to Teach Beloved textbooks I’d been picking up at used bookstores because, frankly, I had no idea how to teach Beloved. And I was getting frustrated. So I said, “I’d like to write about why I hate Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” The Berliners printed up lots of flyers, ran ads in newspapers, and six months later, I had cornered myself into writing this essay.

After the lecture, a young blondish Paul Verhoeven-looking Austrian man stood up and said, sounding a lot like Governor Arnold, that he was disappointed I hadn’t really blasted Toni Morrison, and that I should have kept my promise. Then he walked out.

I turned the lecture into a prose-essay the next year, when I taught a graduate seminar at UCONN entitled, “Literature and Crap: What We Like and What We’re Supposed To.” For two years, I sent the essay around to dozens of journals and periodicals, all of whom rejected it on one of two grounds:

1) they “didn’t get it”
2) they agreed that they didn’t like the book either, and agreed with most of the things I said, but they ”just couldn’t” publish it

The essay was eventually accepted by a young(er than me) critic and short story writer named Paul Maliszewski, who was guest-editing The Denver Quarterly. Paul accepted the essay, and subjected it to his version of close-editing - which was excruciating, never-ending, and, more often than not, really helpful. Shortly after the essay was published, Paul wrote me an e-mail which said something like: “Oh, and there’s this awkward phrase on page seventeen we still need to look at.” It was the only e-mail from Paul to which I never replied.

I have been snubbed several times since the essay appeared by people who wanted me to know it. At one dinner party, a colleague and his partner picked up their plates and left the room when I suggested that Charles Johnson (a good novelist and short story writer I have never met) had every right to say that he didn’t like Beloved (I don’t know if he did say that, by the way, but that’s what somebody had reported.) And still, every so often, I will meet an academic who will say to me, “Beloved is a very, very important book to me.” They say it completely out of the blue. Then they drop the subject.

The essay was never reprinted or made available on the internet. So I was glad that Eric and Eliza agreed to make it available at Two Dollar Radio, where we are all encouraged to freely love and hate books as we see fit. Even our own.

After the essay appeared in print in 2004, I received a few clandestine nudges and winks from people who told me they liked the essay, but that was all. Then, a few months ago, somebody sent me Wikipedia’s entry on The Denver Quarterly, which described one of DQ’s high points as the “published to acclaim” Morrison essay. (And I didn’t write the entry, I swear.)

I sent the entry to Paul Maliszsewski, who promised me he hadn’t written it either. Then he suggested that “published to acclaim” was probably a cliche, so we should cut it.

“Please don’t,” I replied.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Why I Hate Toni Morrison's Beloved

["Why I Hate Toni Morrison's Beloved" was first presented as the Seymour Fischer Lecture at the Free University of Berlin, on January 17, 2001. It has been greatly revised and expanded.]

by Scott Bradfield

The first time I told someone that I had problems reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, she started yelling at me in a Marie Callender's restaurant in Dana Point, California. I had recently received my Ph.D. in English at U.C. Irvine, just a dozen miles north, and we were having what graduate students consider a "blow out" (food and beer) at a moderately-priced franchise restaurant; it marked the saying of our goodbyes before I drove my truckload of books to the heretofore unglimpsed state of Connecticut. This wasn't the first time that someone has yelled at me in a restaurant, by the way. I don't even think it was the first time someone has yelled at me in a Marie Callender's restaurant. But it was the first time anybody has ever yelled at me, at length and in volume, for disliking a book. Oddly enough, I didn't even hate Toni Morrison's Beloved at the time. I was just having trouble reading through its middle pages and seeing what the fuss was all about.

