Alec Niedenthal

Alec Niedenthal's fiction appears or is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Agriculture Reader, Sleepingfish, PANK, Corium, and other places. He currently lives in Sarasota, Florida, where mostly it is hot.

The Jolly Corner

Some months ago, I was rereading Colm Toibin’s great first novel, The South, when I realized something about the way a voice is made—or maybe I would say forged. I’ve heard Colm talk in interviews about the silences in his family—the hush that fell over his home in (I believe) Enniscorthy, Ireland after his father died when he he was young. He talks about the way the unsaid reigned over his home, the way that much of what was important lay well on the nether side of speech. And you can hear that in the rhythm of his prose, even when he isn’t writing about Enniscorthy and the spaces in which he was raised. You can hear that hush, that sense of the unsaid as an “unmoved mover,” as the lost pater familias in command of the family. You can hear those empty hallways and that ghostly tonality. 

I think also of Henry James’s story “The Jolly Corner,” which has been on my mind these many months when many of us have been (lucky enough to be!) barricaded in our homes. In this story—like The Turn of the Screw, haunted not so much by a ghost but by the possibility that it is in the end a ghost story—the main character returns to the New York City of his youth, after being gone for thirty-three years, to look at his family’s (all of whom are dead) two old properties, one of which is being renovated. His childhood home is located on “the jolly corner,” and I suppose it’s James’s thesis that it is only at our own jolly corners that we can struggle with grief and regret, disenchantment and the treachery of memory. (NB: I cribbed some of this synopsis from Wikipedia.) Like James himself, he finds the city materialistic and vulgar. Let me quote from Colm’s introduction to the New York Review of Books’s The New York Stories of Henry James:

In “The Jolly Corner,” written after his American sojourn of 1905, James found a new doubled self to dramatize, the man who had left New York and lived in England, and his double, still haunting him, who had never left, who still wandered in those same rooms which would fill James’s autobiography and had filled his novel “Washington Square.” … [Brydon, the main character] has kept his old house downtown empty all the years [he has been gone], having it cleaned and cared for every day. He now goes there to be haunted by a figure moving in its dark rooms, the figure who has never left them, just as James himself in part of his mind has never left them.

My thinking is that we are often, as we write, moving through these dark rooms, these jolly corners that we have long haunted. We are confronted by our doubles and must struggle with them—and not only in content, but in form, in voice. In my experience, the way that my family talked to each other, the kinds of conversations we had, the things that were spoken of and those that were not—the particular hushes, the specific silences and also excesses of saying—all of this informs my voice when I am writing authentically. I am haunted by the language of youth and home. Of course, in “The Jolly Corner,” the protagonist ends up physically fighting his double—for dominance over the jolly corner, for sovereignty over his own memories. For other still more difficult reasons, I’m sure. So when I write, what is the struggle? If, like James’s protagonist, I am fighting a shadow-self, what are we struggling over? What kind of terrain is at stake?  

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September 7th, 2020 / 11:30 am

Writing Against the Censor

Before Covid arrived and ruined everything, I was emailing with a writer I look up to, asking him about—I guess you would call it—procrastination. This was maybe January. I’d developed a bad habit of spending my Sundays chained to the computer, worrying over writing, sometimes trying to get blood from a stone, feeling like I wasn’t productive if I ripped myself away and did things. It was a bad state of mind and a worse state of creation—even worse when you think about what was coming. The writer I was talking to said:

I’d say–when you’re ready, write with fury and keep going–when you get tired, go out, take a walk, don’t think about the story; then when you’re ready, go back in and keep going.  The writing mode is the opposite of the writing mode; the writing mode is a dream mode, similar to a daydream mode, or even more, a reading mode. 

I’ve let that guide me these last sixish months of trying to write—despite knowing that the world as it was before March might never return—writing which sometimes resembles simply freaking out at the difficulty of writing, let alone finishing anything, and which at such times results in my simply migrating to social media and engaging in the supreme ease of participating in the cycle of rage and anxious irony that defines it, in particular making mountaintop-sounding proclamations about politics in long, bitter posts on Facebook (a favorite hobby of mine). In those moments writing fiction feels singularly useless. There is a world of active, fast conflict happening online. But the page is slow and no one likes it until it’s done, and probably not even then. 

