Happy Bloomsday from Colum McCann

Mark Sarvas points to a lovely op-ed by Colum McCann, in which Colum describes reading Ulysses cover to cover for the first time, after “dipping into the novel for many years, reading the accessible parts, plundering the icing on the cake.” As he made his way through the novel, his grandfather, whom he barely knew, came alive in his mind as a contemporary of Leopold Bloom’s:
The man whom I had met only once was becoming flesh and blood through the pages of a fiction. After all, he had walked the very same streets of Dublin, on the same day as Leopold Bloom. I began to see my grandfather outside Dlugacz’s butcher shop, his hat cocked sideways, watching the moving “hams” of a young girl. I wondered if he had a penchant for “the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” I heard him arguing with the Citizen in Barney Kiernan’s pub. I felt him mourn the loss of a child.
This is something Colum has been pondering for a while; though he hadn’t read Ulysses straight through before, Leopold Bloom has long struck him, I think, as the sort of fictional character who seems more real to some of us than others who actually lived. As he said in a conversation we published in PEN America 8: Making Histories:
On June 16th, 1904, Leopold Bloom walked around Dublin. My great grandfather walked those same streets, but Leopold Bloom is much more real to me now than my great grandfather, whom I never met. Sometimes the characters we create are more real to us than the six and a half billion people in this world whom we haven’t yet met. Do you think that fiction writers might be the unacknowledged historians of the future?
Or, as he says in today’s op-ed: “Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.”

That need to “become the other” is something Colum discusses in his terrific conversation with Michael Ondaatje, which we published in PEN America 10: Fear Itself. And Colum’s own capacity for empathy is evident throughout his new novel, Let the Great World Spin, which we excerpted in that same issue, and which is eagerly anticipated by many (it comes out next week).

The excerpt we published is not online, but you can read the book’s opening chapter here -- and you can listen to Colum and others read from that opening here.


King said...

Become the other without allowing the other?
Overheard on radio about the Iran crisis:
"When your policemen are wearing ski masks, it's time for a new regime."
Wait a minute-- doesn't this apply to PEN, whose apparent spokesperson, on this blog, was wearing a mask?
All other PENsters have been silent.
Do you fear free speech?
How do you justify your stonewalling?
Some of the best underdog writers in America are shut out, even ostracized. The wealthiest, like Jay McInerney, are hyped and feted. What's going on?
if you dare read it.
Latest is something you should be covering-- my take on the big literary Hamptons party:
"The Beautiful and Damned."

King said...

From my blog:

WHAT'S HAPPENING to American literature today is insane. At a time when unemployment in America is nearing depression levels (in Michigan it's already there), the New York literati and media hold swanky parties celebrating 80's wealth-icon Jay McInerney.

I've documented the swing of PEN toward New York money power in the 90's; and mentioned PEN's own lavish party last year on the Queen Mary.(At the time I was examining the lit-world's celebration of Marie Antoinette!) Snobby "Gossip Girl" books have become a publishing staple. Literature's rush toward plutocracy shows no sign of slackening.

What's happening with this blog?

I've been accused of engaging in class war, because I've objectively described literature's transformation. But at some level it's true: the literary rebellion of this decade has been an argument between rich and poor; more specifically, between rich writers and poor writers. The rebels' whistleblowing angered a clique of very wealthy, very powerful writers-- those who have the power to dictate even to PEN about who to appoint, or how to behave, or what to say, or not say.

The argument at its starkest is between rich writers and poor writers, but it's about more than that. The Petition to PEN is a battle for the soul of PEN. It's a battle for the soul of American literature.

The choice is clear:
-Underdogs vs. Overdogs;
-Democracy vs. Aristocracy;
-Openness vs. Secrecy;
-Dissent vs. Silence.

PEN American Center has thrown its principles overboard and chosen the wrong side.

Which side are YOU on?

King said...

I'm sure I'm being portrayed behind the scenes as a lone nut-- which doesn't explain the 25 other names on the petition to PEN (despite the evident blackball consequences of signing). Nor does it explain Z Magazine covering the matter in its May issue:

Petitioning PEN

From penpetition.blogspot.com and kingwenclas.blogspot.com comes the news that PEN American Center in New York, an organization to protect and defend dissenting, outcast, and marginalized writers, has virtually shut out impoverished writers. The centerpiece of the PEN American Center is its gala, which occurs every year in late April. The funds are raised by wealthy attendees—$766,625 gross receipts in 2007. (Tickets are usually in the neighborhood of $1,000 a head.) The expense to hold this swanky aristocratic affair was $247,773 in 2007. PEN holds other literary affairs every year—such as the International Writers Festival, staged at the mind-boggling expense of $536,005. PEN promotes its festival as an "answer to American cultural insularity." Of the $111,000 monetary awards to individual writers in 2007, the top three were: $40,000 to Philip Roth, who's published by both Houghton-Mifflin and Random House; $35,000 to Columbia professor Janna Levin, published by Alfred Knopf; $10,000 to James Carroll, published by Houghton-Mifflin. By giving grants to authors who should be fully paid by their giant publishers, PEN American Center is in effect subsidizing billion-dollar book conglomerates. Various writers are petitioning PEN, asking people to sign the following:

"We the undersigned petition PEN American Center in New York to democratize their organization by appointing, as Trustees, not solely writers who are entwined with book companies owned by media monopolies. This includes writers who've dissented against the established U.S. literary mainstream. We ask all writers, from all backgrounds, to sign this Petition, including current PEN members and Trustees, in the interest of realizing the PEN mission, voiced by PEN's Larry Siems, of 'bridging intellectual chasms and cultural divides'."

Are PEN's members being informed about any of this? What's being said? Why the continued stonewalling? Who's behind the silence?

Harland said...

We have pledged to fight you. To fight your words wherever they appear. To fight the emergence of those voices that you champion. To fight the values of openness and access that you uphold. We have pledged to drown you out whenever you attempt to speak. Yes, I wear a ski mask. I wear a mask because I am afraid. I am afraid of what you say. I am afraid of what you represent: an open literary society in which the voice of the dispossessed is permitted to ring out, with stirring tales. Tales of eating possum, tales of knife fights in the hobo camp. Tales of losing fingers to the fearsome machines of capitalism's engine. Tales of living at the margins of society. That is what we are pledged to fight. We are afraid of you and the legions of Proletariat Authors that threaten, like a roaring, rising tide, to swamp our yacht, to drown the scuttling, evening-dress-clad rats of the old order. We fear the paradise of the proletariat writer that you prophesy and surely will lead. We fear that when you have defeated us, as history insists that you shall, and the word of truth rings out from the pages of the New Yorker! Harpers! The Paris Review!, that those who have steeped themselves in the narcotic of establishment literature will begin to awaken, and that they too will want to eat the barbecued toad, to fight with knives in a barren alley, to knot their plain knit ties before settling into their folding chairs at the somber, orderly and fairly conducted meetings that will sweep away all the sodden memories of our glorious nights on the Queen Mary. We fear that, we fear you and your legions. Most of all we fear the petition that you invite writers to append their names to at www.penpetition.blogspot.com -- what if one brave writer, currently the lapdog of Chairman Prose, chooses to free him- or herself from the fetters of bondage, the cruelest and most deceptive bondage of all: the bondage of the swanky party? We fear the groundswell of opposition that will begin first as a dim rumbling -- can we hear it even now? -- and then overtake us. No more readings at Housing Works! All of Rick Moody's books publicly denounced! The malfeasant boards of PEN, the Guggenheim Foundation, and Sarabande Books led from their plush and swanky offices which include air conditioning and bottled water delivered to them by the comely Brooke Geahan in handcuffs to face the judgment not of you, but of the People -- that is what we fear the most, that it is not you alone who speak, but the People who demand and desire the People's Literature to restore to our literary culture its traditional values, the values of the People. We fear the growing realization that the People will the shed the false consciousness, the false consciousness that has led them to embrace rich-guy writers, to unthinkingly pass over news items concerning the awarding of our Establishment Prizes to the wealthy and privileged while the true voice of the People starves, eating freshly-killed field mice and crabgrass! We fear that you will make clear to the People that they themselves are but one Vintage paperback away from a mouthful of roast mouse themselves! We fear you and we have pledged to attempt to extinguish your unutterably true and bravely expressed words wherever they may appear, shimmering, as they do, with the light of fact.

King said...

Very funny. The fact remains that you WON'T post under your real identity, and that PEN American Center IS stonewalling. Caricature away, but that's the truth of the situation.

King said...

p.s. Curious, in these hard times, that you mock the existence of writers who very much ARE struggling to survive. Man, I was in Detroit this winter. Do you have a clue what's happening out there? Yes, it is a little in-your-face to be holding ridiculous Hamptons parties for, of all people, 80's icon Jay McInerney, and presenting this-- as the New York media has presented it, as the face of American literature.
It was documented, long before I addressed the issue, that PEN was brought under the sway of money and big conglomerates. It seems to be under that sway now.
Shouldn't we attempt to change its direction, and thereby return it to its original values?
If you think about it, you'll realize you're on our side of the issue.