There are two reasons why the title of this essay appealed to me so much that I decided to write some pages to follow it up.
First, it strikes me as an almost unspeakable statement. In our apparently jaded culture, where every conceivable obscenity has already been made a common topic of talk radio, web cams and trash TV, it still manages to anger and shock people; and unlike most expressions of relative value, it makes me hesitate before uttering it. Now, let me say that I hate a lot of things, and hating them has rarely gotten me into any trouble, or caused anybody to yell at me in restaurants. I hate, for example, margarine. I hate chemical sweeteners, automatic transmissions, trade paperbacks, and just about every book Norman Mailer has ever published. I hate that smarmy sitcom "Friends," George W. Bush and Al Gore, the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, Jay Leno (who's going to burn in hell someday, I swear), genetically modified food, rap music, static electricity, Bruce Willis, the Modern Language Association, kiwi fruit, and the Grammys. We all like and dislike different things, love and hate them, but we accept that personal opinion is a free-form, shoot-from-the-hip business, so we do our best to tolerate one another, and not get too bent out of shape when we like and dislike different things. But hating Toni Morrison's most famous novel seems to bother people to an exceptional degree, especially those who teach literature (as I do) at an American university.

What's more, saying "I hate Toni Morrison's Beloved" may actually be unhearable. As an expression of personal opinion, preference, idiosyncracy, taste, what have you, I am not sure that people hear this statement in itself, since all sorts of cultural, social, and historical meaning gets tangled up with it. To take an obvious example, an Anglo-Irish non-denominational suburban guy such as myself will be "heard" in a variety of ways that he might never wish to be heard; and, whether he likes it or not, many assumptions will be inferred about his opinions on history, race, politics, power and so forth. Or, to dispense with the issue of race altogether (something that's not easy to do when discussing Beloved), I could even be accused of writerly bad faith. I mean, we writers are an envious lot, and here I am hating a book which has succeeded spectacularly in ways that none of mine ever have or, I can admit it now, ever will—such as winning a Nobel Prize for its author, appearing on Oprah and selling a gazillion copies.

And let's not overlook the issue of gender, either; I certainly can't. For example, when I was yelled at in that restaurant, I was told that my inability to appreciate Toni Morrison's Beloved manifested a genetic failure on the part of my man-ness. The argument ran, as I recall, thus:

I felt threatened by the success of a woman novelist because of my inborn inability to embrace her radically new perspective on history which could only be generated by all-embracing female heterogeneity; in fact, by disliking Morrison, I was validating many opinions that many female colleagues already held about me and the fact that I had completed my Ph.D. in a manifestly sexist English Department, since at least one member of my committee was a known sexist who had reputedly engaged in a long-standing affair with a female graduate student....

And so forth. It really did continue for a while, dredging up a lot of unspoken emotions. Some of them surprised me; others didn't. I won't belabor this conversation, or the way my statement was "heard" by an individual whom I liked, respected, and continue to be friends with. But I do want to place this anecdotal moment in the context of contemporary academic scholarship, since I don't consider it arbitrary or inconsequential. In many ways, it strikes me as surprisingly representative of contemporary scholarly thought.

To put it simply, there are many important issues raised by the ways my statement ("I hate Toni Morrison's Beloved") can be heard or misheard by intelligent individuals. And while I concede that issues like sex, race, the canonizing of texts and the subverting of canons all provoke, and should provoke, a lot of heat when we discuss them in university, this still doesn't get me past my immediate concerns as a reader and a writer:

1) I have trouble saying that I hate Toni Morrison's Beloved, mainly because I don't want people to think I am either a racist or a sexist, and;

2) people have trouble hearing what I think I'm saying.

As a teacher of literature, where does that leave me when I try to teach Beloved? If neither I nor my students, can express a simple statement of opinion or conviction, where does that leave us when called upon to explore even more difficult issues? And where does it leave the common reader who picks up books and puts them down again according to the many multifaceted, and deeply idiosyncratic reasons we all pick up books and put them down again?

As academics, can we even begin to discuss what it means to read, enjoy, and dislike books?


