Friday, January 30, 2009

The rehabilitation of Ted Haggard

HBO is heavily promoting its new film about Ted Haggard and Haggard himself is merrily making the rounds of TV talk shows promoting himself and I am gagging uncontrollably.

Haggard, for anyone who's forgotten, is the ultra-reactionary vicious, truly truly viciously anti-gay, fundamentalist minister who used to head a big national grouping and preach at one of those scary mega-churches. He especially loved to preach about how homosexuals were all going to hell. Then he got outed by one of his male lovers, and the hypocrite slunk off in disgrace. Now, only a couple years later, he's ba-a-ack! And we're all supposed to sympathize with his plight and empathize with his struggle to--that's right, because he's still a religious fundamentalist--overcome his sinful predilections. With not one word of apology, as far as I've heard, for his horrid hateful career that may have driven we'll never know how many young gays and lesbians to suicide.

Here's a hilarious and dead-on song about the whole sorry spectacle, from Roy Zimmerman.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why I won't self-publish

It's as inevitable as heartburn after a pepperoni pizza. Some mainstream newspaper or magazine runs a piece about self-publishing, as the New York Times did yesterday, and someone among my family and friends refers me to it and urges me to hook up with iUniverse or a similar outfit. Get over your foolish pride, they tell me, and get the damned book published. And, foolishly prideful as I apparently am, I sigh and say no and explain why yet one more time.

Even if I could afford to pay a vanity press to manufacture a product from my manuscript and call it publishing a book, which I can't because we live paycheck to paycheck and can't spare a dime, I wouldn't. And yes, Virginia, these are vanity presses. The only difference is that nowadays, thanks to online booksellers, when you get your book produced by what are now called self-publishers you don't necessarily have to mail it to your several dozen nearest and dearest all by yourself; you can point them to the product listing on and they can order it themselves. Just like the real thing!

Except it's not. No editor has read the manuscript; selected it to publish based on its literary quality, commercial prospects, or combination of the two; or edited it. There's only me, the writer, to vouch for what a great book this is. Once I fork up the money and get the thing printed and bound, based on my own unconfirmed but deeply held belief that this is a great novel, it gets no review, gets ordered and onto the shelves in no bookstores, is read by more or less no one.

Don't bother me with the one-in-a-million stories of self-published books that later get picked up by real publishers. Mine wouldn't be one of them, believe me. Because, right, political lesbian literary fiction is oh so very hot now and would undoubtedly be snatched right out of self-published online obscurity, especially now in the midst of the publishing industry's massive layoffs, restructuring and compression.

So no. I mean no offense to those who do go the self-publishing route. If you can afford it and it suits you, and especially if you're young and have the time and energy to peddle your product at street fairs or in the subways or at schools or to vampire lovers, hey, more power to you. But this is not for me.

Even though my novel has been ignored or rejected by just about every reputable agent (ignored, mostly--exactly one agent read the whole thing), I shall soldier on, making my case to every independent press that might be a likely fit. At this point I'm working my way down a list of presses that do have national distribution deals so their books do get into bookstores and even sometimes get reviewed. If this quest proves fruitless, I'll contact some even smaller presses I know of that don't have distributors, which means their books are only available online. Even those, at least, have some slight shot at getting reviewed; even then, if it were picked and published by some tiny press it would mean that someone with an editorial eye, someone other than its author, found my book worthy of publication.

It is, I still believe. Worthy, that is. Enough of the rejections thus far have honestly referred to it not being commercial enough while praising its quality that I hold out the hope that some press will see its merits and take a chance on an unknown first novelist. If not, ah well, I'll be in the same boat as thousands of others. And there's always my second novel, which I started last summer--and which, believe it or not, agents have already been contacting me about because it does have an undeniable though unintentional commercial hook.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ms. OOW vs. Mr. AYW: the 60s

(I know I promised shorter posts in my ongoing response to Mr. AYW. Well, it's something I aspire to.)

Despite our different approaches to reading and writing, we have some similarities, the Acclaimed Young Writer and me, the Obscure Older Writer. We're both white, both grew up in similar settings and relatively similar circumstances. But he's a good deal younger than me. I, Ms. OOW, came of age in the 1960s and was profoundly influenced by the grand, righteous struggles of that era, whereas he, Mr. AYW, came to consciousness during (or rather and through no fault of his own never became conscious which is probably partly because it was) the Reagan-Bush-Clinton period of reaction.

I bring this up not to offer some reductive silliness about our literary leanings being at variance because of our ages, but because my experience and continuing view of the 60s as a beautiful time--the time of successful drives to oust the colonial powers from African nations; the time of uprisings of workers and students in Paris and Mexico City; the first decade of the shining Cuban Revolution; the time of the Vietnamese war of national liberation against the U.S. and the concomitant rise of youth and student movements here; the time of the great civil-rights movement, of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, the Black Panthers, Dr. King; the time of the bold Cultural Revolution in People's China; the time when the women's liberation movement and the gay rights movement burst onto the scene; the time when young people worldwide read The Communist Manifesto and carried Mao's Little Red Book and pledged allegiance to the working-class struggle--is at odds with so much fiction championed in this country today.

Fiction that is inarguably political and yet so fervently embraced by Mr. AYW's cohort that they should blush at the hypocrisy of their art-can't-be-political nonsense.

There is, for example, an entire genre that I think of as "the madness of the 60s" novels. Prominent among these in recent years was The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez and My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru. Both were critically well received; Nunez's garnered giddy adoration and, if I remember right, a number of awards or at least award nominations.

