J.C. Hallman: The Disciplined Soul

In preparation for J.C. Hallman's reading with InDigest 1207, Tin House Books has kindly allowed us to re-post Hallman's recent and upcoming blog posts from their blog.

In the fourth and final installment of J.C. Hallman's series of essays about his forthcoming book The Story About the Story he discusses what makes the essays in that book stand apart from traditional literary criticism. Thanks to Tin House Books and J.C. Hallman for partnering with InDigest to bring you this series of essays.

J.C. Hallman: The Disciplined Soul

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The essays in The Story About the Story differ from traditional literary criticism in many ways. They contemplate rather than argue. They do not artificially sublimate subjectivity. They preserve mystery instead of dissecting it. And often they expand the scope of what they are willing to address so as to speak to the basics--the history, the process, the purpose--of literature itself.

I didn't quite mean to do this when I started collecting pieces for the book, but the essays in The Story About the Story add up to a solid century's worth of literary wisdom--straight from the horses' mouths.

This wisdom takes a number of forms.

Cynthia Ozick ("Truman Capote Reconsidered") begins with an elegant aphorism: "Time at length becomes justice." Similarly, Nabokov ("'The Metamorphosis'") introduces Kafka with a rapid-fire definition of art, "Beauty plus pity," a maxim that a few pages later is met with Camus' insistence ("Herman Melville") that Melville is the furthest thing from Kafka but still offers "inexhaustible sources of strength and pity."

Other contributors suggest trends. Michael Chabon ("The Other James") recalls that "all stories...descend from the fireside tale, told with wolves in the woods all around..." and Frank O'Connor ("An Author in Search of a Subject") contrasts Katherine Mansfield with "Joyce and Proust, who in their different, more worldly ways were also attempting a magical approach to literature by trying to make the printed page not a description of something that had happened but a substitute for what had happened."

The book's essays often seek to make the effect and purpose of reading a visceral experience. William Gass ("In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life") describes beginning a book ("How easy it is to enter. An open book, an open eye, and the first page lifts toward us like a fragrance...") and Susan Sontag ("Loving Dostoevsky"), on ending one, is "purged, shaken, fortified, breathing a little deeper, grateful to literature for what it can harbor and exemplify."

On the stakes of literature, Robert Hass ("Lowell's Graveyard") finds a metaphor for a poem's capacity to change life irrevocably: "Poems take place in your life, or some of them do, like the...day the trucks came and the men began to tear up the wooden sidewalks and the cobblestone gutters outside your house and laid down new cement curbs and asphalt streets." Charles D'Ambrosio ("Salinger and Sobs") unapologetically articulates why he reads at all: "Admittedly, wanting practical advice is a pretty primitive idea of what a book should do, but...I didn't know any better, and probably still don't."

Walter Kirn ("Good-bye, Holden Caulfield. I Mean It. Go! Good-Bye!") reveals the true life of books: "People tell me that the mark of a great book is the way that it sticks with you, stays vivid over time, but I disagree. The best books fade into the scenery, dissolve into instant backdrop, return to dust. But that dust is never the same; it's changed forever." And E.B. White, writing of Thoreau, proposes that the reader-writer relationship is much more than a contract: "He is a better companion than most, and I would not swap him for a soberer or more reasonable friend even if I could."

Sven Birkerts ("On a Stanza by John Keats") sets out to question the whole business of writing about reading--"Is beauty that has been made out of words impervious to other words?" To which Phyllis Rose (an excerpt from The Year of Reading Proust) offers an answer: "No matter how full we make our accounts of reading...what we produce is less than the text it describes."

But of course, what's at stake in the writing life is more than just chat. Seamus Heaney ("Learning from Eliot") reminds us that a writer's life means "the disciplining of a habit of expression until it becomes fundamental to the whole conduct of a life."

The Story About the Story is full of such-disciplined souls.


Courtesy of Tin House and reprinted from their blog.

J.C. Hallman will be reading in New York as part of the InDigest 1207 Reading Series on October 7 at 6pm.

J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. A collection of his short fiction, The Hospital for Bad Poets, was published by Milkweed Editions earlier this year. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He is working on a book about modern expressions of utopian thought.

InDigest Picks

Juliet, Nakedby Nick Hornby [Riverhead]
+ I wanted to try and explain the plot of this book, but the more I read the less I understood.

This is the product description from Amazon:
"Annie loves Duncan-or thinks she does. Duncan loves Annie, but then, all of a sudden, he doesn't. Duncan really loves Tucker Crowe, a reclusive Dylanish singer-songwriter who stopped making music ten years ago. Annie stops loving Duncan, and starts getting her own life.

In doing so, she initiates an e-mail correspondence with Tucker, and a connection is forged between two lonely people who are looking for more out of what they've got. Tucker's been languishing (and he's unnervingly aware of it)[...]redemption[...]life[...]emotional[...]artistic[...] But then there's also the new material he's about to release to the world: an acoustic, stripped-down version of his greatest album, Juliet-entitled, Juliet, Naked." I'm so confused already. But Nick Hornby's awesome, so...

