12 Winters Blog

Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel

Posted in February 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 23, 2017

This paper, “Modernism’s Last Gasp and the Architecture of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 on 23 Feb. 2017 as part of the panel titled “Imagining Space: Experiments in Narrative Form.” The paper veered from its original intent and perhaps a suitable secondary title may be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.” The panel was chaired by Liana Babayan, Augusta University. Other papers presented were “Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Architectural Liminality” by Adam McKee, Queensborough Community College, CUNY; “Haunted Houses from House of Leaves to House of Fiction” by Amanda Davis, University of Chicago; and “Contrasting Spaces in Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose” by Maria Slocum, Missouri University of Science and Technology. Other papers on William H. Gass’s work can be found at this site by searching “gass.”


“For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphorically or philosophically” (Janssens 66). Thus spake William H. Gass in a 1979 interview, about midway through the composition process of his magnum opus The Tunnel, which was published in 1995 after a nearly thirty-year gestation. Sections began appearing in print as early as 1969 and continued off and on for almost two decades, garnering numerous accolades (for example, inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of 1980), and in two instances being released as stand-alone, limited-edition books by art presses. In 1996 Gass’s massive book (over 650 pages of dense prose, riddled with myriad experimental techniques, a host of fonts, amateurish doodles, and other graphic representations) won the American Book Award. Meanwhile, it spawned copious reviews which ranged from fawning to furious. Even some of the novel’s harshest critics, however, acknowledged that it would take decades of scholarly work to fully come to terms with Gass’s achievement—no matter whether one believes he achieved a masterpiece or a monstrosity. Sadly, that work remains largely undone.

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This is at least the third paper I’ve presented at this conference chiefly focused on Gass’s The Tunnel. When his next novel appeared in 2013, Middle C, that much more manageable book led me away from The Tunnel for a paper or two; and I also did some work on Gass’s earlier publications: his first piece of published fiction, the novella The Pedersen Kid, and then a paper focused mainly on Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and On Being Blue. Pondering possibilities for this year’s conference, I decided it was time to return to the excavation site and say something further about The Tunnel. I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, and I can only recall one other Gass paper being presented in that time (a Willie Masters’ paper). (When I first started attending the conference I was a William Gaddis guy; I hadn’t yet fallen under the Master’s spell.) My hope has been that by keeping the spark of scholarly interest alive others will join the conversation—and that hope has rested mainly on the book’s artistic merits. However, between the time that I proposed this particular paper topic and now, something historically monumental happened which makes The Tunnel vitally relevant: the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States (and the rise of the alt-right in general). That is to say, the overarching theme of The Tunnel—which Gass has described as “the fascism of the heart”—makes the book amazingly and unfortunately up-to-date. Perhaps an appropriate secondary title for my paper would be “A Text Suddenly of Our Time.”

gass-at-desk

Our times have led to a rekindled interest in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian books. For the same reasons it is worthwhile to descend into William Gass’s tunnel, a place whose squalidness has turned away many readers—but these, my friends, are squalid times. So, in the interest of truth in advertising, I am going to discuss (to some degree) the structure of The Tunnel and its relationship to architecture; but I’m also going to talk about the fascism of the heart and what the book has to say about the Trump phenomenon.

The basic plot of the novel is fairly straightforward (although plot doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Gass’s world as it does in most fiction writer’s): The first-person narrator, William Kohler, is a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university who has finally completed his magnum opus, prophetically thirty years in the writing, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He has sat down in his basement office to write the book’s preface (the final nail in this towering edifice, so to speak) when he finds himself blocked and therefore begins writing, instead, a very personal memoir about his unhappy childhood, lackluster career, loveless marriage, lost loves, disappointing children, and irritating colleagues. He slips the pages of this tell-all autobiography in between the manuscript pages of Guilt and Innocence so that his wife won’t see them (having no interest whatsoever in his life’s work), and, meanwhile, he begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement—or at least so we’re told. Gass himself has written in the liner notes of the audiobook edition of The Tunnel (45 hours of listening pleasure) that his narrator is “wholly unreliable”: “That does not mean he never tells the truth. He may always tell the truth. He may never. But he can’t be trusted. So he may not be digging a tunnel out of his basement” (emphasis added). Either way, writes Gass, “[t]he pointlessness of this activity has to be stressed.”

william-and-mary-gass

Returning to my opening quote, Gass has said that “architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists.” He has had a long-standing interest in architecture. It is difficult to say which came first, the chicken or the egg, as Gass married Mary Henderson in 1968. Mary Henderson Gass has had a distinguished career as an architect in St. Louis since moving there with her husband in 1979 when he accepted a professorship at Washington University. (He retired from the university in 2000.) Gass has found the experimental designs of architect Peter Eisenman especially akin to his own literary aesthetic. “He does crazy things in one sense,” said Gass, “but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different” (Janssens 68). Gass’s statement about Eisenman and his work sounds a lot like what defenders of Gass and especially The Tunnel have been saying for years.

In explaining how The Tunnel functions architecturally, Gass has contrasted his work to James Joyce’s, especially Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Gass said,

Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way, Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time, you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish—and Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. (Janssens 66)

Gass continued,

Joyce demands total recall, an ideal total recall. […] I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at the time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists. (67)

In other words, when one reads Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, both of which are structurally linear (a second by second account of a single day in Dublin, Ireland, or the unconscious mind’s progression through a single night of sleep [perhaps]), one is at a different point on the overall timeline with each passing word, and one has to be mindful of that progression to make sense of the experience. In other words, how have we gotten from point A to point B . . . to point Z? Metaphorical connections must be made by recalling earlier parts of the text.