In a sense, I'm writing about two different objects of reading. On the one hand, there is the specific book that I hold in my possession, a blue jacketed thirty-eighth printing Plume paperback that I purchased across the street from the University of Connecticut at the Paperback Trader. This is a limited, identifiable object. On the other hand, there is this, I don't know what to call it exactly, this illimitable presence, this "landmark of contemporary literature," this vast region of wisdom and light which stands over us in judgment, a manifest benevolence which can only be called

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

I've set these words off in twenty-point boldface type, which doesn't do justice to the way I see them projected on the screen of our cultural imagination. As I really see them, they flicker above and behind all our heads, just out of vision, emitting a vibratory thrum, like a neon sign. You can feel the words in the air before you glimpse them. To my mind, twenty-point type doesn't do these words justice. Thirty-point type, perhaps. Forty-point. But then I wouldn't have any space left over for writing this essay, there would just be page after page of

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Which might be a little hard to take.

Now maybe it's my imagination, but whenever I hear those words spoken, they are accompanied by a little sigh, a half-sensible expiration. The speaker places a hand over his or her chest, a little woozy in admiration. They aren't just speaking the name of a book, you see; they are speaking their own puny inarticulacy in the face of this, this thing called

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

A silence falls over us in our divided spaces.

What else can you say?

It's up there now, looking down as I type these words. This vast pulsing network of affirmation, filled with superlatives.

Finest. Greatest. Inspiring. Unparalleled.

You have to love it or—


I would like to get to this "or" in a moment.


According to the MLA International Bibliography, since 1987 there have been more than five hundred articles published in respectably vetted journals on the subject of

Toni Morrison's Beloved.

And almost every one of them is laudatory in the extreme. Occasionally you might find an article which appears value-neutral—examining image-clusters or ideological configurations or whatever—but for the most part these articles never make a negative or qualifying statement about Beloved; and they almost always refer to it as a masterpiece, or one of the twentieth century's greatest novels, or something along those lines.

At my university library, for example, one and a half shelves are devoted to Toni Morrison, and most of them contain the word Beloved in their title, or in one of their chapter titles. And each year, many more books on the subject are published, along with at least two or three introductory texts for beginning students, since Beloved is already a significant topic on everything from the SATs to your next Master's exam. Now the liberal academy often likes to congratulate itself for being "open-minded" on the subject of books and ideas; our systems of tenure and advancement are built upon the unexamined assumption that it is not what you say that counts, but only how responsibly you say it. But if you would like to investigate just how tolerant the academy really is to disagreement within its ranks, you might like to read one of these introductory surveys on Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Take, as a purely arbitrary example (it's on top of the stack of books I have assembled in my office), the Ikon Critical Guide, edited by Carl Plasa. This survey of critical essays and topics contains interviews with Morrison, framing comments by the editor, and a fairly standard critical bibliography. Subtitled "The Student Guide to Secondary Sources," it is designed to teach students how to compare and analyze arguments, then extrapolate new arguments of their own. Like most books teaching you how to do something, it teaches you how not to do something as well. And what it teaches you not to do is pretty frightening.

In his introduction, Plasa reminds us of the existing approbation: calling Morrison a "superstar," and "the American and African-American (woman) writer to reckon with." He then assures his readers that ever since Beloved's publication, almost every critic and reviewer has been "fully in step" with the "general acclaim," the only notable exception being an article in The New Republic by "the right-wing commentator, Stanley Crouch." As Plasa goes on to explain (just so you know what to think about Crouch's review when you get to it, sixteen pages later):

The extract from Crouch, by contrast, is a denunciation of Beloved/Morrison, as vehement as it is both scurrilous and wrong-headed. Running thoroughly counter to the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction to Beloved, it is included here less in the interests of some spurious critical balance than as an illustration of just how highly charged debates about Morrison's work can sometimes be.

