Steve Augustine of "The Ept, the Ane, and the Fantile":
1. CBT: Unknown musicians record their own music in basements -- and, if they've got talent, people take them seriously. Unknown film-makers shoot movies with DV cameras -- and, if they've got talent, people take them seriously. But unknown writers who self-publish -- in particular those who self-publish online -- are frequently snickered at whether they're talented or not, or, more often, given the publishing world's gesture of choice: the cold shoulder.
What do you think is the explanation for this? Is the publishing world the callowest of all the arts? Is it, despite the bromide that one not judge a book by its cover, the one in most need of a "package"? Or will the prejudice against publishing online change, once people become more acculturated to online creative work?
SA: The problem isn't with the publishing world, in my opinion, but with the audience; don't forget that workers in the publishing field are drawn from the same general pool as the readers. Reading isn't at the top of the list of most people's pleasures; far from it. It's my sense that most consider reading a chore, or very hard work, and I'd lay the blame for this on the educational system. Things might change in the schools of the near-future, when classes are conducted almost entirely in the form of sounds and pictures; maybe reading will come to seem like giddy escapist fun to our saucer-eyed, hairless descendants. Who knows?
As to the apparent contempt factor: isn't it more that the burden of proof (on the Artist) increases in direct proportion to the effort (on the part of the audience) the Art requires? Few cultural artifacts are less useful/more lifeless than a poorly-written poem/short story/novel. I can't think of an artform in which genuine talent is more necessary. The reader is understandably wary.
Remember, too, that no one can give you the "cold shoulder" if you don't approach them in the first place. The astonishingly liberating aspect of the internet re: self-publishing is that the reader comes to the writer. The writer is no longer forced to be that insincere supplicant, begging agents, editors, publishers or readers for the time of day.
I have no gripe with people who don't read. My only literary gripes are with professionals who author/publish/critique literary fiction in a half-assed way, and with readers who accept this.
Now, considering the prejudice against online literature, there's clearly a surfeit of irremediable shit to be found online. But that stuff's easily identified and ignored (filtered). Meanwhile, what's lost in the din of the "print" vs "blog" debate is the fact that the dominant riff...can blogs ever be as good as print?...is a leading question; is prejudicial; should be stricken from the records by the judge. There are online writers and critics who consistently generate material of a much higher standard than almost anything you'll read in a magazine or a newspaper these days. The print-published writers I know of who also "blog" are not tormented by ghastly paradoxes.
I won't name names, because I don't want to be labeled a (b)log-rolling arse-creeper, but the "bloggers" I'm praising here have the distinct advantage of writing without column-inch, deadline, or decorum-related constraints. The material they offer is usually well-researched, typo-free, elegantly argued, and often runs to far more than 5,000 words. Comparing the "blog" and "print" reviewers that I regularly read, it's only ever the "print" professionals that I catch bluffing and skimming their assigned books, either in apathy, or to meet a deadline.
Since most old-format writers are doing it for beer money and the very thin gilt of a faded prestige, it's simply not reasonable to assume that talent will cluster exclusively around the beer money. I'm acquainted with a London-based academic who publishes his exquisite arcana online, and there is no known equivalent in magazines and newspapers; certainly not in the lowbrow-by-comparison New Yorker.
2. One of the great achievements of 20th C. literature was the ascendancy of uncompromisingly honest, thinly veiled autobiographical fiction: writers from Penelope Mortimer, Violette Leduc to Philip Roth and Knut Hamsen come to mind. In the early days of the 21st Century, this is in real danger of being lost; as Adam Bellow describes in an upcoming interview, starting in the 1990s, large publishing houses generally gave up on being the breeding ground of this sort of fiction. And in effect this led them to give up on the mid-list literary first novel. And book review pages have very rarely given sufficient coverage to small press releases, thus consigning most of their titles to premature oblivion. The end result for the sort of novel described above is clear.
What can be done to reverse this trend? Or will certain kinds of literary fiction slowly be smothered by 21st Century dullness - what you once referred to as "the sinisterly dumb future"?
