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The surprising in art

Monday 4/27/20

* Ran three miles this AM. This is a new piece I wrote for JazzTimes I just happened to see last night while looking for something else. It's on the poetically musical and musically poetic jazz photography of Francis Wolff. I don't know what is happening with my Louis Armstrong short story and Lee Konitz piece at the magazine. Not a good sign. I wrote a commanding work on Jimmy Blanton that they did not have the budget to run which I hope they can do so at some point or I can unload elsewhere, and also a piece on underrated Blue Note artists and a lengthy study/consideration of the overlooked talents of Freddie Hubbard. Anyway, this piece ran, Defoe essay ran in The American Interest, wrote a short story, made progress on two major short stories, had the one day with the twenty miles of walking, all in all, a pretty normal weekend here, nothing to see. Every period of three days, two days, a day, is like this. Week after week, year after year. It's the norm. All that changes are the specific works.

* I saw this last night on Twitter, and I'm going to put it up in full, as it touches on what, as much as anything, is my largest problem. You'd think being blackballed by an entire industry--as you publish more than anyone in that industry, which only boosts the extreme confusion--would be one's largest problem. It's not my largest problem. It's a large problem. There are many. That is one of them. But this is one bigger problem: "There's lessons to take from Scottie Pippen's career: Just letting your work speak for itself is bad advice. That assumes others can reliably identify value when they see it and you have no reason to assume that. You gotta advocate for yourself." That's the quote from the person on Twitter. Publishing confers value with awards, reviews, book deals, the support and endless cheering of so-called literary citizens, plum gigs. None of it stems from the work. It's all a mirage picture show. What happens is when those writers and their work has a value projected upon them and it, that's as far as anything goes (e.g., with a Matt Bell, a Laura van den Berg, a Mary South, a Wells Tower back in the day). Because the work isn't actually what an industry said it was. My problem is that no one says anything. There are no awards, no reviews, no coverage, no plum gigs, because I have a publishing community and system that is entirely against me. So, the same person who would love my work, be passionate about it, either won't see it or won't think to see it that way because that works exists in a vacuum. There is not a single public word being said about it. I am entirely dependent, right now, on people coming along, knowing the work is out there, acquiring it, seeing it for what it is, and saying what it is to someone or to some other people. That's a recipe to die in poverty and anonymity, no matter what you have, no matter how good it is, no matter if a billion people could and would love it. And that, right now, is perhaps the largest problem. I'm in a vacuum.

* An old friend from college wrote me over the weekend to tell me to keep going, that the recognition I deserve will come.

* Wrote two dozen letters over the weekend. All will likely come to naught. They are usually to the same old people with whom the die of hate is already cast. There may be some who wish to move forward, but they don't know how. I learned a long time ago that something that is very easy for me--so natural as to be a given, something I didn't used to think about--can be an enormous challenge for someone else. Especially people in this business. It's not a business of people who are masters at social skills. For instance, you could say, "Look, I don't even know where to start, this has gotten pretty hairy, but how about we just try and start fresh? I know you have a lot of work right now. Why don't you send me the two or three pieces you think are best and we'll try and go from there." So simple. We don't need to go through everything that has happened, you don't have to explain why you had this decade-long manufactured grudge. I think sometimes that stuff snowballs, the time goes on and on, and people perceive it as harder and harder to say anything, it's more awkward, so they say nothing. Of course, many of those people would be pleased if I literally died, but there are probably some who just don't know what to say given how long a certain thing has gone on. I am not looking to be anyone's friend here. I'm not looking to like you or have you like me. All I care about is putting the best work out there where the most people will see it where it can do the most good and get the best results and have that be good for the venue, me, and, most importantly, the readers, the world.

* Spoke to two women over the weekend. Hot twenty-four-year-old high school English teacher, hot forty-nine-year-old lawyer. Wasn't interested in either. Just not dynamic. Ho hum. I can't do ho hum. I need you to surprise me by how different you are from other people.

