Monday, November 30, 2009

LT makes it clear

Bourgeois poetry, of course, does not exist, because poetry is a free art and not a service to class.*

*I received from an experienced and well-read journalist a thundering letter, proving the class character of literature. My correspondent took the sarcastic sentence literally. I am afraid that this might happen with others. There are not too many attentive readers in the world. I am therefore driving this note home with this inscription: "Attention! This is irony!"
from Literature and Revolution by Leon Trotsky (1924)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bodies--yours, mine, & Susie Orbach's

I'm almost finished reading Bodies by Susie Orbach. It's a mixed bag and reading it is an odd experience.

Orbach is the British psychoanalyst most famous for her book of 30 years ago Fat Is a Feminist Issue, and for her subsequent work around women's issues. I've always meant to read FIFI but somehow never have. Last night in a conversation at a dinner I mentioned that book, and someone who's had weight issues all her life said she did not like it. The conversation went elsewhere so I didn't get to hear why, but I'm guessing it's similar to my reservations about Bodies.

On the one hand, there are many worthwhile points here, having to do with the commodification of bodies under late capitalism (my characterization, not hers), women's bodies especially but more and more men's as well; with the terrible destructive effects of the fashion, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; with the alienation, the estrangement, from their bodies that is the experience of so many women as well as, again of late, men; and more. Orbach is in some ways quite astute about what's going on here. She incorporates recent findings in neuroscience, economic and social statistics, as well as psychoanalytic insights. The latter were eye opening for me. I've never had much interest in or regard for psychoanalysis--despite and also because in my job I am basically the secretary to 800 psychoanalysts. Many of them seem to be decent enough human beings but most of their work, which is done almost exclusively with those prosperous enough to pay their fees of $150-$350 per session for three to four sessions a week, appears to bear no relevance to what I'm interested in. That is the class struggle, the mass social struggle to build a better world as the most crucial means to redress the physical and psychic suffering of this world's billions of poor, oppressed and exploited. As opposed to their orientation, which is redressing the individual psychic suffering of people who profit from the exploitation. What Orbach writes doesn't change my class take on psychoanalysis as it is generally practiced, but it does make me see that a psychoanalytic approach can offer some meaningful and useful ideas about the underpinnings of psychic pain--could offer some help, that is, if it were ever to be made available to the unprosperous who are in such pain.

Which leads to the basic problem with this book. Orbach is not oblivious to the existence of social classes and she does make occasional explicit reference to it, and to people in continents other than Europe and North America. But it's clear that overall she is writing to and about the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois classes of white Europeans and North Americans. She is not oblivious to the economic system and writes a good deal about how various corporations and industries are profiting from body-related commerce. But she fails to say anything explicit about what's really going on here--that it's the capitalist market, the global capitalist market, that gives rise to all these horrific, ever-increasing profit-taking assaults on bodies, women's especially. It's the elephant--and that's a damned big body!--in the room of Bodies. Everything she writes about is a creation of capitalism, yet she declines to name capitalism as the problem or any kind of mass struggle as the solution. I've also got to note that this is a rather breathtakingly heterosexist book. Orbach makes an occasional comment including gay men in her analysis. Us lesbians, however, are pretty much invisible. Odd. One would think there would be rather a lot to say about lesbians in a book that is mostly about women's experience of their bodies and how the culture of late-term capitalism (again, my phrase, not hers) affects this experience.

One other note. I read, either in this book or in some news source, that Orbach is in the process of putting together a class-action lawsuit against the diet company Weight Watchers. The gist of her complaint will be, as it is articulated in Bodies, that Weight Watchers and all the rest of the diet industry are perpetrating a giant fraud. The fraud consists of lying to potential customers to persuade them that their diets work, whereas the truth, Orbach contends, is that not only do all these various diets not work but they actually contribute to body and nutrition problems. Furthermore, she says, the diet industry depends on its own products not working so that its customers will keep coming back over and over; they lose weight, gain it back, and get back on the diet desperate to lose it again. Weight Watchers in particular, she says, has a 97% recidivism rate! WW actually makes most of its money from its customers failing! Or at best, succeeding briefly, then gaining back what they lost or more, then coming back to start all over.

This last I know to be true. I've been going to Weight Watchers for about 10 months now. I've lost about 35 pounds and hope to lose another 15 in another few months. I am not unaware of the many contradictions, the many issues, at play. I am not unembarrassed to be paying this company money when I know perfectly well how to eat and exercise healthily on my own. I am not unconflicted about my own desire to lose the weight although I do maintain that it's much less influenced by socially mandated standards of feminity (have you seen me?) or propaganda about obesity, BMIs, etc., than by my own bodily experience that motivated me to try to get back to feeling more physically comfortable than I was feeling after amassing a rather stunning glop of adiposity upon the onset of menopause. My hope and intent is to finish getting back to a comfortable weight and then never set foot in another Weight Watchers meeting for the rest of my life. Regardless of my own experience, though, Susie Orbach is manifestly correct that Weight Watchers depends on serial failure for its profit. I've found this so stunning, so appalling, so poignant, that I recently wrote a story about it, featuring a scene (taken nearly verbatim from reality) in which a middle-aged woman says she's been coming to WW for 27 years and the WW leader gives her a gold star and urges the group to join her in a round of applause, cheering, "Way to go! Way to go!" exalting her as the exemplary Weight Watchers member.

