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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About Andrew Seal

A graduate student in American Studies at Yale University, Andrew also blogs at Blographia Literaria.

Email Address: andrew.seal@gmail.com
Website: http://www.blographia-literaria.com


Posts by Andrew Seal

Monday, September 13, 2010

U.S.A., by John Dos Passos

Posted by Andrew Seal on 09/13/10 at 08:18 AM

What is to be done with U.S.A.? Like a few other novels, John Dos Passos’s trilogy is one whose stature substantially exceeds the general reader’s familiarity with it, and so one of the inevitable questions that arises when bringing it up is “what kind of novel is it?” a question which is code for “what relationship might it continue to have to readers today?” a question which is itself code for, “why should I read it?”

U.S.A. is a tricky novel to place, and therefore it’s surprisingly difficult to make a case for why “you,” the general reader, should knock about through its 1300 pages. For reasons I will get into in a moment, it’s not exactly a historical novel, or at least it will not satisfy someone looking for a historical novel. It also fails to satisfy as a modernist novel, regardless of whether your flavor of modernism comes in Hemingway or Joyce. It is experimental, but its experiments push against language and narrative in ways that will probably seem too regular, too machined, and not “difficult” enough to someone of the latter persuasion. To a reader of the former, the Lost Generation mythos is here as well, but the glamour of war-time Paris and Italy or the Jazz Age is much shabbier, less heroic. Drinking here is occasionally if not often boring (one might compare the liquors consumed in Hemingway relative to Dos Passos; I imagine those in Dos Passos are typically cheaper, less savored, and less specific), and violence and sex aren’t Capital-T Themes so much as things characters do or don’t do.

It also won’t really do as a “relevant” novel, a novel which “speaks to our time.” It would take a great deal of effort to discover more than a partial reflection of 2010 in its characters, its plot, or especially its concerns. And yet, unlike, say, Mad Men, it would also be difficult to glean contrasts—favorable or unfavorable—which allow us to congratulate or castigate ourselves on our progress or backsliding. The stories of emergent industries or professions (automobiles, airplanes, public relations) look so little like the internet start-ups of today, and the enormity of class conflict and working-class consciousness which makes up so much of the trilogy is basically unrecognizable in the present.

Race and gender roles are more crudely created and enforced by the characters than we are used to seeing today, but there is also a casualness and simplicity to them that undercuts any feeling of knowing better; in a very disturbing way, Dos Passos does not make race and gender into problems for the reader, giving her no real opportunity to feel more enlightened than the characters in the way one is directed to take very conscious note of Don or Betty Draper’s prejudices and insensitivities, or in the way one can’t avoid squirming at a particularly caricatured portrayal of a black servant in a 1930s film. There is certainly a shock, as there always is, at running into an epithet or a mark of prejudice in the trilogy, but that shock does not reverberate into the book in any way we are by now accustomed to, and that lack of reverberation impedes the formation of any sense of where one stands in relation to the book or to the characters.

In a very similar manner, Dos Passos’s whole attitude toward history—or even to the United States—interrupts the formation of any stable relationship to the reader’s own views of the U.S. or U.S. history. U.S.A. as a whole is neither comfortably historical or comfortably “contemporary;” somehow Dos Passos blocks both the feeling that his novel is safely in the past and the feeling that it can serve as an analogy for the present. This is perhaps not too surprising, though. Even among his peers, Dos Passos’s feelings about America were, shall we say, idiosyncratic and arguably unstable; after years of being a both vocal and visible activist in Leftist politics, Dos Passos took a hard swing to the right during the Cold War; hardly unique in his time, but, for a variety of reasons, his apostasy was much more puzzling and less explicable. Yet that idiosyncrasy is not the reason for this neither-past-nor-present feeling of the novel, or not quite.

