Welcome to anyone who stumbled across “The Call of Blood” in The Best American Short Stories 2o11 and then found your way here. You may be interested to know that the version of the story in Best American is somewhat shorter (about a thousand words shorter) than the original, which is included in Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Click on “Buy” above to find out how to get the book, if you like.

The title of the story comes from the “Elizabeth Childers” entry in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The full poem can be found here. Another wonderful version comes from Richard Buckner’s The Hill, which consists of selections from Spoon River set to music.

 

From Donald Barthelme’s “After Joyce”:

Satisfied with neither the existing world nor the existing literature, Joyce and Stein modify the world by adding to its store of objects the literary object—which is then encountered in the same way as other objects in the world…Interrogating older works, the question is: what do they say about the world and being in the world? But the literary object is itself “world” and the theoretical advantage is that in asking it questions you are asking questions of the world directly. [The writer] has in fact removed himself from the work, as Joyce instructed him to do. The reader is not listening to an authoritative account of the world delivered by an expert but bumping into something that is there, like a rock or a refrigerator…

It has been argued that the ontological status of the literary work has always been just this, that Pilgrim’s Progress is an “object” in this sense just as Finnegans Wake is. But such arguments ignore the changed situation that ensues when the writer is aware of and exploits the possibilities of this special placement. Joyce and Stein’s creations modify the beholder. I do not think it is fanciful, for instance, to say that Governor Rockefeller, standing among his Mirós and de Koonings, is worked upon by them, and if they do not make a Democrat or Socialist of him they at least alter the character of his Republicanism.

From John Berger’s “The First and Last Recipe: Ulysses“:

The ‘illegality’ of the book was for me, the fourteen-year-old, a telling literary quality. I was convinced that legality was an arbitrary pretense. Necessary for the social contract, indispensable for society’s survival, but turning its back on most lived experience. I knew this by instinct and when I read the book for the first time, I came to appreciate with mounting excitement that its supposed illegality as an object was more than matched by the illegitimacy of the lives and souls in its epic…

I was about to write: there were many parts, during this first reading, which I didn’t understand. Yet this would be false. There were no parts that I understood. And there was no part that did not make the same promise t me: the promise that deep down, beneath the words, beneath the pretenses, beneath the claims and everlasting moralistic judgment, beneath the opinions and lessons and boasts and cant of everyday life, the lives of adult women and men were made up of such stuff as this book was made of: offal with flecks in it of the divine. The first and last recipe!…

And he did not stop there—this man who was telling me about the life I might never know, this man who never spoke down to anybody, and who remains for me to this day an example of the true adult, which is to say a being who, because he has accepted life, is intimate with it—this man did not stop there, for his penchant for the lowly led him to keep the same kind of company within his single characters: he listened to their stomachs, their pains, their tumescences: he heard their first impressions, their uncensored thoughts, their ramblings, their prayers without words….And the more carefully he listened to what scarcely anyone had listened to before, the richer became life’s offering.

There’s an interesting (and unplanned) dovetail between my piece on the novel that came out in Boston Review this month (which I wrote, for the most part, last summer) and my review of Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, which I wrote in January but just appeared in The New Republic online yesterday. One is about questions of imagined ownership over the novel (in other words, who gets to set the rules and act as a gatekeeper?); the other is about questions of actual ownership in the realm of copyright. Which is to say that they are both about the relationship between our understanding of the real (which we might think, superficially, to exist purely in the realm of subjective experience) and the exercise of power—legal, moral, cultural, and economic (which is, obviously, public and communal).

It’s easy to treat the realm of fiction as wholly removed from questions of power, and we have to grant fiction, as an art form, a certain separate status, outside of the normative realm of argument entirely. But #1 does not necessarily follow from #2, as many critics seem to believe. Fiction and power: this is what I’ve got on the brain these days.

More to come.

Here’s my recent Boston Review piece on Virginia Woolf, Mikhail Bakhtin, David Shields, James Wood, Benjamin Kunkel, Yvonne Vera, and other luminaries. My original title was, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But then I had a feeling that Edward Albee would ring my doorbell in the middle of the night.

