Is the Best Good Enough?

REFLECTIONS ON A NEW NOVEL

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A NEW NOVEL has appeared from one of mainstream publishing’s best authors– The Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss. Strauss is a traditional novelist who specializes in imaginative historical fiction about celebrities or curiosities from past eras. His newest book covers the rise and life of classic television personality Lucille Ball– with an intermittent relationship between Ms. Ball and Strauss’s grandfather(!)– part real and part imagined– mixed in.

How capable a writer is Darin Strauss? His last book, a memoir, won a National Book Critics Circle award. The Queen of Tuesday has received rave reviews from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Publishers Weekly, and many other outlets.

The Queen of Tuesday is about the creation of celebrity. Darin Strauss well captures the personality of the type. More, in the novel he’s tuned-in to celebrity culture, its glitz and hype– and by extension, to America itself. Celebrity is America.

An early scene–

THE BIRDS ABOVE Ocean Beach see the drum-shaped premiere lights slide glamour beams along the clouds. The birds see—with a clapped paper bag sound of wings passing—a giant steel-and-glass pavilion, all a-sparkle. The birds see Ziegfeld girls, restaurateurs, a late-arriving Broadway impresario exiting his pleasure sedan. That wind picks up, goosebumping eight hundred arms. The birds see pinups, radio luminaries, heartthrob clarinetists. They see the covetous attractive charmers who take root in the soil around celebrities. (These are the career fawners—the money-takers.) They see Bing Crosby in the flesh. And Ted Mack. And Mary Martin holding Vic Damone’s thick arm. They see clothes as a standard and elegant repression. They see the boardwalk as a splinter that pokes the beach in the eye.

1950’s glamour jumps from the page.

Lucille Ball’s career from failed Hollywood starlet to television phenom and production company owner is the quintessential American success story, more remarkable because Lucy did it in an era when women weren’t supposed to be in charge of a major company. When women were seldom seen at all in upper levels of the aggressively sexist three-martini corporate world of that era.

Strauss portrays the relentless hype of those times (with a Trump thrown in) and he captures the period’s Technicolor vibe. 

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It’s a fine novel. Darin Strauss is one of a cohort of hyper-competent authors deployed by publishing’s Big Five. Those who represent not mere temporary Sally Rooney trendiness, but the ability to produce well-crafted fiction seemingly at whim. Beautifully-crafted novels with gorgeous covers. Fit for display at the front of bookstores, so that publishers, editors, agents, the entire panoply of New York publishing can look at them and be well pleased with what they’re producing. Like a General Motors viewing an array of models at a dealership lot. No one could possibly produce a better literary product. No one could write a better book. On their own terms, these statements are completely true.

AND YET– ?

And yet– what’s wrong with this picture? If Darin Strauss isn’t the best contemporary American novelist, he’s near the top. His new novel is colorful and lively compared to those of his peers (from a Sally Rooney to a Jonathan Franzen). It displays every talent– yet, that Darin Strauss himself isn’t a celebrity, on a level which a Herman Wouk or Irwin Shaw reached in their day, says a lot not about Darin Strauss so much as the current literary system itself, and its place in society.

IN the 1950’s, the decade when Lucille Ball was achieving her fame, hyper-competent novelists like a Wouk or Shaw, a Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer or Ayn Rand or John Steinbeck (not to mention Hemingway) were themselves celebrities. Well-known public figures with large cultural footprints.

Today, for the greater American public, not even a Jonathan Franzen or Sally Rooney is a recognizable name– much less a face that would be recognized on the street.

WHAT HAPPENED?

One could write a book on what happened and be wrong in the analysis. But at some point it’s a failure of PR and marketing– has to be. Strauss’s publisher, Random House– the best out there– does everything by the book. It might be the same book from the 1950’s, and even if it’s not it’s time to change it. 

(Though like General Motors with their internal combustion vehicles, the products all look wonderful on display, and run/read well, so why change anything?)

THE NEED FOR CHANGE

Another factor, in this commentator’s opinion, is the need in any business, art, or cultural activity for change. To offer something new. There hasn’t been anything new in the literary realm since the Beats– who came to prominence at the same time Lucille Ball dominated the TV airwaves.

The template for the novel currently in use might be the best possible. No one using it would dream of smashing it for something way more unpredictable, crude, and unwieldy. Yet like 19th century artists destroying the status quo template of the painting, such destruction might be the only way to offer a fresh artistic experience– a different way of viewing the world– than currently available.

We’ll see.

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-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit NEWS

The Zeenith Effect?

HOW DO WE DESCRIBE THE NEW?

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We’ve been mulling over possible terms for the effect given the reader by opening the pages to either of our two new print zeens, Extreme Zeen and ZEENITH

The way the images and words seem to pop off the page.

The ZEENITH Effect? POPvision? POPcolor? Gigacolor? Dream Design?

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We’re looking for something striking and original– matching the originality of the publications themselves. Which you can look at here.