At the same time, I also know that, however much the reports of an "epidemic" of obesity may be distorted, which is Orbach's contention, there is indeed such a thing as morbid obesity; its threat to the health and life expectancy of its sufferers is urgent and extreme; more and more people, mostly women, do suffer from it; along with the very real, devastating health efects, these women's psychic pain and the affronts, slights and humiliation visited upon them are enormous and constant. All of which constitutes a shame, a blight, upon this terrible divisive society we live in. Admittedly I have a certain subjectivity here, as many of the most loved women in my life have been fat, starting with my mother who eventually died at the young age of 65 from diseases caused by her obesity, and so I am perhaps a bit oversensitive to what they face. But when I step back and try to be objective, it seems to me that, evil though the diet industry certainly is, Orbach's approach of debunking what she sees as an overwrought hype about obesity fueled by that industry is not nuanced enough. She appears to argue from the perspective of sort of defending fat women from the moneygrubbers of Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, et al, and that's all to the good. She cites some studies showing that you can be fit and "overweight," and that's a welcome corrective to the nasty, ignorant stereotypes of lazy fat people. Yet I wonder why she isn't equally as hard on agribusiness, which in so many ways is demonstrably contributing to ill health including the rise of diabetes, heart disease, etc. I wonder why she doesn't condemn capitalist governments that spend tax money on war rather than on public health including nutrition services--why she doesn't demand a health care system that helps people take care of their bodies so they're not driven into the arms of the diet industry.

OK. Enough. What I wonder, what I guess it all comes down to, is why Orbach stops short. Like the man with whose strange, sad story the book opens, Bodies cuts off its own legs. As usual, I guess what I'm ultimately writing about is the book I wish this one had been, the unwritten pages that, for me, would have completed it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thankskilling

On Thursday, known as Thankskilling to supporters of the struggles of the indigenous nations of North America, Native people and their allies will gather for the 40th annual National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass. Wampanoag leader Wampsutta led the first such gathering in 1970. Here is the text of his speech from that day.

The topic of racist settlers and indigenous people's struggle for self-determination always brings to mind, for me at least, as an anti-Zionist Jew, the question of Palestine and the tragic history of the imposition of the Israeli garrison state on the historic homeland of the Palestinian nation. For some time now I've been watching and waiting for an English-language edition of Shlomo Sand's book whose Hebrew title translates directly as something like "When and How Was the Jewish People Invented." Now it's here, with the more melodious but also somewhat less in-your-face title The Invention of the Jewish People. As usual, sigh, I'm hearing about it too late-- Sand was on a U.S. book tour last month and I could have heard him speak at NYU. Ah well. I do want to get the book into my hands and see what all the fuss is about. I'm not holding my breath for some great revelatory work of anti-Zionist history. We all know that the books by Israeli scholars touted as such, and even more so the writers themselves, tend to fall far short of the hype, to say the least. (Benny Morris, anyone?) On the other hand, hey, maybe I'll be happily surprised; maybe Sand really is that rare entity, the fully anti-Zionist resident of the Zionist state. Compromise: I'm not going to spend my money on it. I just checked online and there is a copy available in the Queens library system; I put in a request that it be sent to my branch. We shall see.

Though it's off topic, I want to note that today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. As I've mentioned before, I read it a couple years ago and was happily surprised at how easy it is to understand. Which makes sense when you realize that Darwin's whole purpose in writing it was to provide a popular introduction to the idea of evolution. If you haven't yet, you should read it too. You won't be sorry. In the meantime, this looks pretty cool. The Darwin Manuscripts Project is an online archive of the actual pages of Darwin's original draft of Origin. As of this writing, lunchtime Tuesday, the material has not yet been posted, but it's supposed to be up some time today.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In which we stumble again upon the frustrations of a red reader's life

It's been a rough week for getting going on reading a new book. I've stopped and started three, maybe four, over the last several days. The common denominator: anticommunism of one variety or another. I was in the mood for non-fiction after quite a lengthy run of novels. I'd forgotten that, while it's often, maybe usually, there in fiction as well, albeit generally less explicit, there's a very high chance of an upfront, clearly articulated anticommunist credo marring any given book of history, science, sociology, anthropology, pretty much any other topic to which I might turn in a periodic quest for learning. I haven't been sleeping well and my fatigue prevents me from a long rant with all the specifics, which is probably just as well. I'll just note that I came up against repeated gratuitous references to "communist dictatorships," "Stalinism" and the like by "progressive," that is, anticommunist liberal writers, references that use that bogey-word as a shorthand to dismiss all the efforts and accomplishments over 70-plus years by the peoples of Eastern Europe and in particular the Soviet Union--efforts and accomplishments that include one that the rest of us should be down on our knees every day thanking them for. Which is the defeat of fascism, at the cost of some 20 million military and civilian Soviet lives. That incredible, magnificent accomplishment, that unbelievable sacrifice, that signal contribution to human progress--this is what is dismissed and derided with all these offhand, shorthand, tossed-off, we-may-have-complaints-about-bourgeois-democracy-but-we're-all-agreed-that-communism-is-the-true-evil uses of the all-purpose, dishonest epithet "Stalinism."