“I think that the fetishization of elite schools in American culture, the way in which they cultivate an image as brands, as imprimaturs of some scarce resource called “excellence,” is sad and pathological, and profoundly anti-democratic. The truth (a truth I didn’t know, or at least didn’t want to admit, in college) is that an intellectual life is available to almost anyone, almost anywhere, if they work hard enough and are given some kind of access point.” (via Guernica)

Happy “spring”! In case you’re looking for things to read, you can find two new stories of mine online this week: “Dear Yale,” at Guernica, and “Men and Dogs,” at FiveChapters. At the New York Times Book Review, I review E.L. Doctorow’s All The Time In The World: New And Selected Stories. My piece on race and contemporary American writing (“To Whom It May Concern,” see below) is up on Claudia Rankine’s website, along with dozens of other responses—an astonishing project that (I hope) is just beginning.

Thanks to all who’ve come out for my Nobody Ever Gets Lost events thus far. Five Chapters is now offering free shipping to anyone who buys my book and Emma Straub’s together. (Click the “buy” link above to find out more). I will be reading this month at Purdue University on Monday the 11th; later in the month I head to Hong Kong to teach at my first residency in the City University of Hong Kong MFA program. By that time it should have stopped snowing in New Jersey…

Here’s the Keith Jarrett track from my Nobody Ever Gets Lost playlist, now online at Drunken Boat. The audio isn’t stellar; if you like it, I can’t recommend highly enough the album it comes from The Melody At Night, With You, surely the best in Jarrett’s vast catalog.

And here’s a beautiful, understated (relatively) version of Pharoah Sanders playing “The Creator Has A Master Plan” in 1986, a world away from the original album recording.

This is a response to Claudia Rankine’s request for “thoughts on writing about race” following her public critique of Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” at the 2011 AWP conference.

To Whom It May Concern

Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I ran into one of faculty members in my program, an African American novelist I won’t name, in Borders Books just across the street from campus. He was in a hurry—going to catch a plane—and needed to buy a copy of his own new novel to bring to a friend. I hurried with him over to the Literature section, and we didn’t find the book. How could this be? It had just come out. It was in every other bookstore in town.

Then a thought came into my head—I’d spent more time wandering around Borders than he had—and I took his elbow, unthinking, and led him around the corner, and popped the book out from its place in “African-American Fiction.”

African-American Fiction, where James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Andrea Lee, James Weldon Johnson, Edward P. Jones, Colson Whitehead, all resided.

He had an expression on his face that I won’t try to describe.

*

I am a white American of English, Portuguese, French Huguenot, and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, some of whose ancestors were the Cushman family of Plymouth Colony. My wife’s mother is part Bengali, part Punjabi—originally from what is now Pakistan—and her father is descended from Hungarian, Galician, and Russian Jews. Which is to say that my son and daughter, who are all these things, are descended from people who, at times, disliked or despised each other, who struggled to exclude each other from citizenship or privilege.

When I write fiction, I try to write toward my children’s future—which is not to say toward some dream-world where all these conflicts are resolved and forgotten. Quite the opposite. I want to write fiction in which these conflicts, historical and present, are out on the table. In which there is friction and discomfort—specifically along racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines.

I’ve been disappointed for a long time that more writers like me (which is to say white writers) don’t seem all that interested in seeking out these spaces of conflict and discomfort. But I can see why they don’t.

I take it for granted that part of my background and my psychology is racist, that my psyche has been shaped by the lifelong experience of privilege in ways that I will never fully understand. But taking it for granted is only a entry point and a provocation to try to understand these things by the attentive unpacking of the mind: in my case, through writing, through Buddhist practice, and through therapy.

I think that a great deal of the psychic pain I have experienced in my life has to do with anxiety—largely unconscious anxiety—over maintaining my status as a privileged human being. I think that unconscious racial anxiety permeates our culture to a degree very few of us want to admit. And I hold a certain kind of faith, probably an absurd kind of faith, that in writing about these unconscious structures, in bringing them to my readers’ attention, I will make them less powerful over my own mind.

