Friday, August 31, 2012

Chapter Wherein the Author Copes with Negative Reviews

Recapping the story thus far...

In 2009 I wrote a story called The Zeroes.

In 2010 I pitched the manuscript to literary agents and small publishers. I honestly lost track of how many. About 10% responded with polite form letters that began "Dear Author." The other 90% didn't respond at all. I have no reason to believe that any of the people I pitched ever actually read the book. (Which is understandable, but nevertheless discouraging.)

In 2011 I resigned myself to getting the damn thing off my hands and bearing the stigma of being a self-published author.

Earlier this year (2012), the manuscript became a novel. In February it was published as an ebook. In April it was released in paperback form.

Since then I've devoted less energy to finalizing the draft of a new short novel (written between September and May) than trying to make people interested in reading (and ideally purchasing) The Zeroes.

Once again, this is why you want to have a publisher to begin with. They take care of all that crucial but excruciatingly bothersome business for you. They put your book in stores, see that it gets reviewed by the right reviewers, and design Facebook ads on your behalf so you can work on writing more books and making them more money.

A failing to which I will freely confess is that I have no business acumen. I don't know how to design snappy ads or pitches. Relentless self-promotion puts a bad taste in my mouth. I don't have an outgoing personality and I'm not very good at disingenuous glad-handing. Frankly, I'd rather write than tell people about what I've already written.

In a 21st century market, this is a crippling deficiency. I'm well aware.

One of my primary motivations for maintaining a blog, updating a webcomic, and doing these video game reviews is to give myself a platform from which I can promote my book. Yes, I do enjoy working on all this stuff for its own sake -- but between my fiction and my video game criticism, the fiction is much more important to me. And between the two, I'd rather people were reading my fiction.

But a book is an imposition. A free article about a familiar video game in a web browser is much less of an investment than a 300-page novel by an author who's not respectable enough to be adopted by an imprint but still has the nerve to ask for your time and money. I'm finding that if, for instance, a hundred people read my EarthBound writeup, it doesn't necessarily mean even one of them will click on the link to my Amazon page and shell out $15 (or even $3) for a copy of The Zeroes, even if I cajole them.

This is where the reviews come in.

Ideal scenario: you convince a blogger to review your book. They tell everyone in their sphere that your book is worthwhile, and some of these people actually purchase and read it. And if the reviewer has some clout, other people with clout might be more willing to give you and your book a chance.

One thing I've learned over the past few months is that it's almost as hard to get a book review as it is to get a book deal.

There's absolutely no shortage of book review blogs focusing on "indie" books. But there's even less a scarcity of self-published nobody authors incessantly pleading and screaming REVIEW MY BOOK NEXT. And so for days and weeks you toss custom-written pitches toward these bloggers (who, for all you know, only receive traffic from other self-published authors desperately searching for reviewers) and hear nothing back from any of them, not even a "no thanks," because their inboxes are already inundated with a hundred other solicitations from a hundred other lousy authors begging them to review a hundred other books nobody wanted to publish.

The only blog that agreed to check out and review The Zeroes was the Unbound Underground. Go on, read the review.

It's not very flattering. Statements like "seems to lack any depth or understanding of depression" and "incredibly condescending and insulting" rather negate any of the scant bits of praise that buoy the rating up to a 3.

Shortly after it was posted, a reader hopped on my Formspring an asked me about my reaction to it. I let it all out and felt pretty good about myself.

Not long afterwards, somebody (perhaps the person who submitted the question to begin with) sent me a few words of advice. The gist of it was that while people who'd already read and appreciated my book might agree and sympathize, but to the much more sizable Everyone Else, the rant would make me look like some bitchy diva with a wounded ego -- especially since the Unbound Underground was actually doing me a favor by reading and reviewing the book to begin with.

He was absolutely correct. If some other blogger were considering The Zeroes for his next post and doing some research on its author, a Formspring page containing a tirade against the last person to review his book would almost definitely change his mind. So I thanked him for his clarity of judgement and axed the question and my response to it.

I started pitching other bloggers, hoping to offset this one negative review with a few positive ones from readers who might better understand the book.