SA: At the risk of sounding hopeless, I'm sure there's nothing that can be done to reverse this trend, just as nothing can reverse its reversal. You can't march/boycott/legislate against the popularity of the hoola-hoop any more than you can do any of the above to bring it back.
The paradox/glimmer of hope in all this is that the very explosion in communications technology accelerating the arrival of that "sinisterly dumb future" also renders society's various culture-blocs far more fluid than they once were. A few thousand people who love the sort of novel that we're both afraid is vanishing will not only find each other online in forums and chat rooms, but will find the writer still willing to write that way (and may well end up being that writer's patrons).
For the sake of his/her own sanity, the fledgling writer must learn to think in terms of thousands (words/dollars/readers), rather than the millions of which the wannabe pop star is encouraged to dream. If we can make this adjustment, we can be happy.
Consider: this interview is a good example of the miraculous possibilities. Here I am, an absolute unknown, being given the opportunity to go on record with my crackpot theories and beliefs. Someone in Calcutta could well be nursing a Coke and frowning over these rambles at this very moment. If that isn't mind-blowing, it should be.
3. CBT: Turning to your own work: in a story, "The Graduate", recently published at your site "The Ept, the Ane and the Fantile", you describe scenes from an affair between Robert, a young man who seems not to be so much in between jobs as in between destinies, and the considerably older Miriam Wallace, the wife of a friend of his parents, Alan and Dot.
Robert and Miriam begin their affair in the present day after meeting (Robert can't remember if it's their first meeting) at a Christmas party. But the affair is framed very much within the context of his parents' long-standing relationship with Victor Wallace, Miriam's husband. In turn, the relationship Alan and Dot have with Victor is framed within the context of the swinging of the 1970s, Victor's first marriage to the now-deceased Marnie, and Victor's sexuality, which could be described both literally and metaphorically as fluid.
On the one hand Robert is sophisticated beyond his years. On the surface, he isn't fazed by his father's confession of what took place between his parents and the Wallaces several decades before. But why, then, Robert's judgmental response to his own parents? Is this the residual fastidiousness of adolescence, which is disgusted not only by the confessions of sexual need and adventurousness parents occasionally make, but also their unhip way of expressing themselves? (After all, Robert feels a need to place several of Alan's words in mildly denigrating quotation marks.) Or is Robert's reaction much deeper than that? (After all, Robert's upset is quite palpable: soon after Alan tells Robert about the foursomes he and Dot engaged in with the Wallaces, Robert has a vivid wish-fulfillment fantasy of a car crash that kills him and his parents.)
SA: I'm hesitant to answer any "why" questions about these characters (or my characters in general) because the skill I'm attempting to master in writing these people at all is to make them believable, and interesting, to the degree that when I put them in motion, the reader is engaged, asking her/his own questions, developing his/her own answers. Some of the questions/answers will be visceral (instantaneous) and others will come later. My answers to these "why" questions aren't definitive.
I had a discussion-via-email with a writer a few weeks ago and I floated the theory that once you get the characters right, the story writes itself, and I stand by that assertion. As Alexander Theroux says, "Character is plot." I create the characters, set the thing in motion and watch.
When I was young and less knowing about the world, I had the verbal facility to write well, yet no ability to flesh real characters; the characters I cranked out were wishful cartoons. I knew I wasn't a writer yet (though I have to say that plenty of young writers have launched careers with the same limited skill set, so maybe I'm stupid).
It's always a great pleasure to hear back from a reader whose grasp of psychology is so fine that I'm enlightened by the response, which is what I experienced reading your questions. I have the feeling you know Robert better than I do. I hope I won't seem lazy if I prefer to leave it at that.
