Posts tagged “Thoreau

Replay: Let’s get away from it all, shall we?

I ran this a couple years ago when my blog was new, and in these cold, wintry months the thoughts seem about as relevant as ever, so here it is again:

Solitude! In my novel, Welsey Shaw, my harried and harassed actress, contemplates going to live in a small cabin deep in the woods to escape the craziness of celebrity and the paparazzi. No electricity, no Internet (but TV and DVDs are okay), no phone.  No people.  Books, magazines, tranquility, nature.  The idea isn’t new: Henry David Thoreau tried it a century and a half ago.  Welsey says her cabin would have to be on one floor and would have to have a porch and a porch swing.  And that swing had better squeak!  Also, fireplaces are mandatory.  Cozy is important in the woods.

She lists the things she’d take with her:  Her iPod.  “Sgt. Pepper.  Keep The Faith.  Christina Aguilera.  All my magazines.  One pair of jeans, one pair of cutoffs, and one or two sweatshirts and T-shirts.  Flip-flops.  Sunglasses.  My hair clip and brush.  Shampoo.  Conditioner.  Beer.  Lip gloss.  Deodorant…One second thought, who cares about deodorant?  I’m going to be alone.  Tampons.  Calamine lotion.  Orangina.  Stolichnaya.  Blue Mountain Peaberry Whole Bean.  A shovel and salt for winter snows.  Logs for the fireplace.  What else?”

Of course my own needs would be somewhat different.  I’d have to have the largest-capacity iPod (or maybe a couple) filled with as many of my CDs as I could fit.  Earphones.  Another pair of earphones as backup.  All my books–that’s a good many–though I no longer read many magazines.  I’d need my computer, and yes, I would have to have a wi-fi connection, though I know that’s really against the spirit of leaving it all behind.  Hank would not approve.

A good bed.  My digital camera.   Clothes, though not many and nothing fancy.  Good shoes.  Toiletries.  Band-Aids.  My deck of TV Mystery Cards.  What am I forgetting?

What about you?  What would you bring along to your secret house in the woods?  What couldn’t you live without?   What would you be more than happy to leave behind? Post your list here and let’s compare notes.


Instant classics

The great white flop.

In 1851 a novel by an obscure American made its quiet debut. It did not turn out to be a best-seller. Exactly 40 years later, after the death of its author, the New York Times stated, “There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week…a man who is so little-known even by name to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and that of only three or four lines.” Herman Melville was then known only as an ex-sailor who had described life among the cannibals of the South Sea. Oh, and incidentally, he also wrote a few unsuccessful novels. One was about a big whale.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, unsold copies of The Great Gatsby were still in the publisher’s warehouse. The man who today is iconic with the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties experienced only relatively modest success in his lifetime, and most of that was for magazine potboilers forgotten today.

It’s interesting to note the letter Fitzgerald sent to his publisher when he finished the work: “I think that at last I’ve done something really my own, but how good ‘my own’ is remains to be seen.”

Such self-doubt! Nowadays we live in a very different universe.

I’ve always been amused by the term “Instant classic,” because it’s an inherent contradiction. A classic endures. It’s the exact opposite of instant.

And we really don’t know what’s going to endure.

I often think I would like to go 50 or 100 years into the future and look at what’s still in print, or byte, or whatever the format is by then. Will Harry Potter still be a massive favorite? Will teens be devouring Bella and Edward’s romance? Or will the standard-bearers be titles we have never heard of, or are only modestly popular today?

It’s hard to say, because what determines popularity has changed in the last decade or so—something almost no one has noticed or at least commented on. Used to be there were people in society who were entrusted to know a little more about their given subject than anyone else. Don’t get me wrong: critics have never been entirely popular, and have often been vilified. But in the past most people accepted the general concept of expertise. Artistic canons were not considered a product of the devil. The critics, whose job was to see more product in his area than we possibly could and have greater experience with it than we had time for, were taken seriously.

Today that’s changed. Critics are so irrelevant that Yahoo’s movie page no longer even links to their reviews. Most magazines of criticism have gone belly-up or become unabashed cheerleaders for their industries. The dean of movie critics, Roger Ebert, has recently announced his TV show has gone on hiatus because it’s out of money. No one reads professional reviewers anymore. Art criticism is dead, having been replaced by art promotion. In this age of the Internet and instant marketing, the voice of the people matter, because collectively we’re supposed to be so smart.