It may be that I'm too touchy. Maybe I ought to soldier on, let any given book have its say, try to ignore its declaration of anticommunism or antipathy to some specific socialist country. Usually I try, but the effort only lasts another page or two. Partly it's a gut thing. I'm just sickened and offended, and can't seem to get past it, can't forgive the writer for her/his assault on my partisan sensibilities. It's also a bit more reasoned, I think. Sure, it's fair to assume that most books written and published in this country--certainly most books reviewed and promoted which are after all most books I hear about--are products of bourgeois consciousness. Most are based on the whole gamut of perceptions, assumptions and ideology that are inculcated in everyone living under capitalism. OK, that's one thing. A book whose writer feels it incumbent upon him/herself to declare his/her anticommunism in the early pages takes it a step further. Don't worry, we are told as we begin to read, for of course these are always books that have been hyped as, yes, "progressive." Don't worry, we may have some criticisms, some points to make about this country, this system, its flaws, its shortcomings, we may have some ideas that deviate slightly from the dominant discourse, but we know full well that this is the best system, that it's simply not living up to its potential, don't worry, it isn't as if we're advocating for that other system, good lordy no, don't misunderstand us, we're not communists! The communists were really bad! Reading this kind of proclamation, in nearly so many words early on in what is supposed to be some radical new analysis of this or that, I'm convinced that the writer's theories and proposals are not merely bourgeois-reformist but, because they rest so firmly on so forthright an anticommunist foundation, are necessarily flimsy, shoddy, unworthy. Diversions. Diversions from the real work that's needed, to fight for real change. So I see no point in reading on.

By the way, this week I also had the unlovely experience of picking up a memoir by a supposedly committed communist from one of the former workers' states and not 20 pages in came upon an attack on Mao and the Chinese Revolution. Oy vey. Couldn't find in it me to push onward with this one either.

Am I a Stalinist? Or a Maoist? Whatever either of those labels means at this point? No, I don't identify as either. But I am a defender of every nation that has tried, is trying, or will try to overturn capitalism and build a society of equality and justice. I am an ally of all the billions of downtrodden workers and peasants who have fought or will fight for a better way. It is those billions--it is in other words our class--who are derided and insulted by the anticommunism, in whatever guise it takes, of liberal bourgeois writers and commentators.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

We love you, Lynne

On this day in 1915, revolutionary labor organizer Joe Hill was executed. His crime: fighting for the workers. His famous final words: "Don't mourn, organize."

On this day--today, November 19, 2009--people's lawyer Lynne Stewart was taken to prison. Her crime: fighting for the oppressed. She told the crowd of supporters who gathered around her in lower Manhattan to rally in solidarity--including Pam Africa, leader of the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who traveled from Philadelphia to stand with Lynne--to stay strong, not cry, not worry about her, above all to keep struggling on. I couldn't be there because of work but my lover Teresa was, and she was very struck by how Lynne and her husband Ralph worked hard to raise everyone else's spirits.

She is not a martyr like Joe Hill. She'll continue doing her work inside the walls, I have no doubt. She'll survive, we can only hope.

Our beloved sister Lynne is now a political prisoner like our brothers Mumia, Leonard Peltier and the Cuban Five. Long life to them all! Tear down the walls!

Neither mom nor pop nor monopoly

I just realized I should acknowledge that there is another type of small bookstore that I do feel more protective of and would feel sorry if it disappeared. This is, for one, the collectively run left-politically oriented bookshop that's as much a community center as a business. There are hardly any still around. Maybe Bluestockings on the Lower East Side here in New York? I'm not sure if it's a collective though I have the sense it is, that its aims are other than profit, that it's owned and staffed by the same people. I've been to many movement events as well as readings there. It's a genuine community resource. There are also the small bookshops run by and for the oppressed nationalities--like the Hue-Man in Harlem, the Latino bookstore I visited a couple years ago in Palm Springs, and others scattered around the country. These are something more than stores; they are not just small businesses; they are cultural outposts, part of their communities' struggles for self-determination against the racist system. They deserve support and their loss would be a blow to the communities they serve.

Just to prove that my heart is in the right place in this regard, I dug this up this photo. Me in 1976 at the Ann Arbor women's bookstore, where I was a member of the collective.

I also like this picture for how it's an artifact of a different technological age. Check out the big old adding machine, the rolodex, the percolator. Feel free to also admire my Earth shoes and overalls if you're so inclined.

Sorry, mom & pop

Last month I wrote this and this about the price war over books that had broken out among several retailers. I addressed a couple issues, basically dissenting from the outrage from publishers and some writers, but I didn't address the point about how the big chains' capability for deep discounts could be another, perhaps even the decisive, blow to independent bookstores, those that are left and struggling to survive. So here's a comment on that, nothing definitive, just a point or two.