The Vampire Archives: The Most Complete Volume of Vampire Tales Ever Published (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)edited by Otto Penzler [Vintage]
+ Editor Otto Penzler (Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps) collects over 80 vampire stories in this volume. With the return of vampire chic this collection doubles as some cool literature that you won't find in that Norton you have left over from college or a great gift for your Twilight watching nephew or niece. The collection includes stories from Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron, Stephen King (I see you're not surprised), Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambroce Bierce, D.H. Lawrence and many more. This collection actually has some wonderful literary works about vampires, which is good; it will nicely augment that copy of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sitting on your coffee table.

Museum of Accidentsby Rachel Zucker [Wave Books]
+ Rachel Zucker's newest collection is a beautifully bound book. It's huge (not long, physically large), and it actually adds something to the whole experience. Zucker likes to surprise through odd enjambments, peculiar inversions and disjointed structure. She likes to let the white space be a part of the poem, like in "What Dark Thing," where the end of stanza does not just mean that it's time to hit return button twice, but that it's time for emptiness, for space to take a pause, to let the words breathe. After reading Museum of Accidents it's hard to imagine the book being anything but this size, a smaller version couldn't contain all the white space necessary to make these poems breathe how they want to and to fully expose their beauty. This is a great collection.

Also out this week through Wave Books is Bluets by Maggie Nelson.

Drummer - Feel Good Together[Audio Eagle]
+ Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys) struck out on his own early this year and now Patrick Carney, drummer of The Black Keys, has a band of his own. That's actually the concept of Drummer. It's constructed of drummers who play in other bands. On top of Carney the band also includes Jamie Stillman of Teeth the Hydra (playing guitar), Jon Finley of Beaten Awake (on vocals and guitar), Stephen Clements of Six Parts Seven (on keys and vocals), and Greg Boyd of Ghostman and Sandman (on drums). It's about time some drummers got their due in the ever expanding world of side-projects.

In Theaters:
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen) [Focus Features]
+ I can't remember the last time that a new Coen Brothers wasn't a cause for celebration.

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore) [Overture Films]
+ Ok, yes, I know. Michael Moore is divisive. He can be an asshole and sometimes he does take a somewhat simplistic view of things to get his point across. That's fine; I agree. But Moore manages to do something very few people can do. He can stir national political debate as a writer and filmmaker. There are plenty of people who write books and make films about the same things he does who are far more radical and divisive, or far more centrist, that really don't cause any debate at all outside of their small (often academic) circles. Moore stirs debate because he's good at what he does. There. Someone needed to lay out a defense of a guy who is generally getting attacked from both sides. He's not my favorite, but can you really say you've hated or disagreed with his previous films? Oh. You do. Fair enough.

Away We Go(Sam Mendes) [Big Beach Films]
+ Away We Go was certainly not a perfect film, but it has a lot of charm. Mendes, Dave Eggers and John Krasinski all partnered up to make a funny film that felt a little easy at time, but was still pretty damn lovable.

Comics/Graphic Novels:
Batman Widening Gyre #2(of 6) by Kevin Smith [DC]
+ The Widening Gyre marks director Kevin Smith's return to writing Batman comics. The first issue was beautifully bound and incredibly engaging. If it weren't for that whole Bruce Wayne is dead thing I'd say this is one of the most exciting things to happen in comics this year.

Dark Reign Hood #5(of 5) by Jeff Parker [Marvel]
+ This is probably my favorite thing to have come out of Dark Reign so far. The Hood has been an intense limited series and with the conclusion coming out this Wednesday I'd put this up against almost any limited series Marvel has put out. Paired up with the limited series of Mr. Negative (in which The Hood is a main character) Marvel really hit it out of the park on some of these limited series Dark Reign tie-ins.


What We've Been Reading

Been reading The Boatby Nam Le. Very elegant photo on the cover. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about with this book. The language is for the most part unadventurous and the narratives (though finely crafted) take very few risks. It's like someone told me they were going to give me a ride home and then that's all they did. Ride home, as promised. Fine, but we could have at least stopped for soft serve or something. "Meeting Elise" is my favorite story so far and definitely worth checking out.

J.C. Hallman's collection of short stories, The Hospital for Bad Poets,is an eclectic mix of ruminations on science, alienation, and philosophy. The best stories combine both the multi-layered, self-aware nature of post-modernism and the practical lessons of fables. Hallman is interested in how we construct our identities and negotiate romantic relationships in a time when technology, scientific progress, and media inform so many of our choices.

Also, as you may have noticed, JC Hallman is reading with InDigest 1207 on October 7th along with Paul Harding and Dana Rossi.


J.C. Hallman: "Kafka? I love Kafka. He's very - Kafkaesque."