A prewritten form letter won't work. Especially not when you're asking somebody to take on a project on their own time and offering them no renumeration. And especially not when you're pitching them a book that is, by your own admission, as deliberately mundane as possible, and for which you can't effectively compose a snappy plot summary because there (deliberately) isn't much of a plot. Your task becomes finding a suitable blog, reading enough of it to get an idea who you're dealing with, and then composing a personalized pitch that adheres to their unique submission guidelines.

It's a grinding process -- scouring the web for somebody who might be hip to what you're offering, skimming the last two or three months of their blog, and then writing them an unctuous personalized message that will give them the impression that you're excited to show them your book because you're an avid reader who's really into what they're doing, and certainly not some exhausted, red-eyed creep who sincerely could not give a shit what they're reading or talking about unless it's your fucking book.

(If any bloggers I may have solicited are reading this, please be assured I consider you exceptional. Would I lie to you?!)

One, two hours per pitch. One, two hours that you could be doing any number of other things, like going outside, visiting friends, napping, gardening, reading, playing video games, dancing, fucking, or working on your next book. And you do this one, two, five, a dozen and more times. And none of them write back. And none of them ask you to send them your book.

But we already understand that we can't blame them for this. Pitches pile up in their inboxes like spambot messages appear in yours.

This would be the advantage of paid reviews. (The legitimate kind, I mean -- not the perfidious phony type that makes life harder for everyone.) You throw a respectable book review publication some cash and they agree to give your book a read and a review. You're not guaranteed a good review, but your check buys you the assurance that somebody will read your book and write about it.

Kirkus Indie is a service offered by publishing industry authority pillar Kirkus. The short of it: you pay them $500 and they review your self-published novel, regardless of how obscure you might be.

A few nights ago I received Kirkus Indie's review of The Zeroes in my inbox.

Basically, I paid $500 for two paragraphs about how The Zeroes is a dreadful book about awful people and why nobody should read it.

The only upside is that my receipt reserved me the option to request that the review never see the light of day. I have already made that request. And I deleted the review.

It's a good thing I had the next day off from work. I was practically catatonic for about sixteen hours.

The question becomes: how do I read and respond to this feedback?

None of the criticisms offered by either review are especially helpful or constructive. One complains that the book is extremely depressing. Great; it's meant to be. The other lambasts the characters for being pathetic, self-absorbed, and drinking too much. Sure; that was rather the point. Both reviews bring up the word "entitlement." Well, yeah -- I thought that was a fairly obvious component of the subtext.

It's clear that the reviewers just didn't get it.

They Didn't Get It. The chorus of the failed artist. Repeated so many times by so many people that it can't possibly be true anymore. They'd get it if you were as good as you thought you were. Why should the writer have to explain himself?

So now I think about that new manuscript I've got sitting around. About polishing and finalizing it. About how I'll have to spend another few months pitching it to the agents and small presses again. About how I'll very probably have to resort to self-publishing again. About how I'll have write dozens of letters to dozens of bloggers pleading for reviews again. About how I'll watch the sales counter freeze again and sit around trying to figure out what to do next again.

But that's just how it goes. Art is a bitch and nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear about it, and you truly have no right to complain and don't deserve any sympathy. (Some asshole wrote a book about this once.)

This brings us to an alternative reading of the tea leaves: why not take the hint and call it quits?

You're never going to make any money off this. That much is certain. Given how the written word -- and especially the novel -- are trundling into irrelevance, that spicule-thin probability of being vindicated much later down the road will get closer and closer to zero as time passes. And since you seem to agonize over writing like you do, wouldn't it be better to just tear the monkey off your shoulders and find some happier and more rewarding activity to occupy your time?

Czeslaw Milosz refers to his choice to write as the deformation of his own life. Somewhat less poetically, I'd call it a kind of behavioral disorder. Unless it's paying your bills, it just doesn't make sense. It's a lot of trouble and it's really not worth it.

Fuck -- if I quit writing, I could go out and try to find a real job. I mean, one of the reasons I've been so reluctant to dive into a capital-c Career is my fear that it wouldn't leave me enough time or energy to dedicate to what I've always felt is my real work. If I stopped writing, I would almost definitely stop smoking. I'd have no excuse not spend more time with my friends, read more books, work in the garden more often, play more Street Fighter, or go to bed at a decent hour. I could go out and get laid more often. I might find myself readier to get into a sustainable loving and working relationship with a human being who actually exists outside of my own head. I'd never have to write another fucking pitch to a literary agent or blogger for the rest of my life. I could actually relax on my weekends and days off.