One is that yes, unlike most of the other arguments of those who are angry about Walmart selling cheap books, this one is probably valid.

The other, though, is: so what?

I have nothing against small businesses. Mom and pop shops of various types can be charming oases, can foster personal relationships among customers and between the owners and their customers, can offer personalized service, and so on. Also, the small-business class is strategically key to the revolutionary project. We want to win over the petit bourgeoisie to be the allies of the working class, we want the middle class to see that its interests are not served by this system (as indeed their increasing marginalization at the hands of the big monopolies shows), we want them with us and ultimately we need them with us. Small business owners, in particular bookshop owners, can be and often are great folks, caring folks, community-minded folks, and not greedy, not solely concerned with making ever more money--so there are ways that small business at its best and in particular the small or independent bookstores are different than big business with its impersonal corporate profit-driven rampage toward the bottom line.

I can see the sentimental appeal. But the reasons I'm not dewy-eyed about the plight of the small bookstores are:
  1. Petit though they may be, they are still bourgeois enterprises. Although they are doing it on a smaller scale, they exploit their employees. Whatever profit they do make is derived from their workers' labor--from the surplus value stolen from the workers. Mom and pop may be nice as all get-out, but they're robbing their employees. This is the essence of any capitalist business, big or small.
  2. Although some small shops may be relatively pleasant places to work (yet the corollary is rarely acknowledged, that some of them are hell on earth, with mean nasty bosses who are there in close quarters with the workers making their lives a daily misery), wages, benefits and even working conditions are usually considerably worse than at the big chains. Most important of all, though, workers at small stores are isolated, atomized, laboring alone or in the twos and threes and with absolutely no opportunity to organize, demand or get improved wages, benefits and working conditions. By contrast, there's Target, say, or even Walmart the rotten anti-union big daddy of retail. It's no fun working at these stores. But you're not alone--and you have the potential of unionizing and winning a better deal.
I would always rather work at a big company than for an individual small business owner. For workers, the strength is in numbers. The possibility of bettering their lives comes with the bigger picture.

Which is why, comfy-cozy as this or that bookshop may be (although truthfully my own experience hasn't made me fonder of the small ones than the big), I'll do my book buying wherever it costs me the least. Because everything else is not equal, and what I'm interested in is the well-being of the workers, not the owners.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What is Marxism all about? and other worthwhile questions

Over the weekend at the Workers World Party 50th anniversary national conference, I bought a hot-off-the-presses copy of the new book What Is Marxism All About? A Street Guide for Revolutionaries On A Move, published by World View Forum. I'd link to it but it's so hot-off-the-presses, apparently, that it's not yet available online. When it is, I'll post a link and write a bit more about it. This evening, while I'm leafing through it, I'll just briefly send my thanks and congrats to the young comrades of FIST--Fight Imperialism, Stand Together--who collaborated on it. This book is a new edition--a total revamp, actually, or perhaps it should be characterized as something of a reimagining--of a nearly 40-year-old pamphlet that shared the first part of the title. About 20 years ago, I was supposed to work on revising the pamphlet, but I never did get to do it, and in a way I'm glad about my failure because I think the FIST version is far superior to what I would have come up with.

It's divided into 22 short chapters plus an introduction and the FIST program. Each chapter consists of a popularly written, understandable, cogent and concise presentation about a specific concept or issue or historical development. Among these: class society, exploitation and surplus value, women's oppression, racism and national oppression, how the state arose, the state today, fascism, revolution, socialism, communism, democracy, socialist countries.

What's exciting about this book is what was exciting about the WWP conference. I don't want to make any reckless predictions, or let my enthusiasm after an invigorating weekend get the best of me, but I do believe that both are signs of the beginning of an upsurge in struggle and revolutionary consciousness among youth. The conference had a higher proportion of young people than any in recent years, and those young people, including the authors of this book, are revved up about reaching out to other young people and drawing them toward the socialist movement.

*******************
As for the other worthwhile questions, since this is my evening for shout-outs, I've just got to send one to Richard Crary for this one: who fucking cares? Check it out, in his excellent riposte to another blogger's backward attack on Lorrie Moore and other women writers for their (our!) feminazi male-bashing. Well said, Richard! Always a relief to find islands of sensitivity.

Then there's: "Why do you think they all love you?" This is from a Wallace Shawn play, via Contra James Wood. It reminds me again that I've been meaning to read some Shawn, so thanks for that, Edmond.

Friday, November 13, 2009

While we confer

My dance card has been and will remain filled for the next few days, so don't expect much blog activity. This weekend I'll be at the Workers World Party national conference. Then I'll be exhausted. Then, at some point after that, I'll get back here.