"Highly charged," indeed. I guess it's a good thing that even-handed critics like Plasa are around to help the cooler heads prevail; perhaps this is why he prefaces Crouch's review with a comment by Nancy Petersen, which accuses Crouch of "capitalizing on the desire of white readers to consume black women's tales of being abused by black men." (I'm sorry, but I have no idea what that means.) Plasa then takes every opportunity to misread or selectively quote from Crouch in order to make some pretty damning statements. At one point, he claims that Crouch, insensitive to the brutality of slavery, refers to the Middle Passage as little more than a "trip across the Atlantic." This is an inaccurate and misleading statement. Crouch doesn't appear to suggest anything of the sort, though he does argue that Morrison misreads historical events in order to validate modern presumptions, especially feminist ones. It's an argument worth considering by any serious student.

I must confess that I don't know much about Stanley Crouch. I saw him interviewed recently on PBS, so I know he's black; he writes for The New Republic, a so-called "neo-conservative" weekly out of D.C. which I have no interest in reading; and he clearly knows how to get up people's noses. His work may well reflect some serious cultural and political biases; but the same could be said of Plasa and his colleagues, pumping away on their critical Stairmasters. Finally, though, I wouldn't call Crouch's review of Beloved any more "wrong-headed" or irresponsible than any of the others reprinted by Plasa; at least he writes more clearly, and raises some interesting and contentious points—points that deserve, but don't receive from Plasa, fair-minded consideration and reply.

Which is, of course, the job of any critic or, for that matter, any teacher.


Here are some lessons a young student might learn from the first thirty pages of Plasa's book, thus equipping him or her for a high-flying career in literary scholarship:

1) Some white male and female academics consider themselves incapable of saying anything about Beloved—though this doesn't render them incapable of asserting that Toni Morrison represents "a major figure of our national literature";

2) Everybody who loves Beloved is "fully in step" with the vast mass of scholarship being produced today;

3) Anybody who disagrees with points 1) or 2) above is probably "scurrilous" and "wrong headed," and may well be pandering to white readers who like to see black women abused by black men.

That's quite a tutorial.


When I walk down the corridors of any literature department in any university anywhere in the world, I get the overpowering sense that my relationship to an individual book (in this case, my thirty-eighth printing trade paperback of Beloved) is overseen, and in some sense monitored, by this huge presence called Toni Morrison's Beloved, a presence elevated above us, in a region that we can't quite see.

And I have to say that I hate that. I really, really hate Toni Morrison's Beloved.

I hate the smugness of it. I hate the sanctimony. I hate the unquestioning sense of superiority. And I hate everything about it that takes the individual book out of the individual reader's hand. This hateable thing clearly isn't limited to Beloved, by the way. For example, I might just as well have entitled this essay "Why I Hate Herman Melville's Moby-Dick," a book which I have enjoyed hating with genuine conviction over the years. I studied American literature in grad school, and wrote my dissertation (and a subsequent book) on it, and while I've always liked the man Melville appears to have been, and many passages of Moby-Dick are undeniably angry and beautiful and unique, I've always considered it a big fat drag to read from beginning to end. I'll concede that you can learn all sorts of things about American culture from it; it can be fun to teach, and to be taught; and Melville had a lot of interesting observations about consumer culture, racism, and those institutions of slavery that he saw around him as a sailor, a writer, and a clerk. But there are still many books I'd rather take on my next plane trip; it contains far too many descriptions of harpoons; and out of all the dozens of articles and books I've read on the subject of Moby-Dick, none have more accurately defined my feelings for it than this statement from one of my best (and first) undergraduate students: "It's just too long." That statement comes to mind every time I see, or discuss, or consider discussing Melville's Moby-Dick. Not a lot of blather about landmarks of cultural hegemony deconstructing the western metaphysic blah blah but just the simple fact of it in your hand, and the daily task of reading it.

Moby-Dick is simply "too long."