The brutally nonlinear construction of The Tunnel operates differently. To illustrate that difference, Gass referenced Eisenman:

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time [emphasis added]. So in one of his houses, called House Six, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living-room below, and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you […] to look through the house. So I am always aware in that house of other parts. (67)

In the execution of this theory, Gass constructed The Tunnel in twelve parts (which he describes as phillipics, or bitter denunciations), and each consists of twelve “fundamental themes and a lot of minor ones would be sounded in different arrangements so that a central aspect or meaning of the text would emerge at the beginning; then sink down and be relatively innocuous or weak at a certain point”—all of which would be “superimposed on a completely different structure: the tunnel itself” (“William Gass”). Gass, incidentally, is simultaneously using a mimetic musical structure—Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system—but we don’t have time to go there too. Thus, while Gass’s narrator Kohler pinballs between his childhood, his career in the army, his grad school days in Germany, his various love affairs, his current life, etc., the author returns again and again to these major and minor motifs. In an artfully designed building each room, each hallway, each alcove, each stairway, and even outdoor spaces reflect certain colors, shapes, themes, and moods that tie them together as being parts of a consistently constructed whole. There are variations of course. A dominant color in the entryway may return as complementary accent color in the master bath, for example. A sailboat model in the library may be echoed by a nautically themed kitchen. So forth and so on. Thus it is with The Tunnel.

As illustration of this technique, I will focus on one of the novel’s major motifs and its juxtaposed doppelgänger: windows and mirrors. Gass seems to want us to pay special attention to windows as he titled the sixth phillipic “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” and it takes up the literal center of his book, pages 282 to 333 out of 652. Also, windows have been metaphorically important throughout Gass’s career. As H. L. Hix points out, “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s previous fiction” (124).  Hix’s observation is a valid one, but I think Gass takes the metaphor further in The Tunnel by pairing it with almost equally numerous references to mirrors. More regarding that in a moment. What follows are only a few examples of window references in the text. The first comes just a few pages into the book when Kohler recalls a car ride with his lost love, Lou: “The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved” (7). This car ride, only briefly mentioned here, foreshadows an episode titled “A Sunday Drive,” which describes in detail a family outing from Kohler’s childhood that is referenced repeatedly in the novel and also prefigures the narrator’s own family outings when he becomes husband and father (always with Gass, repetition, variation, point, counterpoint).

In the central section of the novel, Gass compares a blackboard to a window, writing, “The board is at once the surface of a pit-black sea and a bleak opening onto all our inner spaces. It is the brink of what we are, and hence a horror. […] unlike a window which is always full of the flitter of images […]” (311). Discussing the blackboard’s “opening onto all our inner spaces” (in that professors, like Kohler, use the blackboard to broadcast their beliefs to their students), Gass also connects blackboards to mirrors—both being framed objects antithetical to windows in their own ways. The book’s final reference to windows is about as far from the end as the first reference is from the start, and it’s in an imagined scene with Kohler’s hated wife Martha wherein “[I] lead her to the window [hand in hand … and] put our gazes on together” (650). Kohler imagines trying to get Martha to see the world as profoundly as he does, “but she would interrupt me with a snort from her derision because she despises oratory, wants to slap cheeks when they puff.” We notice the mirror opposites of the first window reference being a recollection of Kohler’s lost true love, Lou, and the final reference being an imagined scene with Kohler’s despised wife. Further linking the two scenes are references to face slapping, one metaphorical, the other imagined but likely. These examples constitute just a tiny taste of the repetitions, echoes, foreshadowings, and prismatic reflections, complications and contradictions that appear in some form or another on every page of the novel.

heide-ziegler-and-william-gassWhat then of the mirrors? Again, there are a plethora of references, the first being on page 10 and it is immediately paired with a window (via negation), as Kohler describes his dingy basement work space: “I’ve no mirror, cockeyed or otherwise. One wrinkled window. Above: a worn lace curtain like a rusted screen.” I believe that the pairing of windows with mirrors (and Kohler’s professorial blackboard) is related to the overarching theme of the book as delineated by one of Gass’s most adept readers, Heide Ziegler, a long-time friend and collaborator of William Gass (next to Gass in the photo from a 1991 symposium on postmodernism in Stuttgart, Germany). In response to reviews of the The Tunnel that ran from lukewarm to hostile, Ziegler wrote, in essence, a defense of the book which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998). In the interest of my waning time, I shall cut to the chase of Ziegler’s reading, which unknowingly anticipated the novel’s connections to our own desperate times. The key to understanding the book is in the phrase that Gass identified as its “fundamental subject”: the fascism of the heart. Ziegler writes, “[G]iven the pervasiveness of his message […] it is dangerous to miss the point. His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists” (80). She suggests that the nostalgically tender (and rare) recollections from Kohler’s boyhood contribute to the idea that anyone is capable of being lured into the dark tunnel of fascism. That same boy—who relished dime-store candy and wanted nothing more in this world than a dog of his own to play with—became the young man who succumbed to the mob mentality of Kristallnacht in 1938 and threw a stone through a Jewish storekeeper’s window. I’ll supplement Ziegler’s fine reading by asserting that Gass’s frequent references to mirrors also emphasize Kohler’s (and everyone’s) potential for becoming the same sort of people he spent his academic life studying (gazing upon, if you will, as if through a window): the innocent German citizens who were transformed into the Nazis who were guilty of exterminating six million Jews. Ziegler writes further,

Given the right historical circumstances—economic insecurity, a time of depression—and given the right seducer […] your Everyman will follow that leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune. […] Since […] political agitators possess no true authority, they need to create scapegoats—the Jews in Germany, minorities all over the world. What Gass attempts, and obviously achieves, judging by the emotional responses to his book, is to change the Holocaust from a horrifying, unforgivable, yet singular European spectacle into a general historical possibility. That is the reason that The Tunnel is not about Germany or about Hitler. It is—potentially—about all of us. (80-81)

Referring specifically to the sort of finely tuned brainwashing the military is able to achieve but meaning more broadly the way anyone can be manipulated, Gass writes, “Eventually they compel you to act against your conscience, contrary to your nature, in defiance of every precept of morality and religion, until all that remains of you is your past, your prehensile tale [spelled t-a-l-e], your history. Then they begin on that” (242-43).