Quitting makes a very convincing case for itself.

About sixteen hours after reading a paid professional opinion that my writing is garbage, I finally got out of bed, had lunch, and sat down to make some progress on a new short story I've been tinkering with. I'll worry about the backdraft of rejection slips from literary magazines later on.

Ultimately, I'm still just too stupid to quit.

And it must be terminal, because I'm totally cool with it.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books III & IV

So Pierre is finally rolling. Our hero has committed his first transgression by not being completely, totally, 100% honest with his dear old mum for the first time in his hypercharmed little life, and I'd wager he'll be doing much less savory things in much less savory circumstances before long. The young Mr. Glendinning has also gotten his wish and discovered he has a sister -- a strange, dark, illegitimate half-sister, but nevertheless his father's daughter and Pierre's own flesh and blood.

He seems a bit infatuated, doesn't he? After fixating on the image of Isabel's face for however many pages, Pierre goes nearly apoplectic with devotion after discovering the girl's identity. This should be interesting. After all: if there's one thing the guy who wrote Moby Dick understands, it's obsession.

Did anyone else notice the shift? Melville is starting to sound like Melville again: ornate, but not excessively flamboyant. The first paragraph of 4.1 is a shining example of Melville writing as only Melville can:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight. We see the cloud, and feel its bolt; but meteorology only idly essays a critical scrutiny as to how that cloud became charged, and how this bolt so stuns. The metaphysical writers confess, that the most impressive, sudden, and overwhelming event, as well as the minutest, is but the product of an infinite series of infinitely involved and untraceable foregoing occurrences. Just so with every motion of the heart. Why this cheek kindles with a noble enthusiasm; why that lip curls in scorn; these are things not wholly imputable to the immediate apparent cause, which is only one link in the chain; but to a long line of dependencies whose further part is lost in the mid-regions of the impalpable air.

Melville wields the language as eloquently as any English bard, but this isn't just pretty-sounding fluff. He has such an astounding talent for tracing out abstractions and painting them across the canvas of the reader's mind. Logopoeia. It flashes in the brain and makes the tissues tingle. (Shakespeare does the same thing, for instance. Tennyson, for another instance, usually doesn't so much.)

Also in 4.1:

There had long stood a shrine in the fresh-foliaged heart of Pierre, up to which he ascended by many tableted steps of remembrance; and round which annually he had hung fresh wreaths of a sweet and holy affection. Made one green bower of at last, by such successive votive offerings of his being; this shrine seemed, and was indeed, a place for the celebration of a chastened joy, rather than for any melancholy rites. But though thus mantled, and tangled with garlands, this shrine was of marble -- a niched pillar, deemed solid and eternal, and from whose top radiated all those innumerable sculptured scrolls and branches, which supported the entire one-pillared temple of his moral life; as in some beautiful Gothic oratories, one central pillar, trunk-like, upholds the roof. In this shrine, in this niche of this pillar, stood the perfect marble form of his departed father; without blemish, unclouded, snow-white, and serene; Pierre's fond personification of perfect human goodness and virtue. Before this shrine, Pierre poured out the fullness of all young life's most reverential thoughts and beliefs. Not to God had Pierre ever gone in his heart, unless by ascending the steps of that shrine, and so making it the vestibule of his abstractest religion.....

When Pierre was twelve years old, his father had died, leaving behind him, in the general voice of the world, a marked reputation as a gentleman and a Christian; in the heart of his wife, a green memory of many healthy days of unclouded and joyful wedded life, and in the inmost soul of Pierre, the impression of a bodily form of rare manly beauty and benignity, only rivaled by the supposed perfect mold in which his virtuous heart had been cast. Of pensive evenings, by the wide winter fire, or in summer, in the southern piazza, when that mystical night-silence so peculiar to the country would summon up in the minds of Pierre and his mother, long trains of the images of the past; leading all that spiritual procession, majestically and holily walked the venerated form of the departed husband and father. Then their talk would be reminiscent and serious, but sweet; and again, and again, still deep and deeper, was stamped in Pierre's soul the cherished conceit, that his virtuous father, so beautiful on earth, was now uncorruptibly sainted in heaven. So choicely, and in some degree, secludedly nurtured, Pierre though now arrived at the age of nineteen, had never yet become so thoroughly initiated into that darker, though truer aspect of things, which an entire residence in the city from the earliest period of life, almost inevitably engraves upon the mind of any keenly observant and reflective youth of Pierre's present years. So that up to this period, in his breast, all remained as it had been; and to Pierre, his father's shrine seemed spotless, and still new as the marble of the tomb of him of Arimathea.