King said...

"Harland"-- I'm sure everyone by now knows his identity-- pays lip service to the avant-garde, which means, in actuality, bourgeois appropriation of the idea of avant-garde. What signifies his "avant-garde"? Lily Tuck? "The Ice Storm"?
He mocks the Petition to PEN-- without acknowledging that the most radical and craziest writers in America are on that petition.
You'd have to assume they would be. The Safe Ones would never sign the thing.
In truth, PEN has become a very conservative organization.
We near the end of the Michael Roberts era. Mr. Roberts was put into his position for one reason: to raise money. By all accounts, he's done that well. His legacy will be a legacy of money.
PEN's actions over that period have fit its neoliberal time. They've been consistent with Bush II economic philosophy: the redistribution of wealth UPWARD. Grants to the likes of Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy have been consistent with this.
Which brings us to "Burn This Book," which I examine on my main blog.
The question about "Burn This Book": Why would anyone conceivably want to?
It's an extremely safe collection, created, at least on the American side, by some extremely safe writers. Ed Park? Francine Prose? Status quo all the way.
(Note the conservatism of Prose's essay. She has a hard time finding much political writing. She should read some Vince Flynn novels, which are extremely political in support of Imperialist philosophy-- as consistent with the needs of the media monopolies who now control publishing as is the work of more ostensibly "progressive" authors.)
By the way, the highest value of the Vince Flynn CIA world is secrecy. Secrecy! In that respect his books are also consistent with PEN American center's apparent philosophy.
There are two forces taking place in the world of literature simultaneously: the force of centralization/monopoly, represented by the consolidation of the publishing industry;
and the forces of decentralization, represented not just by zeensters, but by Print-On-Demand, litblogs, and other happenings.
(Tiny outfits like Sarabande which have interlocking relationships with people at the center of the monopolies are transparent window-dressing.)
Sad to say, PEN, which should be at the forefront of change, so far has aligned itself with the monopolies. It's become chief defender of Things-As-They-Are.
Have a good day!

Harland said...

Yeah, you always say you know who I am, King. But you never seem to want to out me.

We're proceeding from different conceptions of the "avant-garde," King. As far as I can tell, your idea of the vanguard is the viewpoint of the underclass, regardless of technique or style, delivered surreptitiously via underground means. I think we disagree on this. I don't happen to think that, historically or otherwise, the downtrodden classes have ever cornered the avant-garde market (so to speak). And whatever the class origins of its practitioners, the avant-garde tends to express itself in ways that I'm quite certain (because you've said this) you would find elitist, effete, and obscure. But that's just my opinion.

The more interesting thing is that, by your lights, the authenticity of that "radical and crazy" viewpoint is impeached if it is published commercially. Hence your hostility toward Mr. Donald Ray Pollock. Yet you're constantly lobbying for such mainstream recognition, at least on behalf of the outlook you claim to represent. This entropic aspect of your efforts intrigues me, I have to admit.

I don't think I've mocked your petition -- have I? But how am I to know that these are the most wild and crazy writers in America? Because they were willing to sign the petition, you say. This doesn't actually follow, but what the hell: What if Moody signed the petition? Would that make him "radical"? But he wouldn't, you say. Well, I don't suppose he would. So maybe the question really ought to be, what might motivate someone to sign a petition like that, a petition that reifies such an incredible tangle of personal grievances? At most, it's a very poor kind of political theater. High School Radical. What do you plan to do on the board of PEN, King? Have you expressed anything other than a vague nativist disgruntlement about those imprisoned Chinese writers getting all the attention? Some presumptuous ideas about how wealthy some of the recipients of certain awards are?

I guess I'm reaching that point at which I begin to get bored responding to you. I have to add, before I nod off, my regular question, which your little peroration about the forces of decentralization practically demands: if you place yourself on the side of the diffuse, the radical independence of self-publication, etc., why so much preoccupation with the centralized, hierarchical model? There's no mystery why you'd reject it, despise it, disdain it, but what about it -- or you -- makes you want to join it?

King said...