A quite substantial part of the problem—or, if it’s not a problem, and I don’t think it is, it is at least a situation that appears to the reader as an obstacle to understanding—is that the U.S.A. trilogy takes part in what might validly be called a myth (or a grand narrative) which has very little purchase on the minds of Americans (or readers of American fiction) today. Michael Denning, in his book The Cultural Front, calls this myth “the decline and fall of the Lincoln Republic.” (And I should probably say now that by myth, I mean to emphasize less the validity or truth-content of the narrative but rather its role in people’s lives, as a story that organizes experience and history into a knowable and comprehensible shape). In a subsequent post I’ll examine that myth and where it has ended up in the present, and why it is difficult to access today.

In the meantime, if you’ve been reading along, or have read the U.S.A. trilogy in the past—or other Dos Passos novels—please consider this an open thread; talk about your experiences with Dos Passos and how you think it fits into the larger literary landscape.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: The Big Money, by John Dos Passos

Posted by Andrew Seal on 09/06/10 at 03:46 PM

There will be a post looking at the trilogy as a whole and trying to place it in the landscape of American literary history as that history looks to someone at the present moment, but for now, I’ll simply complete the inventorying project of describing the contents of this last volume of the U.S.A. trilogy.

Some of the most famous “Camera Eye” sections of the trilogy are to be found in The Big Money, in particular Camera Eye 50, which some of the more biographically-oriented critics consider the climax of the trilogy, as it depicts Dos Passos’s own efforts trying to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti—supposedly the experiential germ or origin of the project:

   they have clubbed us off the streets   they are stronger   they are rich   they hire and fire the politicians the newspapereditors the old judges the small men with reputations the collegepresidents the wardheelers (listen businessmen collegepresidents judges   America will not forget her betrayers)   they hire the men with guns   the uniforms the policecars the patrolwagons
   all right you have won   you will kill the brave men   our friends tonight…
   America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul
   their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants
   they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch
   all right we are two nations
   America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to they hire the executioner to throw the switch
   but do they know that the old world of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know that the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here in the mouth of a Back Bay socialworker in the mouth of an Italian printer of a hobo from Arkansas    the language of the beaten nation is not forgotten in our ears tonight
   the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died…

Continue reading "Party in the U.S.A.: The Big Money, by John Dos Passos"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Invidiousness and Parentheticals: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club

Posted by Andrew Seal on 08/31/10 at 02:57 PM

Obviously, this book is now nearly ten years old (perhaps I should have waited a few months so I could make this a decade-after assessment), but I just read it a couple of weeks ago and thought I’d offer some thoughts, especially since it’s been so well read.

One word crops up unexpectedly often in The Metaphysical Club: “invidious.” Well, it only turns up seven times (and two of those are actually “invidiousness"), but I sincerely doubt I (or you) have read many books, even of greater length, which use the word or its inflections more frequently.

This frequency should not, after some reflection, be all that surprising; one of the consistent themes of much writing about pragmatism—particularly the version we receive from Richard Rorty—is its impatience if not antipathy toward dualisms which smuggle preferences in under the cover of either nature or truth, a trick which makes for a pretty good definition of the word “invidious.” What Menand says of Dewey here goes for the most part for his readings of James, Peirce, and Holmes, as well as for the secondary characters like Chauncey Wright, James Marsh, Horace Kallen, Franz Boas, Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and (a little distortedly) Randolph Bourne:

Continue reading "Invidiousness and Parentheticals: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club"

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: Nineteen Nineteen, by John Dos Passos

Posted by Andrew Seal on 08/01/10 at 08:45 AM

As with the first post for The 42nd Parallel, I’ll begin by running through some of the basic details of characters, plot, etc.

There are eight “biographies” in this volume: John Reed, Randolph Bourne, Paxton Hibben, Woodrow Wilson, J. P. Morgan, Joe Hill, Wesley Everest, and the Unknown Soldier who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Hill and Everest are sort of labor movement folk heroes; Reed is as well, but is larger than that, occupying a position within our national consciousness as probably the “romantic revolutionary"—someone Warren Beatty could play in an Oscar-winning movie. Paxton Hibben is not even a folk hero, exactly—you’ll notice that his link is the only one that doesn’t go to Wikipedia; that’s because he doesn’t have a page (not that this is a definitive sign of one’s obscurity). Randolph Bourne is certainly better known, but not by a very wide circle, I think. The ambit of most of these men is certainly tighter than those Dos Passos wrote about in The 42nd Parallel, an interesting contrast to the differences between the plots of the two books: 42nd is mostly confined by the U.S. borders; almost all of 1919 is running around Europe and the Atlantic.