Judge, then, how all-desolating and withering the blast, that for Pierre, in one night, stripped his holiest shrine of all overlaid bloom, and buried the mild statue of the saint beneath the prostrated ruins of the soul's temple itself.

Melville probably could have written "Pierre revered his deceased father and was really bummed out to find out he secretly fostered an illegitimate daughter," because that's really the gist of the situation. And it's probably a situation that had been written about at least once in human history before 1852.

Other writers can touch upon the same or similar themes, but Melville's treatment of them is unique. But no more nor less unique is the character of the individual human creature. Remember, Melville has demonstrated here (as Mr. Johnathan pointed out) and elsewhere his fixation with conveying the particulars of a situation. It's not enough for him to to just flat say that his protagonist is upset by the airing of his father's dirty secret. No two sets of circumstances are ever exactly the same; no two psyches are ever exactly the same. Melville goes to such trouble to enumerate at these details and paint all these scenes because he wants us to understand precisely what's happening inside Pierre Glendinning.

We're seeing the old "show, don't tell" writer's maxim being taken perhaps much farther than its prescriber suggested. If Melville were a painter, his work would be rendered in such baroque detail as to tear across the line between verisimilitude and overwhelming hyperrealism. But one of Melville's greatest strengths as a writer is in the stark vividness and ferocity of evocation with which he renders the inner lives of his characters. There's something Captain Ahab says in Moby Dick:

O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.

Phenomena in the interior world color perceptions of the outer world; objects and events in the outer world become the recognizable forms of the interior world's nonphysical occurrences.

Everything is grand in Melville's world. Or -- maybe we should say Melville's worlds. Inner and outer. Such rich and lofty thoughts billow in his characters' brains; and what a magnificent world he's furnished them with, and from which he can weave suitably royal metaphors to clothe their ideas in forms we can perceive.

He is a mutant. I don't know how he writes like he does. As you've surely noticed, he's not a terribly polished author -- but I think he gets away with his excesses because excess is his essential medium. He uses overstatement like Jimi Hendrix uses a fucking guitar. We've already seen how a pared-down Melville isn't nearly as exciting or beautiful or fun as logorrheic Melville.

Speaking of metaphors, do you enjoy his similes as much as I do?

As the vine flourishes, and the grape empurples close up to the very walls and muzzles of cannoned Ehrenbreitstein; so do the sweetest joys of life grow in the very jaws of its perils. 


In the cold courts of justice the dull head demands oaths, and holy writ proofs; but in the warm halls of the heart one single, untestified memory's spark shall suffice to enkindle such a blaze of evidence, that all the corners of conviction are as suddenly lighted up as a midnight city by a burning building, which on every side whirls its reddened brands.


Love is built upon secrets, as lovely Venice upon invisible and incorruptible piles in the sea.


[T]o Pierre it rolled down on his soul like melted lava, and left so deep a deposit of desolation, that all his subsequent endeavors never restored the original temples to the soil, nor all his culture completely revived its buried bloom. 

And (I will admit to laughing out loud at this one)

Now, from his height of composure, he firmly gazed abroad upon the charred landscape within him; as the timber man of Canada, forced to fly from the conflagration of his forests, comes back again when the fires have waned, and unblinkingly eyes the immeasurable fields of fire-brands that here and there glow beneath the wide canopy of smoke.

And (from Moby Dick, which might be one of his most ridiculous)

But those wild eyes met his, as the bloodshot eves of the prairie wolves meet the eye of their leader, ere he rushes on at their head in the trail of the bison; but, alas! only to fall into the hidden snare of the Indian. 