In 1813 a new symphony was premiered by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was the single biggest success in his career, and sent the crowd into wild delirium. To put it in modern terms, Beethoven rocked the house. He was now the number one favorite composer among listeners in Vienna and probably the rest of Europe as well.

The critics, however, hated it. And they still do.

Today this work isn’t even found among his nine numbered symphonies, and it’s almost never performed. This “tenth” symphony, called Wellington’s Victory or sometimes The Battle of Vitoria, is so abysmal that admirers of the composer would rather just forget that he wrote it, and we tell ourselves he did it for altruistic reasons (as a benefit to raise money for wounded soldiers). The motivation may have been laudatory, but it doesn’t change the fact that, like “We Are The World,” the music itself is horrible.

Now imagine if the people instead of the critics were allowed to decide Beethoven’s canon. That little gem called the Fifth Symphony likely would go by the wayside, not to mention the late string quartets and piano sonatas, today largely regarded as the peak of instrumental music, not just by Beethoven, but by anyone.

To be fair, the critics didn’t get those works immediately either. But they eventually did. The public took longer. A lot longer. About a hundred years.

As another great composer, Gustav Mahler, once commented about his immediate lack of a fan base, “Someday my time will come.” It has. And without Twitter, too.

The audience did not bring these works to the forefront. As un-PC as it is to say today, critical consensus did.

It’s harder to know what from this era will await us in 2060 or 2100. Will tweets and “Likes” determine our future canons? Will everything in life be a popularity contest? Will the smart money say Salieri was really the great one, with Mozart only liked by “elitists” and “pretentious people”?

I recall an interview a while ago wherein a very popular writer of “chick lit” novels said the critics who derided him did so not because he is a bad writer, but because they were “jealous” of his success. Well, no, take my word for it, he is a bad writer. But putting oneself in the position of authority is very unstylish today. It sets one up for all sorts of personal attacks. It’s classist, racist, sexist, elitist, and a hole bunch of other -ists. The masses have wisdom, we’re told again and again. So siddown and shaddup.

That writer I just mentioned stands in very sharp contrast to Fitzgerald, who wrote his publisher he hoped “his own” was any good. (Woolf said something almost identical after finishing Mrs. Dalloway.)

I like the opening sentence in the editor’s preface of the Gatsby that I own: “The Great Gatsby does not proclaim the nobility of the human spirit; it is not politically-correct; it does not reveal how to solve the problems of life; it delivers no fashionable or comforting messages. It is simply a masterpiece.” Amen.

One of the things I worry about when ordinary people are judge, jury and executioner is that, like children in a bakery, we are going to want what makes us feel good. What’s wrong with that? The same thing that’s wrong with eating cake for every meal. Yes, the brain rots too.

This is why we used to turn to teachers and critics for some guidance and perspective that’s outside of our necessarily limited sphere. When I want an opinion on a construction project, I ask a contractor, not my neighbor. Sure “experts” are wrong sometimes: they’re human. But millions of Twitterers and Facebookers are wrong too, and with them the wrongness is multiplied and projected unchecked. There’s this belief of collective intelligence, that the opinion of millions has more value than the lonely one. Some people were astonished when grandmaster Garry Kasparov beat millions of who’d logged in to collectively “challenge” him in chess in Kasparov vs. the World. But anyone who was surprised doesn’t understand how the bell curve works. And I wouldn’t want any of those people deciding what’s an instant classic for me.

Impervious to information?

“She reads the New York Times only once a year. Last time, she found an article on the links between caffeine and breast cancer, and promptly gave up coffee. She does not have a TV, and in her loft the windows are covered with white curtains. The only view looks out onto a brick wall. ‘I’m almost impervious to information.'”

That paragraph is from an article The Telegraph did a few years ago on writer Deborah Eisenberg. Another Deborah Eisenberg post? Yes, it’s my blog. And Deborah Eisenberg is in my opinion the best writer working in American fiction today, if hardly the most promoted. It’s possible the only time she’s been referenced in widely-diseminated mainstream media was when longterm companion Wallace Shawn mentioned her near the beginning of the movie My Dinner With Andre.