We have five new characters who headline the plot-driven sections: Joe Williams (4 sections), Eveline Hutchins (4 sections), Richard Ellsworth Savage (4 sections), Daughter (2 sections), and Ben Compton (1 section). Well, actually, only Daughter and Richard Ellsworth Savage are “new”: Eveline, Joe, and Ben appeared in other people’s sections in volume one.

Continue reading "Party in the U.S.A.: Nineteen Nineteen, by John Dos Passos"

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Country and the City: The U.S. Case--The Machine in the Garden

Posted by Andrew Seal on 07/06/10 at 09:31 PM

In my first post on Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, I wrote that “at least for U.S. literature, there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the city and there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the country, but there is no single study which actively attempts to fuse those together and read them as not only the same history but the result of a single process or regime (capitalism), which is what Williams does.”

A commenter here pointed out that Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden is “the book that comes closest, I think, to the kind of AmLit history you want to do.” That probably is true, but it doesn’t actually come that close for a number of reasons which I find demonstrate pretty well some of the basic reasons why there still hasn’t been a study of American literary history which does what Williams did and why it would still be quite difficult to write such a one. I didn’t initially plan on spending so much time on The Machine and the Garden in trying to puzzle out why I feel this is so, but that comment led me back to a closer look at the book, and I’ve found the comparison rewarding. Marx’s book is rightly renowned, even if, like most myth and symbol criticism from the 1950s and 1960s, it has worn a little shabbily. Most of my comments on it will be in a critical vein, but my point in doing so is not to question its worth on its own terms but to suggest the continued necessity of some other terms in which to think about the literary histories of the country and of the city in the U.S.

Continue reading "The Country and the City: The U.S. Case--The Machine in the Garden"

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Structure and The 42nd Parallel

Posted by Andrew Seal on 07/04/10 at 03:56 PM

An inordinate amount of the criticism that has been written on John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. has been devoted to its structure—the four modes of biography, Newsreel, Camera Eye, and narrative. I think critics generally fasten onto this tetra-partite structure as the most importantly obvious part of the book as it looks so much like the key to a deeper, substructural meaning, but evaluations of its cumulative aesthetic value seem to be rather mixed or confused. Alfred Kazin is probably typical in saying,

Technically U.S.A. is one of the great achievements of the modern novel, yet what that achievement is can easily be confused with its elaborate formal structure. For the success of Dos Passos’s method does not rest primarily on his schematization of the novel into four panels, four levels of American experience—the narrative proper, the “Camera Eye,” the “Biographies,” and the “Newsreel.” That arrangement, while original enough, is the most obvious thing in the book and soon becomes the most mechanical. (On Native Grounds 1970, 353)

Kazin’s reaction is interesting, and grows more interesting as he goes along so I’ll play out this quote further below, but here he gives things away by referring to this formal “schematization” and to “the narrative proper,” as if the other sections are either external to the novel (i.e., not its own) or vaguely inappropriate to its real “achievement.”

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos

Posted by Andrew Seal on 06/29/10 at 10:10 PM

In this post, I’d just like to introduce some of the key elements of the first volume and of the work as a whole. Shortly, I hope to have at least one more analytical post written, but for now, just a stocktaking—what’s in this novel?