Each of these two novels was, by my read, a revisionist, reactionary tract. Each was an offense against the spirit of the 60s--a spirit that was not about insanity, mindless excess, or, and this is the favorite lie and the one that both these novels promote, rich white kids blowing off steam, but rather was about the effort, halting and contradictory and flawed as it was, to rebel against and break free of bourgeois cultural constraints and bourgeois consciousness and to build solidarity and do your part to try to help make the world a better place.

In other words, Nunez's and Kunzru's novels were, by my lights, lies. They were beautifully written, no argument there. But they did not tell the true, or even a true, story of the 60s. They were crafted, sadly, in the service of a very particular politics, an anti-struggle politics. They promulgated the lesson, forthright as a morality tale, that the militancy of 60s youths was a terrible mistake. And who does that serve? It serves the ruling class. Good golly, can there be a more political literature than this?

If art should aim for truth and beauty, the madness-of-the-60s genre, even the best of it, hits only half the mark. Yet it is widely celebrated, most fervently by the art-and-politics-don't-mix crowd. Why?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Death of a status quotician

Exhibit A for the case that most establishment literature and establishment literary lions are highly political while denouncing political literature, at least here at home where they're most threatened by it, has died. We'll now be subjected to millions of words about the great celebrator of his own kind, the privileged white male, John Updike. In its initial hosannas, though, even the Times admits that "Updike was called a misogynist, a racist and an apologist for the establishment."

On Holocaust Remembrance Day: remember Palestine

The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network has posted a beautiful statement to mark January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the only way that truly honors the memory of our millions dead: by pledging solidarity with today's ghettoized, persecuted people, the Palestinians. While European and U.S. leaders mouth platitudes about the Nazis' victims they remain silent about the suffering people in Gaza. Here's the conclusion of the Network's statement.
Faced with the threat of annihilation in Europe, Jews resisted. From ghettos to concentration camps and within countries under occupation, Jews led resistance to the Nazi regime. Today, from the ghetto of Gaza to the Bantustans of the West Bank and from the neighborhoods of Jaffa and Akka to cities across the globe, Palestinians resist Israel's attempt to destroy them as a people. On January 27, honoring the memory of our dead is for us inseparable from honoring more than 60 years of Palestinian survival and resistance. Only when the Palestinian people regain their freedom will the dead rest safely. Then we will all celebrate another victory for life.
Meanwhile, over at the Alternative Information Center, run by Jews and Palestinians inside Israel, a rousing, moving challenge to the Zionist leadership has been posed: stay away from the Warsaw Ghetto remembrances! The whole thing is well worth reading, but here are some snippets.
Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Gabi Ashkenazi and Ehud Olmert--don't you dare show your faces at any memorial ceremony for the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, Lublin, Vilna or Kishinev. And you too, leaders of Peace Now, for whom peace means a pacification of the Palestinian resistance by any means, including the destruction of a people. Whenever I shall be there, I shall personally do my best to expel each of you from these events, for your very presence would be an immense sacrilege. ... You have no right to speak in the name of the martyrs of our people.
The reference to Kishinev has particular meaning for me. That's where, in 1903, the worst pogrom prior to the Nazi period took place. Forty-seven Jews were killed, 500 wounded, 700 homes destroyed. The Kishinev pogrom caused a world outcry, the biggest mass meeting to date in New York's Madison Square Garden, and a groundswell in Jewish emigration from Russia. I believe that my paternal grandmother was a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom. My first and so far unpublished novel Vera's Will is based partly on her life and opens with a scene depicting the main character, Vera, as she experiences the pogrom at age 5. A version was published some years back in the online journal Hamilton Stone Review. One pretty good, informative book about the Kishinev pogrom that I read as part of my research is Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom by Edward Judge.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bloody Monday

With the announcement of over 70,000 job cuts in a single day, today was Bloody Monday, the worst carnage so far in an economic depression that still has a long way further down to go. I don't know if it was a coincidence, but on my job today the president sent out a major letter to all employees about the economic crisis and what it means for the university. The bottom line: in reassuring language, he assured us that nothing is assured. They don't plan any layoffs--but they can't promise layoffs won't occur. They're instituting a wage freeze, except for employees like me covered by a union contract--but I have no confidence that they won't go for a contract reopener and impose a wage freeze on the accommodationist leadership of my union. Overall, the big boss said, the university's finances are in good shape--except that they did lose $20 million or so invested with Bernie Madoff.


A few days ago, in a brief column published in the Cuban newspaper Granma, Fidel Castro commented on the inauguration of Barack Obama, "president No. 11 of the United States since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January 1959." Fidel wrote that no one can doubt President Obama's sincerity when he lists all his aspirations for the U.S., and called him "the living symbol of the American dream."

"However," Fidel cautioned, "despite all the tests he has withstood, Obama has not passed the central one. What will he do when the immense power in his hands proves absolutely useless for overcoming the system's insoluble antagonistic contradictions?"

The system, of course, is capitalism. The contradictions produce worse and worse crises that no zillion-dollar bailout of the capitalists can overcome. No politician has a solution to the hard times bearing down on us. The only answer I can see is for us, working people, the people being hit hard, to unite, organize and hit back, demanding that we, not the crooks, be the ones bailed out. All this is put much more eloquently in a recently issued position paper from the Bail Out the People Movement.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

NYTBR gets Ali Smith wrong

It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to rag on the New York Times Book Review. Today's the day, thanks to Maria Russo's review of Ali Smith's new book The First Person and Other Stories. In the review's very first line Russo refers to Ali Smith as a British writer. Ali Smith is in fact Scottish. Her country is colonized, occupied, by Britain. Pity the reviewer can't keep the two nationalities straight. I can't assert for certain that Ali Smith's identity--all of it, her working-class background, her Scottish nationality, her lesbianism--is integral to how she approaches her art, but I am sure that misunderstanding anything about this brilliant writer hampers a fair reading of her work. Now then. Russo's review of Smith's new book is generally positive, but a good one-third of it is taken up with deriding the author's world view. There are the usual complaints about Smith's "leftist politics" and "mini-lectures" and "too preachy" writing and her "stormy dismissal of the dominant culture." Wow--sounds great to me! I'll be picking this book up and adding it to my tottering to-read pile as soon as possible.

