Philip Roth, 1973
Here’s Nathaniel Rich, writing for The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013:
Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:
The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?
Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of . . . media stupidity and cynical commercialism — American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.
The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . . by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”
Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.
Full article: “Roth Agonistes“
Photo by Nancy Crampton (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mirabile dictu, word has emerged that T. E. D. Klein’s second novel Nighttown, which has been delayed for the past 30 years, may actually see the light of day.
Remember back in the late 1980s when Nighttown was announced all over the place? Viking, who published Klein’s previous two books — the now classic Dark Gods and The Ceremonies — announced Nighttown for 1989 and even specified a page count. Hints of the plot were given: “A New York subway murderer hunts for the crime’s only witness in this horror novel.” Klein himself described the book as “a paranoid horror novel set entirely in New York.”
And then it never materialized. A few years later, a revised publication date of 1995 was issued. Both Amazon and Google Books actually have listings for it right now with that date, accompanied by an ISBN and the following plot description: “When Larry Tucker sees a woman pushed in front of an oncoming New York subway train, he is unable to go to the police since he is himself a fugitive, and he is soon stalked by the demented killer.” But again, this proved a false hope. The book never appeared.
For three decades people have been wondering what happened. Rumors have circulated that Klein pulled the plug on Nighttown because he was demoralized when he saw a movie whose plot too closely paralleled what he was writing. He was also said to be suffering from writer’s block. Some years ago I got a secondhand confirmation of this latter rumor when a mutual friend of Klein’s and mine told me that the novel is actually mostly written, but that Klein is blocked on the ending. In a 2008 interview for Cemetery Dance, Klein explained that he sold the book to Viking without having a very clear idea of how he was actually going to execute it.
The chatter continues today. Just last month David Schow, who counts Klein as one of his primary authorial mentors, told Lisa Morton that “I am one of the few people on the planet who has read the bones of Ted’s never-finished second novel, Nighttown. I read it while I was staying in his apartment in Manhattan.”
And now, as of two days ago (May 24), there’s this startling announcement from S. T. Joshi at his blog:
Mary and I spent a harried six days on the East Coast, first in Philadelphia, where my niece Anjeli Elkins was graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, then in New York City, where I met many members of the Lovecraft/weird fiction gang. Our time in Philadelphia was very brief, and we had no time to look up colleagues such as Darrell Schweitzer or Michael Aronovitz amidst the rush of graduation- and family-related activities. In New York we were delighted to meet Derrick Hussey, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Fred Phillips, Steven J. Mariconda, T. E. D. Klein (who, now that he is officially retired from Condé Nast, promises to finish his second novel, Nighttown, suspended about thirty years ago!), and many others. All great fun!
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this constitutes validly Momentous News.
“Birthday Boy” by Chris Mars
(The following announcement was first posted yesterday at Thomas Ligotti Online and has now begun to propagate via social media. In addition to the fact that a journal like Vastarien will undoubtedly interest many readers of The Teeming Brain, I’m posting the info about it here for the pointedly personal reason that I’m the project’s Editor-in-Chief.)
Vastarien. The forbidden tome — an entryway into “a place where everything was transfixed in the order of the unreal. . . . Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous — wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal” (from “Vastarien” by Thomas Ligotti).
Editor-in-Chief Matt Cardin and Senior Editors Jon Padgett, Brian Poe, and Kevin Moquin are pleased to announce that Vastarien: A Literary Journal is now open for submissions. Vastarien aspires to be a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti, as well as associated authors and creative work. We plan to do this through the publication of scholarly and critical works of nonfiction, literary horror fiction, poetry, and artwork. Please visit our website for more information. And stay tuned for more news as we review submissions and head toward a launch date.
Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker:
What are the qualities that make a work “relatable,” and why have these qualities come to be so highly valued? To seek to see oneself in a work of art is nothing new, nor is it new to enjoy the sensation. Since Freud theorized the process of identification — as a means whereby an individual develops his or her personality through idealizing and imitating a parent or other figure — the concept has fruitfully been applied to the appreciation of the arts. Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.
But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
To appreciate “King Lear” — or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars” — only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize — because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy — is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”
MORE: “The Scourge of ‘Relatability‘ “
New (and old) book projects: An encyclopedia of horror literature and a collection of horror fiction
Frontispiece to Frankenstein (1831 edition). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
On a morning when I’ve just finished up with several days of responding to publisher copy edits on Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics, I’m happy to announce the birth of another book project: I have just signed a contract with the same publisher (ABC-CLIO) to edit a two-volume reference work to be titled Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears. This is all still in the early developmental stages, and the book itself won’t appear until late 2016 (at the very earliest). But I can tell you that the structure and approach of this particular project will make it something special. I will of course say more about the whole thing as additional information becomes available.
Oh, and speaking of available information, I can also report that my long-hibernating omnibus collection of horror fiction from Hippocampus Press, To Rouse Leviathan — which has been greatly delayed by my own mercurial creative cycles and outer life circumstances — is still very much alive.