Both description and analysis of the U.S.A. trilogy generally begin with a catalogue of the books’ four modes:
1) the interlocking narrative sections, each headed by and following a single protagonist as he or she makes his way across the nation and a few parts of the wider world (in this novel, France, Canada, and Mexico);

2) the famous Camera Eye sections, which are written in a high modernist style and which seem to be a sort of impressionistic memoir. They read to me kind of like a Joycean version of the prose section in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies1;

3) the Newsreel, which comprises various headlines or half-headlines and snatches of news reports and contemporary popular songs. Many of them read like they’ve been spliced or mangled in some fashion, like RSS feeds mating and churning out gnomics: “DIAZ TRAINS HEAVY GUNS ON BUSINESS SECTION… ASK METHODISM TO OUST TRINITY…”

4) and finally, what seems to be everyone’s favorite, a series of free-verse “biographies” of famous or influential figures of the period—in this first volume, Eugene Debs, Luther Burbank, Big Bill Haywood, William Jennings Bryan, Minor C. Keith, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz, and Robert LaFollette, who had some awesome hair.

Continuing with a basic inventory of the novel, in the narrative sections of The 42nd Parallel, we meet five different protagonists. Because this is sort of supposed to be a group read (that is, if anyone is reading along with me), there will be spoilers.

Continue reading "Party in the U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Country and the City, by Raymond Williams

Posted by Andrew Seal on 06/23/10 at 06:41 AM

It is both a shame and also perfectly understandable that Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City is one of those title-line citation books: those monographs which are obligatorily footnoted whenever certain keywords turn up—in this case, the combination or interaction of “city and country.” But that citation is usually no more than a quod vide, a sort of ritual genuflection or ass-covering acknowledgment ("yes, reader, I know the locus classicus too").

This desultory reference is a shame because the book does repay more in-depth discussion or elaboration and because, at least in my experience, few historians and fewer literature scholars engage with this dynamic very deeply with or without Williams’s guidance.

Yet it is also, as I say, perfectly understandable because a very great proportion of The Country and the City lends itself only very weakly to adaptation or appropriation; only the final few chapters really seem meant to inspire further work or to indicate the possibility of connection to other questions, projects, or histories. The rather foxy title belies the monograph’s more hedgehoggy content. Williams’s study of English literature depicting the English countryside (and, rather cursorily, the English city, meaning almost exclusively London) is resolutely single-minded; after a bit of throat-clearing about classical pastoral traditions, I count only 14 references to non-Anglo-Irish writers in the remainder of the book.1 Over about 290 pages (excluding the chapter on classical pastorals), that’s around one every 21 pages. That is certainly not very expansive or wide-ranging; there is little else besides the very particular literary history of this particular set of tropes in English literature. To do more than name-check Williams’s book in any context other than the one he actually wrote about would essentially require taking the book’s argumentative skeleton and graft on everything else—muscles, tendons, skin and blood. It would take a complete re-writing. It is not, in other words, a Foucault-type genealogy or archaeology of knowledge.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Party in the U.S.A.

Posted by Andrew Seal on 06/16/10 at 01:03 PM

U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public library full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills, U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.

Infinite Summer has made reading long books during the summer incredibly popular, so over the next (less than) three months, I’ll be working my way through John Dos Passos’s [insert modifier indicating scale, impressiveness] U.S.A. trilogy, and I invite you to read along. Or, if you’ve read it before, to comment along.

The set-up will be very simple: one book, each month (June, July, August). I’m not going to blog my progress while in the middle of a volume, so there won’t be any weekly schedule or page pacing, just a post or two near the end of each month to walk through the volume and add some commentary. This leaves June a little foreshortened, but I’m finding that the first volume, The 42nd Parallel, really flies by.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Search for Order, 1877-1920, by Robert H. Wiebe

Posted by Andrew Seal on 06/13/10 at 02:49 PM

There is an interesting and I think rather consequential disjunction between the style of Wiebe’s classic synthesis of the Gilded Age/Progressive Era and its content: in few words, Wiebe brought an 18th-century sentence to a 19th-century fight. Wiebe’s equipoise and preference for the apothegm, resembling above all a long cascade of heroic couplets, repeatedly turn his arguments about the character of these times against themselves: balancing where they should be evoking turbulence, harmonizing where they mean to demonstrate dissonance, affording closure where they intend to describe a new sense of endless process. It’s like putting a gyroscope on a dirt bike.