So yeah, Melville has a tendency to occasionally overshoot his mark. But you sure as hell can't say his analogies fall flat.

(Tangential consideration: it is commonly regarded as a mark of both genius and madness to possess a heightened perception of the connections uniting disparate phenomena. Maybe the difference between them is measured by the capacity for other people to see them once they've been pointed out.)

So yeah, that's all I've got to say tonight. I'm already moving ahead into Book IV, and I'm digging where Pierre seems to be headed. What about you guys? What are you thinking? Any favorite passages you'd like to share? Anything that tickled or rankled you in particular? SPEAK UP, DAMN IT.

Extra credit project for the duration of Pierre: post your favorite metaphors and similes, whether they be eloquent or overblown!

Postscript: One of my favorite lines in Book III:

This history goes forward and goes backward, as occasion calls. Nimble center, circumference elastic you must have.

Translation: "Yeah, we're jumping around a bit. Deal with it."

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Self-Indulgent Top 10 Post: Sisters of Mercy Songs

About a week or so ago, Miss Polly asked members the Socks faithful to pick one of our favorite bands/artists and throw together a list of our ten favorite songs by that band/artist. Ordinarily I wouldn't waste readers' time with a Top 10 list (Top 20 lists are a different case entirely) -- but lately I've been busy writing short stories, reading Pierre and thinking of things to say about it, trying to figure out exciting and effective ways to pimp my goddamned book (which you should probably read if you haven't already because it's actually quite good), and still having a day job, so I haven't had much opportunity to brew up any adequately frothy blogthoughts.

SO! Today we'll be looking at my ten favorite Sisters of Mercy songs.

10.) Adrenochrome

They have much better songs than this, but I'm inordinately fond of "Adrenochrome's" roughness. I'm not certain of the timeline, but this must have been one of the first songs they ever recorded. It sounds like a bunch of kids playing instruments in a basement in the early 1980s -- which, yeah, is pretty much what the Sisters were at this point. Listening to it without knowing that the band would eventually become international goth superstars, you'd think it was some forgotten band recorded on an unlabeled cassette tape found in a box at a garage sale.

9.) Long Train

Like its namesake, this song just keeps on chugging along. And chugging along. And chugging along. And chugging along. There's an abridged version of the song (which seems to just be called "Train") that gets right to the point, but for some reason it just doesn't satisfy me. Perfect for zoning out to during long drives down the highway at night.

8.) Gimme Shelter

I'm curious to know how much incense, opium, and T.S. Eliot poetry it would take to get the Rolling Stones to sound like this.

7.) More

For all the goths' whining about Vision Thing, the album's centerpiece remains inescapable at goth clubs. This song still gets the dance floor moving, and unlike the rest of the Sisters catalog, you don't even have to wander into the cramped little "old school" room with all the overweight weirdos in The Cure T-shirts to hear it. (Of course, why would you be at a club on goth night anyway?)

6.) Flood 1

If there's one thing Andrew Eldritch (the main man of the Sisters) hates, it's being called "goth." The Sisters of Mercy is not and never was a goth band, he fumes. "Modernist rock," he calls it, and we'll take him for his word. The Sisters really don't sound anything at all like the bands who actually label themselves as goth, anyhow.

Modernist rock. So why does Flood make my goth receptors tingle so fiercely? (It also makes me feel wet. Not in a sexual way or anything. More like a phantom sense of immersion in cold water.)

Okay, totally sexual.

5.) Nine While Nine

This is the perfect song to listen to during a painful breakup in the middle of winter in that it's the last thing that'll cheer you up during a painful breakup in the middle of winter. It will carry your melancholy to such lofty frontiers that you will actually go into a hibernative state and not thaw out until late May. That's been my experience, anyhow.

4.) Temple of Love

A lot of people were turned off by the Sisters' third album. After the smokey and sonorous First and Last and Always and the synth-heavy Floodland, fans complained that the rock-n'-roll guitars of 1990's Vision Thing were too drastic and inappropriate a departure. Actually, it was rather a return to form for the Sisters. Exhibit A: 1983's "Temple of Love." THE DEFENSE RESTS. (The defense, however, admits its preference for the original recording over the 1992 reprise.)

