Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read this book when I was in college and then reread it in graduate school. I love it. Love Phoebe, love Hepzibah, love weird old Clifford, love enigmatic young Holgrave. Love daguerrotyping, whatever it was. I embrace the sentiment, the examination of the weight of human history and the awfulness of the soul and the impossibility of light in a populated room. I even love Thomas Pynchon, on whose ancestors these characters are based. I am, you might say, a fan. This is me with Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Yes, he looks kind of two dimensional and like he's not paying attention to me enough, and yes, that is my child there, my child with my husband, who lives here with me in the 21st century, but... Hawthorne and I have a special bond. I'm the only one in my American Lit class in high school who actually *liked* Young Goodman Brown, actually read My Kinsman Major Molineaux, who didn't buy the "good vs. evil" explanation that was being spooned out by Miss Cardimone to the rest of the class.

By the way if you're reading this and I knew you in high school, assume you weren't in that class. I'm looking at you, Ann. Any disparaging remarks do not apply.

I loved Hawthorne, and Melville, and Poe, and the way Melville loved Hawthorne, and the way Poe hated everyone, and how they wrote to and about each other, and how they all spat on Emerson, and his ilk, and pooped in Walden Pond, and dug around in their dark hearts and and wrote about what they found.

Last week I was in Boston. My husband suggested we go up to Salem to see Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace and the House of the Seven Gables. I was, of course, panting with excitement. Wouldn't you be? Except that I'm serious.

This is the House of the Seven Gables. It is the house on which Hawthorne based the house in his book. The house that represents original sin. This is it. He visited it as a child; it was owned by relatives of his. It's been restored, in fact restored to be more like the one in the book than the original house actually was (Hepzibah's store was there, and there is also a secret and terrifying passageway up through the chimney).

On the day we went to Salem, it was foggy and chill, although the rest of our week in Massachusetts was sunny and breezy. We walked all over the place and then down to the harbor where the Custom House is, where Hawthorne did some writing:

Here's the USS Friendship, across the street. And my son:

The house was neat, interesting, educational. So was the house in which Hawthorne was born, which is also on the property, having been drug there from five blocks down the street in order to add it to the museum. It was a historical site, well-preserved, well presented, valuable.

Now, I hesitate before exposing my soft underbelly like this, but I must say that beyond the interestingness and the educationability of it all, I got a little misty thinking about the history of the house. Considering Hawthorne sitting there in the parlor, about the book he wrote, about the period of time he wrote about, I found myself swallowing hard and wiping my eye.

They had only recently rid themselves of the British, and they were living in a brand new country. It would have been so vital, so fascinating, so *patriotic* and so important, to create this new national identity in literature. I know, I know, I had read about this before too, and I knew it in my brain. About how James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving drew dark lines around a colonial asthetic. But until I was standing there in Massachusetts, having walked through the South Meeting Hall in Boston, where they had the rabble-rabble meeting before the Boston Tea Party, having looked at Paul Revere's Grave, having stood on Bunker Hill, I did not get what they were doing, those people up at Brooks Farm and in Concord and what it meant while my boys were pissing on transcendentalism -- it was more than just ideas, it was identity. I get that now.

I have two reactions to that: one is that I need to think more about what I'm writing and why. What are we doing here? Do we still take up a black marker and make bold outlines around American literature any more? Are we all just happy to be citizens of the world? The other is that I wish more urgently that I could have been there when Melville walked out of that Emerson lecture, when Poe wrote that criticism of Hawthorne, when Hawthorne was sexually rejecting Melville.

At least I got to go to the house. I knocked on the front door, climbed around under the rafters, put my hand on the original bricks in the fireplace. I wouldn't have thought someone mean and cynical like me could be moved by such an experience, but I was. Next time, we're going to Concord.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Take the Books to Disney World! Take them to Disney World!

Who wants to take a ride with me on Cinderella's Golden Carousel? Now put your hand down if you're not made out of literature. I’m going to take ten books to Disney World. Books that deserve it. Books that need it.

I have been trying to read Doctor Zhivago for several months, and between the lengthy surnames and all the railroads going this way and that, I am ready to conclude that what this book needs is to get out of Russia for a while. To ride the spinning teacups. To meet Donald Duck.

I can think of lots of books that need a trip to Disney World. Heart of Darkness. Bleak House. How about As I Lay Dying?

My books spend most of their time spread open, lying upside down. Periodically they get shoved into the diaper bag, where they get drowned in apple juice, squashed with M & Ms, and have to babysit Barbies. When I’m finished reading them, I publicly criticize their authors, make fun of their movie versions, and snicker at their cover art. What kind of life is this?

I’ll tell you another book I’m going to take to Disney World: Anxious Pleasures. Lance Olson’s publisher sent me a review copy months ago and I’ve been belligerently sitting on it, waiting to reread The Metamorphosis before I read this rewrite. A few rides on Space Mountain should put things right.

I’m going, I’m really going, in the middle of November. I might even take my children. But will I be able to get Ariel to pose with Moby Dick? Will they fine me for littering if The Bell Jar throws itself off the ferry railing? Will The Sun Also Rises get kicked off Small World for shouting at the animatronic children?

Do you have a book you think needs a trip to Disney World?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing Is My Close Personal Friend

At least, she will be, as soon as she adds me on myspace, which I'm sure she will like any second now. Probably this will be a big day for her, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and all, but as soon as she's done with whatever phone calls she has to make, she'll be logging on to see how many people congratulated her with sparkly graphics: U WON! NOBEL HEARTS!