I've read several of Ali Smith's books. The one that blew me away is Hotel World, which combines breathtakingly lyrical, innovative writing with a sharp, clear-eyed, harsh class consciousness that is rare in contemporary fiction--or should I say that we in North America rarely get to see. Check out the first line, complete with loopy vertiginous echoes of Mrs. Dalloway:
hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light what a plunge what a glide thud crash what a drop what a rush what a swoop what a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end.
This is the first-person narrator, a hotel maid, at the moment of her death. The rest of the novel takes us through the events that brought her here, events that have everything to do with class society, with women's oppression, with heterosexism. It is a tour de force and if it were the only book Ali Smith ever wrote it would earn her a place on my favorite authors list.

The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award a couple years ago, is, not surprisingly, Smith's one book that fell flat for me. As a purely literary exercise it is interesting. But it didn't resonate with me at all. Her next, in 2007, was the lovely but slight Girl Meets Boy. I'm hopeful, precisely because of the NYTBR's digs against it for being too overtly political, that with The First Person Ali Smith is back to passionately engaged, full-throated form.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ms. OOW's to-read piles

After posting far too many words lately, it's time for a change of pace. So here's a look at what Ms. OOW's* current to-read piles, which take up a fair amount of yardage in both the bedroom and home office, look like.

The next installments of my response to Mr. AYW's denunciation of a political aesthetic will be less verbose than those last couple. I hope. No, really, it shouldn't be too hard to be more concise from here on out because much of the rest of my case can largely be made by simply listing book titles. The political work that succeeds as art. The political work that the establishment lauds, even while denying the possibility of political art. The political art the rest of the world reads and loves. And so on.

What's pitiful about these piles is how little of my to-read list they reflect, and how long some of these books have waited to actually be read. It's a mysterious matter, deciding what the next book will be. Perhaps I'll explore it here in some future post. I will note, though, that much if not most of the fiction that I read comes from the library, both because I can't afford to buy all the books I want to read (the look of these piles notwithstanding) and because I've learned my lesson after buying far too many books that upon reading I didn't like.

*Ms. OOW, that's me: Obscure Older Writer.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hey Mr. AYW, part 2

In the first part of my reply to the Acclaimed Young Writer's lecture to me about the errors of my red reading (and writing) ways, I closed by saying that anyone who stakes out the art-can't-be-political position is herself/himself taking a thoroughly political stance--even if she/he denies it, even if she/he doesn't realize it. How so? Well, for one thing, no literary or critical utterance can avoid falling out on one or the other side of the class struggle. The class struggle is the overarching context for all public (and most private) life. As long as we live in a class society, and oh, Mr. AYW, we do, the struggle between the ruling class and the exploited class is always on. It may be less visible at some times than at others, but, like the invisible air we breathe, it surrounds us, we move through it, and though we can deny or ignore it that doesn't change the fact that it's there. As long as it's there, as long as the oppressed, suppressed side tries to express itself, artistically or in any other way, well then anyone who opposes that expression is taking the side of the oppressors, the suppressors, the class in power, the capitalists.

You can claim all you like that you're not for one or the other side, you're only on the side of fine art. When you insist that work that is explicitly partisan to the working-class side of things cannot be true art--without offering up one iota of reasoned argument or evidence to prove this is true, instead just asserting it over and over and over--you expose your allegiance to the bourgeois side of the class divide.

Mr. AYW didn't only assert that political art is not really art. To drive home the point, he flipped it and insisted that art, true art, is never political. This is either naive or dishonest. It ignores a couple key realities: (1) that any art that appears to be neutral automatically becomes an artifact in support of the status quo, and the status quo is capitalist exploitation and inequality, so "neutral" art is bourgeois art; and (2) that there is a great, great, great deal of "great literature," so deemed by the literary establishment, that is profoundly, manifestly, unapologetically and clearly political. (Calling Mr. Solzhenitsyn!) Apparently, the no-politics rule doesn't apply if the politics in question conform to the ruling class's ruling ethic.

But it's not just about which side are you on, as the great old song asks. It's also about which side's ideology pervades your conscious mind as well as your unconscious, dare I say, your artistic, creative mind.

One hundred sixty-one years ago in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote, "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." Applied to our time and place, this means that the ideas of the capitalist class are dominant. The ideology of this ruling class permeates all social relations, all human expression, all culture.

This is one of the great hidden secrets of our society. Yet how could it possibly be otherwise? Those who own and control everything--not only the means of industrial production but also the news media, the entertainment industry, publishing, museums, education--own and control culture as well. Everything, and brother I mean everything; everyone, and sister I mean everyone; is in the grip of bourgeois ideology. We only break out with the most extreme effort of conscious will. It is enormously difficult to take off the bosses' lenses that block and distort our vision and understanding and, yes, cramp our creativity, and to replace them with red-tinted glasses. Most of us, born and bred in this culture as we were, manage it only partially, I think, or with slow, fitful progress. Until we do, our thoughts, feelings, dreams and art remain imbued with bourgeois ideology. Mired amid the cultural muck of the enemy class camp.

This doesn't mean we're bourgeois. The vast majority of us are of the other layer, the workers and oppressed. Mr. AYW, I have no idea of your class status or personal wealth. Yours is a bourgeois consciousness, however. Your argument against political art does the work of the bourgeoisie whether that's your intent or not.