3.) Black Planet

I had no idea what to expect when I picked up First and Last and Always on the advice of some older kid at Hot Topic who emphatically recommended the Sisters on the basis of my professed fondness for "goth" music. At the time, I took goth to mean stuff like Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and various industrial acts I heard on a couple of Cleopatra Records compilations. "Black Planet" was the first Sisters song I listened to and definitely wasn't what I expected to hear. It took one more listen after the first to acquire the taste, and one more after that to develop a craving.

Fourteen years ago. Half a lifetime back. Good god damn!

2.) When You Don't See Me

I finished the rough draft of a short second novel something like four, five months ago. During its composition I must have listened to this song on repeat at least a hundred times. It's a very old favorite and I doubt I'll ever outgrow it.

1.) Lucretia My Reflection

This song is my jam. I don't know what more to say about it.

I shouldn't have to explain myself! It's just so obviously excellent. Two plus two is four. Parallel lines never meet. "Lucretia My Reflection" is great and should be listened to all the time. It's practically axiomatic!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Let's Read Pierre: Books I & II

Let's talk about Pierre!

My fear is that y'all are already turned off after Books I and II. They are very sappy and very wordy. Nobody's gonna say they aren't.

First, on the sappiness: Mr. Vuela posits that Melville was parodying the grandiloquence and melodrama of popular fiction of the day, which doesn't sound unreasonable in the least. (Confession: I know very little about American dime novels from the 1850s. Most of them ain't being printed no more because, from what I can gather, they were crap. Some things never change.) However, a lot of it is surely just Melville being Melville -- although it's certainly not the word I would have used, a British acquaintance who read Moby Dick for the first time a few years ago (and loved it) gushed about how "fruity" Melville is. I'm not gonna disclaim this. But we should also remember that Melville has a very wicked and very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and his last novel was which was about Lucifer incarnate -- Captain Ahab, the most terrifying bad-ass in the American canon -- commanding a demonic ship to hunt a seamonster god-beast, so we're not exactly dealing with some chick-lit author here.

Melville probably knew damn well how saccharine these first couple of chapters come across. But no author would spill so much ink painting such an ur-Rockwellian portrait of his hero's perfect happy little home and his happy perfect little life unless he was fixing to throw the fucker under a steamroller. (I speak from experience!)

But even if it's sappy, you can't say Melville is being flippant. The scenario is romantic to the point of absurdity, but Melville is nevertheless earnest in his depiction of this impossibly idyllic life with impossibly beautiful people whose love for one another is so impossibly intense and pure. You can't say there aren't several genuinely beautiful moments and fun passages embedded in all the syrup.

Melville's voluminousness is the other thing I should like to bring up, especially for anyone for who hasn't read any of his stuff before. You've noticed that the guy just goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on. This is actually what makes him so much fun to read.

Maybe it began during the first half of the 20th century, when celebrity writers like Hemingway insisted that the best and only way to write was with a parsimonious minimalism. It certainly becomes more pronounced during the latter half of the century as the sound bite and jingle came to dominate discourse and the public's attention span contracted. But now there's this idea that books should just stay on topic and take the reader from plot point A to plot point Z as quickly as possible.

I can see how this makes sense in the other media of today. A serialized comic only has twenty-two or so pages these days; it needs to get to the point and command the reader's interest as soon as possible. A film gets three hours, at the most, to get its point across. It can meander, but it must remember that it's asking its viewers to soak it all up in a single setting. A TV show gets half an hour to an hour to make its point, and the producer of an HBO or AMC saga must bear in mind that every minute of every episode is another books of checks written to all the actors, cameramen, lighting guys, caterers, etc. Audiovisual media need to get to the point and stay on track.

But why should this apply to the novel? I like these 19th century books because they're willing and often eager to take the reader along the scenic route. And when the novel is written by someone like Melville -- someone for whom composing prose poetry is apparently effortless -- I'm glad for all the detours through the rolling vistas of his thoughts. As far as the story of Pierre and Lucy's courtship is concerned, the whole spiel about love in 2.4 (for instance) is basically an extraneous ornament. But I think what we've read so far would be a lot poorer without passages like:

Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth, the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof! The first worlds made were winter worlds; the second made, were vernal worlds; the third, and last, and perfectest, was this summer world of ours. In the cold and nether spheres, preachers preach of earth, as we of Paradise above. Oh, there, my friends, they say, they have a season, in their language known as summer. Then their fields spin themselves green carpets; snow and ice are not in all the land; then a million strange, bright, fragrant things powder that sward with perfumes; and high, majestic beings, dumb and grand, stand up with outstretched arms, and hold their green canopies over merry angels -- men and women -- who love and wed, and sleep and dream, beneath the approving glances of their visible god and goddess, glad-hearted sun, and pensive moon! 