I think that hesitation before the page comes, like most mental paralysis, from fear. Will I be able to do it today? Am I a fake? Am I writing the wrong thing? In therapy sessions, I call it a “censor.” I might write a sentence, or a paragraph, and it’ll turn out less than good. So better to write nothing at all. Nothing lost, nothing attempted—but everything lost, because that fear you (I) felt at the computer screen echoes through the day and into the night and invades my dreams—the dream mode is no more a dream mode. Once it takes hold, I find, the censor censors everything.

But then there are mornings when the censor shuts off, or it’s like it wasn’t ever there, or maybe like it’s revealed to have been something that was somehow only ever the product of my own will, my own decision making. There’s no incessant “no”—no groans of, “You can’t do that because you might fail”—only daydreaming at the keyboard, playing a bit, kicking around images and sounds and half-remembered imprints of, for instance, a gas station in Tampa from twelve years ago. Then everything opens up and ambition and ego go mostly quiet—you can still hear them but they’re whimpering somewhere in the background, and it’s all about the expansion and contraction of an invented voice through the always-weird medium of words. Writing, in other words. The other mode—the censored mode, driven by fear—I don’t think I’d call that writing. It’s typing. It also might be a necessary part of the process, those many nothing attempts.

Anyway, welcome back, HTMLGiant.

Craft Notes / 2 Comments
August 26th, 2020 / 10:52 am

Literature, Materialism, and the Present Conjuncture: an Interview with David Winters

Literary critic David Winters, co-editor of 3:AM Magazine, has steadily developed a style and practice of review that can only be called materialist. Rather than “evaluate” a book, Winters qualifies its relationship to the broken and stultifying world from which it originates–not as an outright transcendence of that world, but as a moment, an effect, of its awful machinery, the gore and rancor of a history that has in many ways forgotten to bear a future. The book as such does not seek to solve the problems of the anima mundi but instead to put them on stage and in motion. So the work of literature, David argues, would not be the archangel of the everyday, but would try to give shape to its devastation, to the series of social splits and divisions whose conjunction make the novel possible, if not, David suggests, also threaten it with obsolescence. By focusing on this element of the book–its immortality and undead texture, its position as both a social given and a reflection of such givens–David has aligned materialist aims with a new form of criticism: a reading of the work as a weapon and not simply a code, and moreover, a weapon that can be trained on both itself and the present in which it is embedded. The following is an extended interview with him. Enjoy.



Author Spotlight / 6 Comments
August 6th, 2012 / 9:26 am

Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch on Food Network!

Not really, but close. In this new episode of Emily Gould’s “Cooking the Books,” Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch make green juice and read from their collaboration Ten Walks/Two Talks. Along the way we learn that Cotner and Fitch met as 19-year-olds in Boston. They were both crashing on someone’s roof, and started talking. They’ve kept talking. We also hear some thoughts about Basho and zits.

Timothy Donnelly, who selected Ten Walks/Two Talks as a Best Book of 2010 for The Week, included an excerpt from Cotner and Fitch’s new project Conversations over Stolen Food in Boston Review‘s National Poetry Month celebration. The short piece is called “Spiritual Laws.” It takes place in a grocery store they call “W.F.” This excerpt moves from Emerson, to a kid who soils his shorts, back to Emerson, then ends with a discussion of anxiety and bicycles.

Author News / 24 Comments
May 19th, 2011 / 12:30 pm

Gigantic Issue #3 Launch

New York City’s consistently innovative print/online journal Gigantic is launching its third issue (Gigantic Indoors) in Brooklyn on Friday 8-4:30 AM. Beer’d by Brooklyn Brewery, “live performance and installation by Newvillager,” and on the Williamsburg Waterfront (!)–all the trappings of a Williamsburg soiree (what my parents used to call a “function” or “gala”) without the constant discomfort and guilt. “Our people” don’t often throw such massive events on this side of the borough, so take advantage, please. Readers include: Chloe Cooper Jones, Joshua Cohen, Lauren Spohrer and John Dermot Woods. Admission is free for subscribers, and $10 for non-subscribers. Please RSVP here, on the Facebook. Attractive people will not receive free admission simply because they are attractive, easing the resentment that their less attractive friends already feel toward them.