I hardly need to point out the parallels between Gass’s description of the Holocaust and our own time, with the rise of Trump and the rhetoric of the alt-right, especially their scapegoating of Muslims, immigrants, liberals, the press, and even the judiciary as reasons for our alleged decreased safety and floundering economy. What is more, on a personal note I’ll say how surprising and discouraging it’s been over the past year to view friends, neighbors and family via the window of Facebook and other social media and discover the fascism of their hearts—their willingness to believe Trump’s lies and to support his undemocratic, unpatriotic and unconstitutional schemes. How best to resist, other than simply by putting a hashtag in front of the word, is a question that millions have been wrestling with. Obviously political action is a necessary part of resistance to this wave of fascism. William Gass dealt with this question, too, in a powerful essay, “The Artist and Society” (first published in The New Republic, July 17, 1968). In it Gass suggests that the artist shouldn’t become involved in a revolution in the typical sorts of ways, but rather he must become involved through his art. He writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inaction is only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). Artists must resist, then, through their art. It is via their art that they can have a greater impact than a mere bomb’s momentary blast.

My original concept of this paper was to discuss how Gass’s techniques align his book with the intentions of aesthetically minded architects—how their conceived ideas, drafted as blueprints and 3D models, are transformed into lived physical spaces, and, similarly, how Gass attempts to make William Kohler’s surreptitiously written memoir materialize in the hands of the reader via the book known as The Tunnel. I planned to make good use of an interesting article coauthored by Gass and his wife, Mary, about the artistic principles of architectural design and their analogues in other forms of art, like writing. And I planned to talk about Gass’s hopes for the publication of his novel, what the publisher and printer were able and willing to execute, and what they weren’t. I also meant to explain my paper’s title regarding “modernism’s last gasp,” comparing, say, Joyce’s efforts to mimic a conscious or unconscious mind versus Gass’s efforts to create a consciousness. But alas those discussions will have to wait for another paper and another day. I encourage you, meanwhile, to risk a visit to The Tunnel, a book suddenly very much for our time.

Works Referenced

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88.

—-. The Tunnel. 1995. Dalkey Archive, 2007.

—-. William H. Gass Reads The Tunnel. [liner notes for the audio book written by the author] Clayton Studios, 2005.

Gass, William H., and Mary Gass. “The Architecture of the Sentence.” Conjunctions, 1999, pp. 93-108. [Available online]

Hix, H. L. “Twenty Questions on The Tunnel.” Understanding William H. Gass, University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 76-139.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 56-70.

“William Gass with Michael Silverblatt” (5 Nov. 1998). Vimeo, uploaded by Lannan Foundation, 2011, https://vimeo.com/12812717.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 71-83.

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Authoress progress, Weeping, and a little Tempest

Posted in July 2010 by Ted Morrissey on July 21, 2010

My working on the Authoress, my novel in progress, slowed down for a couple of weeks, in large part because I was tidying up the manuscript for Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella with collected stories.  Novellas have been a hard sale, unless your name is something like Stephanie Meyer, but I’m hoping by pairing the novella with already published short stories, it will be easier to place.  It took longer to edit and compile the various pieces into a single manuscript — and it took more of my creative energies than I’d anticipated — and as such my writing was affected. But with Weeping put to bed so to speak, I’ve been back at the Authoress this week. I’ve also been doing some home improvement stuff, and these projects, though they’re not that cerebral, have been a distracting influence as well. Along with writing, I’ve also begun some research on nineteenth-century printing processes. Having it right per se is not pivotal to my book, but I’ve been throwing around some terminology, almost since page one, and I want to make sure it’s accurate. So far I’m finding that I’ve been pretty much on the mark, but I’ll probably tweak some language here and there. A metaphor has also been suggested to me via the research; I may pursue inserting the metaphor — letting it just percolate for now.  Since it’s a work of fiction I don’t consider myself a slave to historical accuracy, but authenticity is crucial to historically based novels and being accurate with those sort of details (the printing processes of the period) can go a long way toward establishing that authenticity.

In addition to the research, I’m back to reading Ulysses, specifically the “Circe” section, which is the longest and quite possibly most challenging section of the novel, essentially book-length in itself. Taking the form of a dramatic script, it is a dreamlike narrative. I haven’t done any serious scholarly research on Joyce’s work, but this “Circe” section seems to anticipate the narrative technique of Finnegans Wake, which has been described as the journey from wakefulness through the catacombs of sleep then back toward being awake at the conclusion. I’ve been trying to alternate reading a section of Ulysses with reading a shorter (probably more contemporary) novel, as there are many that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get to; I’ve “fit in” works by Hawkes, Nabokov, Solares, and Süskind whle reading sections of Ulysses. Last week I read a sizable chunk of Tom Rachman’s very new novel The Imperfectionists, and it was very good (it strikes me as more of a conceptual novel, though I don’t mean to imply that makes it somehow not a novel and certainly not less than a novel). I found it laugh-out-loud funny at times, and touching at times — but I abandoned it nevertheless. I felt a bit guilty, as it deserves to be read in full, but I didn’t seem to be in the mood for it. Being contemporary, it talks of cell phones and computers and the Internet — things my real world is filled with, and for some reason I don’t want to read about such stuff, not in a novel anyway. As a writer, I don’t want to write about such stuff either.