Or I could have written about "Why I Hate Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum," which I simply never got through, or "Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children," which, sure, it's probably a very intelligent book and has lots to say about post-colonial rhetoric and so on, but Rushdie has a wooden ear and his sentences are, I'm afraid, just too angular and clunky. And while we're at it, let's add Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow to the list, and anything by William Burroughs or Jack Kerouac, and most of Saul Bellow, and more than half of Ulysses, and the entirety of Henry James's late period, and Vladimir Nabokov's Ada (which is nowhere near as good as Lolita or even his great early novel, Laughter in the Dark), and okay, you can probably hear it, I'm getting a little out of breath, I'm ranting, I'll stop. But I'm afraid this is what happens when I start exercising about all these books and authors I've forced myself to read, or failed to read, or could only read in order to teach for some survey course which paid my rent.

Books that are bigger than I am, and bigger than my students, staring down at us from on high, and inviting us to share our opinions about them—just so long as we don't say anything "scurrilous" such as, say, that we don't like them.


Consider my trade paperback copy of Beloved, purchased second-hand for $2 from the Paperback Trader in the late spring of 1999. It features an author photo of an attractive, middle-aged woman, along with some pretty impressive jacket copy, most notably:

Winner of THE NOBEL PRIZE in Literature

and a highly-placed quote from the important American reviewer, John Leonard, who says: "I can't imagine American literature without it."

When I hold this book in my hand, I do not feel alone; nor do I feel like a free individual with his own thoughts and opinions. The presence of Toni Morrison's Beloved looms oppressively, its bristly tentacles and veiny suction devices wrapping themselves around me, coating me with a warm, treacly substance. It entangles my limbs and thoughts, attaches itself to my nerves and vertebrae and belly, feeding me reality like one of those pod-spiders in The Matrix. In order to read this book, clearly and simply, as one person reads any book in the privacy of his own head, I require something I don't normally bring to my reading experience. I require an act of will and a monumental act of forgetting. I must uproot all the snake-like wiring and suction creatures and find my own way, word after word and page after page. And frankly, I don't know how well I can do that. I don't know how well I can let this book speak for itself, amidst the sanctimonious reverberating thrum of Toni Morrison's Beloved. And if I'm honest with myself, and I think as clearly as I can about what I've read, I find myself concluding something a lot more outrageous than that I hate it.

The book starts off really well; the central character of Sethe, and the haunting of her family, is strange and surprising and beautifully written; but the book never recovers from the arrival of the mysterious ghost-girl. I lose sight of Sethe; and the succubus doesn't work for me at all—some of the passages told through her eyes strike me as sentimental and phony, like beat poetry. Finally, I don't like it when the town's wise women come along at the end to sort things out; I'm always annoyed by books where the women turn out to be more noble and capable than the stupid men, since it's the longest-reigning trope of just about every TV commercial I've ever seen since I was three years old. ("Oh, honey, stop fiddling with that drain. Just pick up the phone and call Roto-Rooter!")

I've been in academia long enough to know that all my objections to Beloved can be explained away by critical methodology—theories of alterity and the mise en abyme and so forth. ("You're supposed to be lost when the succubus appears—you're experiencing Sethe's self-estrangement.") I am even willing to accept that I suffer from my fair share of cultural misconceptions; that I'm not as smart as I should be; and that my missing the point of Beloved may be precisely its point. But, at the same time, none of these theories have anything to do with the way I read books. Nor do they explain the pleasures I experience when reading a book I enjoy, or the annoyance I feel when I'm reading a book I don't.


Like many people who enjoy books, I have fond memories of being read to as a child. It is strange to think that while my parents did many things for me when I was growing up—fed and clothed and housed me—that I still remember evening bedtime stories with a special fondness. In my early years, before my brother was born, my parents guided me through large picture books—I especially enjoyed the ones filled with photographs of lions and tigers and zebras. Later, we read smaller pages with more words in them—books which I didn't understand sometimes, and didn't need to. There was something about the ritual warmth of reading that mattered more than what the words conveyed. It provided, in fact, a different sort of consensus: cuddling up around the book with my brother and one of my parents, I would listen to that night's chapter of Call of the Wild, say, or Alice in Wonderland, and ask endless questions about what it conveyed, and what might happen next. ("I don't know," my Mom or dad would explain simply, "we'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out, won't we?") Finally, after making sure I knew the title of tomorrow's chapter, and had glimpsed at least one of its illustrations, I went to bed with these weird visions of other worlds in my head. I might imagine my brother and me riding bobsleds across the frozen steppes, or sitting down to tea with the Mad Hatter, or leading Black Beauty home to her lost master. They weren't better than me, these books. They were inseparable from the imaginative life I lived in my home. They never spoke to my mind, but conversed with it.