In preparation for J.C. Hallman's reading with InDigest 1207, Tin House Books has kindly allowed us to re-post Hallman's recent and upcoming blog posts from their blog. Thanks very much to Tin House and to J.C. Hallman.

J.C. Hallman: "Kafka? I love Kafka. He's very - Kafkaesque."

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Anthologies are notorious for a number of reasons. The books have too many words on each page. They're way too expensive because they're intended as textbooks. And they're never quite as comprehensive as they're meant to be.

The Story About the Story is an attempt to correct all that.

One of the reasons anthologies prove problematic is the whole business of permissions. I went into the process of obtaining permissions for this book with a degree of curiosity and the tenacity of a visionary. But if I'd known what I was getting myself into I probably never would have started. The permissions labyrinth is a maze manned by a squadron of unruly Minotaurs, and I quickly found that as a single Theseus I wasn't going to be able to find my way through it alone. After about a month of phone calls I was at the end of my string, as it were.

The problem with The Story About the Story was multi-fold. When we write about reading, we want to cite things, to use examples--these become permissions issues, too. Furthermore, for an anthology like this to have any chance at succeeding, it needs to have the possibility of getting to foreign markets, at least the UK (a number of the writers in The Story About the Story are British--from Woolf and Wilde to De Botton and Dyer). This meant that each essay actually wound up requiring multiple permissions. The prize for most went to Edward Hirsch. The short selection from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry required two permissions for the text itself (US and UK), two permissions for the Plath poem it explicates, and a permission for a few lines from poet Miklós Radnóti.

Five permissions for one essay. The average permission for The Story About the Story was $150.00 Thirty-one essays in the book.

The budget was $3500.00.

I'm not complaining! True, I wound up in the red on The Story About the Story, but I had never hoped to make a profit, and money wasn't the biggest problem I encountered. The biggest problem was a new descent into the Kafkaesque.

Probably the most famous essay reprinted in The Story About the Story is Vladimir Nabokov's take on Kafka, "The Metamorphosis." Or, rather, "'The Metamorphosis.'" Remember that. Perhaps for ease of use, or perhaps frustrated that "Franz Kafka" becomes an anagram for absolutely nothing else (including any number of words), Nabokov gave his wonderful lecture on Kafka's story the same title as the story itself. He probably didn't realize that this would become a well-laid man-trap in a maze already overpopulated with monsters.

I won't name the publisher who actually wound up owning the rights to Nabokov's essay (though with a little imagination, it's easy enough to figure out), but trouble began almost as soon as I wrote to them about this piece and couple others. Alas, they rejoined, we don't control the rights to Nabokov's "The Metamorphosis." That was controlled by an agency in the UK, which after a few additional calls turned out to be a subsidiary of Random House UK.

Ah, silly me, I thought. I'm such a novice. But fortunately I have good, informed people to help me along on my path. I wrote to Random House UK.

They wrote back almost at once, kindly explaining that Vladimir Nabokov had not actually written "The Metamorphosis," Franz Kafka did, and it was published in a book called In the Penal Colony in 1910.

I took a closer look at the email from the initial permissions department. They had no idea what they were doing.

I called to explain. Nabokov's essay on Kafka was about a story called "The Metamorphosis," and the essay was, in an admittedly confusing

fashion, also called "'The Metamorphosis.'" They did in fact, I said, control the rights to the essay.

No, we don't, they said. There followed a somewhat tense exchange. Nabokov's essay "The Metamorphosis," they insisted, had first been published in a book by Franz Kafka called In the Penal Colony in 1910. That was the information they had.

I should have just run with it from there - but I didn't. Why, I argued, would an essay by a writer two generations further on, an essay about a Kafka story, appear in the same book in which the story was first published? How was that even possible?

There was silence on the other end of the line.

I put the pieces together for them, using my new knowledge of the permissions maze. What seemed most likely was that Nabokov himself had been required to seek permission for the sections he wanted to quote from Kafka. The story was public domain now, but it wasn't when Nabokov was writing, so the agency that was eventually sold to Random House UK gave permission for the excerpts, not the essay.

We'll look into it, they said. A few hours later I received a confirmation that they did, in fact, control rights to the essay. I would receive a contract shortly.

Victory! Castle doors open wide! Acquittal in the trial of the century!

In a few days, the contract arrived. For the English language rights in the United States alone, they asked $6,190.00. As well, I'd need to obtain the translation rights for the excerpts Nabokov had originally used.

For a moment, I had what is commonly known as a "hissy fit." Then I called my agent, Devin McIntyre. I can't do this, I said. I need to quit. This is insane. Devin did what he always does when I call in a panic, ranting about something. He said nothing. He knew his job was simply to listen. (I assume he was playing computer solitaire.) He was better than a chatty Kafka character, but not by much.

I called Lee Montgomery at Tin House. I begged her for help. She agreed, but reminded me that my agent had sold Tin House the book on the assurance that I would do all the legwork myself. He'd never told me this. (To his credit, he sacrificed his agent's cut of our advance to the cause of permissions. Never has an agent worked so hard for absolutely nothing.)