I'll continue my rant another day. In store: more examples of highly political literature that is embraced by the art-can't-be-political crowd, and examples of left or people's or communist literature that in my view indisputably rises to the level of art, and some actual reasoned argument to show why political art is not a contradiction in terms.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Be still my red reader's heart

Yippee! After several months of yearning (see earlier posts here and here), I finally have in my hot little hands a copy of The Crab-Canning Ship by Takiji Kobayashi, translated by Frank Motofuji and published along with another Kobayashi novella, The Absentee Landlord, by the University of Washington Press as The Factory Ship in 1973.The Crab-Canning Ship is the story of a struggle by shipboard workers horribly exploited by the crabbing and processing industry. Its 1929 publication caused a sensation in Japan, and drew the imperial government's attention and enmity, driving Kobayashi underground. In 1933 undercover police agents trapped him, captured him, beat and tortured him and, when he refused to squeal on his communist organizer comrades, murdered him. Fast forward to 2008-2009: the book is in the midst of a huge revival in Japan, where its message of class struggle resonates with masses of young workers facing cuts, takebacks, layoffs, rising prices, all the ills of the deepening capitalist economic crisis.

After some floundering, I managed to track down a copy, which I now have on a one-month inter-library loan. Oh how I wish to own this book. But reading it will have to do. I'll get to it after I finish Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, which I'm about three-quarters of the way through and loving. I look forward to blogging about both books as wonderful refutations of the literature-can't-be-political dogma.

My response to Mr. AYW, part 1

When last we left the Acclaimed Young Writer, he had contacted me to ask how I liked his book, then, after I'd politely criticized it, responded with an eight-paragraph lecture on why "reading as a communist," as he paraphrased my stance announced in the subtitle of this blog, "shouldn't be part of art appreciation." His treatise expounded on the aesthetic bankruptcy of looking at art, let alone creating it, based on a political point of view. Here's my earlier post recounting our correspondence.

Because it was a private email exchange, I'm not naming him, and I won't extensively quote him either. A friend suggested I invite him to make his comments public, to sort of debate me, here. But I'm not doing that. He is an Acclaimed Young Writer. He gives lots of readings and interviews and has all kinds of outlets to speak and write his piece. His opinion on the topic of political art conforms to the conventional wisdom; it's propagated everywhere and anywhere by him and by most other prominent writers and writing teachers. In fact, the "art and politics are antithetical" viewpoint is pretty much the only viewpoint anyone in this country ever gets exposed to. Me, in contrast, I'm an obscure writer who's claimed this teeny tiny corner of the blogosphere as a place to air my dissenting point of view. He gets to spout his bourgeois-masquerading-as-neutral spiel everywhere but here. Here, I speak my proletarian piece.

Mr. AYW's anti-political-literature argument in his email to me opened with a bizarre, reactionary (and misspelled) attack on a short story writer for her "reverse-mysogyny," then rambled about a bit before alighting on the main point, that "using political considerations to determine a reading experience" is wrong, and concluding that a political approach is "not an aesthetic position I have a great deal of sympathy with." To buttress his argument he quoted Bellow, Kundera and Woolf. Shockingly, this trio--the scrivener of the middle-class white male experience, the professional anti-communist, and the brilliant bourgeois whose progressivism didn't extend to relations with the servants--all agree with Mr. AYW.

The position, boiled down, is that true art can have no political viewpoint. That creativity cannot spring from any political purpose or express any political ideology. And that it is equally impossible to appreciate art from any but a non-ideological approach.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It's the position of the entire arts establishment in this country. Well, almost. A writer you might have heard of sees things differently.

Because it's been a while since I wrote here about this whole question of political art, and because the points I want to make will take some time, some thought, and some blog space, I'm going to make those points in a series of posts. Starting today, with points number one, two and three.

Virtually every time I've ever seen the case made that a politically conscious approach to art is illegitimate, and this certainly applies to the case made by Mr. AYW, it relies on three logical (actually political!) bases. None is explicitly stated. Each is assumed to be understood. Each is mind-bogglingly wrong.

1. The argument that true art can't be political is not really made as an argument backed up by reason or evidence. Rather, it's an assertion, backed up by--nothing! It is presented prima facie, as though the assertion needs no proof because it is self-evident to any reasonable person. Actually, the more I review the standard cant the more I'd say that almost always it merely amounts to this. Art can't be political, obviously! Mr. AYW's email, including its citation of quotations, was a prime example of this approach. None of what he wrote me, and none of his "expert" backup, amounted to anything but stating, and re-stating, and re-re-stating, the assertion, as though reciting it frequently enough magically makes it true.

2. This is a variation on #1 but it's worth noting separately. The anti-political-art assertion amounts to a tautology. A tautology, as in my favorite example from the Bill Clinton presidency, is a logical fallacy in the form of a circular argument: thus-and-so is true because so-and-thus is true. In Clinton's case, when he signed the viciously anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and was asked why he opposed same-sex marriage, he said, "I'm against same-sex marriage because marriage is between a man and a woman." Tautology. Similarly, Mr. AYW and his ilk rely on the tautology that true art can't be political because, why?, well, because if it's political it can't be art. How's that for deep thinking!

