Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I still buy books & other secrets

I'm popping in here for the weirdly contrarian purpose of sharing a secret or two. Secret number one is that I do still buy physical books sometimes. In the early years of this blog I wrote several times about my book-gathering compulsions--store-buying and library-borrowing--which tended to build to irresistible levels at certain periods. Namely, approaching holidays or vacations. It seems I had, and indeed still have, a horror of finding myself with plenty of time to read and an insufficient supply of choices. Just heard about, been reading to mean forever, and every category in between, there's no clear pattern to how and why I zoom around grabbing up books in the lead-up to leisure time. Older, tireder, but if anything more compulsive a reader than ever, the pattern still applies. And so, as my summer month off work draws near, I've been scouring my to-read list, other people's to-read lists, reviews, and so on, and cross-checking same with: the three library systems I use, the two e-library systems I use, online booksellers, and the Strand. And then, variously, borrowing library books physical and virtual, and, yes, when I find one or seventeen on the Strand's cheap shelves, buying them. I'm about to head up there on today's lunch hour, having put together a list of half a dozen I think I can afford. Meanwhile, I've got another three already on e-book library loan, and a dozen or so more on e-library hold. As to the Strand excursion and likely purchases, cheap though they'll be, sssh--please don't tell my wife. She's been on a get-rid-of-books kick for some time, and finds my resistance exasperating. She's got reason on her side. In a few years when I retire we'll be moving, and no doubt our next place will be smaller than the outrageously big Queens floor-through where we've lived for many years. Teresa figures we might as well start downsizing now, and in fact we have given away or sold plenty of books over the last few years, but yes I admit I've negated any progress by continuing to buy--not nearly at the rate I used to but still. Well. While the great majority of my reading is library books, some books I just want to have forever on our shelves. So, yeah, don't tell her, but a few more are coming home with me shortly.

The other secret concerns my current writing project. My second novel. Or should I say my third? After slowly plowing forward on a novel for eight or nine years, about a year ago I found myself much more excited about an altogether different idea. After bouncing back and forth between the two for the last year or so, I've now fully committed to the newer project and officially set aside what I'd long thought would end up as my second novel. So idea #3 will, if all goes well, end up as novel #2, and I couldn't be happier and, in a way, more relieved, because it represents a breaking out in a new direction for me, a refresh, which I hope the writing will reflect. I don't want to say much about this project--never a good idea with creative endeavors since who knows what might happen--but I will say this without getting specific about content. If I manage to make the book I'm trying to make, this novel will be a new take, a different angle, on dystopian fiction. Actually, and I guess this will sound either foolishly ambitious or, I don't know, pompous, this novel will be a rejoinder to the hopelessly tired, unoriginal, and deeply uncreative glut of dystopian novels with which we're endlessly bombarded nowadays. (By the way, I've aired this complaint before on Read Red. Here and here and here.) What do I mean when I dis these books, yeah why not say it, this whole genre, in this way? Without a single exception as far as I know--and no of course I haven't read them all, but I've read quite a few, and I've read about most of the rest--all these dystopias posit a future in which nothing really has changed. Yes, everything has gotten worse, much worse. But nothing basic, by which I mean the organizing principles and the human relations of the the fictive society portrayed, has shifted in any way. To put it plainly: capitalism continues. Racism rules, sexism triumphs, the rich are richer and control everything even more than they do now. And so on. There is not a single one of these dystopias--if I'm wrong please point me to it--that imagines a future in which human beings have gotten together and reorganized society in an egalitarian way. Not one novel in which, even though capitalism has wrought untold horrors, people have decided to dump the horrible system that's created such devastation (wars, plagues, ecological disaster, you name it) and cobble together a new one with which, unfettered by the one percent's destructive drive for profits, they can begin to rebuild and renew life on Earth. So yeah, that's my modest proposal: to write an alternative narrative that dares to imagine what apparently is unimaginable to most writers, locked in to bourgeois consciousness as they all seem to be. A future in which, after the horrors have ensued--because the horrors have ensued--humanity joins together to fashion a new world. I won't mention the working title of my novel, but I will say that its subtitle is: "A Dys/Utopia." Because while my version won't skip the death and destruction, it will depict the new day that follows. Yes, this will be a novel of hope.

So I read with interest Jill Lepore's recent New Yorker piece about dystopian fiction. Naturally I disagree with her basic political thrust, equating left and right, and lamenting the new dystopians' giving up on the "the liberal state." As if bourgeois democracy in this age of late-stage capitalism in decline, bourgeois democracy with all its intrinsically undemocratic features, its very basis in structural racism, its reliance on imperialist war and occupation, as if the capitalist state which exists to facilitate the theft of surplus value and to repress the working class and oppressed nations--as if the very structures created by and upholding the stinking murderous racist capitalist system--as if all this somehow constitutes a shining beacon of hope and light. Which, apparently, futurist fiction ought to be building up rather than abandoning. I'd counter that all these imagination-impaired (on this we agree) dystopians in fact do accept the status quo, completely, unquestioningly. In fact, they portray it as going on and on. They're certainly right that things will get worse and worse if it does. But because their fiction is imbued with bourgeois ideology they can't imagine a different turn in the future. A whole new way of structuring society, humanity taking on the revolutionary socialist project of reconstruction and renewal, is beyond their creative capacity. They can only see things getting worse, because they can't imagine that humanity is capable of something better.

Lepore does make some good points about dystopian novels, especially toward the end of her piece:
Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. [my bold] It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.
In my view, the alternative to despair is indeed imagining a better future. We'll make one by tearing down this system that's driven the planet, and 99% of its people, to the brink of destruction. My book will be fiction. I can only do my best to imagine how it all will happen, and no doubt most of what I imagine won't turn out to even resemble how it actually goes down. But go down it will. I aspire to contribute my modest bit to a literature of hope as we head forward.