* I watched the third and fourth episodes of The Last Dance last night. The way I pitched it was as an examination of an effective cinematic technique of our time; a form of long-form narrative that maintains a through-line, and remains engaging in the so-called short attention span era. I don't believe in a prevailing short attention span problem so much as I believe that very little is of any quality that compels anyone to care. I think all standards are lowered. You can have something very mediocre, and because it's more mediocre, or less, I suppose, truly bad, than something else, people will accept that as the best. I see it with everything from The Irishman to the new Strokes album to Ozark. I don't think these things are very good. I think they're plenty mediocre, though, if that, and so little is watchable, readable, listenable, that someone has to win gold, silver, bronze. What does win those medals becomes the new top standard. But that doesn't mean that it's not mediocre. It means our conditioning is changing. Our tastes, in a way, will adapt so that we can have something we call good. Doesn't make it good. Doesn't mean that something actually good--or great--couldn't catch the imagine and drive the passion of a lot of people. Millions of people. Many millions. I see comments on Twitter about how wonderful it would be if Rodman and crew were playing right now on that Bulls team, because of Twitter. No, it wouldn't be great because of Twitter. It'd be a lot worse. You wouldn't get what you really like, which this documentary offers. It'd be stupid, sarcastic, un-clever, narcissistic--as in wanting attention--comments that is pretty much all Twitter is. Twitter is a competition to "out snark." People are trying to come up with the cleverest one-liner, the cleverest sarcasm, and what you get is a billion people sounding almost exactly alike. What you don't get is narrative. What you get without Twitter, when someone actually has to tell the tale, is narrative. People prefer narrative. Always have, always will. That's why they like The Last Dance. It's people telling stories. It's anti-Twitter. If that Bulls team played now, if the events of The Last Dance were unfolding now, you might just get Twitter detritus. Which is disposable by definition. You wouldn't have guys telling stories that were important to them that they wanted to tell the right way to get something across to you. You wouldn't get the very things that make people enjoy The Last Dance like they are enjoying it.

* I am a Celtics fan, but Bill Laimbeer never bothered me. He was a dick. Most people are dicks. A few people are not. Those that are not are usually highly flawed and can often behave like the dicks. They might also do decent things indicative of what a good person is. A rare person. You have to evaluate if the breakdown, whatever the percentage is in a given person, is worth it to you. Very few people are truly great. A person who is truly great has many major problems. You have to overlook a lot, the kinds of things that, if you did them, you would not be able to live with yourself. You always have to make allowances for people, because if you held them to a millionth of the standard you hold yourself to, you'd be entirely alone, you'd go weeks, months, years, without talking to anyone. As a player, Laimbeer was a lot better than people think--a long-range shooting center, before they were a thing. Good passer. Good scorer. He was a four-time All-Star. It's much harder to be an All-Star in the NBA than the other three major North American sports. (Curiously, he didn't play a ton or score much in college.) He was obviously an antagonist. I am someone who doesn't need to hate a certain player, all while pulling for the player or team that villain-type player competes against. For one thing, it's sports, it's not that important. It's a game, a diversion. Says the guy who knows sports like he does. It's called perspective. I am more interested in processing the meaning of what I see before me, than applying labels and making heroes and villains out of professional athletes. There are some I have no respect for--Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving. But Laimbeer never bothered me. Did what he had to do to be effective. Would I want to hang out with him? No, he seems intolerable. But that's a lot of people.

* It seems to me that maybe one in several million people has anything approaching true self-awareness. I think almost everyone is more blind to who they are than anything in the world. Including, say, quantum physics. It's almost like it's a design of the human--like having two eyes and two thumbs--not to have means to even begin to look at the self. As if there is a shield or steel door as thick as a continent.

* The late 1980s Pistons are quite similar to the mid-1970s Flyers. Which makes the 1990s Bulls the late 1970s Canadiens, but remarkably, the Bulls were even better. One could reasonably argue those Canadiens teams were the best the NHL ever had. Certainly the 1976-77 team is in that discussion, if not leading it. I put what the Bulls did in the 1990s only behind what the Patriots did in the next century.