Join it? No, I want to break it into pieces, to dismember the ruthless centralization of the machine.
PEN, as I've been arguing, should return to its principles and become no longer a creature of conformism and monopoly. It should once again defend literary dissent.
It should not be just one more arm of plutocracy.
Your only argument seems to be to question my motivations. But you should understand me, because people like you helped create me and this campaign.
You seem to think there's something wrong with writers currently shut out by the machine to want recognition and support for their writing. But there's nothing wrong with that instinct.
You ask for us what you won't demand for yourself.
As to my motivation-- I think you should tell PEN people how I began my campaign for change-- maybe back in 1995, when an issue of my zeen was publicly destroyed at bennington by your friend Liam Rector. This, er, stimulated my incentive to change such a reprehensibly corrupt and phony system; it encouraged my creativity in ways to change it. (And so, the ULA.)
Your strategy is a mistake. When you blackball a writer, he becomes someone with nothing to lose. (My crime has always been writing about litworld corruption.)
Instead of making a place for the underground, in reaction to the ULA's noise, you decided to wipe us out. (Blackballing; Handler; the Mole; et.al.) But we have as much right as anyone to be writers in this society.
But enough about me. This isn't about me. WHATEVER my motivations, that doesn't change the corruption of the PEN organization.
Will you support, under your real identity, a new PEN exec director committed to openness?
While you'r here, will you explain to me what arguments are being used to get PENsters to cooperate in their silence.
I should have an opportunity to respond to any charges made against me.
If I were on the PEN's board, among the things I'd lobby for:
1.) Openness and transparency for the organization.
2.) Lessen the ties to New York plutocracy, and broaden the reach through the rest of the country.
3.) Broaden membership to include non-system writers. (Print-on-demand; zeensters; etc.) We're all writers.
4.) I'd push to hold the next big PEN writers festival in Detroit, to demonstrate PEN's commitment to activism and change; that it will be henceforth not an elitist but a populist literary organization.
5.) I'd move PEN's office out of New York (to Newark? Philly? Detroit?) to save money. I'd also push to cut PEN salaries. If no one wants the Director's job at, say, 40 thou a year (much more than I make) then I'll take the position.
These positions would be only a beginning.
Re avant-garde: I'll tackle that question another day-- but it's obvious you haven't read writers like James Nowlan, Carl Robinson, Ann, Frank Walsh, and Company.
Unlike the ridiculous HarperStudio, these are writers who live, write, and publish very much on the edge.
No safety.
No conformity.

King said...

p.s. The key question remains: why is my point-of-view not allowed in a literary world which supposedly honors free expression, free speech, and free debate?
Why PEN's stonewalling?
Am I really just a "smelly bum," as you referred to me?
It's not as if I can't put a coherent sentence, or logical argument, together. I've been hitting PEN over the head with facts and logic.
What are literary people afraid of?
Don't you realize this fear, this avoidance of discussion, is the strongest incentive I have to continue the campaign for integrity and honesty?
It tells me there's no substance among literay people-- that you fear open, publ;ic debate because you can't engage in it; or, you know you'd come out on the wrong side, even possibly exposed as fakes. (Like the Paris Review's disastrous performabce against the ULA during the debate we held in 2001 at CBGB's. They're still sitting on the video.)
You're like a well-protected mechanically-trained Ivy League basketball team posturing as the best-- just as long as you
don't go up against players from the street.
I've challenged establishment lit people to debate me and my colleagues since. They've forever declined-- even though we'd do the work in staging and promoting the affair.
Again, what are your top ideologues-- Francine Prose, or James Wood, say-- afraid of?
Allowing new ideas into the current closed literary scene can be nothing but healthy.

Harland said...

Here ya go, guy:


King said...

Ah yes-- the Ivy Leaguer hands the streetball player a manual of "fundamentals" of the game.
Not very "avant-garde," really. An indication of staying always safely inside the lines. Let us not have any new moves or new ideas! Follow the prescribed rules, thoughtlessly and mechanically.
Hilarious. (Like your essay.)

Harland said...

Ivy Leaguer?

King said...

We take for granted the dominance of a handful of east coast colleges over this great nation. That Ivy Leaguer grads dominate the machinery of literature is easily proven. In another field: Every President of the United States elected since 1988 has been a graduate of Harvard or Yale, or both. Is this democracy, or aristocracy? Doesn't this embarrass you?
Ivy Leaguers should be the first ones joining the Petition to PEN, to show they're not literary totalitarians after all.

Harland said...

I'm not an Ivy Leaguer, though, King. And you like to suggest that I run the show.

Charlie Scribner went to Princeton. Roger Straus went to Hamilton. Barney Rossett went to Swarthmore. James Laughlin went to Harvard. Bennett Cerf went to Columbia. Alfred Knopf went to Columbia. Maxwell Perkins went to Harvard. I could go on, and that's just publishers and editors, and just in the first half of the twentieth century. It's not new.

"In another field: Every President of the United States elected since 1988 has been a graduate of Harvard or Yale, or both. Is this democracy, or aristocracy? Doesn't this embarrass you?"

Does your support of Sarah Palin embarrass you?

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