To fill the gap here's this. My story "All the Ashleys in the World," which was published in the Spring 2009 issue of Nimrod, is now readable online. I've posted it at Fictionaut here. I hope providing this link doesn't smack too much of self-promotion. Since I mouth off so much on this blog about what fiction ought to do, I thought I'd step up to the plate and let anyone who might be interested see one of my efforts.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Emma Thompson's journey

There's been much ado down on the street outside my office today, with reporters and TV cameras and, apparently, stars and billionaires, all to open a five-day art installation titled Journey: Against Sexual Trafficking. I thought to check it out during my lunch hour once the stars and the billionaire despot of NYC had left, but something about it put me off. The line? Yeah, I'll wait a couple days and hope to not have to wait. The burly be-suited mobbed-up-looking security guards stationed all around it? Yeah, that creeped me out quite a bit--I mean, could these Journey folks have any less sensitivity than to surround their supposedly anti-sex-trafficking construction with men who might have been sent from Central Casting so perfectly do they appear the archetype of those who do the trafficking? One thing I know from my life as a woman under capitalism is that a great many more of us than is generally supposed work in one corner or another of the sex trade in the course of our lives. The poorest, the most exploited, the unluckiest, are forced into it young, are transported across the globe, have no papers, can never get out, and one way or another it kills them. Others are forced by economic and social circumstances into prostitution, from the hardest, most dangerous work on the streets to the better-paying but still hard and dangerous call-girl gigs, to stripping and exotic dancing, to the porn industry, and some of these women too it kills, but some find a way to survive, some even find a way eventually toward other jobs. OK, this wasn't supposed to be the occasion for some big treatise on the sex industry and the subjugation of women; I only wanted to point out how closely this topic touches so many women's lives (in fact I think this is one of the great secrets of capitalism) and that it would have been nice if it had occurred to someone that those large scary-looking men posted around the installation might themselves be triggers to pain and sorrow for any given woman who might otherwise think about approaching and checking it out.

Which I will try again to do in a day or two. I have a perhaps knee-jerk skepticism about it--I can't help but feel that it somehow smacks itself of sex tourism, of a kind of liberal-hearted voyeurism into that world of pain and sorrow, voyeurism in the guise of crusading on behalf of the victims of the sex trade--I fear there's covert titillation there in equal part to the overt outrage--that there's a neocolonial subtext as well, a look-at-how-those-people-in-those-countries-live condescenscion at least and racism at worst--and it surely has very little to do with any actual struggle, any actual action, organizing, against the patriarchy in its most monstrous manifestations---but. But. I'll try to go and see what there is to see.

Journey is somehow backed or sponsored by the British actor Emma Thompson. Who doesn't love her? Well, I hadn't been loving her much lately, since she signed on to that odious campaign to free Roman Polanski. But guess what? She's now removed her name. After a young woman approached her and appealed to her to rethink her position on Polanski--she did! And is now under vicious attack from the rapist's supporters.

Monday, November 9, 2009

If you're as sick as I am ...

... of all the self-congratulatory hooplah plastering every possible bourgeois media outlet celebrating the 20th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall, you might find this interesting.

According to an international poll conducted for the BBC to gauge world opinion 20 years after the demise of the socialist countries in Europe, "Opinion about the disintegration of the Soviet Union is sharply divided." Western Europeans applaud it. Strong majorities in Egypt and other poor countries--and in Russia and Ukraine-- say it is "mainly a bad thing."

Check out my comrade Greg's finely honed observations about the German Democratic Republic at his blog Absent Cause.

In Germany, it seems there's growing interest in the writer Peter Hacks, who lived in the GDR and never turned against communism. I hadn't known about him and, having waded through this heavily anti-communist New Yorker blog post about him and the renaissance of his work, I'm going to check out whether any of his stuff is available in English.

My own view, in case anyone cares and in case it isn't clear by now, is that the Soviet Union, GDR, Yugoslavia and other European and Central Asian countries that were trying to build socialism were flawed workers' states. Despite the flaws--and they have been so exaggerated, so many of them simply fabricated and much of the rest so enormously distorted by 92 years of masterful imperialist propaganda that the only honest attitude a pro-communist partisan can take is to distrust any critique that comes from any source except a defender of these comrades' heroic efforts and sacrifices before, during and after World War II--enormous gains were made that immeasurably improved the lives of the masses of people. In the years since the end of those first attempts to build socialism, conditions of life in the formerly socialist countries have deteriorated sharply for the vast majority. Infant mortality is up. Life expectancy is down. The situation for women, always the central marker of the justness of any society, has worsened dramatically. And so on.

So celebrate all you want, imperialism and all those you've managed to sucker into believing your lies. The workers will rise again, in eastern Europe and central Asia no less than Latin America, where our class is already more and more engaged in many countries, no less than Nepal where the armed struggle continues, no less than Ethiopia and Afghanistan where nascent workers' states were overturned by U.S.-funded and -armed counterrevolutionaries, no less than South Africa, the Philippines, and even, no, especially, in the headquarters of Japanese, western European and U.S. imperialism.