About forty-eight hours later I was calm again. That was really just the beginning. I started the process of talking them down to a reasonable price, which took a while. And I still needed both the translation rights (US and UK), and the UK rights for the essay itself, and then there was the whole hassle of the drawings that Nabokov had made of Kafka's beetle, and of the inside of the Samsa flat. Images in a book are a whole different maze with a new set of Minotaurs.

But it all got done. And there aren't too many of Nabokov's words on the page. And it's reasonably priced. And there is handsome art. And you can use it for a class, or just read it--because it's great fucking stuff.

And there are thirty other essays in the book, besides.


Courtesy of Tin House and reprinted from their blog.

J.C. Hallman will be reading in New York as part of the InDigest 1207 Reading Series on October 7 at 6pm.

J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. A collection of his short fiction, The Hospital for Bad Poets, was published by Milkweed Editions earlier this year. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He is working on a book about modern expressions of utopian thought.


American Life in Poetry: Column 235


I tell my writing students that their most important task is to pay attention to what’s going on around them. God is in the details, as we say. Here David Bottoms, the Poet Laureate of Georgia, tells us a great deal about his father by showing us just one of his hands.

My Father’s Left Hand

Sometimes my old man’s hand flutters over his knee, flaps
in crazy circles, and falls back to his leg.

Sometimes it leans for an hour on that bony ledge.

And sometimes when my old man tries to speak, his hand waggles
in the air, chasing a word, then perches again

on the bar of his walker or the arm of a chair.

Sometimes when evening closes down his window and rain
blackens into ice on the sill, it trembles like a sparrow in a storm.

Then full dark falls, and it trembles less, and less, until it’s still.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by David Bottoms, whose most recent book of poems is Waltzing Through the Endtime, Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Poem reprinted from Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 25, No. 3 & 4, Fall & Winter 2008, by permission of David Bottoms and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.


InDigest Picks

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfallby Kazuo Ishiguro [Knopf]
+ Kazuo Ishiguro can be a little stuffy. (It's no coincidence that Merchant & Ivory have adapted his stories into films.) But Ishiguro's formality can be a thing of beauty. Like it is in Nocturnes, Ishiguro's first collection of short fiction. Nocturnes is comprised of five intertwining, yet separate, stories that have music at their core. A jazz musician who is convinced that plastic surgery will aid his ailing career, a man so obsessed with music and opinion that it's the only thing he is valued for, in each story music plays a different role, but Ishiguro utilizes these characters and their different lives to reveal the many ways that music and art infiltrate our lives in meaningful ways.

Odd and the Frost Giantsby Neil Gaiman [HarperCollins]
+ Neil Gaiman's writing hits that sweet spot between young adult, literary and comic book novels. No matter which home the novel will ultimately be marketed to they are always appealing all around. Gaiman is following up his Newbery Award winning novel The Graveyard Book with a story about Odd, a boy growing up in a Norwegian town whose father was killed during a Viking expedition. He is now going to Asgard to stop the Ice Giants from running the city of the gods. I think I said this about a book a couple weeks back, but I'll reuse it: Awesome.

Volcano Choir - Unmap[Jagjaguwar]
+ The new group which combines the members of Milwaukee's Collections of Colonies of Bees (including Jon Mueller, whose newest solo album is incredible) and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. It's got Vernon's chilling falsetto and the eerie, percussion heavy, ambient swagger of Collections of Colonies of Bees. Go to LaLa right now and listen to "Seeplymouth" and "Husks and Shells." Or, alternatively, have a free download of "Island, IS."

To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie - Marlone[Kranky]
+ To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie has always been a good band, but on Marlone I was often questioning whether this was even the same band. This is a damn good record. Jehna Wilhelm's voice is striking, and their compositions that land somewhere between ambient and psych. The album is head a shoulders above anything they've done so far. It loses some of the pop edge they used to have (though it's still there) and sound a little more like they belong on Kranky. But they also remind the ways ambient and organic music can be infectious and contain elements of pop.

In Theaters:
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Jon Krasinski) [IFC]
+ The film, based on the novel by David Foster Wallace, has been received with a small legion of luke-warm reviews. Nonetheless, it is DFW and that makes it engaging, at least in the fashion where it'll be interesting to look into the film and what the filmmakers saw at work in DFW's book.

30 Rock - Season Three[Universal]
+ The third season of 30 Rock may not have been their best, but after they got over the need to have a guest star in every episode (though Oprah was surprisingly funny) the season really picked up. The second will likely always stand as their shining moment, but this is one of the best comedies that's ever graced network TV.

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf or Death(Nick Park) [Aardman / Lyons / Hit Ent]
+ That's right. The new Wallace & Gromit hits DVD today. Anyone who doesn't like Wallace & Gromit doesn't have a soul. There are no arguments to be had over this one. Sorry.