3. The entire position against a political approach to art claims to be above the fray--posits itself as apolitical, as it has to in order to not appear baldly hypocritical--when in fact the argument itself is deeply, in fact entirely, political. It is not an argument equally against fascist and working-class art although it may claim to be. Who ever defends fascist art and must be answered? No, it is an argument against working-class, or class-conscious, or, heaven forfend, communist art. It is the argument of the class in power, the ruling class, the capitalists, against the exploited class, the workers. The position that art cannot be political is a position for the status quo, which is an utterly political position. This is so even if the arguer doesn't realize that she/he is arguing for the exploiting class, even if she/he denies it. How can that be? I'll delve deeper in future posts.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Weekender linker-upper

There will be a part two, a substantive follow-up, to the recent "My Correspondence with Mr. AYW soon, but I can't promise how soon. The question of a political approach to literature is the crux of this blog, its whole reason for being, and another direct address of this question is due. Not today, though.

Today begins the three-day weekend that culminates in a national holiday to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Today too the awful crisis in Gaza continues. Some links relevant to both:
  • The latest post on the blog of novelist Tayari Jones, who just returned from leading a women writers' workshop in Uganda, recounts her experience delivering a lecture there to a packed auditorium on "The Legacy of the Legacy of Martin Luther King" and especially the fascinating Q&A that followed. Comments were provocative and wide-ranging and included her being "called on the carpet for the imperialist foreign policy of the U.S." Her conclusion: "At the end, it was just so clear to me how much more informed people in other countries are. I cannot imagine an American audience with such a broad understanding of the history of another country."
  • Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi maintains a great, up-to-the-minute blog called Poetic Injustice, which I've added to my links list.
  • Another worthwhile blog I've just learned of is poet Philip Metres'. It's called Behind the Lines: Poetry, War & Peacemaking, with the subhead: "Further thoughts on the cultural labor of poetry and art. Not 'is it good,' but 'what has it accomplished?'" This blog has featured a lot of interesting news and links during the Gaza crisis.
  • In cities around the country, opponents of the genocidal, U.S.-funded-and-armed Israeli war in Gaza will mark Martin Luther King day in what we believe to be the spirit of Dr.King's legacy, by marching in protest. A good number of those marchers will be, like me, Jews. There has been an amazing outpouring of support for, and over a thousand people have signed on to, the statement by Jews in Solidarity with Palestine. Among those who have signed are a holocaust survivor, a 1933 refugee from Germany, and even a resident of a kibbutz.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"The fierce urgency of now"

While the national holiday honoring him is this coming Monday, January 15 is the actual birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would be 80 years old this year.

I just read through his historic speech against the Vietnam War. In this speech at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967--exactly one year to the day before he would be assassinated while in Memphis to support the sanitations workers' strike--he spoke passionately about "the fierce urgency of now" in calling for an end to the war. Both his stance against the war and his support of the workers' struggle reflected the direction in which he was moving, toward linking up the civil rights struggle with all movements for social justice and liberation. Many are convinced that this is why he was killed.

No one can know what Dr. King would be doing and saying if he were alive today. But when I read his April 4, 1967, speech I can't help but think that the people of Gaza would find a friend in this great fighter for freedom and equality. I can't help but think that what he said about Vietnam he would also say about the current assault against Palestine, which is fully funded by U.S. tax dollars.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. ...

Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
In what I believe to be the spirit of Dr. King, the spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood, of solidarity with the suffering and oppressed, and in dedication to his memory, I'm posting this link to a statement just issued by Jews in Solidarity with Palestine.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Art & commerce, force-fed

When you live in New York, the ubiquitous, inescapable, non-stop assault of the crud of culture--that is, advertising--is such that you become mostly inured to it. Or at least I have, at least to some extent, over my 26 years in the city. You ignore it as best you can. The subways of course are lined with ads, some eye-catching and clever and as such constituting an occasional slight diversion from the drear of the commute, most of them dreadfully insipid and insulting--to the eye, the intelligence, the spirit. Just lately the MTA has begun lining the outside of the trains as well as the interior with ads, so you can't even stand on the platform and zone out in peace without enduring the visual assault of BUY ME BUY ME BUY ME. (Despite all this ad revenue, and the outrageous $2 fare we pay, and the millions and billions of tax dollars we also pay, we riders are about to be hit with another round of combined fare increases and service cuts. Not to be matched, it can be assumed, with any respite from Madison Avenue's onslaught.)

For someone like me, for whom the hour or so of riding to and from work provides the day's only guaranteed reading time, there are other annoyances, like being pummeled from all sides by the unbelievably loud tinny, bass-thumping blare emerging from the earpieces of every other rider's iPod. Let me not wax on about this, however, lest I lean too far in a grumpy old curmudgeonly direction.

The ads, though. They're everywhere, not just the trains and buses. Giant posters plastered to every wall. TV sets, which are basically ad-dissemination machines, blaring no matter where you go: bank lobby, doctor's office, diner, and now even inside taxi cabs. Ack! Oh please, can I have no peace?

You get my drift. Now picture this. Last night I was heading home after marching for Gaza. I'd taken the 8th Avenue train down to 42nd Street, where I would transfer to the #7 to Queens. Walking that long tunnel eastward from the Port Authority end to the Times Square station. I'd just looked up to see the first sign in what is a real actual instance of pleasing public art--a series of signs in the manner of the old Burma Shave roadside ads (!), only this isn't an ad, it's a sort of a poem, call it the plaint of the every worker; it goes something like 'here I am, trudging to the train, I'm so tired, another day's work, wish I could go home,' only much more clever and poetic. It always makes me smile. Not last night, for just as I was starting to read the poem-sign-series, I noticed a corridor-long, eye-poppingly designed, colorful set of ads for the HBO series "Big Love." Not just any ads, though. These are interactive. They feature a series of photographs of people on the streets with balloons saying "listen to what I'm really thinking" or something like that--and a plug-in post for iPod earphones. Sure enough, many many people, mostly young folks, were being drawn, like zombies to living flesh, to the big glossy pretty talking ads, and plugging in, and listening, and laughing, and pointing, and drawing yet more people to plug in, and listen, and laugh, and point, and draw in more ...