* I awoke this morning to the second half of the X Minus One episode of Ray Bradbury's "Zero Hour." The piece was only fifteen minutes long--so, about half the length of a normal X Minus One episode. I may have undervalued Bradbury. I've never thought too much about him--in that it didn't seem like there was a lot to think about. My interest in Bradbury was in his tastes--he likes good stuff. I am going to read The Illustrated Man. I'm more and more impressed with X Minus One, and this episode was excellent. Pure pop culture art. I haven't mentioned this in these pages, but I have been planning two sci-fi works. A story, and a novel--the latter will be set in New Mexico during the Civil War, and involve beings from somewhere else, on the outskirts of this war for America. It may not seem like it to most people, given my productivity, but some things germinate in my mind for a long time. A long, long time, sometimes. A key to that is memory and the ability to think about so much at once. Other times, a work has come into my mind that very day and will be realized before the day is out. But with something like The Freeze Tag Sessions and Musings with Franklin--two novels deep in progress that I will be finishing--that's not so. Sometimes it's not true with short stories either. An idea, the characters, might be in my head for five years before they officially come out. But I have been fascinated by sci-fi for a while now. It is, like young adult literature, a place where imagination has a place. I see some of these works of sci-fi--like Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1953) that far surpass anything anyone has done in literary fictions in sixty, seventy years. That doesn't mean they're about rocket ships. They're ultimately about the human condition. They are somewhat along the lines of Dark March and The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe that way. Now, those books are not science fiction--though there may be science fiction elements at times--but they're often not straight up about humans. They contain no stories about a Yale professor who writes poetry for The New Yorker and comes home to his Darien, CT home to deal with his wife who doesn't love him and the buxom neighbor he wants to seduce that last summer before she goes to Harvard who he may or may not rape, did she give consent or not, his daughter who is a grad student at Cornell hates him, the end.

Nobody wants that shit that publishing shovels at you and gives awards to. I don't view it as human. It's never as people are, and there is nothing in the work that helps us better understand people as they are or better grasp, process, deal with, get more from our own feelings. But the best sci-fi does that. And even with a lot of stories about animals or things that "could never really happen" in Dark March and Anglerfish, those books do that. William Sloane, whom I mention often in these pages, as he wrote one of the six or seven best books I've ever read in To Walk the Night--which I regularly re-read and study--was a Princeton professor who loved sci-fi. He edited a number of notable anthologies. He was a diehard sci-fi reader. And in the introduction to one of those anthologies--Stories for Tomorrow--he offered up this apologia for the genre that is also not really a genre. Genre, to me, means sameness and the meeting of certain expectations; I find that the best sci-fi destroys expectations. The best writing destroys expectations. You know what people say so often when they read my work? People who do not know each other, people from all ages and backgrounds: they say how surprising it is. Hell, recently--by which I mean in the last two weeks--people have sent me notes saying how surprising "Fitty," "Six Feet Away," "Read the Ice," "Leavable," Meatheads Say the Realest Things, and "Skip Shack" are. They all use that word. Surprising.

In publishing, editors and publishers don't know how to handle surprise. They don't get it. It knocks them out of their comfort zone. What they want is the expected. They want patterns to hold and be followed. It's like a musician being told to play from a score. Okay, I'll play that. But then taking the score away and having the musician improvise. Editors can't be Charlie Parker, in that sense. They need to be told. They need to have the score. Now, the exact same work, if fifty of their cronies celebrate it, will cause them to say it's awesome, when it's the exact same work they would have turned down immediately if it had come to them and they were left on their own to deal with something surprising. Yes, the blackballing and the hate is a large problem, but this, too, is a massive issue.

Ironically, it's far more of a problem with the few people who control what comes out, than it would be with the millions of people in the world who would comprise a willing audience for such work if it did come out. But look--I sent "Skip Shack" to Wallace and Treisman at The New Yorker yesterday. The story, in part, is about children in a chimney. It's narrated by a woman. It is one surprise after another. There's nothing like it. It's haunting, beautiful, devastating. But it's not what you're expecting and it's not what they're accustomed to publishing. Rembrandt wasn't the painter you were expecting. Beethoven wasn't the composer you were expecting. The Beatles weren't the beat combo you were expecting. So? This means what? What you have to do is be smart enough to say, "Okay, this isn't what comes down the pike, because who else could do it? But that doesn't mean, just because no one else can do this, that we can't make major hay here and this doesn't merit a prominent place with us." Simple, right? But in publishing, that idea is almost more radical than thinking you could split an atom in two and harness its power.


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