Comics/Graphic Novels:
American McGee's Grimm #5 [IDW Publishing]
+ American McGee's Grimm may be the only comic book series based on a video game that I've ever had any appreciation for. The central premise of the series is that Grimm, this heinous looking little troll-ish figure, is out to destroy everything that makes comics boring. So, he does his little fart bomb (a sort of fighting maneuver that makes people confused and generally suck at whatever it is Grimm wants them to suck at) to superheroes and the bad guys win. He creates an army of zombies to kill the "good guys" in an old west town. Sure, it's kind of silly, but it's funny and the artwork is truly amazing.

Astonishing X-Men Omnibusby Joss Whedon and John Cassaday and X-Men Origins[Marvel]
As Marvel continues to issue "Origins" comics and films for X-Men characters (a sequel to the Wolverine film is in the works along with an Origins film on Magneto and others), this book goes back and looks through their known origins thus far. This Graphic Novel collects X-Men: Origins: Colossus, Jean Grey, Beast, Wolverine, Sabretooth, and Gambit. Also out is an omnibus of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men series. Whedon is a master of comics, and this he may be the best writer of X-Men comics Marvel ever had.


J.C. Hallman: Heal The Lung

In preparation for J.C. Hallman's reading with InDigest 1207, Tin House Books has kindly allowed us to re-post Hallman's recent and upcoming blog posts from their blog. Thanks very much to Tin House and to J.C. Hallman.

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J.C. Hallman: Heal The Lung

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The essays collected in The Story About the Story assault the institution of literary criticism.

The problem with literary criticism is not that critical actions conducted on literary texts do them damage--the problem is the way in which critical actions tend to be conducted. There's a basic contradiction built into the system: dry, soul-deadening, derivative, entirely dispassionate prose is used to dissect literature that is supposed to be inspiring, passionate, creative, and unique. Worse, this critical doublespeak has become the way in which we expose literature to new readers, to kids. The insidiousness with which literary criticism has infected the culture and targeted children recalls the basic marketing strategy of religious cults and tobacco companies. The present low status of serious reading should not surprise anyone. The Story About the Story wants to believe that this hobbling of our collective soul is like a smoker's lungs: if we quit the bad habit of setting out to write poorly about good writing we can heal ourselves.

The collected essays approach the problem in a number of ways.

James Wood, in an essay from The Broken Estate, offers a novel description of "interrogating" texts. The interrogation strategy--familiar to anyone who has attended an English department meeting or scholarly conference--is as worthy of Edmund Wilson as Abu Ghraib: "Having been caught out," Wood writes, "the poem is triumphantly led off in golden chains; the detective writes up his report in hideous prose, making sure to flatter himself a bit, and then goes home to a well-deserved drink."

Not all in The Story About the Story are quite so angry.

As a schoolboy, Seamus Heaney ("Learning from Eliot") was left scrambling for metaphors to describe initial exposure to T.S. Eliot. "But, of course," he laments, "we were not encouraged to talk like that in English class."

Wallace Stegner ("On Steinbeck's story 'Flight'") notes that literature swarms with interconnected images, but warns against a tendency to go beyond simply noting and enjoying those connections. "The ingredients are all there, and must be noticed, for they are the literal instruments of both truth and suspense. But let us not take them apart, and let us not imagine that when we have become aware of them we have 'explained' the story, or laid bare the mystery of its composition."

Which is what Robert Hass worries about in "Lowell's Graveyard." Not only do literary critics attempt to explain poems, he claims, they project meaning where there is none. Wondering whether "In the Quaker Graveyard" contains imagery of crucifixion as redemption, Hass decides that "three or four pages of [tedious] theological explication could put it there, but it isn't in the poem."

Some take the problem downright personally.

Virginia Woolf ("An Essay in Criticism") equates her annoyance with Hemingway--he's too macho--with literary criticism in general, leaving her eloquently befuddled: "But what reason there is for believing in critics it is impossible to say. They have neither wigs nor outriders. They differ in no way from other people if one sees them in the flesh. Yet these insignificant fellow creatures have only to shut themselves up in a room, dip a pen in the ink, and call themselves 'we,' for the rest of us to believe that they are somehow exalted, inspired, infallible....No greater miracle was ever performed by the power of human credulity."

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Geoff Dyer hits an even more fevered pitch. On the occasion of being given a collection of critical essays on D.H. Lawrence (in an excerpt from Out of Sheer Rage), Dyer frets his way to the perhaps hyperbolic theory that criticism and book burning are synonymous: "How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at it any more, but I didn't because telling myself to stop always has the effect of egging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off....Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it."

So should criticism simply be chucked, as Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels prescribe for theory-based criticism in "Against Theory"? No. In fact, all the essays in The Story About the Story conduct a critical action (even Out of Sheer Rage occasionally reads like straightforward analysis). Collectively the message is this: serious criticism contextualizes itself in the critic's subjective perception--the subject is the writer, as much as it is the text. In "Mr. Pater's Last Volume" Oscar Wilde offers a miniature manifesto for the critical enterprise, long forgotten: "The true critic is he who bears within himself the dreams and ideas and feelings of myriad generations, and to whom no form of thought is alien, no emotional impulse obscure."