Doris Lessing is 87 years old and famously a postfeminist. Find out more here.

Oh NO. Someone named Poppy, with a red face, eye sacks, and one of those long arm self portrait profile pictures is the first to comment on her winning! Phooey! Yes, Poppy, winning the Nobel Prize is "quite a happy moment" indeed. But Doris doesn't really appreciate people clotting up her comment box with stuff that doesn't sparkle, yo. Damn, Poppy is also friends with Jean Cocteau.

What kind of cyberbling is appropriate for a Nobel Laureate? This?

Or this?

Hmm. That one could give an octagenarian Nobel Laureate a headache. There is no "Nobel Prize Winners" category for Care Bear graphics on Beware visiting those sites, by the way. They're likely to show you modestly clad women, shot from above, holding up cell phones.

How about this?

I deeply recommend for generating sparkling headlines to congratulate Doris Lessing on her myspace. I'm sure she will appreciate it!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What the World Needs Now is Another Literary Magazine Like I Need a Hole In My Head

Literary magazines, the time has come that we all knew was coming. It’s over. It’s done. The lady in the Viking corset has belted out the final high C sharp. Please exit quietly at the rear door, but leave your plastic 3D glasses in the bins provided. You will no longer be hosting the revolutionary planning sessions. The revolution already happened, and at someone else’s house.

You had a good run. Well, not really, but for the sake of politeness, we’ll say that you did. I have no ill will. I have no desire to wound you in these, your final hours. You once served a purpose, but the purpose is extinct, and so are you. No more glossy coverstock. No more precious author bios. No more black and white photography opposite poems about rain on the window pane and how it’s like roads. No more “This page purposefully left blank.”

I’m with you, and we can go through this together, but let’s face the facts. Literary magazines used to exist for two reasons. The first was immediacy. Rather than waiting for the long, grinding, seasonal cycle of big traditional publishers to get new books on the shelves, readers could find fresher fare in literary magazines, published quarterly, or even monthly. The second reason was for content, as literary magazines reached farther out of the mainstream, farther into the margin, to pull new writers, strange writers, uncommercial writers, into the world of print and out to the world of readers.

Now we have the internet. Do I need to explain, or would it be too painful?

With web sites enjoying daily updates, the old publishing schedule of even an ambitious quarterly magazine now seems yawning and slow. My attention span stretches approximately to the update cycle of The Onion, and then shatters into a thousand pieces. Are you publishing your literary magazine twice a year? Are you kidding?

Then there’s the content and readership. Any brilliant, strange, new, marginalized writer with a Blogger account and a willingness to network can gain far more readers than any literary magazine was able to reach in the history of time. In fact, any jackass with a LiveJournal can reach more of an audience than most literary magazines have ever boasted, even the big ones. I’ve been published in respectable, established literary magazines that I bet fewer than a hundred people actually read. And that is true. Hold me. It is true.

Then there’s the subject of money. The internet is, mostly, free. And well, you know the rest.

So, really, do we need another literary magazine? Just one last really special one? Do we need to hear about how this publication is different, this one is going to be a “really beautiful object,” this one is going to change publishing forever? Do we need to hear from another self-congratulatory editor-in-chief, lovingly stroking his in-jokes, musing fondly on how many subscribers he’ll need to break even, figuring out how to woo in another bored midlist author to showcase in the autumn issue? How about one more magazine named “BRICK” or “PHYLACTIC TUNA”?

Let’s admit it, we were all there at one time. Graduate school can make you feel like that. I freely admit that I, with milk-white hope in my shiny heart, at one time published a collection of short stories written by a friend of mine, and got it placed in local bookstores. I think I was twenty-two. It was fun to play pretend that way. But for the love of Kinko’s, as grim as it may sound, you have to grow up.

Enough is enough. You cannot change the world with really expensive paper, you cannot revolutionize literature by being “more ironic than McSweeneys” (is that even possible?), and you cannot sell a literary magazine. Literary magazines are not books, no matter how you try to fetishize them, they will never be on the shelf with the novels. They never have and they never will. Literary magazines are the cousins of newspapers. Novels are the cousins of history.

What can we do? I would call for a boycott, I guess, but boycotting literary magazines would be like boycotting sandpaper pants. Nobody’s rushing out to the stores to grab them up anyway. The sad fact is that nature will take its course, and these beautiful, exotic creatures will be eaten by literary evolution. But will anyone survive?

The lumbering giants will survive: The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Triquarterly, etc. These are the litmags you have to get in because they put a big gold star on your resume, and they will survive because of their prestige and tradition. People still want to break their heads open on the editorial boards that published Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Samuel Beckett. We’ll eventually be using The Paris Review to line the fork drawer, but not yet.

Which brings us to blogs. Remember zines? Blogs are the new zines. People used to staple together mimeographed pieces of crap in their grandmother’s basement and distribute it via copy machine, coffee shop counter, and word of mouth. They were subversive, populist, and updated instantly on the whim of the publisher. Blogs are the zines of the new millennium – now instantaneous, with open access for all. With all of this magic at the other end of a short wire, is it really worth our time to go around trying to sell paper and glue for ten dollars a glob?

It’s time to stop the presses. I know it’s not easy to pull that plug. Litmags are icons of intellectual privilege. You have to fight against a lifetime of programming that’s telling you literary magazines are good, therefore more literary magazines must be better. You respond out of habit, and assume it’s good news, like when a baby is born. It’s not. Magazines aren’t babies. In the world we live in, we need literary contraceptives. So stop. Put down the telephone. Put down the really nice pen. We don’t need another literary magazine. Literary magazines are dead.