This seems a good moment to send a shout-out to Read Red's friends in the former socialist republics of Europe and central Asia. I've noticed that this blog has been getting more and more visits from people in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan. Perhaps it's just coincidence. I prefer to think they are kindred spirits who've somehow heard about this little outpost of flawed but earnest attempts at communist literary thought. Welcome, sisters and brothers! I'm happy to know you're checking in, keeping me honest as I keep trying my best to read red.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reasons to stop reading in the first 20 pages

When the main character, temping as a clerical worker in a university academic department, grouses about the fat, stupid secretaries she's temporarily stuck among. As a secretary at a university academic department, sometimes a fat one but not, I declare, a stupid one, I was offended to the point of cursing out loud and throwing the book across the room. This was in the early pages of a widely acclaimed novel of a couple years ago.

When the writer recounts, in a tone of arch wit, how she endured an awful cross-country flight stuck sitting next to an African American man she claims had body odor, which the writer explicitly describes as typical for African Americans. Really, she did, and really, I not only threw that book across the room, I tore it up and trashed it. This was in the early pages of a widely acclaimed memoir by a Hollywood wheeler-dealer some years back. Amid all that acclaim not one reviewer had taken note of this extraordinarily offensive racist passage in the first few pages.

The first example shows how every treacherous are the waters into which we readers wade every time we open a book. You never know what gratuitous bit of idiocy might be embedded in what everyone's been telling you is a great book, none of them having noticed or cared about the passage that stops you cold. The second example is of course much more important but, unfortunately, just as commonplace. One of the more frequent refrains of my postings here has been about the stranglehold of bourgeois consciousness in the literary world. This plays out in what writers write, and equally in what reviewers read--what they don't take note of continually astounds and arrests me, as time after time I pick up a book that I'd concluded from the reviews I might like, only to quickly skid to a stop as the stain of unconscious racism or sexism or anti-worker sentiment spills onto the pages making them unreadable and any further time with the book impossible to contemplate.

Or some mix of the above. It happened to me again recently, in this case with a book I'd been sent as a free review copy--the first time that's happened and probably the last. The book is Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life by Michael Greenberg. Gosh, what a lot of laudatory blurbs it comes with. "Brilliant." "Dazzling." "Moving" "A work of art." And so on. Well, I wouldn't know about all that. All I know is that I couldn't make it past the first 20 pages or so. It's a matter of twice being brought up short by the writer's petit-bourgeois consciousness in full display of utter unconsciousness.

True, I was less than enthralled anyway. In fact, I was put off from the start. For one thing, unlike the impression I had from the reviews I'd read, that this writer came from the working class, he's in fact just one more sort-of rebellious child of a small-business owner. OK, so much for some gritty tale of a working-class kid's struggles making a life from writing. Then there's the name dropping about the 60s Village scene, which I find tedious.

But here are the two stop signs beyond which I had no desire to slog.

One of the first passages is about how Greenberg as a youth dreaming of becoming a writer had refused to join the father's business, a scrap-metal yard in the Bronx, and then about how after his father's death his brothers decided to shut it down. Greenberg takes one last trip to visit the site. He recounts his conflicted feelings. He has a brief conversation with one of the workers but never for an instant contemplates, or at least has no word to say in the book about, what is to become of the workers who are losing their jobs, their livelihoods, after their long years of labor created the profits off which his family has lived. Hey, I know, fuggedaboudit, right? They're just some dumb workers, this isn't their story, who cares what happens to them. I can't forget about them, though, I'm funny that way. Especially workers in the Bronx who are left to fend for themselves when their exploiters flee.

So there I sit, already fuming, and here comes the icing on the cake: a reference to the "crack whores" who used to populate the Bronx streets. Human beings--women--impoverished, oppressed, exploited, desperate, ill women, reduced to a snide shorthand, "crack whores." And I'm supposed to care about this guy's life?

Still, I read on for another dozen or so pages. Until I finished the lovely little chapter about how his first son was conceived. Long story short: he and his girlfriend happened to find themselves in Argentina at the time of the fascist takeover; she accidentally found herself nabbed and jailed; don't worry, he was able to spring her with the aid of a wad of cash and the support of the U.S. embassy (a.k.a. the fascists' backers); they got the hell out of the country and holed up in a motel, shellshocked at her four-day ordeal, having sex that ultimately brings forth the issue of his firstborn. All this is told in under three pages, all of it is of the "then I did this and then I did that in an exotic crazy place where exotic crazy things were happening and it's all fodder for my writer's life boy have I had a writer's life or what" school of memoir--and none of it breathes an ounce of concern or awareness about the reality of the dirty war in Argentina other than its standing as background to how his son was born. Not a reference to the tens of thousands of the Disappeared, to the war against the workers, the unions, the students, the women, to the mass murder that brought long years of misery to the masses of Argentina. Not another page worth turning.

The horror! The horror!

How is Stephen King like Joseph Conrad? The body of work of both authors is ostensibly positioned on the side of the oppressed yet actually shot through with racism.

In Conrad's case there is the epitome of this contradiction, Heart of Darkness. I'm no expert but I have read that Conrad was appalled by what he saw in Africa, in particular the genocidal nightmare visited on the people of the Congo by the Belgian colonizers. He positioned himself as a sort of liberal voice of conscience, but not against colonialism itself, not against Europe's right to exploit the natural riches and human labor of the African nations. It's clear in the pages of the novel that, upsetting as all that blood and suffering might have been to him, he never regarded those shedding the blood as actual people, fully human people equal to his peers in Poland, Belgium or England. Chinua Achebe deconstructed all this in his famous 1988 essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'"
... Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.

