Recent Work

A Difficult Decision

It’s been a good run, but I’m shuttering this blog.

Since writing my PhD dissertation in March, the bulk of my time has been devoted to working on my fiction and pitching and writing essays and reviews for publications which actually pay me. Astonishing, I know, that they would do that. I’ve no idea what they’re thinking either, foolish publications. But as long as I can keep scamming them into paying me for words, I’m gonna do it. Soon I’ll attend the writing workshop Clarion West, during which I won’t have time to blog anyway, and when I return, in August, I’ll devote myself with even more fervor to writing professionally. It seems I can scrape along this way, and so far I’ve never been happier with my days in my life.

At first I thought my transition from academia to writing wouldn’t necessitate any change in my blogging habits. I love blogging — I love blogs. Folks like Steve Mitchelmore, Amateur Reader, Anthony, Melissa Beck, Dorian Stuber, Rohan Maitzen, The Untranslated, Joe Schreiber, and so on (go read them all!), have my endless admiration for their diligent and consistently excellent investment in significant blogging projects. They show that blogging isn’t just unimportant byplay, that it can support serious writing and thinking.

This month I haven’t published much on the blog, but I’ve drafted almost fifteen posts (most too half-baked to show the world; but a few made it through my gate). Almost 20k words. I suspect I could have pitched and written three or four more reviews or essays, or finished an additional short story or two, if I hadn’t been distracted, every day, by the immediate response I knew I could get if I posted something here.

Getting published at the places that pay is a long game. At minimum a month usually separates a final draft from its reception by any sort of public; recently, it took five months between submitting a final draft of something I was very keen on and seeing it in print. The only way to speed up that process would be to throw myself into the take-writing game, to get people to start paying me for little squibs on the news cycle, and I’d rather not write at all, frankly. Still, the reason I write, the thing that makes me want to be a writer even if it means lifelong poverty and long hours every day to produce enough to get along, is the sheer delight I take in seeing people read and respond to my work, when it’s the best I can do. I suspect that as long as I have a blog where I can get quick inferior hits of that delight, the complex, slow, gratification-delaying writing for which people will pay me, and thereby sustain me in the attempt to write even more, will never win in the daily gladiatorial arena of my time. Sometimes willpower or mental discipline just isn’t enough, and you have to cut off something you love in order to do something you love even more.

While I was researching and writing a dissertation, this blog provided a nice outlet for non-dissertation-related mini-essays, and it was a hedge against loneliness. With The Forced and the Glib, On Apophatic Criticism, and On Melting, I even felt as if I was breaking interesting ground; but now I fear the blog’s become competition for my real work.

It’s not all bad news, though! I’ll leave the archives where they are, since they contain some things of which I’m moderately proud. And when I publish elsewhere I’ll post a notice right here, with a link, if one’s available. If you’re subscribed by email or rss feed to the blog, you’ll get those notices (so don’t unsubscribe, please). Why — it will be as if the blog never ceased, but just spread out across magazines and the internet, in a diaspora of words, each little migrant writing home to the motherland! That’s not so bad, right? And if you want to talk about the stuff that I publish elsewhere — well, here you’ll have the same good old comment section to talk to me as of old.

Thanks so much to those of you who stuck faithfully with me through my wayward and highly inconsistent time as a blogger. I hope you’ll find the stuff I write elsewhere a satisfying compensation.

Writing Materials To Which I Pedantically Adhere

Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

— Walter Benjamin, “13 Theses On Writing”

But of course, writing materials these days aren’t just papers, pens, and inks. I began aimlessly sketching what they are, for me, and ended up with this blog post.

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On Secret Readers

Three novels about three women whose secret lives as readers are the truth of their existence: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett; and An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. In Barbery’s book, the secret reader is a middle-aged concierge in a French apartment building. Gruff and stupid as far as the lodgers are concerned, secretly she’s a connoisseur of fine literature, art, music, and film. In Bennett’s book, the secret reader is the queen, whose accidental brush with a traveling library and a bibliophilic staffmember birth her as a reader in the senescence of her reign. And in Alameddine’s book, the secret reader is a Beiruti divorcee and former bookshop owner, whose hidden, private life is devoted to translating books into classical Arabic, unbeknownst to anyone. Three novels; three secret readers. Together these books justify me in declaring a sub-genre: the sub-genre of the secret reader.

All three secret readers are middle aged or elderly women. Two suffer the obscurity of poverty, and one the obscurity of fame. (Who is more invisible as a person than the figurehead of a dead empire?) Each of these secret readers is the sort of person that our producerist, patriarchal, youth- and sex-worshipping societies would write off as unimportant and insignificant. And yet, by reason of their secret lives as readers, they are more significant, in the proper sense of the word, than a dozen vapid CEOs, celebrities, or sports icons. For the secret readers, each deed and observation signifies, pointing beyond itself to the vast and echoing chamber of cultural memory in which they live. They are significant: but are their lives, therefore, important? The three novels I’ve mentioned almost seem calculated to pose the question of the importance of the reading life in its extreme form: they will be either a reductio ad absurdam or a final vindication of the curious way that some of us, we readers, choose to pour days and weeks of our lives into a strange, still, silent activity.

The secret readers in these three novels are nothing or they are everything.

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Cioran: The Ex-fanatic

Emil Cioran is my favorite among the small group of fascists whose brilliance or historical importance constrains one to read them despite everything. He’s not as good a philosopher as Carl Schmitt or Martin Heidegger, but he’s an infinitely superior writer.

Like many other ex-fascists, Cioran appears to have been too proud to make an honest admission like this: I endorsed Hitler and promoted Romania’s Iron Guard; I praised bloodshed as an intensification of life and indulged in racial mysticism; I contributed by my writing to the greatest moral catastrophe of the 20th century. Instead, he liked to regret his youthful “ravings,” taking the position that what was so bad about his fascist views was the sincerity or passion with which he expressed them. That’s just worming cowardice. And he liked to spin his disillusion with fascism into a general lesson about the dangers of “utopia” in general. Nonsense. To dilute the specificity of your own crimes by loudly regretting they belonged to a category that includes less egregious things is the counterpart to guilt by association: it’s pardon by association, and it’s just as fallacious.

Cioran dealt with his youthful fascism not by explicitly denouncing it (he seems to have been ashamed of his past to the point of silence, though it caught up with him in his second life, when somewhat against his will he became famous as a writer in French), but by inscribing a bloody circle of thorny aphorisms around it. “I am an idolater of doubt, a doubter in eruption, a fanatic without creed, a hero of fluctuation.”

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A Personal Canon

I am drawn to fantasies of restriction and asceticism. The idea of being locked in a room with just a paper and pen until I’ve written a book gives me a strange longing. Also retreats from the world of all sorts, fasts and abstentions, solitude and the disconnection of long journeys without means of communication. So it’s no surprise I love the idea of a desert island bookshelf. Worse things could happen to me than to be stranded alone forever with nothing to do but reread my personal canon. In the spirit of Anthony, blogger extraordinaire at Time’s Flow Stemmed, here’s what I’d want along with me. This could also serve as a handy guide to understanding me, my ways of thought, and my private obsessions. If you’ve read some of these, we have things to talk about. 

I think I’ll update this from time to time, as a personal testament. Because it does change.

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