It's not enough that we're force-fed advertising for every useless, overpriced (and offensive, as in the case of "Big Love," a series about those lovable if quirky guys with multiple wives) product everywhere we go. Now we are expected to take action to plug in to the ads. To become consumers not only of the products they advertise but of the ads themselves, as if the ads themselves are a new form of public art. To not only consume, but conspire with the advertisers to lure in other consumers, and on and on. Oh lordy, shoot me now. Then somebody says, ah what the hell, that's capitalism, and we sigh and nod and go on about our lives.

Gaza on my mind links

Soon I'll post my response to the Acclaimed Young Writer's critique of a political approach to literature. In the meantime, here are some links relevant to what's really pressing on my mind these days, the genocidal Israeli/U.S. assault on Gaza.

Poets for Gaza
Friday, January 16, 7 p.m. at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South in New York City: join poets Roger Bonair-Agard, Marty McConnell, Vaimoana Niumeitolu, Tahani Salah, Remi Kanazi and Urban Word NYC youth poets for a night of stimulating and invigorating spoken word. More poets to be announced! All proceeds from this fundraiser will benefit the people of Gaza directly through the registered 501c3 organization, United Palestinian Appeal. Spread the word and bring your friends! For more information, contact: Remi Kanazi at

Queers Without Borders is a blog, or I guess a kind of blog of blogs by progressive LGBT people, that I recently learned of, which features a number of items regarding support for Palestine.

While I have managed to get back to writing as per my new year's pledge, and am currently revising a short story having to do with Jews and Palestinians, I've also been doing some other writing, including a statement by Jews in support of Palestine and against Zionism. When and if that goes public I'll post the links. In the meantime, though, I'm very happy to have learned of the existence of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Such a grouping is very much needed to break the monopoly of Israel's supporters and apologists who claim to speak for all Jews. Speaking of which, yesterday I took part in another NYC protest of the Israeli war against Gaza. This was again a big demonstration, at least 15,000. We gathered in Times Square for a rally, then marched to the Time Warner Center and rallied there to protest CNN's disgustingly one-side pro-Israel coverage.

Finally, turning for a moment away from the subject of Gaza, here's an editorial in Workers World newspaper about the selection of reactionary pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at President Obama's inaguration. Full disclosure: I wrote it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

From Athens to Oakland

On New Year's Day in Oakland, Calif., a police officer shot in the back and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed young Black man, as he lay prone in a BART subway station, pinned down by two fellow cops' knees. Several onlookers videotaped the murder; the following is one view.

Now, as they did in Athens, Greece, last month, and as they will whenever the state commits an atrocity against oppressed youths, young people in Oakland have taken to the streets in protest. Today the news is full of headlines about Oakland "rioters," at least a hundred of whom were arrested last night. But really, can anyone equate justifiable anger at killer cops and some damage to police cars with the racist murder of Oscar Grant?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My correspondence with Mr. AYW

Not long ago I had an email exchange with an Acclaimed Young Writer, a successful novelist, a regular on the readings circuit whose several books have won critical lauds and sold well. He initiated it with a note telling me that he'd chanced across this blog, was enjoying it, and was happily surprised by a mention here of one of his books. (That mention is no longer up.) He said he hoped I liked his book and to let him know.

In fact I had just finished reading his book, and had just finished thinking about whether I would blog about it. I'd decided not to, partly because I was sick with the flu and didn't feel I could write as clear and thoughtful a posting as I should. Now, having received an email from the novelist himself, I thought about whether I should answer his question honestly and tell him what I thought of his book. Probably my mulling about this wasn't all that clearheaded, given the fever and all. Probably I should have just let it go. I didn't. I decided instead to send him a substantive reply including my reservations about his book.

Those reservations centered on this white writer's treatment of Black characters, one in particular. So, while praising his writing, and yes, he's a good writer, which he already knows, I criticized his handling of race. My criticism was rather gentler than it would have been had I gone ahead and blogged about the book (although, having now read several reviews and articles about the book and the author I can conclude that apparently no one else has even raised a peep about this issue, which I find appalling though not surprising) but I did express it. My email was courteous and respectful but it did not demur from saying what I thought.

Soon enough my inbox showed another email from the acclaimed young writer. His reply to my reply held to my courteous, friendly tone. He thanked me for my "kind words and thoughtful response" to his book and responded briefly and, to his credit, not terribly defensively to my critique. Then he got to the meat of things: an eight-paragraph-long treatise, complete with quotations from several of the bourgeois literary pantheon, on why a political approach to reading, and even more so to writing, is a fallacious and indefensible aesthetic position.

Well my my.

Where did that come from? He, after all, had asked me what I thought of his book. I'd never asked him what he thought of my reading habits.

He had not, in fact, simply chanced upon my blog. He'd found it in the course of a google search of himself, actually a google search of his name plus the phrase "best books of 2008." This I know from the service that tracks visits to my blog. Yes, Mr. Acclaimed Young Writer was hungrily searching for more acclaim. Can't fault him for that, and so what? Writers are a notoriously neurotic lot; if I ever manage to get my novel published I'll no doubt search high and low for any hint of praise. Once he found his way here via the google search, he pored over the site until he found one little mention of his book (again, it's no longer up). My hunch is that, singlemindedly searching for his own name as he was, he had not in fact looked at this blog very carefully at all, let alone been enjoying it, before he emailed me. This blog whose title is "Read Red" with the subtitle "ruminations on the reading life of a communist." Once he'd received my communist reader's criticism of his book, however, he sized me and my blog up and decided to school me on what a sorry, shoddy approach communist reading, let alone class-conscious writing, is.