Eventually, I learned to read books for myself, preferring stories about travelling to faraway countries and planets. The word "Voyage" figured often in their titles, as in A Voyage to the Mushroom Planet, or The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. I was especially intrigued by stories about boys who built things in their basements—zoos, printing presses, secret laboratories—and overcame various obstacles in order to achieve worldwide renown. Sherlock Holmes figured prominently on my bookshelf. And I read everything I could find about Snoopy, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown.

About the same time that I was reading books to find out what was in them, I was growing intrigued by the mass, volume and variety of all the books I couldn't read. Both of my parents had been to college, and their old textbooks were assembled in a long, waist-high wooden bookshelf that divided the living room from the hallway in our suburban tract-style house in San Luis Obispo. If I lay down in this hallway, hidden away from my parents in the smack-dab middle of the house, I found myself in a "secret place" of books where I never felt entirely lost. They included quite a few dog-eared and spine-warped bestsellers, such as the James Bond novels my Dad was always reading, and about which he seemed vaguely embarrassed. ("They're kind of like grown-up comic-books," he used to say.) Then there were my mother's nursing textbooks, featuring glossy schemata of bowels and reproductive organs and brains and lymphatic tissue. And finally, there were the "adult story books." Most of these were in Modern Library editions, without even jackets anymore to illustrate what they were about; their titles and authors were embossed in flaking gilt on fading green spines, just above the figure of a tiny ankle-winged Hermes, messenger of the Gods, weirdly poised like a ballet dancer.

I still remember the titles of these books as vividly as anything I have ever read. There was Of Human Bondage, of course, and I had no trouble imagining what that was about. Some brave man, captured by Indians, lay trussed up in a closet for 837 pages until he triumphed, broke free, and saved his family from being burned at the stake. Then there was War and Peace (which couldn't be half bad), and Native Son (young Navaho seeks freedom on the plains), and finally Pride and Prejudice, which, somewhere on the periphery of my suburb-locked understanding, seemed to invoke all these news reports I had been hearing about long hot summers and bussing in the south.

I remember loving Moby Dick before I read it. What's not to love when you're five or six years old? This one-legged Captain driving his crew across the seven seas in search of a gigantic white whale? What a great book not to read. I even loved the movie when I was little (it was on par with "The Amazing Colossal Man," though it didn't give me so many nightmares), and I went on to purchase the Classics Illustrated edition at the local Rexall drugstore. I read and reread it, carrying it around scrunched up in my back pocket until it resembled the head of a mop. In fact, I read it so often and so intensely that, many years later, as an undergraduate at UCLA, I got away without reading the actual novel on at least two exams. I have many friends who love Melville, and I hope that the day arrives when I can say I like Melville as much as I loved that Classics Illustrated comic book. In my most subjective universe, that would be saying something.

Then there was The Brothers Karamazov, another one of those titles that jumped out at me when I was five years old. I had a brother three years younger than myself, and we were very close, so I figured it had something to do with us and the games we played together. My mother aroused my interest even further by informing me that it concerned a murder ("Great!") and finding out who did it ("Even better!") and that one of the four brothers who might have committed the murder was an atheist who didn't believe in God.

Wow, I thought. And, for that matter, still do.