I will say, in regard to "The Graduate", that I'm interested in anachronisms (in a world in which fads cycle so rapidly they overlap their own revivals), and in the fish out of water in general; the paradox that we're all fish out of water now, estranged from the era. Not to invoke old Alvin Toffler here, but the future arrived quite a while ago, though its proper inhabitants are still a few years away. In that sense, perhaps Robert, Victor, Marnie, Miriam, Alan and Dot are all unhappy ghosts. Maybe it's a mild-mannered horror story on one level.
But I must admit I laughed a lot while writing it.
4. CBT: "The Graduate" deftly sketches the mores of a particular age -- the 1970s -- and also a sensibility -- that of a particular social class that might most accurately be described as the gourgeousie. The 1970s are gone. And maybe, as far as Alan, Dot, Miriam and Victor are concerned, the heyday of the gourgeousie is gone, too: Miriam and Victor's behaviour seems motivated by a desire to hang onto the past even while Miriam is openly cynical about the attempt.
But the gourgeoisie is still with us -- is always with us: if educated, well-brought-up members of contemporary society have one prejudice, it is the prejudice of looksism ... a tendency to privilege beauty. What, if anything, does Robert symbolize as far as these two meta-phenomena are concerned? He's woefully ahistorical in Miriam's eyes -- apparently his knowledge of 1970s cinema is non-existent. And once he begins sleeping with Miriam, Robert is by far the more romantic of the two. Is Robert beyond looksism? Or is Miriam -- as Victor's first wife Marnie was for Alan -- so cute that she simply gets Robert's juices going?
SA: Well, privileging beauty is such a universal human tendency (at least to the extent that "beauty" started its conceptual existence meaning "strength/health/quality of genes") that I wouldn't blame any class or era for it. Current notions of beauty may or may not be decadent, but we are stuck with them while they're around; the consolation being that they seem to shift a lot. In the period stretching from my childhood to my first marriage, for example, I saw body builders go from being heroes for male adolescents, to pathetic figures open to ridicule, to mainstream cultural icons.
I can't worry enough about Looksism to speak out against it, though the degree to which "we" pretend to dislike what we love is always of interest. I can quite vividly remember, for example, as a very young man, pretending to abhor large breasts whenever my lover was a woman with small breasts, and then testifying to the opposite when the situation was reversed, whereas the Truth (all things being equal) is that we tend to want whatever it is we don't have...until we learn to master that problem, which may be a quirk in the wiring. The mastering of the problem may be what we call "maturity".
Also, I wonder if Robert really is the more romantic of the two? Is Miriam's speech("...is what we do erotic?") sincere cynicism on her part, or is she merely protecting herself?
Darwin wrote, in his autobiography, "A novel is a work of the first rank only when it has some character whom one can love, and if this character is a beautiful woman, so much the better." Coming from the father of the concept of Natural Selection, that's a pretty authoritative endorsement of Looksism.
5. CBT: "The Graduate" has many parallels to an earlier story, "Woman Older, Boy at Rest", except here the setting is Germany, and here the language of the story works differently. For example, the adulterous wife who picks up the young man and takes him for a drive in her malfunctioning convertible is described as follows:
"She looks much better with the yellow wig (now stowed in the glove compartment) off and her hair turns out to be a pearly bob raked by the wind’s dark fingers, thin as champagne but luminous and full of bounce, snapping back into shape at every available opportunity of stop light. Her facelift is a cartoonist’s allusion to speed, it looks intrepid, the way the corners of her eyes and mouth sweep back as she leans forward over the wheel, driving far-sightedly, but she’s a handsome woman with a softening jawline and a debutante’s nose, upturned, decorative, a master’s knifework."
How much is the woman in the story in strong possession of herself? At one point, the boy looks at her and feels envy: "Her confidence strikes him as a kind of wisdom". But she also seems painfully sensitive to the insecurities that aging leaves one vulnerable to: " 'Have you ever been with an older woman?' [she says] and he laughs so hard and long at this that she turns as red as a silver dish of Thanksgiving cranberries on her grandmother’s white embroidered table cloth in 1957".
Is age the great leveler? Or is her vulnerability primarily a woman's vulnerability, and an indication of the sexism of the genes?