Her works are rich in insight, knowledge and a worldly grasp. They are also political, sociological and contemporary. You would think she would be plugged into the internet, watching CNN and subscribing to a half dozen international newspapers and magazines, right?

Wrong. If reports are correct, Deborah Eisenberg lives more like a monk than a modern big city resident. Being she has no fan pages or twitter stream or social media presence, I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t even own a computer, at least one that’s linked to the web. (I have this image of her with a battered Apple IIc from circa 1990, but maybe that’s just too precious.)

In another interview, the writer reports that her Chelsea loft is sparse with covers on most of the windows and few chairs. “There’s nowhere to sit,” she says. “It discourages visitors.”


She’s far from the only one, of course. We all learn about Thoreau’s legendary loner status in English class. (At least I hope we still do. I have to admit I have no idea what they’re teaching kids today.) Jonathan Franzen, subject of a gushing Time profile last year, works in a rented office decorated in Modern Austerity accented with Strict Minimalism. Even his Dell laptop has had all games and diversions stripped right from the hard disk and the internet portal superglued shut. Kind of dramatic if you ask me, but Franzen has a flair for drama.

Other writers from the past were or are also famous recluses: Pynchon and Salinger and Harper Lee. Of course there are plenty who love the spotlight. But what I find so interesting about many of the loners is they are writing the most insightful, social-commentary fiction. It may seem a contradiction that people who cut themselves off from the world around them can still keep a finger on the pulse of their surroundings.

Then again, the mainstream media, to borrow a very popular phrase these days, seems so often to miss what’s going on. They give us lots of diversions that have little to do with the issues at hand, and at the end of each decade you tend to see that the Times and Newsweeks and network news shows missed the biggest, most gradual events that shaped us. They’re too busy chasing fads and talking to experts (I love a quote from, I believe, Linda Ellerbee: An expert is someone in your Rolodex) and big-headed people who tell everyone how important they are, to save us the trouble of having to figure it out for ourselves.

But what is it about blocking out the world—putting covers over the windows and throwing out the TV and blocking all media—that allows the writer to write with, apparently, more insight? Is it that all these things we’re supposed to be keeping in touch with to be Better Informed are actually doing exactly the opposite?

Come to think of it, that would explain a lot. After all, Shakespeare did pretty well with little more than a grade-school education.

Also interesting: Famous Reclusive Authors


Writer, promote thyself II

Whaddaya think?

My writer-friend Susan Gabriel, author of the breakout novel Seeking Sara Summers, pointed out an interesting article in the New York Times about the long and perhaps tacky history of self-promotion among writers. —See, I did that right. I got in two cross references in the very first sentence.That’s what “social media” is supposed to be about, they tell me. Gary Vaynerchuk would be proud. —See, there’s another! However, having checked out guru Gary’s blog, I can’t see much of anything except obvious social networking advice and lots of plugs for his own wine business.

Anyway, this carnival-barker stuff, at least in one respect, is apparently nothing new.  As the Times article points out, even the great Hemingway sold his mighty name for a brewski. Imaging getting tweets from Mary Shelley or Tolstoy of their vacation pics. Thoreau on roughing it. Dickens blogging about his childhood. Poe’s favorite libations.

I discussed this same topic in an earlier post. While all this social networking advice sounds good in the abstract, the real issue for me is the obvious one, the one I haven’t seen any of the social networking gurus discuss except superficially, which is how do you get yourself noticed when everyone else is doing it too? It isn’t enough to simply state, “Have interesting content and they will come.” They won’t necessarily. I see many interesting blogs and other online sites, and oftentimes even bookmark them, intending to return. But I don’t. No matter how interesting a site, there are only so many hours in a day, and the number of media outlets vying for our attention is growing astronomically.  In fact, any way you look at it, it is America’s largest-growing industry. (Except no one ever looks at it that way.)

And all this comes when we’re supposedly working harder and longer in our jobs than ever, because the companies we work for laid off the worker to our left and then the worker to our right, and we’re next if we’re caught looking at Lady Gaga’s tweets while at work.

Yet, as sites such as TMZ aptly demonstrate, it’s the self-promoters, the, let’s face it, whores, who get most of the attention today. Busy people simply don’t have time to go out independently seeking what’s good. We like to think we make discoveries ourselves, but with most of us, the content is placed in front of us for us to “discover,” whether we realize it or not. The trick is figuring out how to do it.