... And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.
Now to Stephen King. Granted that, unlike Conrad, who still has slews of defenders despite Achebe's to my mind definitive takedown, King is not generally regarded as meriting a place in the literary pantheon. Oh, wait a minute--bizarrely, he kind of is: in 2003 he was awarded the National Book Foundation's "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." Anyway, whether he's seen as a shlockmeister or a fine artist, the guy writes a lot of books, and they all sell a lot of copies, they all get read. He's got a new one out, featured on the front page of today's New York Times Book Review. If you read the review (if, that is, you're able to go on after the incredibly clueless, ass-backward misread of the 1960s in the first paragraph), you'll find that this new novel is quite political, King's liberal fictive commentary on some of what's going on in this country now. So I immediately wondered: hey, are there any magical Black people?

For if anything defines King's oeuvre, it's that: the otherness of African Americans. I've read quite a few of his books--more on that in a minute--and I don't recall a single Black character that is a fully fledged and also a fully normal human being. From The Stand to The Shining to Bag of Bones to The Green Mile and on and on, they appear time and again, Black ghosts, Black wise women, Black wise men, Black genies, Black angels. Never, at least in the books I read till I stopped reading his books, a Black person who is simply and wholly that, a person. Like Conrad, it seems, King has seen the horrors to which Black people, in his case African Americans, have been subjected, and he's keen to express it, to show that he knows of it, and he does so the only way he seems to know how. Which is by writing them as the Other.

I admit I did not realize this until after having read several of King's books. I enjoyed them as spooky, engrossing escapes, and the writing is fast and fluid so that you do escape into the story. I was always turned off by his many annoying tics, like the constant product placement and the hokey sayings he makes up for his characters to constantly mouth, but the fast-paced and genuinely scary plots sucked me in enough that I overlooked them. Then, however, I started getting turned off by the slick, shallow hollowness of the liberal ethic at the core of most of his stories. And I woke up to his really appalling portrayal of Black characters. And then I read about his shrunken head.

In some interview a decade or more ago (I just searched and couldn't find it, but I swear I did read it), King was quoted as "revealing" the inspiration for much of his fiction. How he works up a head of horror steam, basically--how he gets his head into that spooky scary place where his stories reveal themselves to him. Here's how, he said. He opens his desk drawer and takes out the shrunken head he keeps there. It is, he said, the head of a Black slave boy from the early 19th century. He couldn't reveal where he got it and he couldn't prove it was real, he said, but he thought it was. A shrunken head of an enslaved Black teenager from some 1800s plantation. This, said King, this is the real horror. Slavery. What was done to this lad and so many others. I keep this here to remind myself that real life is full of horrors, and when I take it out and look at it, or even when I don't since I'm always aware that it's there in the drawer, I am filled with rage and terror and my stories come to me.

That's all paraphrase, but it's basically true to what I read. I've never read another word by Stephen King. Do I need to spell out why? The fact that he keeps such an artifact, that he can and wants to and does, is in itself revolting. The fact that he uses it for inspiration is even more repulsive. That he holds it up as proof of his sensitivity when in fact it proves the opposite; far from engaging in any deep consideration of the system of chattel slavery in the United States, King rather exploits it in the form of what amounts to a talisman, exploits all that horror and pain in the service of his bestsellerdom.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I'm-a-pitiful-excuse-for-a-blogger links

I'm sorry that I haven't had the time or wherewithal for substantive blogging of late. I hope that'll change soon. The question of big vs. small bookstores is still on my mind and I'll post a thought or two about it as soon as I can. In the meantime all I can offer is more links, starting with one that has some tangential connection to this very topic. I was interested and surprised to come across this piece on big vs. small farms at Slate. The writer, Tracie McMillan, comes down on the side of agribusiness because, in her view, life is better for the workers on a mega-farm than those on a small farm. Now, by my read there's lots wrong with her analysis, lots and lots and lots. (Hint: Agribusiness is still the villain. And the better deal for workers is not about what the bosses can afford so much as it's about how the workers can organize.) But I'm pretty sure she's right about which jobs offer the potential for better pay, benefits, hours and working conditions. There's a similar dynamic to bookstore work, I think. More on this soon.

People are pissed off at Publisher's Weekly, which reviewed all the 2009 books written by men and picked the best 10. Only when PW put out the list, it for some reason called them simply the best 10 books of the year, not, as would be more accurate, their favorites by men, mostly white, writing in English etc etc. Now Women in Letters and Literary Arts, that Facebook grouping that established itself earlier this year, has responded by setting up a Wiki page called The Willa List, and calling on people to enter their own choices for best books of 2009 written by women. The list is already pretty long, showing that the PW folks had plenty to choose from had they cared to consider writers who belong to the majority of the human race.