SA: First off, I wouldn't say that age is the great leveler so much as Death is. Death, and the brevity of the human lifespan. When the rich of the distant future are living to be a healthy 500, "unfair" will take on a whole new meaning. As it is, I doubt that Bill Gates will outlive my grandmother, so that's the great leveler, and the one overwhelmingly "fair" aspect of life.
These two stories are permutations on an older woman/younger guy theme I address in other stories. "Woman, Older," features a character who also features in another story, "I am Philly Dawg," in which she dwells on her past, and is paired, metaphysically, with a black male teenager she spies on in a park, at night, in the dead of winter. She fears the black teen but she's perfectly safe, because he doesn't know she's watching. She watches in amazement as he sits on a bench, alone in the cold dark, weeping.
It's my feeling that in terms of any power struggles I present, the participants are always at an impasse or stalemate, appearances to the contrary, and that most power struggles in real life, on close inspection, are the same. (Of course I'm talking about things on a personal scale, human vs human; not what corporations, or governments, do to individuals). Winning and losing, in this sense, are fairytale concepts, and drive a kind of narrative that doesn't interest me. Without a winner or loser, the story has no "moral," and that's my philosophical position, as a writer, in a nutshell. No moral. The good are not rewarded and the evil are not punished. And are the good really "good"?
Do either of the older women in these two Autumn/May stories suffer the effects of sexism? I don't know. I only accept the words "sexist" and "racist" with the understanding that they're both deeply-ingrained aspects of human nature. If the concept of race itself isn't "racist", what is?
6. Turning tables, in your novella "The Bomb Collector", the main protagonist John is a rootless expat living in Germany who has several affairs, though they tend to be fleeting. Above all, John is conscious of how he is being affected by aging:
"Oh, so many pretty girls, then and now, frail and intimidating, saturated with that hot light that young men crave and go blind for (and that the savage ones smash into darkness sometimes, with words or fists). Bright outfits, long silks of dark and pale hair, trinkets of laughter…I wanted to cry and laugh about crying and sniff my tears and get on with it, move on, get myself out of the way, self-conscious about stumbling across that brave road with its mindless, fast traffic. My God, I’m old…that’s what those eyes…the eyes I made defiant contact with…that’s what they told me: you’re old. Some smiled, most scowled, a few frowned with puzzlement: you’re old. Don’t you know it? Get out of the road!"
Referring back to question 5, is age itself the great leveler? Or are there a variety of factors -- e.g., gender, social class, fame, looks -- that turn age into "age"; a characteristic that afflicts a salaried individual or an obscure artist, but is not applicable to a freak of health and fame such as a Picasso?
SA: "The Bomb Collector" is my meditation on middle-aged sexuality, framed as a refutation of standard practises in fiction (all those neatly predictable schematics). Things happen in this novel, as they do in life, and some of the things lead to other things and some don't, as they do in life: the overall "meaning" of the events in the novel only exist in the main character's interpretation of them...as in life. There are coincidences, but the only meaningful coincidences (traditional storytelling is full of meaningful coincidences, which are usually narrative shortcuts, or indications of a Divine Will at work, or both) turn out to be conspiracies. Again, as in life.
There is no arc, no progress, no fortune at stake, but the novel is short enough, and vivid enough, to maintain some readers' attention despite withholding these common spurs to page-turning. It's very much a soap-opera as written by someone who'd prefer to sell no soap.
It's significant that the main character of the book is middle-aged, because middle age is usually about the time that it dawns on some of us that one's life story isn't a supernaturally-intentional narrative; one's life story doesn't "mean" anything other than what one can make it mean, mostly in retrospect. As a young man, I had a butterfly alight upon the pointing finger of my outstretched hand once, and I thought that meant something. John, of "The Bomb Collector", now knows better.