I’ve been circulating the first chapter of my novella as a stand-alone piece titlted “Melvill in the Marquesas,” and I’ve just started sending around a 2,000-word short story titled “The Composure of Death” (it’s a knee-slapper). It’s difficult to find open markets in the depth of summer, but already in mid-July things have begun to reopen, meaning that more and more journals have started to read again, though the flood gates won’t open until late August, early September; in other words, with the start of the academic year.

Finally . . .  I’ve been meaning to say something about the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest, which I saw several weeks ago. In a word, it was good. The Festival productions are always professionally done and enjoyable to watch. I was a little taken aback by the presentation of Prospero; he seemed too kind-hearted, not edgy enough for my Prospero tastes. I was most intrigued by the set design and costuming. In addition to its being part of the backdrop, a brilliant blue sky with ponderous white clouds was also rendered on the floor of the stage — implying I think that all of the play’s action is taking place in a sort of ethereal space. This ethereal-space impression was added to by the costuming, especially Ariel’s, which consisted mainly of body paint: sky blue with white clouds added on back and chest; then as pants he wore sort of knee-length breeches made of puffy white material, rather cloud-like if you will. At the pinnacle of the backdrop was the shape of a long-winged bird, maybe dove shaped, but filled in with the same sky-blue sky with clouds design that was on the stage floor and on Ariel (and the other spirits, too, for that matter). In some regards, the ethereal space is perhaps suggestive of the play’s taking place as much in imagination as in theatrical reality — in the playwright’s imagination? Or the audience’s? Perhaps Prospero’s or Miranda’s? I’m not sure — but I’ve been pondering it at some level since seeing the production. The Festival is also doing The Merry Wives of Windsor this summer, and I hope to get to it (though it’s turned into a busy summer in its way).

tedmorrissey.com

Ulysses, the Odyssey, and Suskind’s Perfume

Posted in July 2010 by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2010

I’ve been meaning to add a blog post for a while, but I’ve discovered my summertime routine doesn’t lend itself to blogging. I’ve been writing quite a bit each morning on my novel in progress, and by the time I reach a point where I might blog, I’m about written out. I hear of creative writers who hammer away on a novel, etc., for hours and hours at a time, but I find that a couple of hours per day is plenty. Still, I’m making much steadier progress than I did during the academic year, where I was limited to writing twenty to thirty minutes a morning, Monday through Friday. I spent most of June editing and revising what I had written of the manuscript, so it’s only been the last couple of weeks that I’ve been moving steadily forward with the plot. There are faint traces of the end of the novel in the air, but I’m trying to resist the scent so that I don’t rush through the end of the book. I’ve resigned myself to not finishing until perhaps next summer in hopes that I’ll have the patience to fully develop the concluding sections.

On the reading front, I completed a couple sections of Ulysses, specifically the “Nausicaa” and “Oxen of the Sun” sections. I must confess that I’ve been reading some notes along with actually reading the novel (especially SparkNotes), and I’ve found them most useful. However, a reference in the “Nausicaa” analysis underscored for me what I’ve found to be a regular, well, shortcoming with many people’s approach to reading Joyce’s novel. I’ve noticed that some academics and/or just plain Ulysses enthusiasts have only a vague knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey — in fact, I’ve run into more than one Joycean who says he’s never read the Odyssey. To return to the case in point, the SparkNotes writer says that in the Odyssey, Nausicaa “discovers Odysseus asleep on the beach” (p. 63), which, strictly speaking, isn’t an accurate way to describe the action of the poem. In Book VI, Nausicaa and her servant girls, at Athena’s divine urging, have come to the river to do the washing, and their youthful frolicking awakens Odysseus, who has been asleep in the foliage. Hearing them, Odysseus reveals himself to the young women (well, not totally, thanks to a sprig of leaves he modestly holds in front of himself). Hence to say that the princess discovers Odysseus asleep on the beach is not quite right — it’s more that Odysseus discovers the young women on the beach. I know some may see it as a picayunish point — and the description of their meeting may be more the result of editorial compression than the SparkNotes writer’s lack of intimacy with Homer’s story — but it does seem to suggest someone is more familiar with Ulysses than with the Odyssey. I would think that if someone is going to devote him- or herself to developing a profound understanding of Ulysses, then one of the first orders of business would be to develop at least a solid understanding of the Odyssey.

Taking a breather from Joyce (ha — you’ll see), I’ve been reading Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume (translated from the German by John E. Woods), and it’s very, very good. Besides the author’s virtuoso treatment of describing smells (something most creative writers don’t do very much of under normal narrative circumstances), I’ve also appreciated his representation of eighteenth-century France, especially Paris.

In addition to working on the Authoress, I’ve been continuing to circulate “Melvill in the Marquesas” (rejections are starting to trickle in), and I discovered my short story “The Composure of Death,” which, frankly, I had all but forgotten. However, I cleaned it up a bit and began sending it out as well.

tedmorrissey.com

Solares, Joyce and the difficulties of finding a small press publisher

Posted in June 2010 by Ted Morrissey on June 23, 2010

I finished Ignacio Solares’s novel Yankee Invasion this morning (about 2 a.m. — long story) and was very impressed by it — plus I enjoyed the heck out of it. I especially admire the way Solares effortlessly moves from various time periods, perspectives, and narrative voices. It’s not an especially long novel, only a little over 200 pages, with many concise chapters. In short, I recommend it. I’ve gone back to reading my way through Ulysses, specifically the Cyclops section. Going from Solares to Joyce was kind of like plunging into icy waters. While complex, Solares’s prose style is very straight forward; even with the multiplicity of time frames and narrative voices, etc., it is easy to keep hold of the various threads. Not so much with Ulysses, which requires careful reading (and re-reading and re-reading) to stay more or less on top of the text — but I enjoy that challenge, and, as a writer, I feel that I’m absorbing some meaningful things from Joyce. For Father’s Day I asked for and received a copy of Finnegans Wake. I’ve been perusing the introduction by John Bishop, which begins with what could be a rather discouraging observation for many: “There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is ‘about’ anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, ‘readable'” (p. vii, 1999 Penguin edition). I’m anxious to begin in earnest — but first to finish Ulysses (and probably another couple of contemporary authors). I did mention Finnegans Wake in my dissertation but only in that the various reading groups dedicated to the book — groups that read the text aloud line by line and research/discuss every allusion — are akin to the textual communities that developed in medieval England, whereby a literate person (usually a member of the church) would read aloud (usually the Bible) and his audience would contribute to interpreting the text. I would like to be a part of just such a Finnegans Wake group. I know: it wouldn’t be most folks’ cup of tea.

