Pleasant and Painful Experiences

Posted by @ 5:13 pm on November 18th, 2011


A few weeks ago, Glen Duncan reviewed Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and he certainly got a vocal reaction, not necessarily because it was a less than glowing review but because of how he wrote the review, the strange and insulting analogies he made and so on. In his review he, among other things, attempts to predict what those ultimate arbiters of literary taste– reviewers–might have to say. As he discusses the literary nature of the novel, Duncan writes, ” We get, in short, an attempt to take the psychology of the premise seriously, to see if it makes a relevant shape.” He also revisits this idea of porn starts, throughout. Ooh! He said porn star in a literary review! Edgy! Today, he wrote a defense (???) of his review. He responded to the criticism of his criticism with more criticism! Meta! The follow up can be summarized thusly: You are all haters who didn’t understand what I wrote.


Book nerds, myself included, watched the livestream of the National Book Awards on Wednesday evening. John Ashbery was recognized for his contributions to American letters. His speech was pretty great. The highlight: ““As long as I’ve been publishing poetry it has been seen as difficult and private though I never meant for it to be.” He also said,  “I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves to something which may change us.”” Next, there was a scintillating dinner service during which we were treated to a a slideshow of images of the nominated authors and their book covers, accompanied by a rather painful soundtrack that sounded like a child playing a recorder. We also heard the light murmur of fancy book people eating banquet food. The lesson learned is this: writers eat slowly. Finally, the winners were announced. The most awkward award, of course, was the one for young adult literature wherein the presenter made an unnecessary awkward reference to the debacle we all know about. The guy said, “It was a bad year for muffled phone conversations with disastrous consequences,” and everyone watching, everywhere, cringed because it was a terrible, dismissive way to acknowledge the unfortunate, poorly handled situation. Then, Nikky Finney won the poetry category for her book Head Off & Split and read a poem as her acceptance speech, a poem that was graceful and powerful and moving. I wanted her to throw the microphone down when she finished her poem but it was attached to the podium. After that, you had to feel sad for the winners to follow but they had pretty good speeches too. In case you missed the excitement, there’s video.


I love movies which means I love movie posters and here is a collection of movie poster clichés (via Elisa Gabbert).


There’s a really great interview with Dylan Landis up at The Rumpus.


Jaswinder Bolina has written a really dense, thought-provoking essay about race, identity, language, privilege, and poetry on the Poetry Foundation website. One paragraph, I particular, says a whole lot about the complexities writers of color often have to deal with as they think about writing:

I stop by the office of a friend, an older white poet in my department. Publication to me feels impossible then, and the friend means to be encouraging when he says, “With a name like Jaswinder Bolina, you could publish plenty of poems right now if you wrote about the first-generation, minority stuff. What I admire is that you don’t write that kind of poetry.” He’s right. I don’t write “that kind” of poetry. To him, this is upstanding, correct, what a poet ought to do. It’s indicative of a vigor exceeding that of other minority poets come calling. It turns out I’m a hard worker too. I should be offended—if not for myself, then on behalf of writers who do take on the difficult subject of minority experience in their poetry—but I understand that my friend means no ill by it. To his mind, embracing my difference would open editorial inboxes, but knowing that I tend to eschew/exclude/deny “that kind” of subject in my poetry, he adds, “This’ll make it harder for you.” When, only a few months later, my father—who’s never read my poems, whose fine but mostly functional knowledge of English makes the diction and syntax of my work difficult to follow, who doesn’t know anything of the themes or subjects of my poetry—tells me to use another name, he’s encouraging also. He means: Let them think you’re a white guy. This will make it easier for you.

He also says:

The privilege of whiteness in America—particularly male, heteronormative whiteness—is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks. It’s the position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere. In this, it is Godlike, and if nothing else, that’s saying something.

Where the essay really gets good, though, is when he identifies the primary tension writers of color might face, particularly poets, is at the level of language:

However, to the poet of color or the female poet, to the gay or transgendered writer in America, and even to the white male writer born outside of socioeconomic privilege, a difficult question arises: “Whose language is it?” Where the history of academic and cultural institutions is so dominated by white men of means, “high” language necessarily comes to mean the language of whiteness and a largely wealthy, heteronormative maleness at that. The minority poet seeking entry into the academy and its canon finds that her language is deracialized/sexualized/gendered/classed at the outset. In trafficking in “high” English, writers other than educated, straight, white, male ones of privilege choose to become versed in a language that doesn’t intrinsically or historically coincide with perceptions of their identities.

The entire essay is fierce. Bolina eloquently articulates the experiences of many writers of color who often have to make difficult decisions about the kind of writer they want to be. I really related because like Bolina, I grew up middle class. I attended prep school. I had privileges that, as Bolina notes, isolated me from many people who share my racial identity. He also noted that even when he’s not writing about race, he’s thinking about race:

 That my awareness of racial identity so often plays a part in my thinking about my writing makes it so that I can’t engage in that writing without race being a live wire. Even one’s evasions are born of one’s fixations.

Finally, he concludes:

Whether I choose to pound on the crooked nail of race or gender, self or Other, whether I decide on some obscure subject while forgoing the other obvious one, when I write, the hammer belongs to me.

Don’t simply rely on these excerpts though. The entire essay is well worth reading and I’d love to hear what you think about what he has to say.

6. Keith Gessen was arrested at Occupy Wall Street.

7. Speaking of writers and critics… Jonathan Lethem and James Wood. My goodness. And the comments are… a riot. My favorite? The one written at 5:45 on November 16.

8. Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, which is such an outstanding book, is reviewed in Bookforum.


Tags: , ,