How to salvage a dignity of meaning from the false starts, blind alleys and random decisions that the heap of data called his Life embodies? John's solution is to write a novel called "The Bomb Collector"...just as adults with deprived childhoods sometimes heal that wound by having children and lavishing the children with everything, some of us feeling that real life suffers the lack of an overarching narrative will heal that wound by writing fiction.
I'm not an atheist, but I'm definitely agnostic, and my work is very consciously divorced from the Judeo-Christian matrix upon which the novel-as-moral-instruction, or the novel-as-chronicle-of-progress, is founded. The notion of "progress" itself seems impossible without a Kingdom of Heaven towards which all human activity is supposedly moving, or a Watcher/God to please with our feats and sacrifices. Quirky soul that I am, I don't consider the invention of electric lighting, or the development of a Polio vaccine, et al, "progress"...I consider them consolations.
The only real "progress" or order in "The Bomb Collector" occurs on the level of the novel that John himself is trying to write about a character who...wrote a novel. Writing the novel, he learns things, his novel progresses; events in the novel have "meaning", or he tries to make them to. But in the novel outside the novel...the space that John inhabits...it's not that simple. Entropy rules.
Beyond all that, "The Bomb Collector" is a technical experiment in compressed-novel writing. As long-winded as my replies to your questions may seem, I never really mastered the trick of discursion...the ability to stretch out an idea until it snaps (or turns to warm gas). I've never had any idea or scenario that needed more than, say, one hundred and fifty pages to work itself out. I assumed for the longest time that this meant that I couldn't write novels.
Then it dawned on me that my talent (what there is of it) may in fact be a modern one...that compressed novels are just the thing for people who enjoy finishing a whole book in one evening. I'd say that "The Bomb Collector" covers as much ground as plenty of 300-pagers: just add water and it expands to full-sized.
There are prodigies of discursion, like David Foster Wallace, but I tend to honor the antipodal trick. There's something to be said for being able to express a longish thought with a shortish sentence.
Ironically, one of my favorite novels is the hefty "Underworld," by Mr. DeLillo. I say "ironically", but it's not ironic at all, as I consider that book to be a gem of compression; a 5,000-page epic squeezed into an 827-page novella.
7. CBT: John's most heartfelt involvement is with a woman named Moth who is, as they say in other regions of the internet, barely legal.
John feels both guilty and defensive about his relationship with Moth. At one point there is a passage in the novella that almost reads like a diatribe:
"There are any number of bluestockings of my acquaintance and in my age-class who would abhor this happiness in Moth’s skin. Fucking her wouldn’t even be legal for a teenage boy in most of the 50 states, and, even I, before weathering the existential sandstorm of being a forty-ish house painter with a high I.Q. in Southern California, would have looked askance at what I’m doing with her now. But, well, why not throw buckets of cold water on copulating dogs all day? Shoo away flies in mid-fuck, and haul your randy, gray-shanked baboons and goats and cocks and rabbits off to re-education camps. If Nature never intended middle aged males to fuck teenage females, She wouldn’t have made teenage males so useless.
"There’s bio-karma at work here, too, since many of the middle-aged women who would stone me for fucking Moth now…broke my heart by shunning me when they were young and I was a useless teenager myself. They were all busy with older men, back then, of course. One day, perhaps, Moth herself will be a middle-aged woman shaking her fist at the same disparity. Existence is a joke written in a dead language on a Mobius strip."
Why John's aggressive need to excuse his actions? Is this what the dull PC standards of the 21st Century have come to -- a world in which one not only has to be law-abiding and genuinely moral, but also pander to group-thinky edicts? Or is the voice in John's brain an example within the text of metafiction? In other words, is it an example of how the individual is permitted sexual freedom, but only if he or she can argue effectively against the subtle hypocrisies of our time?
SA: Well, as earlier stated, I hate to say "why", but in this case I can't resist (plus, I don't want to be the world's worst interview):
I think that diatribe is what you'd hear if you could put a stethoscope on John's brain. His thoughts are set on a constant, low-level seethe (therefore the violence that breaks out at the end). His aggression is the aggression of a creature whose natural self is "wrong" by most current standards: he's not interested in material status, he doesn't believe in the god(s), and he's sexually involved with a very young girl (late teens). Society frowns.