I’m still not back to composing for the Authoress, but I’ve read through the entire manuscript, about 230 pages, and did some revising and close editing (and note taking). I also have been reading some historical texts on everyday life in Georgian/Victorian London to incorporate further textual details into my novel. In reality, though, I haven’t uncovered much new material that I want to try to weave into the story, but I’ve verified that much of what I’ve already included is historically plausible. Here’s a little tidbit that I learned: copper cooking utensils, frying pans, etc., were very popular in Victorian London kitchens, but they were lined with tin because copper is toxic, so cooks had to be diligent in having their pots and pans retinned every so often to avoid poisoning their families, as the tin lining would wear off over time. Cast iron cookware was not as fashionable, but overall it was safer and less trouble to maintain. One of  things I like best about being a writer is that to be a good writer one must also be a good learner.

On the Men of Winter front, I believe the final edits have been made and the novel is ready for pagination/typesetting. I’ve also had some email contact with the graphic designer who’s doing the cover regarding blurbs. The other day I received a rejection for the novel from a university press, even though I’d withdrawn the manuscript query via email months ago and received a congratulatory email in acknowledgement of my withdrawal (these are the best sorts of rejections to receive). I bring it up, though, because in the letter of rejection, the editor said that her press was cutting back on the number of fiction titles they were going to bring out in the  coming year due to economic reasons. Cutting back! They’d only been publishing four titles a year as it was. It’s just further evidence that things are pretty bleak in the publishing world — especially the small, independent press world. Meanwhile, many small and/or university presses have stopped accepting new manuscript queries because they are already inundated. At a glance it would seem that there are a lot of these types of presses out there, but for a fiction writer (especially a white male fiction writer) the number is fairly small. I haven’t done any hard-number calculations, but it seems that the literal majority of small presses only publish poetry (poetry quite frankly is easier to publish; the manuscripts are much shorter than prose mss., layout is easier, the books tend to be much thinner in terms of the number of pages). Then you have presses who are only interested in creative nonfiction, or in translation; or they only publish women, or authors from a particular cultural arena, or authors who are gay/lesbian, or authors who are disabled, or who come from a specific geographical region (Canada or the Southwest or New England), or authors under the age of 25, or authors who are enrolled in an MFA program. . . .  When it comes to university or small presses that are willing to look at fiction from white males, it’s a relatively small number. Then you toss in factors like a press may be, understandably, only reading during certain times of the year, or it has stopped accepting new queries because it’s already severely backlogged — and looking for a prospective publisher becomes even more daunting. Intellectually I realize we white males have been dominating, well, everything in Western culture for thousands of years, including publishing, and I agree that it’s about time that other voices are heard in the publishing world (not to mention every other world); but it’s still a bit frustrating when one is looking for an outlet for one’s work.

Hence long live Punkin House Press.

I continue to circulate “Melvill in the Marquesas,” the first chapter of my unpublished novella, as a stand-alone piece — but I’ve only begun the process, so it’ll be a little while before the rejections begin rolling in in earnest. I’ve also begun typing up some of my older published stories, as  I hope to have together a novella with collected stories manuscript in the near future.

tedmorrissey.com

More Ulysses and the monetary value of literature

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 31, 2010

A couple of days ago I tweeted that I was “#amreading” Ulysses and one of my former students, via Facebook, expressed surprise that I was still reading Ulysses.  I have stopped periodically to focus my reading on other texts — for example, because I’m teaching this African American literature class right now and I’ve revamped the syllabus since the previous go-around, I’ve spent some quality time on classic slave narratives, and last week I took a couple of days to read some Wallace Thurman — but I’m also a slow (and careful) reader, so Ulysses is the sort of text that takes time.  I’ve been chipping away at it since around Christmas, and I’m less than halfway through, working on the “Cyclops” section presently.  The student who made the comment is a good one, and an avid reader.  Still, though, I’ve noticed that young folks — the dwindling few who still read for pleasure — are disinclined to read classics.  I use “classic” here to mean a text that challenges them intellectually, even just a little.  As such, the idea of reading something like Ulysses (an extreme example I realize) becomes increasingly alien to the culture’s mindset.

Something else I wanted to touch on here:  the monetary value of literature (that is, serious contemporary literature).  I was doing some research on William H. Gass, specifically his meganovel The Tunnel, which appeared in, I think, nineteen excerpted installments between 1966 (when he began writing it) and 1995 (when it was published in whole).  I was at Brookens Library at University of Illinois, Springfield, and I was tracking down various excerpts that appeared in journals like The Iowa Reivew and TriQuarterly.  I was astonished to see that a journal like The Iowa Review cost virtually the same in the 1970s as it does now, about $9 for a single issue.  Had the cost of literary journals kept pace with inflation, that $9 journal in, say, 1975, would cost more than $35 today ($35.49 to be exact, according to The Inflation Calculator online).  Working in the other direction, something worth $9 in 2009 should have cost $2.08 in 1975.  Publishing literary journals has always been a for-loss proposition for the vast, vast majority of such journals; and that hasn’t changed, except perhaps for the relatively new phenomenon of  ejournals, as opposed to traditional print journals, as ejournals have very little overhead cost.