Ernest Hemingway ale ad

I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

I actually emailed Gary and asked him how one stands out using his social media tips when everyone else is doing it as well. How do we swim like a champion when everyone else in the pool is Michael Phelps too? Perhaps not surprisingly, he never answered. Whether he’s too busy with his many speaking engagements or just doesn’t have an answer I don’t know. What I do know is that I can’t find anybody with an answer to this question, other than some version of “Try harder,” which to me is sort of the Anthropic Principle of blogging.

I’ve already noticed a few things regarding readership to this blog: it’s better to post on a Sunday or Monday, because people are more likely to read Monday when they first arrive back at work and are trying to put off starting the week.  Posting on a Friday, especially a Friday afternoon, is deadly. Don’t post on travel holiday-weekends either.

What do you think, reader? What are some good promotional ideas for Entertaining Welsey Shaw? I’d serious consider anything breakout and not just the usual “Tweet, blog, stir, add salt if needed,” because that’s what everybody’s doing, all 500 million of us. (See, I’m really getting these links in like crazy. Thanks, Gary, you’re the best.) Tell me your thoughts, tell me what you notice, what you’re sick of; I’d love to hear your perspective.

Incidentally, the full New York Times article on writers and self-promotion can be found here.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the marketplace and what we read

It never fails.  I’m reading in public.  Another person wants to know what I’ve got. (It can be hard to tell as I take the dust covers off my hardback books so that they don’t get mangled.)  I show them.  Comes the inevitable response, “Are you reading that for school/an assignment/homework?”

It never seems to occur to so many people that I may be reading de Tocqueville, Yates, Montaigne,  Thoreau, Frederic, or even Fitzgerald for pleasure.  “Oh, I get it, but you also read fun stuff, right?”  Fun stuff means Harry Potter and the Twilight books.  Well, um, no, I don’t.  Honestly, because they just don’t interest me, but the stuff that made them possible does (Tolkien, Frankenstein, Dracula).  Neither does James Fenimore Cooper or Margaret Mitchell interest me.  Or whoever wrote Beowulf.   (Well, I’m a lot older; maybe I should grit my teeth and give Beowulf, like brussels sprouts, another try.)

If I’m going to spend hours with a book, it had better deliver.  Not just empty-headed entertainment.  It had better change the way I look at the world in some small way.  Some big way is nice too.  This is not optional.  It’s why I read, why I watch movies, why I listen to music.  “But don’t you like to just have fun?” I get asked.  That is fun.  Watching or reading about space battles, warlords, journeys to retrieve the magic whatever from the infernal king whoever…just doesn’t interest me, unless the text somewhat subverts the expectations of the genre and teaches us something because of it, almost in spite of it.  Someone, and I forget who, said the greatness of art can be gauged by how it presses up against and stresses out accepted convention; the resulting friction is the art.  So I’m looking for a lot of friction.

I’ve long wondered why Americans don’t have a taste for this sort of thing as much as Europeans.  And they don’t.  Despite the popularity of American pop culture in Continental Europe, it is still largely that, pop culture.  Sure they have their versions of American Idol, but they don’t quite take it as seriously as we do.  It’s a guilty pleasure, not their cultural glue.  In the large urban areas, at least, Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, Kant and pals still command a tremendous amount of respect and attention, to a degree an American who has never traveled abroad (85 percent, incidentally) would find hard to understand, though the old school admittedly is fighting for dominance more and more.  Still, I suspect it’ll long be around after posterity has forgotten Madonna, Simon Cowell and Puff Diddy, or whatever his name is this month.

In Democracy In America, which I consider the greatest book ever written about the U.S.A. (by a visiting Frenchman in the 1830s!), Alexis de Tocqueville says people in a country of a workaday economy do not want subtlety or depth in their art and literature–in their thinking.  Party this is because of a very good thing: the decision-makers in a democracy, the movers and shakers, are the ordinary, pragmatic folk, not the fancy-pants elites.  In America, the “common” people are in control of their destinies, and they’re in control of their leisure as well.  That’s part of it.  But there’s also a less egalitarian and idealistic reason for this lowering of the common denominator: forced to toil away for sustenance, members of a democracy, ie, a non-monarchical society, do not have time to form rarefied tastes and expertise in any thing except one: how to make the next dollar.  (Hold your vitriol.  Tocqueville said it; I’m just the messenger.)  Instead for their precious free time they want fantasy, shock, abrupt stimulation, always new, always changing, always promising, like some drug dealer, that the greatest, most satisfying “hit” is just around the corner.  This is exactly what we see today in everything from mass market fiction to mass market music to mass market movies.  What’s so impressive is that Tocqueville observed this, and predicted its effects on American intellectual development and national character, back in 1835, in a nation still in its infancy, and it holds up.