Of course, the prose is also so, so pleasurable to read. “Too many ambitious men pictured themselves as tomorrow’s kings to proscribe royalty.” “Essential services became the playthings of private profit, and a busy people paid the price of danger, dirt, and disease.” “Too isolated for leadership before 1917, Roosevelt and his comrades were too overwhelmed by agreement after that.” Of William Jennings Bryan, “His public life was devoted to translating a complicated world of affairs he barely comprehended back into those values he never questioned.” Few poets could pull off without a smirk such alliteration as that of the second sentence, and I’m tempted every once in awhile to scan these sentences for the meter; some have to be very near iambic pentameter.

Occasionally, this bent toward beauty becomes obtuse: of the 1877 railroad strikes, “Called America’s first national strike, it was actually the first national holiday of the slums. The rioters, rather than self-conscious wage earners, were simply the inhabitants of center city who had taken advantage of a singular opportunity to come out and roam.” That terminal intransitive verb is a gorgeous way to conclude, a perfect alighting point for the thought being expressed, but one does wonder about its content; how much of the disorder of the time is interred by the metaphor’s grace?

Style also plays a role in some of the book’s argumentative flaws. There is an outright indifference to geography ("The titans of Wall Street would have made the same decisions if they had operated from Denver; the same spate of holding companies would have appeared if Oregon instead of New Jersey had passed a lax incorporation law” (32)) which is enabled or encouraged by Wiebe’s Olympian (or perhaps Parnassian) summations; there is little need for geographic specificity when the events are being narrated from 30,000 feet above the fray. I have already mentioned the way that the prose’s tidiness evaporates turmoil. There is almost an inadvertent joke between the work’s title and its contents: if the era was a casting about for organization, Wiebe somehow finds order at the end of every (sentence’s) period.

But the largest complaint I have is with what Wiebe’s style does to his basic argument for what was transformed or precipitated in this period and what this transformation or precipitate came from. 

Continue reading "The Search for Order, 1877-1920, by Robert H. Wiebe"

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The House of Mirth and The Rise of Silas Lapham

Posted by Andrew Seal on 06/05/10 at 06:07 PM

"There is a point where taste has to begin” - Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham

I like this quote in part because, even in the larger context (which you can get by clicking on the link), the expression “has to” straddles very elegantly the hortatory and the necessary: it is both an inevitable feature of taste that it does begin somewhere, at some specific point, and also that it should begin somewhere, that one who has taste must recognize a lowest rung on the social ladder below which lies nothing worth recognizing—not even money.

It would be tedious to say that “the point where taste has to begin” is a major concern of both Wharton’s and Howells’s novels, but it is, nevertheless, the tedious point at which I wish to begin discussing these works. For one glaring but still quite enlivening motif of both novels is the emphasis they place on the spatial nature of taste, or better said, the spatial preconditions of taste. For in both novels, it is presumed that taste ultimately eludes or transcends mere space—it is necessarily, in its highest forms, not only ineffable but also impossible to ground or physically delimit; the social ladder wisps away at its highest point into the empyrean—but this ultimately transcendental aspect of taste does not mean that there is not a moment at which it is most definitely spatial, and thus material.

One might think of it as the moment of primitive accumulation, and it is no accident that it is when the protagonists of both novels venture past this stage of capitalism and try their hands at actual financial speculation—the very ineffable realms of non-spatialized capital—that they meet their downfalls.* One barely needs to translate “taste” into the Bourdieusian term “social capital"—the exchange rate in both Wharton and Howells is so direct and the roles of social and financial capital so genuinely homologous that very little mediation is required to tell the stories of Lily Bart and Silas Lapham in social or in financial terms; one can continuously switch idioms with little meaning lost.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Regionalism as a Qualitative Term

Posted by Andrew Seal on 05/27/10 at 04:36 PM

I was in the midst of paper-writing for the term (please don’t ask me anything about Ignatius Donnelly or Barthes’s reality effect for awhile) and so I missed a chance to respond to a very interesting interchange between Mark Athitakis and D. G. Myers on the possible decline of regionalism. Myers, who started things off with this post, wrote:

The writers’ workshops have established a nationalized bureaucracy of writers who, in their professional lives, are more loyal to the organizational culture of creative writing, which stretches from coast to coast—and to their own career advancement—than to the locales in which they accidentally find themselves.