In other words, good writing about literature is unique, passionate, inspiring, and creative. Robert Hass captures the debate in a single line: "You can analyze the music of poetry but it's difficult to conduct an argument about its value, especially when it's gotten into the blood."

Which should be the whole point, shouldn't it?


Courtesy of Tin House and reprinted from their blog.

J.C. Hallman will be reading in New York as part of the InDigest 1207 Reading Series on October 7 at 6pm.

J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. A collection of his short fiction, The Hospital for Bad Poets, was published by Milkweed Editions earlier this year. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He is working on a book about modern expressions of utopian thought.

What We've Been Reading

Lev Grossman's The Magicianswas recommended to me by someone who clearly knew exactly what I was looking for. (Who could it have been?) It's a satire of fantasy books (read: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia). But what's really great about it is that it is a fantasy book, and an engrossing one. But it inverts the basic premise behind the classics of the genre. Quentin, the main character, has always wanted to live in a magical world, but when his fantasy is actualized he realizes that his magical world is just as mundane as the "real" world. Life in his world isn't as exciting and full of daring acts of courage as the fantasy worlds he's read about in novels. People in the magical world still poop, need to go to the store, get hangovers and are made cuckolds. School is hard, friends abandon him, adventure doesn't seek him out, he drinks too much, he graduates from his magical school and starts doing drugs, and when adventure finally arrives it's frightening and without glory for those who live.

I was so excited reading it that I was almost scared to finish it. The last time I got this excited about a book while I was in the middle of it I was left disappointed because I expected so much from the end. (The Gone Away World)

It's one of my favorite books of the year. This book will make friends out of the side of you that secretly (or not so secretly) love Harry Potter and the part of you that rebukes your love.

Still on La Casa de los Espíritus, but this time I'm on page 30 and am missing about half of the words. (Two weeks ago it was page 20, missing one-fourth of the words....) I've only read it on about four morning bus rides a week - I think I need to set aside some more reading time. What did they call it in elementary school... DEAR? Drop Everything And Read. Ahh, those were the days. I had a lot of Sour Cream & Onion Munch 'ems at snack time.


Paul Harding added to October 1207 Reading

Paul Harding, author of Tinkers, will be joining JC Hallman and Dana Rossi for the Oct. 7 InDigest 1207 Reading Series at (le) Poisson Rouge.

Paul Harding has an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has taught writing at Harvard and The University of Iowa. He lives near Boston with his wife and two sons.


American Life in Poetry: Column 234


This week's poem is by a high school student, Michelle Bennett, who lives in Tukwila, Washington, and here she is taking a look at what comes next, Western Washington University in Bellingham, with everything new about it, including opportunity.


You find yourself in a narrow bed you’ve never slept in,
on a tree-lined grassy field you've never walked upon,
on a cold toilet seat you have not sat on,
in a place you now call your home, your learning, your future.
Red stone pathways expose the buildings that will house
the knowledge you seek,
and the information you want to gather.

You crane your neck to look up
at the 13-story brick tower rising from the ground,
looming over you as you walk past. The melodies
and beats of different songs mix,
create a sound of their own,
flow from open windows. Crushed leeks
Top Ramen noodles ground into a blue
and speckled carpet attract armies of ants
to the communal kitchen on the sixth floor.

You pull your jacket tighter against your body,
strong, salty wind whips off the Sound,
and up the hill as you walk through
Red Square toward the clatter of knives,
forks and digesting bellies.

Finally, you are released like a white dove
from the hands of its owner, allowed to fly
discovering your dreams,
discovering what you are made of.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2008 by Seattle Arts & Lectures. Reprinted from Dive Down Into the Loud, Seattle Arts & Letters, 2008, by permission of the author and publisher. Introduction copyright © 2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

J.C. Hallman: Driving The Stake

In preparation for J.C. Hallman's reading with InDigest 1207, Tin House Books has kindly allowed us to re-post Hallman's recent and upcoming blog posts from their blog. Thanks very much to Tin House and to J.C. Hallman.

J.C. Hallman: Driving The Stake

The whole question of beginnings is tricky—a point Geoff Dyer makes about D.H. Lawrence’s poetry in the excerpt of Out of Sheer Rage reprinted in The Story About the Story:

“Who can say when a poem begins to stir, to germinate, in the soil of the writer’s mind? There are certain experiences waiting to happen: like the snake at Lawrence’s water trough, the poem is already there, waiting for him. The poem is waiting for circumstance to activate it, to occasion its being written.”

The same may apply to editing anthologies.