For all the faults we Americans have been conditioned to seeing in an aristocratic society, we haven’t been conditioned to seeing any of  its virtues.  Such a society has a leisure class that America, even in this age of technology and convenience, has never known and likely will never know.  In the past that meant a class capable of appreciating, and of taking the time to appreciate, the refinement and aesthetics of a Beethoven quartet or a Mozart piano concerto. What that means to any American (or member of any other society in which free markets plays such a major part–that’s the one slight inaccuracy with Tocqueville: he blurs free markets with Democracy, a mistake for which he can hardly be blamed back then; recently China has shown us you can have a free market-driven culture without Democratic principles, and Scandinavia and others have shown us you can have Democratic principles without total adherence to the free market) is that he must aim low to thrive–shock and thrill, with the awareness that your shelf life is short and you are creating material for a culture that seeks fast-moving novelty and not enduring substance.  Sometimes one can be present inside the other, of course, but that’s a gift, not a regular feature.  Of course aristocracies have had and continue to have their fads too, but they are thusly relegated–those “European Idol” shows.  Contrary to what many of you will take away from this article, I am not suggesting that Europe has no lowbrow culture or that everything they do is deep, serious and game-changing.  But they *do* have a sense of perspective as to when they are dealing with something that is game-changing and when they are engaged in “mental karaoke.”  Independently of writing this essay, I decided the other night that Charles Ives was most probably America’s greatest composer, and don’t forget that he labored throughout his life as an insurance salesman and saw his music as mostly a personal creative outlet, and not a way to make money, reach his fellow American or be remembered.  And probably far fewer Americans have heard of Charles Ives–not even heard his music, just heard of–than have traveled abroad.

There are of course serious artists in America, yet the country has produced profoundly few, compared to the number of superstar athletes, pop icons, movie stars, businesspeople, technological innovators (though we’re losing ground there at an alarming rate) and other stand-outs.  This says something as to where America truly, when all the lip-flapping is done, values art.  I don’t mean “art” as a commody–expensive paintings and other status symbols–but art as a cultural artifact, whose job is to change the way you think.  Work-a-day laborers, which is what America consists of even if some of them (an ever-dwindling class)  are well-paid and able to live to some extent like their aristocratic counterparts of yore, don’t have the time to master languages of story-telling and don’t want their perspectives challenged and changed in a novel or movie.  If there is such content it had better be buried deep and sugar-coated, and even this has become in the last 30 years of up-and-doing marketplace Republicanism, a niche-market, so true “art-for-art’s-sake” art is a niche within a niche market, a pimple on a flea on the back of a careerist worker who spends even his scant leisure time reading books that will make him a more efficient capitalist and a more avid consumer.  And people question my definition of fun.

Of course “the marketplace” is nothing new–it goes back at least to ancient Athens, and probably then it was old–but this narrowness of its expression is.  This is the sentence, the reality, the fact of anyone trying to make art today in America and countries that model their social-economic engines on America.  Recently, for reasons I don’t fully understand, the French voted in a president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had the same idea for his people.  Since then, many of his policies–based on making France more imitative of America–haven’t gone over well.  I wonder what the voters were expecting…

America enjoyed a sort of spiritual infusion during the 1930s and 40s, as refugees from Europe fled fascism and made their homes either in the U.S. or Western Europe and then the United States.  They brought much of Europe’s greatness with them–Marlene Dietrich and Bruno Walter and Josef von Sternberg and Igor Stravinsky and Wernher von Braun and Billy Wilder and Sergei Rachmaninoff and Albert Einstein and George Balanchine.   We “natives” have largely taken this Götterfunken for granted.  As the effects of these people wear off, we will see, in this new century, that much of what we took to be American exceptionalism came from elsewhere.