My initial reaction was to wonder whether this loyalty-to-the-program truly does conflict with regionalism—it seemed to me that the famous workshop dictum “write what you know” ought to encourage regionalist writing, not suppress it. Don’t workshop stories—or the debut collections that come out of them—often focus on the writer’s hometown or home milieu, particularly if that milieu is lower-middle- or working-class? Immediately two recent collections about the Rust Belt Midwest jump to mind—Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage—and I imagine one could quickly add others by looking at a roster of recent Stanford or Iowa MFA grads, especially if one considers international or first/second-generation immigrant students writing about their or their parents cultures as taking part in something like the same practice. 

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sister Carrie and Television

Posted by Andrew Seal on 03/14/10 at 10:44 AM

A long line of novels stretching at least as far back as Mansfield Park uses a theatrical performance (typically of amateurs) as the hinge of the plot. The moment of performance, of taking on another identity, allows the characters a burst of self-understanding or permits them to see another character—usually someone with whom they are intimate—anew. In Revolutionary Road, this moment occurs at the very beginning of the novel, when Frank Wheeler sees his wife April give a stultifyingly bad performance in a local production of The Petrified Forest.1 In Sister Carrie, it is also an amateur performance—of a light melodrama, Under the Gaslight—that catalyzes Hurstwood’s desire for Carrie and creates within Carrie the woman who will ultimately conquer the New York stage.

As I was reading this section of Sister Carrie, I began to think how absolutely unlikely such a device would be in a book published and set within the last half-century or so; Revolutionary Road must be, I think, the terminus ad quem of the stage-play-as-epiphany trope. I suppose one could still get away with it in historical fiction set before 1960 or so, but I really can’t recall many examples published recently that have tried. (Suggestions?) Even in Mad Men, which is so very much about the revelation of the self through performance and is also set precisely at this time, one cannot really imagine the writers putting Don or Betsy Draper on the stage to cause an epiphany.2 Something, it seems, emerged around this time that made this device less plausible, that sapped the power of stage performance as a metaphor for the revelation/realization of the self to the extent that this trope has become unusable, obsolete.

Surely, though, one would think that this obsolescence might have come earlier than 1955 (when Revolutionary Road is set). While amateur theater continues to persist, it struck me as odd that the dividing line would fall so late in the 20th century, so long after the movies and the cinema had achieved cultural dominance. Yet then I began to think how beautifully compatible the stage and screen were during this time in a way that has largely, I think, been lost. It is not just that so many more films (especially musicals) were about the stage, or that there was a more well-trod corridor of success from Broadway to Hollywood (in terms of both personnel and product), but that Broadway and Hollywood often seemed to work together upon popular culture, an effect exemplified by Revolutionary Road‘s performance of The Petrified Forest, which was on stage in 1935 and on screen the next year. 

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Survival Stories: What Is the What, The Hurt Locker, and The Wire

Posted by Andrew Seal on 02/22/10 at 11:08 PM

In a Blographia Literaria post about The Forever War and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which I meant to cross-post here, I promised a further exploration of what I saw as a common theme in both those texts and in Dave Eggers’s novel What Is the What. All three novels, and a number of others besides, attempt to find a way out of a dilemma posed between liberty and equality by supplying the third term of the French Revolutionary slogan: fraternité. What Is the What also makes more explicit what these other two works do to a lesser extent: fraternity is at root about survival. For fraternity is, after all, most needed and most likely to be found (at least in novels) at those moments where one is too weak to survive on one’s own.