And thus ended my correspondence with the author of what several critics did indeed find one of the more noteworthy books of 2008. It will take another post, which I hope to get to soon, to address the substance of his stance against political fiction, unoriginal, tired and steeped in bourgeois sensibility as it is. His argument hews faithfully to the line espoused by the entire literary establishment; since one purpose of this blog is to oppose and expose that line for what it is, and since I haven't done so explicitly in some time, by golly I'll have to step up to the plate.

There's another topic buried here, which I'll also try to bring to light soon. It has to do with my own relationship to literature in the abstract and, concretely, to actual writers. Such as the actual author whose email started all this, or the one whose book I read and loved and emailed asking if I could interview her for this blog but who never replied, or the ones who've ignored my requests that they link to my blog, or the ones who have read my (critical or laudatory) posts about them and their books but not contacted me; and the ones who do link to me and do reply to my queries and are open to the thoughts and ideas of a red reader. Such as, also, the state of my so-called career as a writer and what effect this blog will have on it. It took me years to stop worrying about how blogging as a communist reader would muck up my chances at publication and just make the leap, and I'm not worrying about it any more, not exactly, but I do think about it, by which I mean I think about the whole question of writing and publishing and politics and activism and, well, that's what this whole damned thing is about, isn't it, so this is, as always, to be continued.

I don't think Mr. AYM is still checking in here, red reading being so decisively not his cup of tea, but I'm grateful to him for giving me much to think and blog about.

Jews in solidarity with Gaza

1.The following is excerpted from a CanWest newswire report from today, January 7:

Eight women protesting Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip have occupied the Israeli Consulate in Toronto and are refusing to leave, police said Wednesday. ...

In a news release, the group said: ``This action is in protest against the ongoing Israeli assault on the people of Gaza. The group is carrying out this occupation in solidarity with the 1.5 million people of Gaza and to ensure that Jewish voices against the massacre in Gaza are being heard.''

... The news release says the group is demanding Israel end ``its military assault and lift the 18-month siege on the Gaza Strip to allow humanitarian aid into the territory.''

... The protesters said they want to ``send a clear statement that many Jewish- Canadians do not support Israel's violence and apartheid policies.''

2. There are several good books out there by Jewish opponents of Zionism. One that I read a few years back is The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick. A similar book that I haven't yet read but have heard good things about is The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering by Norman Finkelstein. Both these books, as their titles indicate, debunk the efforts by apologists for Israel to win support for the settler state based on a cynical appropriation of the legacy of Jewish suffering under Nazism. Both debunk the lie that there is any connection between Israel and the Holocaust, and demolish any claim Israel could possibly make to justify itself based on the Nazi genocide. (One interesting and little-known fact from the annals of the Zionist movement, which historically was always reactionary and had almost no support among the mass of Jews before World War II, is that in its beginning days in the 19th century, as Herzl and the other early Zionists were casting about for a likely piece of land in which to locate their hoped-for Jewish state, one of the areas they eyed was southern Africa. Ultimately, negotiations with the British racist colonialist Cecil Rhodes fell through, and he went on to name the British-controlled settler state that was set up based on the murder, theft and suppression of the native African nations there, after himself: Rhodesia.) Finkelstein has several other books, including Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, that I hope to read. He's a gutsy guy, most recently in the news a year or two ago for being booted out of his university teaching job because of his political views.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"Farce & sheer ignorance & worse"

Monday-back-to-the-grind briefs:
  • New York state writers, there are only 10 days left to get in your applications for a summer 2009 residency at the Saltonstall Foundation. I had a month there last summer working on my new novel, and I can vouch for it: the place is heavenly. Don't think you've got a chance in hell at being chosen? Neither did I. Don't have an MFA, or connections, or fancy publication credits? Neither do I. But I got in. Maybe you will too. Give it a shot!
  • Second thoughts on cell phone novels. At first I felt kind of foolish for having speculated recently on the potential literary value of this new genre, which is currently riding a wave of popularity, especially among young women, in Japan. Then I got to thinking about the question of form, and how it doesn't interest me much at all. Content is the issue. As a reader my quest is always for books that reflect or illuminate one or another aspect of the class struggle, which, contrary to what the literary establishment would tell you, is a capacious approach since the class struggle encompasses all the world and all its peoples, every life and every aspect of life. It seems to me that there must be myriad ways of doing this with words, including forms not yet even imagined. So back to cell phones: they may be currently used in service of vapid and unoriginal romance tales, but might someone write something else on them? What about a worker on strike? Could she be moved while on picket duty to cook up a story that conveys the heat and heart of a fight for wages and benefits? What about a worker on the job, using break time to tap in imaginings inspired by days spent pushing hospital gurneys or typing legal briefs or tagging pigs for slaughter? There are so many obstacles to prevent workers from creating literature. Is it impossible that new technology, yes, even cell phones, might end up providing a way forward?
  • Tony Christini has posted some new thoughts about what he calls liberatory literature over at A Practical Policy. For a much more learned take on this than you'll ever get from the likes of me, check it out. Here's an excerpt:
Overt liberatory revolutionary fiction is so anathema to the lit establishment that it is filtered very much out, de facto censored. This is no game of who is more progressive than whom - it is an institutional and normative analysis of what is tolerated and encouraged by the establishment, and what is not. It is no game that so much of the lit establishment in the US virtually writes central, great liberatory novelist Victor Hugo out of history, particularly in lieu of Flaubert (a prominent MFA, political, and formalist establishment favorite), though it’s pretty close to farce and sheer ignorance and worse.

"There's nothing brave about oppressing"

As promised, I'm posting below a few pictures I took at Saturday's New York demonstration in support of the suffering people of Gaza. First, though, check out what poet Remi Kanazi had to say there.