Events / 8 Comments
May 16th, 2011 / 12:18 pm

Criticism and The Pale King

Elegant but problematic write-up on The Pale King in GQ by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Read it for the elegance, but I’d like to unfairly isolate the review’s conclusion, which alarmed me for the reasons articulated below. Quote:

Wallace’s work will be seen as a huge failure, not in the pejorative sense, but in the special sense Faulkner used when he said about American novelists, “I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” Wallace failed beautifully. There is no mystery whatsoever about why he found this novel so hard to finish. The glimpse we get of what he wanted it to be—a vast model of something bland and crushing, inside of which a constellation of individual souls would shine in their luminosity, and the connections holding all of us together in this world would light up, too, like filaments—this was to be a novel on the highest order of accomplishment, and we see that the writer at his strongest would have been strong enough. He wasn’t always that strong.

Insightful, or regurgitation of the “humanist” DFW diet? At what point will critics realize that there is not one single sense to DFW’s work–that is, Wallace as what Kyle Beachy, ironically or not, called the “empathy machine,” the brain with a heartbeat? There is no question that this caricature of Wallace suits our time, but it nevertheless should be considered as just that: a pitiful reduction of what Wallace demands, and the ensnaring of criticism in the dangerous matrix of “human values”–as if he awoke from his postmodern slumber merely to mourn the “souls who would shine”–which is, incidentally, my answer to Blake’s recent post. Answer: a critic should be critical, a problem which will be the challenge and measure of reviewing The Pale King.

Massive People / 49 Comments
March 31st, 2011 / 2:26 pm

Analogous to what?

Via Adam Wilson‘s Facebook feed: a list of the “worst” analogies written by high school students, as selected by their teachers. As this blog post notes, the predicate of “worst” is an oversight, or at worst a condescending and misguided error–many of these analogies are sharp if not artful in what Adam, I think perceptively, called a “Lishian” way.

The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

Random / 8 Comments
March 24th, 2011 / 12:56 pm

Excess of bad poetry: an interview with Luna Miguel

Luna and I have been preparing this interview for five months–or, I should say, I’ve been lazy and bad enough to (with the swerving and errant dedication that is now emerging as my style) let this one sit, short as it is, raveled and incomplete since October, asking a question every few weeks, no doubt irritating Luna in bookish, unpromising bursts. Which is all so stupid, so feckless of me because of how much of a force–a clearly, as you’ll find out, erudite and redoubtable force–Luna is in contemporary literature. Eg, here she is in Elmundo yesterday. As one might expect, Luna writes with the irreverent edge of a Rimbaud, but goes beyond mere edge, beyond what one might call the chintz of aspiration, to the “elsewhere,” not of youth, but of style, which is the earmark of youth; she might be called one of those writers who is not ahead of her time, who in fact has no toehold in anyone else’s time, but rather is planted squarely in her own time, but precisely because she has founded it–not alone, but en bloc with her comrades, who are amply referred to below (in fact, what we have there is a catalogue for the future). Hers is the time of a new world poetry. Welcome her.


Author Spotlight / 40 Comments
March 22nd, 2011 / 1:33 pm

You Are Not the Only One Writing About Mondavian Zookpeepers

This is one of about 30 “Random” posts on the front page, but here goes nothing: Chloe Cooper Jones conducts a pretty spectacular dialogue with co-stars George Saunders and Deb Olin Unferth over at The Faster Times. Inspiring considerations of the contemporary MFA program abound. George Saunders gives us the only googlable instance of “kicking entities,” which we ought to deem an idiom among idioms, even if I’m not sure what it means. Really, the hope here gets me giddy, and it’s something for sure of which this “literary culture” could use a more healthy supply. Deb Olin Unferth puts it beautifully:

You can look at any space, at any group of people, and see dreariness, self-absorption, the long trod to death. Or you can look at the same space and people and see longing, hope, heroism, and disappointment that will break your heart. If you squint just right at an MFA program, you see both. You see the lifeless side—maybe the student who isn’t finding her voice or the teacher who is just “going through the motions”—and the side that shines and beats.

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November 15th, 2010 / 11:06 pm

book or else specter

Calling for a new type of submission: I’m starting this project, book or else specter, which basically consists of aphorisms on potentially any topic (sports, cars, Keynes, hunting, another aphorism). First and only aphorism so far is our own Jackie Wang, who I hung out and had a lot of fun with last week here in Florida. Aphorisms can take any form and reach any length. Either submit by emailing me ( or through the Tumblr.

I don’t know, I think the aphorism is a form that demands new life and new flesh. (Maybe it’s like I’m asking you to donate to my charity or something.) If we’re too much measure and precision, where is the condensed flash and dissolve.

Random / 2 Comments
November 6th, 2010 / 2:47 am