I’m certainly not writing about them to be popular or sell books. In my experience, beyond a certain point, the American publishing industry is very uncomfortable with writers who represent characters markedly different from themselves.

Which brings me back to the point of the anecdote above.

The critic Mark McGurl, in his recent book The Program Era, describes much of contemporary American writing as “autopoetics,” which I understand to mean at least two different things: 1) writing that is essentially autobiographical, even if it is nominally “poetry” or “fiction,” and 2) writing that is assumed to be autobiographical or self-descriptive, authenticated by the identity of the writer.

Autopoetics is very convenient for the publishing industry, and the culture industry, because it allows marketers, salespeople, journalists, bloggers, and critics to streamline the story of the book and the story of the author into one story. It allows for niche marketing. But it does very little to promote more than a superficial sense of empathy or interrelatedness among readers or writers, and it also promotes naïve and essentialist definitions of culture, ethnicity, and race.

Autopoetics, in its default, unspoken mode, suggests that writers of color, or of some “different” ethnicity, are always writing about their own background, and that white writers who dare to mention race are doing something exciting, daring, and extraordinary. Neither of those things ought to be true. Neither of those assumptions accords with the world we live in.

*

In 2008, on his blog Do The Math, the jazz pianist and writer Ethan Iverson (who is white) wrote a long series of posts on the always-simmering controversy over the role of white musicians in jazz. Racially antagonistic language, and attitudes, are an integral part of jazz history. To choose one vivid example that has always stuck with me: the drummer Art Blakey, whose music I dearly love, was once quoted as saying that “the only way the Caucasian musician can swing is from a rope.”

Iverson writes that “Racial stereotyping is best avoided in elevated dialogue, but nonetheless racial stereotyping will occur in any serious discourse about jazz eventually.  At that point valuable discussion is often suddenly halted when one side or the other perceives racism or is worried about being racist. I actually don’t mind racial stereotyping too much. America is the melting pot of diverse cultures, and all good American art has race ‘in the mix’ somehow. Hopefully my earnest and underdone phrase ‘All in the Mix’ doesn’t shut the door to further discussion the way ‘racist’ does.”

The literary world is not the jazz world, which is by its very nature multi-racial, intermingled, and collaborative across color lines (despite the efforts of some ideologues, like Wynton Marsalis, to suppress the history and energy of such collaborations). The literary world is still, aesthetically speaking, intensely stratified. Black and white and Chinese and Filipino and Latino writers teach in the same programs, sit on the same committees, and share the same publishers, but only rarely do they read one anothers’ work with any kind of serious engagement. It’s possible, indeed likely, that a white poet could operate in 2011 effectively as if African American poetry doesn’t exist. And, to almost the same degree, vice versa.

What this means is that discussions of race in American writing—discussions involving writers of more than one group, that is—often feel as if they’re starting from square one. Oh—do we really have to go into this again? I once saw a book on classroom management for college teachers called When Race Breaks Out. As if it’s like strep throat, as if it has to be medicated, managed, healed.

What often happens, in these situations, is that the “healing” involves choosing a scapegoat, someone on whom all the community’s energies—its shame and anguish, its pain and frustration—can be concentrated for a short period.

Scapegoating is not healing. But it is the logical consequence of the complacency, the inertia, and the vacuous self-satisfaction that marks so much of our literary culture.

I think what Iverson is trying to do, in proposing the phrase “All in the Mix,” is to say: we can feel insulted, we can even feel attacked, or threatened, and say what we feel, without having to respond in kind. Of course, there are times when the aggression or insult is overwhelming and no dialogue is possible. But as Americans we are so heavily invested in shame, avoidance, and denial that most of us have never experienced authentic, face-to-face dialogue about race at all.

I would like to see us try to mix it up more. I see it happening in the work of Thomas Sayers Ellis and Junot Díaz, Danzy Senna and Susan Straight, Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead, in Tony Hoagland’s “The Change” and Claudia Rankine’s critique of “The Change.” But I’d like to see much more of it in our public arenas. More squirming in the audience; less sleepy applause.

I’m hoping, but I’m not holding my breath.