What this data suggests to me is that literature — again, serious contemporary literature — was of greater value to the public at large (or at least the journal-buying public at large) thirty years ago.  That is to say, people were willing to spend more of their discretionary income on a literary journal in 1975 than they are now.  Journal editors today have difficulty moving print product.  Imagine if they were charging more than $35 for a single issue.  Contemporary literature in the form of hardback books is approaching that price tag, but journals are still roughly $9 per issue.  I daresay it would be almost impossible to sell a literary journal for thirty-five bucks, which is the main reason that serious contemporary literature is rarely published in hardback today.  University and other small press publishers release novels and story and poetry collections in paperback, with a significantly smaller price tag than hardback, and even then it’s an uphill battle to get folks to buy them.

This statistic — that the relative value of serious contemporary literature is about a quarter of what it was in 1975 — seems to jibe with how the culture feels to those of us who are compelled to produce serious literature.  Once in a while I’ll have students ask me who my favorite writers are, and I’ll throw out names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, and Gass, and they’ll respond with a “never heard of him.”  I know.

Speaking of eliterature, the first issue of Spilling Ink Review is scheduled to appear this week (which includes my story “Walkin’ the Dog”).  Meanwhile, I’ve been typing my manuscript “Weeping with an Ancient God” — long, and not very interesting story, but I haven’t had an electronic version of the novella, so I’m typing the manuscript (and making revisions along the way).  I’ll also type up some older short stories for which I no longer have electronic copies (e.g., “Fische Stories” that appeared in Glimmer Train Stories).  I’d like to publish “Weeping” as a novella with collected stories.  And of course I continue to work on The Authoress.  In another week, The Authoress will move to the top of my priority list, and I’ll be able to write at a much faster pace — very much looking forward to that.

tedmorrissey.com

More Ulysses, progress on Men of Winter

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 23, 2010

I’ve been reading “The Wandering Rocks” section of Ulysses and enjoying it very much.  I especially appreciate Joyce’s overlapping of images and micro-incidents to tie together otherwise disparate scenes.  Also, the language play, especially in the scenes centering on Stephen Dedalus, is breathtaking.  I frequently stop, go back, and re-read sentences and whole paragraphs, etc., in pure wonderment at what Joyce has managed.  Case in point:  Joyce writes, “She dances in a foul gloom where gum burns with garlic.  A sailorman, rustbearded, sips from a beaker rum and eyes her.  A long and seafed silent rut.  She dances, capers, wagging her sowish haunches and her hips, on her gross belly flapping a ruby egg” (p. 241 1990 Vintage International edition).  The word “seafed” is a good example, too, why one must pay close attention when reading; it’d be easy to misconstrue it as some sort of verb, when it’s actually a fairly straight forward adjective, like sea-fed, as in fed by the sea.  The hyphen would help, but gods bless Joyce for not giving us one there.  I’ve always liked compound words, like seafed, but I’ve found most editors are very uncomfortable with them.  When my story “Communion with the Dead” was published in The Chariton Review, the production editor broke apart several of my compound words, for examples, making “bluelight” into “blue light” and “steppingstone” into “stepping-stone.”  I stated my preferences but left the final version up to her (it was the first story I’d had published in sometime, thanks in large part to focusing on my doctoral studies, so I was just grateful to get something in print again and didn’t feel especially combative over it).  She opted in just about every case for the more conventional spellings.  I hope to publish a collection of stories eventually, and I figure I’ll set things as I’ve always wanted them in that volume.  I’ll need to turn away from Joyce for a couple of days as I’m teaching The Blacker the Berry (1929)  by Wallace Thurman in my African-American literature class, and I’ll need to spend some quality time with the text.

On the Men of Winter front, the publisher is moving forward with it and has assigned an editor and graphic designer to my book.  I was contacted by the graphic designer, Julie McAnary, yesterday.  After checking out her website, I’m especially pleased and excited that she’s been assigned my cover.  I had roughed out an idea for the cover using Word, but I’m also quite open to her developing some cover designs as well (again, especially since looking at her work online).  In the past, when designing A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity, I’d used Quark and then Adobe InDesign, but I no longer have access to either software so I wasn’t able to pull my cover idea together in the way I imagine it — but that’s all right: I’m comfortable with Julie’s handling the work and am looking forward to seeing what she comes up with.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on The Authoress.  I’m in a section that is especially challenging, as the narrator is observing multiple frenetic things happening at once.  I know it will require much work, much writing and rewriting, to get right — but that’s the fun of it.  I enjoy sitting down with a draft and going through it with the proverbial finetooth comb, adding and taking away and rewording.  I’ve always found that when I revise I almost always add (and reword).  Very rarely do I feel that I’ve overwritten a section; my journalistically bred barebones style tends to make my first drafts under- rather than overcooked.  My academic year is all but over (save for the African-American lit class, which runs to the end of June), so I’m chomping at the bit to get to writing and working on The Authoress in summertime earnest.

“Walkin’ the Dog” has been taken by Spilling Ink Review and will be included in the journal’s inaugural issue, which is supposed to be out June 1 (very fast turn around, but that’s one of the advantages of epublishing).  I’m very pleased and impressed with their website, and look forward to seeing what they do with my story.  SIR, which is edited by Amy Burns, will also publish an annual anthology in print, but not with everything that’s been online.  With the publication of “Walkin’ the Dog” I’m out of stories; I’ve published every story I’ve written (well, every one since I finished my master’s and had something of a clue as to what I was doing) — which is a sort of odd feeling.  I’m so used to looking for outlets and sending off stories (and receiving rejection after rejection before someone says yes), it’ll be strange not to go through that process:  But I’m not complaining. tedmorrissey.com

Ulysses, African-American Authors, et al.