(It's not so much that Melville's language is especially lyrical -- but it expresses such beautiful ideas. [Pound calls this logopoeia.])

If a medium like the novel gives the author unlimited space and time to establish context, I say he should go ahead and take advantage of it.

Melville read a lot of Shakespeare while preparing to write Moby Dick, and you can see Billy's lingering influence in how everyone speaks in Pierre. (Basic Shakespearean monologue: "Something is happening; I notice this about it; it reminds me of that; and here is the overarching theme it represents...") Of course nobody talks like this -- even in the 1850s it would have sounded pretty outlandish. That's rather the point, though -- the same for Shakespeare's nobles as for the members of Melville's American aristocracy.

A few other little bullet points:

•  Yeah, Pierre addressing his mother as "Sister Mary" is pretty fucking creepy. (And a sign of things to come, I understand.)

•  To be fair: we can't actually be certain that Melville is actually going off on irrelevant tangents. He might very well be laying the groundwork for something ahead. Billy Budd dedicates several chapters to talking about the particulars of the British navy in the 1790s, and it might seem as though Melville is just being a blabbermouth -- until the plot kicks into high gear and you realize how crucial the context is to the conflict.

•  Pierre's introduction isn't the first time Melville gushes about Mount Greylock. He spent several years living and writing in a farmhouse with the mountain in view. (Moby Dick was written during this period.)

•  "But this whole world is a preposterous one, with many preposterous people in it." I want this embroidered and hung on my wall.

So yeah -- what do you y'all think so far? Are we enjoying ourselves? Are we just waiting for Melville to wipe the smile off Pierre's face?  Favorite moments? How many long words and obscure references did we have to look up? (I had to look up few of the historical figures on Wikipedia.)

Let me know what you're thinking!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pierre kickoff

We begin!

To recap, the schedule will go something like:

August 19: Books I and II
August 26: Books III and IV
September 2: Books V and VI
September 9: Books VII through IX
September 16: Books X through XIV
September 23: Books XV through XVII
September 30: Books XVIII through XXII
October 7: Books XXIII through XXVI

See you next Sunday!

(Also: have I mentioned that I've been updating the comics page regularly? I'm pretty sure I have.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Some words worth relaying

I maintain that one of the best pleasures of browsing a library collection -- particularly a small to medium-sized one -- is what you find when you don't find what you're looking for.

I found a copy of William Carlos Williams's Selected Essays a month or so back (while searching for something else, I don't remember what) and have been been reading it on and off. Today this paragraph caught my fancy:

I think these days when there is so little to believe inwhen the old loyalties—God, country, and the hope of Heaven—aren't very real, we are more dependent than we should be on our friends. The only thing left to believe in—someone who seems beautiful.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On a Sunday in August

August. Less than fifty days until the autumn equinox. The summer stars (Vega, Deneb, Altair) blink overheard at sunset, and the autumn stars begin wheeling up and around after midnight. The cicadas chutter by day and the katydids rakakat by night. And I'm returning from my self-imposed exile from blogging. Such summer days as these....

The bad news is that I won't be getting that several-month vacation I've been sorta hoping for and could really use. The good news is that I'm still gonna have a job after the end of the month. The better news is that I've switched positions and will now be working in the library at this place. "This place" meaning, of course, the Quaker study/retreat center at which I've been living and working since last October.

When I pause and think about it, it still feels downright bizarre that I'm living and working in religious community. I've become so acclimated to worship-, god-, and Jesus-related discourse that I barely notice it anymore -- but then I'll end up in a conversation where somebody is asking or telling me about god and have to obtusely change the subject or otherwise just smile and give a noncommittal nod.

A sure indication that this place is having an effect on me: as I type this, my inclination is to capital-G the word "god." It doesn't make a difference to me, but working within the editorial and procedural guidelines of your employers is usually a sound policy.