Rather than existing as a frustrated, conformist, middle-class citizen, plagued by fantasies at his desk job or in the pew on Sunday, John lives as who he is, though he pays a price: wherever he goes, wherever he stays, he's an exile. On top of the existential pain of accidental consciousness, there's the pain of civilization...of the individual trying to fit in with any group of humans larger than a tribe of a few hundred. The organization of millions of humans requires a bureaucracy, and bureaucracy is the womb of the Kafkaesque Hell. Artistic types and serial killers suffer the pain of civilization the most vividly, I think.
I'm always astonished at the people who pretend that their polite and politically correct public comportment is an accurate reflection of their inner selves. Older women with younger men...younger women with older men...it's not quite bestiality, is it? I tend to have a visceral reaction to the late-20th century spin on the word "appropriate".
The modern mania for euphemistic speech (calling the crippled "otherly enabled", or the overweight "curvy", or framing a military action to control an oilfield as a "struggle to establish democracy", etc) is not only divorcing words from their meanings, as Orwell pointed out, but people from their feelings, and the feelings from the bodies that host them. Meta-Fiction is one thing, but what we're actually witnessing is Meta-Life. The fiction didn't invent the condition, it merely reports on it. Welcome to the Age of Disjunction.
Finally, the delicious irony of the passage you quote is that John is gloating over his young lover, unaware of the fact that he's already lost her...to the arms of a middle aged woman.
8. CBT: Before meeting Moth, John has the briefest of flings with another expat named Amanda Nye. Amanda, to put it simply, doesn't turn John's crank. And so they have more of an encounter than an affair. But Amanda is smart and articulate and, John learns with envy, a published writer. Later, when John meets Moth, he tells her he writes and she responds with a somewhat naive admiration. This only turbo-charges John's dissatisfactions with his own life:
"She assumed, of course, that I was a published writer; that I earned my living from words. I could have taken her back to Amanda Nye’s place and introduced her, saying Now, this is a real writer, Moth; she has a book out and everything…unlike me. Instead, I acted the part for my little fan. To lie about being a published writer is to be closer to being a published writer than if one is honest about not being one, after all. I went into great detail about my book. If there’s one thing anyone who’s committed a year or two of his or her life to the founding and maintenance of a text knows, people with whom one can discuss the effort are far and few between. Songwriters have it easy: they ask for between three and five minutes of your time, on average. Painters even easier: usually, a glance will do it. But a writer…someone working on a novel…is truly a wretch, waiting for that rare patient angel with hours, days, weeks of attention to dedicate towards the reading and discussing of one’s goddamned creation."
Referring back to the theme raised in question 1, is there any hope for an individual like John? As he says, the novel asks so much from its audience in terms of attention that simply finding people willing to read one's work is a struggle. Furthermore, in an age when major publishers are downloading the vetting of first novel manuscripts to agents, and a substantial number of agents are eschewing literary fiction, it is fantastically difficult to make any kind of living from serious fiction writing. Is it over for the Johns of cultural production? Or do new technologies such as the internet offer new hope?
SA: I'm not even sure that John finishes writing "The Bomb Collector", or would consider himself a serious writer...people start diaries and novels all the time, and leave these things to languish in boxes while real life distracts them.
But my answer to your question is: when the dust clears (or congeals into stars), the internet will have worked out the issue of payment, both to the detriment of so many of us getting so much for "free" now, and to the delight of content providers (as some of us also are). I'm quite sure lots of hired guns are busy, thinking day and night, figuring out a way to wean us all of our free-online-content habit. We'll look back on these days with incredulous sighs.
My intuition is that those of us doing it now will have to wait a while to see whether there's money in our futures. We came along too late to participate in the heyday of the old form, and maybe a little too early to reap the benefits of the revolution.
But was there ever an era in which more than a handful of lucky bastards made money writing?