Which just too too perfectly leads to this, the Guardian's latest digested read.
"Have you ever slept with a man," he asked.
"Not for more than 20 years," Pegeen replied. "But there's something about your arthritic body I find irresistible."
Here's a piece dissenting from the standard version promulgated about Roberto BolaƱo in this country.
... he was never a subversive or a revolutionary wrapped up in political movements ... . From the beginning of the 1970s he was a non-conformist against the Mexican literary establishment ... With that same non-conformist mentality, and not with any political militancy, he went to Allende's Chile.
Shocking! (Not.) The pigs got the first shots against the NAFTA flu.

Finally, while the capitalist class and all those whose minds are befogged by its ideology celebrate the 20th anniversary of the demise of the European workers' states, this 92nd anniversary of the great Russian Revolution must be noted.
The imperialists promised that the post-Soviet era would be one of peace and prosperity. ... What a joke. With the downfall of the bloc of countries that had broken with capitalism, the full irrationality of the capitalist system is revealed in all its nakedness. The higher the technology, the greater the misery of the masses. The more goods produced, the more unemployment. The closer humanity comes to being able to feed, house and clothe itself, with plenty left over for culture, education and recreation, the further away these things become for most of the world's people.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Endurance-not-speed links

Coretta Scott is a new biography-in-verse written for children by Ntozake Shange. It's earning rave reviews.

New literary magazine Mythium describes itself as "a miscegenation of indigenous and diasporic voices ... This is our way of reinforcing those strong storytelling elements that often refuse to endorse or be endorsed by traditional, european perspectives, refusing to fit into some easily marketed literary niche." More on why this is such an exciting development from Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, one of the writers with work in the first issue.

It's National Novel Writing Month. Who cares? I agree with Tayari Jones, who says, "NaNoWriMo--Count Me Out," and offers succinct reasons why.

Ms. Jones also recently saw the new documentary "Being Billie," a "fascinating and empowering" reconsideration of the live of the jazz singer Billie Holiday. The filmmakers are trying to raise the final funds they need; info here.

Author and reviewer Jessica Mann's observation about murder mysteries and crime fiction that "dead, brutalised women sell books" is no great revelation but it's probably a good thing that she made it and it's been getting a lot of attention.

This looks like an interesting exhibit so I'll add it to my already unrealistically long list of art shows I'd like to get to. (I personify the famous truism about New Yorkers, that we never get ourselves to the many cultural riches on offer, or only when out-of-town visitors force us to.) At the Whitney, it's painter/sculptor Steve Wolfe's paintings and drawings of books. I know, it sounds silly or boring when you boil it down that way, but read the Times piece on it and you too might be beguiled.

Pretty freaking funny, and spot-on: the Guardian's latest digested read, this time of Superfreakonomics. "The reason it's taken us four years to come up with a second volume is that we haven't really got any interesting material."

If you've ever watched the Emmy awards, you know that the Leno/Letterman/O'Brien world is a land where testosterone reigns supreme. As does whiteness, I might add. Now a former Letterman staffer, a female who briefly hoped to break through, tells about the awfulness of working in such an atmosphere.

Speaking of misogyny, I know this story is no longer hot but Jenny Diski's piece on the Roman Polanski rape case is worth reading though also painfully hard to read. I haven't read any of Diski's books. I want to.

He's one of our martyrs, and now, finally, work has begun to find his bones and bury them with an appropriate marker. I don't feel passionate about this but I also don't understand why Federico Garcia Lorca's great-nieces and other relatives have so opposed the effort, and that's after reading various of their statements none of which had any understandable core argument. I do know that to this day strong vestiges of the Franco fascist years live on in Spain, and any action that shines a light on them and perhaps contributes to their further shriveling must be a good thing.

A few days ago Vanessa Redgrave performed in a one-time-only encore of The Year of Magical Thinking. The performance was a special benefit to aid Palestinians in Gaza. Last Sunday on the local TV station NY1's weekly theater program "On Stage," Redgrave was interviewed about this upcoming benefit, and Teresa and I commented to each other about how many times--it seemed like every other word--she managed to say the words "Gaza" and "Palestine." I respect her for her continued, unbending solidarity with the Palestinian nation over all these years and after all the calumny to which she's been subjected because of it. For those who might not have seen it, here again is a link to her courageous Oscar acceptance speech at the 1978 Academy Awards.

I've had more important things to do lately than rag on the New York Times Book Review, but a few weeks ago its review of Richard Dawkins' new book about evolution included a ludicrously wrong-headed paragraph or two asserting that evolution is a theory, not a fact. Oy. Many others besides me were pissed off at this. The NYTBR printed a couple rebuttals from scientists but it seems that there were scads so the Times literary blog Paper Cuts ran several more. The point: evolution is indeed a fact, proven over and over again; what remains in the realm of theory is exactly how evolution works.

Finally, although I probably shouldn't take this chance, here are some links to stuff that looks interesting to me but that I have not yet fully read. You're on your own in these waters:

A typo more mysterious that most--and no, that "that" is not a typo.

Michael Denning on "The Novelists' International." Via A Practical Policy.

"Bad Paper" and "literary fiction." Via Contra James Wood.

Kay Ryan on poetry at community colleges. Via Inside Higher Ed.