I'm still an atheist -- there's no doubt about that at all. As far as organized religion is concerned, I'm a lost cause. Once you've stopped superimposing a human face on the cosmos, I'm not sure you can ever find it again without willfully deluding yourself.

However, my feelings toward the social value of faith and religion may have undergone a shift.

I've met some remarkable people at this place. Balls-to-the-wall environmentalists. Money-where-their-mouths-are activists. People who do volunteer work, visit prison inmates, and acting as AA sponsors. Grounded, motivated people who read frequently, take care of their bodies, and live with conviction. People for whom kindness and equity are a way of life rather than arbitrary prescriptions.

I can't help but notice that most of these people are religious. And I can't help noticing that I've found such small concentrations of such people elsewhere in secular or commercial settings.

To the point: even if religion is founded on a fallacy, does faith build better human beings?

Even Plato concedes that his perfect city must be founded on a lie.

It's worth considering what behavioral differences may exist between a person living and acting under the assumption that some extradimensional, omniscient, omnipotent intelligence observes all of humanity's affairs and favors moral conduct and the people who practice it; and a person who understands (accurately) that human action and human existence are inconsequential flickers in the mindless, voiceless void and that the universe doesn't care one way or another what happens to us or what we do.

We needn't place the deity in the role of a boogeyman Santa Claus, either. How do behavioral patterns differ between a person who lives and acts in the belief that humanity is not alone, that there are higher laws than human values, and that everything isn't all for nothing; and a person living and acting under the (almost definitely correct) assumption that existence exists independently of any reason for its being and that whatever he does probably doesn't make much of a difference in any kind of long run?

"We should do X because it is in humanity's best interest for reasons Y and Z" doesn't set a fire in the guts like "we must do X because God wills it." The same distance lies between "I should behave morally for the purposes of social cohesion" and "I must behave morally, no questions asked;" "I should take care of my body and environment for my own health and happiness" and "I should take care of my body and environment because God made my body and the world and God wants me to take care of them, God is glorious, etc;" "I should make art because I find creative behavior rewarding in spite of the frustration it causes me;" and "I must make art because it is my calling."

The world we've built is fucked up. Acting towards getting humanity's shit in order with full earnestness necessitates a kind of loony, irrational optimism. Not the kind of optimism you're likely to have if you're seeing the situation clearly.

Is the god delusion a beneficial human adaptation, I wonder?

Of course, my thinking maybe I should give religion the benefit of the doubt persists only as long as I can go without seeing news stories about the political supporters of Chic-Fil-A or suicide bombings. But I nevertheless wish secularism could step up its game and produce a compelling, accessible, alternative to religion that could galvanize people's best instincts and potential. Mass consumption, rational self-interest, and statism haven't been cutting it so far.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pierre roundup

So let's get the ball rolling on this Pierre business.

To recap: I'm going to be reading Herman Melville's novel Pierre and inviting the general Internet public to join me. Let's call it a book club or a Let's Read.

Every week we'll be reading roughly fifty pages. On Sundays I'll post some reactions, thoughts, reflections, etc., and invite discussion in the comments section. Anybody is welcome to contribute whatever they want to, even if it's just "I'm really liking this" or "I'm really not liking this at all."

We'll begin reading on Sunday, August 12. (That should give everyone time to get a copy of the book, I hope.) I'll toss up the first discussion post on Sunday, August 19, and we'll just see what happens from there.

Here's what the discussion calendar will be looking like, then....

August 19: Books I and II
September 26: Books III and IV
September 2: Books V and VI
September 9: Books VII through IX
September 16: Books X through XIV
September 23: Books XV through XVII
September 30: Books XVIII through XXII
October 7: Books XXIII through XXVI

Nice and manageable!

If you're planning on joining me, please leave a comment saying so. I'd like to have an idea of the headcount so I can know in advance how much hand wringing I should be doing over this.

The pic up top is from the French film Pola X, which is based on Pierre. (The title is an acronym of Pierre ou les ambiguïtés.) I'd never heard about it until just now. Its Wikipedia page says nothing about its critical reception, though the site has it indexed in its list of mainstream movies with unsimulated sex. Hrm.