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 16, 2010

I continue to make my way through Ulysses.  This morning I finished reading episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis.”  It was especially meaningful to me for several reasons.  It’s a highly literary episode, as the characters, especially Stephen Dedalus and the poet A. E., discuss Shakespeare and, in particular, their various theories about Hamlet (and Hamlet and king Hamlet).  Before reading Ulysses, I had not seen the parallels between Homer’s Odyssey — a text that I’ve taught for years — and Hamlet, a text that I’ve taught but it’s been awhile. Both, for instance, are very much concerned with the absent father (Odysseus and king Hamlet), and in both the returned father spurs them to violence against intruders to their home (the suitors and Claudius).  The bipolarity of faithful Penelope versus faithless Gertrude is interesting, too.

Perhaps the most intriguing notion to come out of my reading of episode nine, however, is the idea that Joyce was exploring the dichotomy between Aristotle’s rationalism (represented by the cliff-dwelling Scylla) and Plato’s more organic idealism (the maelstrom Charybdis).  I’ve been teaching and studying the Odyssey for years, but I’ve never thought of Odysseus as having to navigate between these philosophical poles — and the dangers associated with sailing too closely to one or the other.  We can see this metaphor played out in our everyday lives.  In education, for example, it seems that the Aristotelean has run amok with an overemphasis on standardized testing (crystallized in the politically named “No Child Left Behind” legislation) to the detriment of the more flexible and organic pedagogies, associated in this paradigm with the Platonic.  That is, President Bush and the architects of NCLB wanted to treat students as if they were software that could be tweaked into superior performance — and dismissing the complexly organic nature of complex human organisms.  Standardized testing has its place in education, but we mustn’t sail too closely to the rocks; a more moderate course is needed.

I’ve also been (re-)reading some slave narratives as I’m currently teaching one of my favorite courses at the college, Introduction to African-American Authors.  I’ve taught it several times over the last four or five years, but I overhauled the syllabus, placing greater emphasis on the early slave narratives (Equiano, Prince, Douglass, and Jacobs), and also on the Harlem Renaissance.  Regarding the latter, this new emphasis has allowed the poetry of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes into the reading list, as well as the novella The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman.  For the conclusion of the course, I’ve also switched out Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) for The Bluest Eye (1970).  Of course, in revamping the syllabus the age-old problem has manifested itself:  for everything the syllabus giveth, it must taketh something else away.  In this case, I’ve lost some writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (and Walker’s concept of “womanism” as opposed to feminism).  These are great losses to be sure.  I’ll have to evaluate this incarnation of the course once we finish in mid-June.

I continue to work on The Authoress and am very pleased with how it’s taking shape.  I have a more solid sense of the ending, but it remains many, many words away, and I’m deliberately avoiding marrying myself to the ending as I envision it now — I want the narrative to have the autonomy to assert its own wishes and needs as we go along.  The fine folks at Punkin House Press are getting things in order.  I still haven’t been contacted by an editor there regarding Men of Winter, but it will no doubt happen soon.  Their plate is mighty full, to put it mildly.  Speaking of autonomy, PHP’s philosophy is to let writers have their own space to create and to promote themselves.  On the one hand, I very much appreciate this noble philosophy, but, on the other, some writers could probably use a bit more guidance when it comes to presenting themselves to the world.  I can offer no citation, but I’ve heard that when Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat”) would send his work to his publisher, the junior editors would draw straws to see who had to edit his writing, which was filled with misspellings and ungrammatical musings.  Creativity — even if a sort of genius creativity — does not necessarily make one a master of the English language, which is why the gods invented editors.

And speaking of unmasterful endeavors, I continue to tinker with tedmorrissey.com — but there probably isn’t a lot more to do until Men of Winter gets closer to an actual release date.

Ulysses and my new website

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 2, 2010

Somehow or another in my college coursework and general bibliomania, I managed to miss pretty much all of James Joyce, other than reading Dubliners (1914) in bits and pieces over the years and including “Araby” on my syllabus when I’ve taught Intro to Short Fiction at the college; and I’ve always considered my lack of familiarity with Joyce as an enormous gap in literary knowledge.  Hence one of my post-doctoral goals was to catch up on my reading of Joyce.  In the fall I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and over the winter I began Ulysses (1922).  Other pressures forced me to leave the text be for a time, but I’m back at it, and in the last week or so I’ve read the “Lotus Eaters,” “Hades” and “Aeolus” sections,  and I’m working on “Lestrygonians.”  Ulysses is a difficult text to be sure, and it requires focus.  There have been a few episodes in which I’ve become enthralled as a reader and have been lost in the story, but for the most part it has required some concerted effort to stay with the narrative threads and make some sense of them.  I doubt that I’ll pursue Joyce in a scholarly way, and I can’t see incorporating Joyce into my teaching other than via the stories from Dubliners, but it’s time well spent nevertheless.  From a creative writing standpoint, Joyce’s experimentation and narrative courage, if you will, are valuable lessons to be learned or at least to be reinforced.  I was inspired by the overall structure of Ulysses in the writing of the central section of The Authoress.

Speaking of The Authoress, writing has been going well.  Though with over 200 pages of manuscript, I feel that the story is still waxing; it may end up being a fairly long novel, which is all right:  I’ve always felt like the conclusion of Men of Winter was a bit rushed.  A literary agent had been waiting to see the completed manuscript for three years (not with bated breath, mind you — but I was ever mindful of her expressed interest and was anxious to get it into her mailbox).  And of course once she read it, she decided not to represent it anyway.  And I may be mistaken (whatever “mistake” means when it comes to art):  perhaps the conclusion is as it should be.