Okay, an anthology is not a poem. The Story About the Story is not something I, as its editor, created or wrote. (That’s actually why I can tell you it’s a great book—I didn’t write it.) But it’s not just an anthology either, or at least I hope it’s not. I hope it’s a clarion call. I hope it changes the world—of course I do. Is that conceited? Probably. Would it be worth doing if it didn’t have a shot at accomplishing just that? Probably not.

So I’ll just assume at the outset here that the beginning of an anthology is interesting. But it’s still tricky—and I might not be able to tell you what exact circumstance resulted in its being edited.

Did the idea for The Story About the Story begin when my agent somewhat reluctantly agreed to send out a book proposal to a select group of publishers? Or did it begin when I started collecting essays of “creative criticism” to use as texts for a course at the University of Pennsylvania, a class that stemmed from a five-page essay I’d written on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw? Or when that five-page essay had itself begun as a seventy-page thesis written at Johns Hopkins? Or, years before that, when I first taught The Turn of the Screw and wondered why my students thought it was about sex? Or when I spoiled a first date with an English Ph.D. student who insisted that every use of the word “queer” in The Turn of the Screw was “loaded” (which is a load of shit)?

All of those are important moments, but perhaps not critical ones. None of them occasioned the book.

Dracula did.

I have a bad habit of arguing with critic types. Theory-based critics, folks who go to scholarly conferences to make friends with peers who will peer-review them through the 120-pages of published material—or whatever the standard is—that they need for the tenure that will ensure that they spend the rest of their lives attending more scholarly conferences. It’s hopeless, I know—but I can’t resist picking a fight. I want to fight about authorial intent. I want to believe—as Henry James did—that it is the producer with whom we are attempting to communicate when we consider the art of literature. (I’m paraphrasing “The Art of Fiction.”) That is, when you read, you communicate with the writer. But what seems obvious to me and to all people still in possession of their souls is a blind spot to most critics.

So we squabble. I’ve ruined garden parties, been rude to people in their homes. I don’t care. I want to pen people in, get them to acknowledge that even though critics employ a standard, scientific hypothesis-proof model in their writing, no one actually winds up “proving” anything in lit crit. In fact, their “arguments” tend to be unpersuasive because they are theories born of passion that are then translated into analysis as dry as a corpse and as boring as binary code. In other words, it’s dishonest. Why do this? I ask. The answer is always the same: that’s the way it’s done.

Even people who know that it shouldn’t be done that way do it that way.

I could live with that. I could live with good people stuck in a bad system. But those people are not the only people here. It’s the other people who occasioned The Story About the Story.

I was at a dinner party one night. There was a nice pork loin and a big oval table, and good wine, and cheerful table-talk through the main course. Then, somehow, the subject of “good books” came up—by which was meant a common standard of objective aesthetic merit. Another tricky subject, to be sure, but not one that necessarily has to lead to discord. In fact, precisely to establish some common ground, I threw out what seemed to me—in a room full of sophisticated readers—to be a fairly obvious truth: a book like Dracula, say, had been very popular, of course, but it was in fact a very poorly-written book.

There was silence for a moment. And then the Victorianist next to me said, “I like Dracula.”

Was I itching for a fight? Had I drunk too much? Probably. But I didn’t steer the conversation directly to authorial intent. First, I allowed that bad books can make for interesting subject matter. Indeed, I was then writing a book about the history of utopian literature—an entire genre almost uniformly horrific from an aesthetic perspective. (The only utopian novel I would remotely defend is Austin Tappen Wright’s Islandia, which is hopelessly romantic.) Of course this was already hinting at semiotics, and I knew all that, not just from Roland Barthes, but from Charles Peirce. (Peirce was close friend of William James, the subject of the last book I’d written.) So I knew the origin of the whole sign-and-signify thing, and I thought it was great when applied to things like professional wrestling and television commercials and beer bottle labels. But literature? No, not literature! Good, serious books were written by good, serious people who knew what they wanted to say! People who took pains—suffered!—to say it. To assume that you could treat books with authors in the same way you treated authorless “texts” was an abomination. And to then turn around and assign some standard of quality to a book that had an author, but might as well have been authorless (Stoker having merely organized a set of tropes bouncing around in vampire literature for a hundred years by the time he came along), was not only wrong, boring, and frightening, it was actually a pretty good description of what’s become of the modern practice of literary criticism.

I won’t describe the melee that followed—suffice it to say we corked the wine and some people went home early. Relationships were compromised. Not that I’m bothered by it. What I came away with was a new sense of impetus, a new drive. I’d taught my old class on “creative criticism” having only ever read the non-creative version of it, and my squabbles with critics had to that point been only border skirmishes where a siege, a campaign, a war, was needed. Now I’d crossed bayonets with the hapless living dead of the enemy itself, the army of theorists who planned to suck the life out of literature just as life had been sucked out of them. I needed to do more than reach out to students a dozen at a time. I needed to drive a stake into the dead beating heart of the Beast, and leave him rotting in his coffin.