For me, Dostoevsky has always been one of those rare writers who lives up to the hype.
I remember this space on the hall floor, surrounded by books I couldn't quite read, with great fondness. These books were far from objects of worship, and I played with them like toys, stacking them in interesting configurations—pyramids and forts and obelisks—and imagining what might happen if the characters they contained were to wander out of their books and move into one another's spaces. Would Ellison's Invisible Man be a match for the Invisible Man of H.G. Wells? Would Mailer's naked soldiers perform bizarre and unconscionable acts with Samuel Butler's flesh-bound travellers, very likely in a hot bath before bedtime? I played with these books and even developed a sense of commitment to reading them some day, when I grew up, because I wanted to know what was really in them and wanted them to know what was in me.
Whenever I think about books, or the act of reading, with pleasure, I always think about this time I spent alone on the floor with these books I couldn't yet read. It was the most enjoyable relationship with books I have ever known.


Something has happened to the reading of books in my lifetime. I don't want to sound like one of those cranky old men who say everything was better in my day, because I don't think it was. But the worst aspects of book-reading definitely have taken the place of the better ones. Our academics and critics select a few books each year (often written by their friends) as worthy of consideration without having read anything else; then they congratulate one another for liking the same books, or pick petty quarrels about which end of the book should be cracked first. Which book is more reactionary than the other two? Which undermines gender stereotypes more effectively, or unravels the always unravelling thread of language? At the end of the day, you don't feel anybody is talking about books at all. They're talking about themselves, and the disciplinary institution called, for want of a better term, literary culture. They're talking about their boring jobs.

When I think about all those huge indigestible books hovering up there behind us, I think about the statues on Easter Island that were erected by people we don't know much about. Statues bigger than us, more frightening, and more real than we're supposed to be, and while I think that I can live with the statues erected by somebody a few thousand years ago, I can't bear to watch my colleagues, my students, and myself, straining to erect more of them.

Books are about a lot of things: race, gender, the Napoleonic Wars, sex, death, food, social norms, social outcasts, social incasts, fantasy, fact, dreams, sadness, loneliness, elation, injustice, class, the Mason-Dixon line, language, stupidity, co-habitation and rage. But ultimately, they are about the process of reading them; they are about the things their authors have known and seen and imagined long enough to write them down. They are, by their nature, transitory experiences, just like our lives, and we shouldn't judge them, or be judged by them. We should only live with them, much the same way as we live with one another. We do not owe them respect or allegiance; we only owe them the considerable effort of trying to read them the best we can.

When I first thought up the title of this essay, I felt uncertain and defensive about it. But in the course of writing it, I have come to conclude that I don't mind hearing anybody say that they hate or love any book, or any writer. To hear people disagreeing about books, hating and loving them, doesn't make some of those people good and other ones bad. It doesn't sound like a bunch of "right wing" people arguing with a bunch of "fully in step" ones. It just sounds like the noisy contentious clash and accord of people reading. You see, it's my opinion that the most terrible statement you can utter is not "I hate X" or "I love Y." The most terrible thing you can say, especially to your students, is: "You must hate X." Or: "You must love Y."

For it seems to me that the greatest lesson we can teach our students about the power of beauty of books is that they are not—or should not be—a set of conclusions handed down to us by people who know better than we do. Rather they are a series of decisions we make every day of our lives, perpetually and unceasingly, each of us alone in our imperfect heads, continually glancing at one another for confirmation, elucidation, and contradiction, with the books stacked up around us, and lying on the floor.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Avid Bookshop

Our good friend, Janet Geddis, has been meticulously planning to open her own bookstore in Athens, Georgia, called Avid Bookshop. Her hope is to open this fall and this month she is making a large fundraising push. She's hoping to raise $13,000.
To help out, we're donating money from each and every book sold ($10 from every subscription sold; $2 from every individual book sold) through our website during the month of April to Avid Bookshop.
Through Indie Go-Go she has a number of cool perks available to saintly individuals willing to donate financially toward her effort.
You should also vote for Avid for the Pepsi refreshing ideas challenge (they allow you to vote 1x each day).
You can read more about her store in Flagpole (Athens alt-weekly), and on the Avid blog.