This past week I launched tedmorrissey.com, devoted to my creative writing endeavors.  It’s very much a work in progress, and pretty low-tech as websites go these days.  But it seems a virtual necessity to have a dedicated web presence as a contemporary author.  Once Men of Winter gets closer to release, I’ll add some additional features.  One of the things I need to work on, I feel, is a trailer for the novel — as far as I know it’s a twenty-first-century phenomenon to have a trailer for a book.  One of the folks I follow on Twitter makes trailers, so I’m thinking of approaching her, but I’m also considering making it myself.  It would definitely be a learning experience (like starting 12 Winters Blog and tedmorrissey.com).  The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House Press, a brand-new press, is coming along.  I can’t imagine the numbers of irons they have in the fire, as it were, attempting to launch a commercial printing house along with a vanity press, a marketplace for self-published books, and a literary journal — simultaneously.  God bless em.

I submitted a proposal to write a chapter for a book on the artist and society; my chapter would be about William H. Gass’s The Tunnel.  I should hear within a couple of weeks whether or not my proposal’s been accepted.  The chapter will be due September 1 if it’s accepted.  If it’s accepted, I’ll enjoy diving back into The Tunnel; but if it’s not, that will be time I’ll be able to devote to other projects — it’s a win-win either way.

Notes from the Louisville Conference 2010

Posted in February 2010 by Ted Morrissey on February 21, 2010

I’ve just returned from the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (LCLC)–ungainly title but terrific conference–and I wanted to share some of my finds and observations.  For any literature folks who haven’t been, it’s a top-flight international conference and well worth the effort.  It’s normally the last weekend in February and will be again in 2011.  I didn’t hear any concrete numbers, but it seemed attendance was down a bit (as universities are being hit by the economic crisis as well, and departments are having to pare back their travel allowances–in times of economic downturn, humanities and the fine arts tend to find themselves on the bureaucratic chopping block); nevertheless, the panels that I attended and participated in were up to their usual standards.  I chaired a panel on Joyce’s Ulysses on Thursday.  Even though it was not a prearranged panel, all three papers dealt with Molly Bloom, offering new assessments of her character in the novel.  Throughout the twentieth century, commentators tended to characterize her as a wanton woman, even a whore–but these papers were much more open-minded about her roles as wife, mother, woman.  I was especially intrigued by Elizabeth Kate Switaj‘s paper on “Ulysses as Lesbian Text” as the writer, a doctoral student at Queen’s University, Belfast, dealt with an approach to reading that identifies “space” for interpretation in a text that may not, at the surface level, seem to support such a reading.  One of the reasons I found this approach so attractively provocative is that my own pedagogical hobbyhorse in recent months has been to get my students to embrace ambiguity in their analyses of literature.  It seems that in the last couple of years especially my brightest students are “mathy” and “sciencey” types who want to reduce every work of literature to some sort of calculus equation that can be definitively “solved.”  I tell them that the humanities aren’t about simplifying everything down to its “correct” answer.  Humans are complex, and therefore ambiguous, creatures who often don’t understand their own behaviors and attitudes, leave be the behaviors and attitudes of others.  A sophisticated textual analysis doesn’t shy away from conflicting and conflicted conclusions–these sorts of conclusions are meaningful in their own right as long as they’re grounded in textual evidence.

I was also treated to some of Switaj’s poetry.  Speaking of creative panels, I especially liked the work of a young poet named Jeremy Allan Hawkins, who read from the thesis manuscript he’d submitted the previous day for his MFA from the University of Alabama.  I enjoyed the short story “Blue Sky White” by Tessa Mellas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cincinnati.  Deborah Adelman’s (College of DuPage) cross-genre piece “Fleshing out the Bones” was very engaging, being part memoir, part fiction; as was Greenfield Jones’s (Louisville, Ky.) novel excerpt from Rêve Américain; and Adam Prince’s (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) “Ugly around Him” from his book-length manuscript.

I attended several thought-provoking critical panels, including one on the graphic novel–an area of literature that seems to share a lot with postmodernism, especially postmodern texts as trauma texts.  Graphic novels tend to be nonlinear and elliptical, thus putting the reader in the position of having to piece the narrative together in order for it to make sense.  Victims of trauma, by the same token, tend to communicate the source event in nonlinear, elliptical “texts” that must be reconstructed by a listener/reader.  Another paper (by April D. Fallon, Kentucky State University) has made me interested in e. e. cummings’s poetry in a way I hadn’t been previously.

My own presentations were well enough received.  I read my story “Communion with the Dead,” which was published in the fall 2008 issue of The Chariton Review.  I also presented it at the College English Association Conference in March 2008.  I enjoy reading it aloud, but it’s a bit tricky.  For one thing, at a couple of key places in the story I switch to unpunctuated stream of consciousness, and minus any visual cues for the audience, it may not make perfect sense (not to overuse the word, but it’s meant to be elliptical even when being read, as opposed to listened to); also, there are several Italian names that look interesting (and a bit exotic, I believe) on the page, but they can be challenging to read aloud fluidly.  I also presented my critical paper “In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:  Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass.”  It, too, was well enough received.  I am attempting to turn it into a 30-page article for a European journal, and now that the Louisville Conference is over, I’ll be getting back to that project.  My physical working on “The Authoress” also came to a halt this week because of my traveling–physical working, I say, because I think about the novel all the time and I have some ideas about how it should end, though the ending is still a long way off.  Right now I’m working on a long central (I think) section that has been inspired, structurally at least, by Ulysses.  I hope to complete a draft of the novel this summer.  Meanwhile, an editor is interested in looking at my earlier written novella Weeping with an Ancient God for possible serial publication in her journal–which would be terrific, since trying to get a novella published is even more difficult than a first novel.

This morning I continued annotating Omensetter’s Luck.