Remi is the organizer and editor of Poets for Palestine.

These guys on the left are from an orthodox Jewish grouping that rejects Zionism and stands in solidarity with the Palestinians. They've made some beautiful statements about how massacres and racism are anathema to Judaism. Their religiosity creeps me out, but their humanity is righteous: they made an exception to their Sabbath rules to take part in the Saturday demonstration because Israel's attack on Gaza constitutes a crisis about which they believe they must not remain silent. As for an atheist like me who identifies with my people's heritage of fighting for the oppressed, a heritage horribly besmirched by the Israeli state, the sign at the right says it all.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Marching for Gaza

On Saturday I marched through midtown Manhattan alongside some 25,000 others, the great majority of them young people, in defense of the Palestinian people and to demand an end to the criminal, murderous Israeli assault against and siege of Gaza. I took pictures with my cell phone and got a few decent shots, but because of my cheap, horribly slow online connection I've been unable to get the photos posted here on the blog. For some reason I'm also having trouble even posting links to some other sites with photos and video of the demonstration. I'll try to get the pix and links up as soon as I can. In the meantime I'll just say that for me personally, walking across 42nd Street with so many courageous, determined Palestinians as well as people of many other nationalities, all of us together raising our voices for justice and liberation, was the best possible way to start a new year of struggle. It's terrible that it is necessary. But it is necessary. And so we begin again.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Cell phone novels

This won't be an erudite consideration of deep questions about high culture and low culture, because (1) I'm just emerging from a flu and still somewhat bleary-eyed and brain-clogged, (2) even if I were at my peak, erudition isn't quite my specialty, and (3) high and low are false and meaningless categories of culture. What interests me is how culture reflects, advances or retards the class struggle.

Which is why I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of the cell-phone novel. No doubt I'm late in learning about it, courtesy of a piece in the Dec. 22/29 New Yorker, but now that I do know I'd like to know more. For those even further behind than me: cell-phone novels have been sweeping Japan. They are written mostly by young, even teenaged, women, who write the stories, yes, on their cell phones. In cell-phone-ese, complete with the Japanese equivalents of LOL, OMG and so on. Apparently the tales are brief soap operas, some autobiographical, some fantastical, most falling squarely within the romance genre. The authors write them on their cell phones and post them onto web sites from which readers, primarily other young or teenaged women, can then read them on their cell phones. These stories have become so popular that they are now being picked up by conventional publishers and printed as books, which in turn become huge bestsellers.

The New Yorker article is awash in the undertone of condescension that's typical of coverage of non-European cultural issues, so I don't trust it beyond factual accuracy (if that) and won't draw from it any conclusions about what's going on with Japanese books. Particularly when I know that at this very same moment one of the biggest bestsellers in Japan is The Crab Canning Ship by Takiji Kobayashi, a 1920s novel about workers toiling in miserable conditions on a factory ship that was instrumental in persuading the imperial regime to execute its communist author. This reissued novel has struck such a chord throughout Japan that this past summer a mass strike rally had the theme "We are all crab-canning ship."

So I'm not buying some petit-bourgeois U.S. commentary about the lamentable state of Japanese letters as exemplified by the rise of cell-phone novels. Now, I'm not going to launch a defense of them as the great new proletarian form, either. Japan is a rich imperialist country whose means of cultural expression are owned by big capital just like here, "art" is produced primarily for profit just like here, works that lull the working class and dull the impulse to struggle will always be promoted just like here. But I can't quite bring myself to denounce this new form as a form, either. There is nothing like a literary novel, in my opinion, no other means to explore with as much depth and subtlety the vital questions of human life and struggle; still, there may be other entries or short cuts along the way, should some practitioner find a method of employing them to address the meaty issues. Perhaps it's foolish to even speculate about cell-phone lit ever doing that, but it wasn't long ago that no one would have imagined graphic novels being taken seriously either. We shall see.

In any case, no form can ever surpass the U.S. cinema for scraping the bottom of the cultural barrel. Stuck at home sick as I've been, I've watched a number of movies and I've got to say there seems to be no limit to the dreck Hollywood can dish out. "Mama Mia"--my goodness, what a train wreck! "The Dark Knight"--could this drivel have droned on for a few more hours? "Sex and the City"--need I even comment?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

This is a no-brainer

New year resolutions aren't my favorite gimmick, but today an imperative decree for 2009 is, well, decreeing itself to me.


Yes, I've managed to spend what was to have been a productive week and a half off work, what were to have been 12 days of solid writing, what was to have launched me back into a good creative groove--to spend it instead zoned out with the flu and its aftermath, lying around, reading a bit but mostly simply existing on the lowest possible level, I'm talking the Lifetime channel and HGTV and "Entertainment Tonight." This is frustrating. This is also motivating. This must be the end of a fallow period that went on for far too long, occasioned by a series of minor but intrusive bodily troubles since the end of the summer. So OK now. It's a new year now. It's time to get going now.

Twelve days of writing would have launched me forward into a natural, self-sustaining rhythm. But since it was not to be I'm going to do something unnatural, artificial: resolve. And so I do. My new year's resolution is to write two to three days a week after work and both days every weekend, from this point forward.

I'm looking at you, eight to 10 unfinished stories. I'm looking at you, new novel waiting to be written past page 65.

I need to get my body in shape too. Exactly like Oprah, who is exactly my age (um, did I mention I've done nothing but watch TV for the last week? ask me anything about Hollywood, I'm your answer gal), I got down to just the right weight a while ago only to pile 40 pounds back on. The fat makes me sluggish. Sluggishness obstructs writing. Obstructions to writing must be removed.

On with it.