So I compiled my own army, my battalion of good souls, in The Story About the Story. If you have a soul, too, you will recognize yourself here, life peering out at life, resuscitating books, finding glory where once dwelt impotent proof.

The Story About the Story will be available October 1 from Tin House Books.

J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. A collection of his short fiction, The Hospital for Bad Poets, was published by Milkweed Editions earlier this year. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He is working on a book about modern expressions of utopian thought.


Indigest Picks (best new releases this week)

Brian Eno's Another Green World (33 1/3 series) by Geeta Dayal [Continuum]
+ The 33 1/3 series has been churning out the best books on albums since 2003. The series is continues with Brian Eno's Another Green World. It'd have a tough time being better than John Darnielle's guide to Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, written from the perspective of institutionalized teenager, but the series is consistently engaging.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen & Ben H. Winters [Quirk Books]
+ Quirk Books releases another book in the vein of the surprising hit Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Pretty much going to be like you expect, if you expect it to be awesome.

Tyondai Braxton - Central Market [Warp]
+ The Battles frontman's solo effort is fantastic. It's in the vein of his Battles work, but with the addition of an orchestra to his orchestrations it gains an epic quality. Maybe not a cover to cover classic, but when the album hits its stride it's epic and moving and as good as anything Battles has done.

Fennesz/Sparklehorse - In the Fishtank 15 [Konkurrent]
+ The In the Fish Tank series pairs great artists and has them collaborate to create an EP in the studio. The series has had such luminaries in the past as Low, Tortoise, Sonic Youth, Isis, The Ex, Blackheart Procession and others. Even when these discs aren't incredible, they're always interesting and engaging. Sparklehorse is having a renaissance this year with a great collaboration with Danger Mouse kind of came out this spring.

In Theaters:
The Burning Plain (Guillermo Arriaga) [2929 Productions]
+ Much like the films Arriaga had previous written The Burning Plain is structural brilliance. Far more complex than Babel and better paced than 21 Grams. Theron puts in a great performances and Elswit definitely makes a case for winning the Oscar for cinematography two years in a row.

The Informant (Steven% Soderbergh [Warner Bros. Pictures]
The second (or fourth, depending on how you're counting) Steven Soderbergh film this year is a hilarious faux thriller that sees Matt Damon at the best he's been in years. It's been a while since Soderbergh has made a comedy this good.

Trumbo(Peter Askin)
[Filbert Steps Productions/IDP Distribution]
+ This documentary follows the life of the great screenwriter Donald Trumbo as he was told by the government he was a communist and then he decided to fight back. It's the kind of Bond moment ever writer hopes for but Trumbo is one of the few who takes on management in such a magnificent fashion.

Old Jews Telling Jokes(Sam Hoffman) [First Run Features]
+ Old Jews telling jokes is a serialization of the great website. The concept is, well, pretty self explanatory. And it's just as hilarious as it sounds.


Reading in Minneapolis tonight!

InDigest poetry editor Brad Liening will be reading at Magers & Quinn tonight in Minneapolis. He'll be reading with Kiki Petrosino, and it's going to be awesome. If you haven't read either of their work before this is a good chance to hide your shame. Or, alternatively, you can go to The Daily Poem Factory Machine and check out Brad's ongoing poetry project.

The reading starts at 7pm. More information can be found at MagersAndQuinn.com.


Nice Ink on J.C. Hallman

The Quarterly Conversation has some nice things to say about J.C. Hallman's latest effort, The Story About the Story (Tin House Books, October 1, 2009). The preface to that book appeared as an essay in The Quarterly Conversation.

"Narcissus moments are few and far between, so when you do finally find one you must seize it. There you are, another tepid afternoon reading through the chaff of so many clueless critics—and then suddenly you see your twin bubbling in the current. This guy knows how to write about books! You feel that tinge of excitement. It is a beautiful moment. You are falling in love.

This roughly describes our collective experience when we read J.C. Hallman’s essay serialized in this issue. Quite plainly, we were taken aback by how precisely the author had laid out our own aspirations for criticism in this magazine. The piece, in our humble opinion, points toward an educated, unpretentious form of literary critique that serves both literature and the everyday reader."

Read more here.

Hallman will be appearing as part of InDigest 1207 on Wednesday, October 7.


Dana Rossi Added to InDigest 1207 in October

Dana Rossi, a freelance writer and stage manager, who has written for Time Out New York, Broken Pencil, and New York Press will be reading along with J.C. Hallman on Wednesday, October 7 in InDigest's monthly reading series, InDigest 1207.

Rossi recently won a New York Press Association Award for a feature article she did on actors understudying celebs on Broadway. Her blog is Party in the Back and it compares current events, trends, and news to 80s movies. On the theater side, she has most recently stage managed at Manhattan Theatre Source and at Soho Playhouse in the NYC Fringe Festival and Encore Series (where she also sound designed her first show). When she's not stage managing, writing articles, or comparing the state of the economy to Back to the Future Part II, she works as a story analyst for Sony Pictures Television.

For more info, go here.