The narrative pattern proper to the ideal of fraternity therefore will always be a survival story, a narrative reduced to an account of its own possibility, how the narrator managed to live to the point of his or her narration, if it is told in the first person (which I think is the most common), or how the protagonist manages to get from the chaotic past to a stable (and therefore narratable) present. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is just as much a survival story (and obviously just as much dependent on the {broken} ideal of fraternity) as What Is the What, and it is certainly not alone in this regard among memoirs.

The most interesting thing about the survival story, I find, is its relationship to ideology. To be very general, the attitude of the survival story is that, because it is focused almost entirely on the mundane necessities of subsistence, because it has no time for ideology, it exists in a sort of sub-ideological space, or creates for itself a space below ideology, below the arguments for or against the events that have reduced its characters to this struggle for bare existence. Its narrative expression, therefore, is supposed also to be sub-ideological (which is sometimes mistaken for being post-ideological), to be invested only in the telling of itself, existing merely to continue existing, the direct corollary of the survival experience itself. The final paragraph of What Is the What expresses this directly:

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Monday, February 01, 2010

eBooks, Piracy, and Stockpiling

Posted by Andrew Seal on 02/01/10 at 09:30 PM

Caleb Crain’s excellent overview of what 2010 may have in store for book sales makes a very convincing case for the significance and likely effects of Amazon’s decision this week to use a “nuclear” option on a recalcitrant publisher, Macmillan. Amazon caved sometime after Crain had post, but his analysis of the move’s importance and the background for it is very much still worth reading.

Crain argues that what is being fought over between Amazon and Macmillan is not, in fact, profits or even profitability (he says the way this particular argument is playing out is in effect a contest “to see to see who can lose more money” per book) but simply over who is controlling the “intermediary steps somewhere between the creation of a book and the reading of it,” although I would change the phrasing to “whether publishing companies can retain control over those intermediary steps, which include negotiations over royalties, price points, and the strategy of whether and how to release eBooks alongside printed books.” Crain’s phrasing makes it sound like either side could potentially lose control, but that’s not entirely accurate—Amazon has a lot to win but not much to lose; publishers could lose a whole lot, but they have very little (if anything) more they can win by facing down Amazon’s demands—even retention of what control they have now does not exactly look like a prize the way things have been going. (Crain in a way acknowledges this earlier in the post.)

Crain also discusses Amazon’s strategy for the Kindle, and does so very insightfully:

When Amazon first introduced its Kindle reading device, the reception was tepid. But Amazon improved the device in later models, and thanks to its aggressive low pricing on e-books, it now reports that the Kindle and e-books are selling briskly. In other words, with the money that it has lost by discounting e-books, Amazon has bought market share for its e-book reader and for itself as an e-book retailer. To put it still another way, Amazon sped up the American public’s adoption of e-books by unilaterally lowering the American public’s idea of what the natural price of an e-book should be.

Essentially, Amazon’s decision to convince consumers that $9.95 is the right price for an eBook has backed Amazon into a corner, but it still has the publishers as a buffer between it and the wall. Any pressure from consumers on the price point, and it will be the publishers who get squeezed.

What also gets squeezed, or I should say what gets squeezed the most, is the ability of publishers to continue printing books on paper. As Crain says, “It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books.” I added the emphasis, but I think it’s pretty obvious that it has to be there: as I noted above, one of the forms of control at stake in this haggling over price points is the publisher’s ability to determine how or even whether to release eBook versions alongside the printed product. If Amazon is committed to wresting control over price points for eBooks, it’s also exerting indirect control over what the profit margins have to be for printed books to compensate for the losses incurred over eBooks. Being print-first (organizing one’s whole production chain from acquisition to fulfillment around the print copies of a book) may end up being a luxury no publisher can afford.

That’s the supply side, more or less. Being (at this point) completely unconnected to the supply side (knowing only a couple of people well who work in publishing and virtually no authors), I’m more interested in the demand side. Here are some thoughts:

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