Here’s something special for the Ligotti fans among us (and I know there are a lot of you reading this): Sławomir Wielhorski’s interview with Tom is now reprinted here at The Teeming Brain and available for your free reading and enjoyment. The interview was first published in Poland. Then the English version made its initial appearance last year in Born to Fear: Interviews with Thomas Ligotti, which, as many of you are already aware, I edited for Subterranean Press. This is actually the interview that gave the book its title, drawn from Tom’s response to the first question, so I’m very pleased to present it to you.
I’m also pleased to announce that the version published here includes “bonus material” in the form of a question and answer that were edited out of the interview’s original published appearances, and that are made available here for the first time.
Here’s a sample:
Sławomir Wielhorski: Could you tell us what triggered your interest in the horror genre and what influence it had on your life and literary output?
Thomas Ligotti: I was born to fear. It’s as plain as that. As the narrator of my short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done writes, “I have always been afraid.” If I ever wrote an autobiography, I would begin with the same sentence. In my opinion, everyone is some kind of fluke, an accident of biology and environment. We are randomly generated, arbitrarily conditioned flukes. And the kind of fluke I am is one that is born to fear. I don’t know how much of my fear is derived from genetics and how much from life experience. But the upshot is that I was born to fear, that is, by all laws of cause and effect, if you believe these have any purchase upon who we are — as do many psychologists — that was my destiny. Naturally, then, I was attracted to things that instilled fear in me, a paradoxical means of handling my fear but one that is not uncommonly employed by those who have been born to fear. Can anyone doubt that Poe was born to fear, or that Lovecraft was born to fear? They may also have been born to other things, but primarily they were born to fear. Almost everyone who writes or reads horror stories was born to fear. It only makes sense that this is the case.
Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.
Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:
MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?
J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.
MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?
JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.
FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice“
Here are some powerful, moving, and beautiful words from Ursula K. Le Guin at the recent National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and used the opportunity to talk about the value of visionary literature and the ugliness and danger of treating books as pure commodities:
I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction — writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want — and should demand — our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
Lest we forget, Ms. Le Guin spoke about this same “realism of a larger reality” back in 1973 at the very same venue, when she was accepting the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore:
Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in his laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. The fantasist, whether he uses the ancient archetype of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist — and a great deal more directly — about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived.
For even more, see this recent (August 2014) interview with Le Guin in which she expounds on the same theme:
“The genres” were ignored altogether [from the 1940s to the turn of the century] and realistic fiction alone was left as literature, in the minds of the men who controlled criticism and teaching. Realism is of course a tremendous and wonderfully capacious literary genre, and it has dominated fiction since 1800 or before. But dominance isn’t the same thing as superiority. Fantasy is at least as immense as realism and much older — essentially coeval with literature itself. Yet fantasy was relegated for fifty years or sixty years to the nursery.
. . . . The thing to remember, however exotic or futuristic or alien the mirror [of a given type of literature] seems, is that you are in fact looking at your world and yourself. Serious science fiction is just as much about the real world and human beings as realistic novels are. (Sometimes more so, I think when faced with yet another dreary story about a dysfunctional upper middle class East Coast urban family.) After all, the imagination can only take apart reality and recombine it. We aren’t God, our word isn’t the world. But our minds can learn a lot about the world by playing with it, and the imagination finds an infinite playing field in fiction.
Finally, and perhaps in slight correction to Ms. Le Guin’s last two sentences above, here’s a key quote from Terence McKenna that rests and resonates well with the mix of ideas presented here:
The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish
Greetings from the cyber-silence, Teeming Brain readers. As you may have noticed, this site has been on a long pause — unplanned and unannounced — for about four months now. A number of factors piled up to bring this about, including the necessity for me to devote all of my spare time to fulfilling the main portion of my editor’s duties in bringing together Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies (a project that I’ll say more about in coming weeks). But now the mega-wave of busyness is starting to subside, and there is time once again for the brain to teem.
I have quite a few items lined up for publication here in coming weeks, including my long-in-coming conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, the final installment of Dominik Irtenkauf’s “Sounds of Apocalypse” article series, a new installment of Stuart Young’s column Sparking Neurones (this one about an interesting angle on Captain America), and a whole slew of links to worthwhile items of interest that have come across the transom during the hiatus.
For now, I’d like to direct your attention to the above just-published audio reading of Conrad Aiken’s classic and wonderful short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” about a boy who becomes progressively more lost in the blissful isolation of an inner world or otherworld of spectral snowfall, until his disappearance is complete. The reader is my good friend Jon Padgett, who has been acting and performing in various creative capacities for many years, and his performance here is simply exquisite. The opening and closing music is composed and performed by me, specifically for the purpose of accompanying this story. I hope you find the whole presentation as enjoyable and deeply emotionally affecting as I do. There’s a downloadable version of the audio file at Thomas Ligotti Online (which Jon founded nearly two decades ago).