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Zeenith Is Coming!

–an experiment in new publishing–

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BE READY! July 21st we introduce a new form of literary publication unlike anything seen. (Except our own Extreme Zeen.) Faster, sharper, sleeker– with lines, looks, and colors throughout intended to dazzle the eye. Meant to kick off a new era in art, presentation, and writing. Includes eight terrific writers who create in a variety of styles. Inspired by classic print zines but of higher aspirations and palpable quality. A fusion of the best of zine and literary journal, throwing out everything stale and unnecessary. We call this historic new creation– 

ZEENITH!

-Be prepared to purchase your copy of ZEENITH at our POP SHOP beginning 9 a.m. TUESDAY.-

In so doing you will enter a new world of art and amazement.

ZEENITHZEENITHZEENITHZEENITHZEENITHZEENITHZEENITH. . . .

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Return to Print?

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THE INTERNET is in turmoil. Social media is turning hostile. Voices are being bounced be they on the left or the right. Warning signals sound like clanging bells saying, “Get off. Get out!”

In other words, it may be time to return to analog, to reality, tangibility; to something to touch with the hand like a real object and own. To PRINT.

–I note anyway that former zine publisher of Red Roach Press and other outsider projects “Joe Smith” has gone underground is producing samizdat once again in the form of a well-written zine called Alternative Incite. A zine title if ever there was one. A copy mysteriously appeared in our mailbox– yes we still have one– one afternoon– first real mail we’d received in an age amid the usual novel-sized paper blasts full of A & W and Burger King coupons. We were happy to receive it. Real mail! My favorite read in it was the Thoughts Provoked section giving opinions about articles in The New Yorker, The Economist, and Philosophy Now, while KMC (NPL Contributing Editor) most liked the essay about walking. There are also articles about “The Matrix,” about Henry Miller, about “The New Normal,” and other topics. Hearty reading.–

(Reading the fine print I discovered this note in the zine: “The price per issue is $3 and PayPal is accepted (send to manualpubs@yahoo.com).” There’s also a website: https://butter-lamb.com/

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But what of us? We at NPL HQ? In our frantic work at the underground (literally) New Pop Lit Literary Research Lab, have we produced anything resembling a print journal?

YES!

Though we call it not a zine, but a ZEEN. So named because we take an approach different from that of most zine writers– or lit mag editors, for that matter. For us, presentation is as important as the writing. We seek to make it easy to get to the words– to make it impossible not to.

Go to our online Pop Shop to see what we’re up to.

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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Styles of Failed Literature

MOVING BEYOND THE PRESENT: A DISTEMPERED ANALYSIS

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FEW individuals involved in the creation and packaging of literature would argue there are any failed styles. After all, the Big Five book conglomerates remain in place, authors still receive six-or-seven-figure advances, and several of their books sell millions of copies. The industry chugs along.

HOWEVER, if the goal is to push the art and industry to new levels– to no longer consider “literature” as a separate phenomenon, but to compare it with other cultural happenings such as sports, movies, music– then as a whole literature is failing, because it’s no longer at the center of culture (as it once was), and is not connecting to large segments of the public in any fashion.

CURRENT OPTIONS

What are several of the current alternatives for writers and readers?

MEDICINE LITERATURE

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This comprises novels and books you’re supposed to read because they’re good for you. They address a cause or societal ill. At times they’re “of the moment” and sell well. Usually though they’re hitting you over the head with a problem you already know about, are poorly written, and deadly dull. They win plaudits and awards, but 999 out 1,000 aren’t going to generate excitement within the culture-at-large, sorry. Life isn’t fair.

“LITERATURE” LITERATURE

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This category includes standard big novels written by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, as well as short stories by Oates, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, ad infinitum. The works are distinguished by Detail Disease, aka word clot. Meaning, they’re a slog to get through. Only the most intrepid young person (or adult) will make the effort. For those who do, it’s all the same tepid insights and weak-tea conclusions. Going to save literature, when it’s been the cause of literature’s downfall? Nope.

ADOLESCENT FANTASY LITERATURE

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An enormous category with a host of big-selling authors cranking out massive volumes of unending sagas. Behind them await tens of thousands of other wannabe-novelists creating their own interminable tomes. Why are these novels not the answer? After all, they do sell.

They’re not the answer because they’re crap. It’s impossible for any serious person beyond the age of seventeen– or twelve– to take any of it seriously. Yes, many do. You see them dressed in bizarre costumes at fantasy or sci-fi conventions. The books are popular. That’s good. There are lessons to be taken from it. It remains silliness, not great art.

On top of that, none of the famed authors has the requisite charismatic persona to upend the culture. George R.R. Martin is not going to.

DYSTOPIAN AND POST-APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE

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Margaret Atwood is the best-known contemporary practitioner of this kind of work. In the Age of Hysteria we’re living through, they add more hysteria. Truth is, there have been two or three, tops, of these kind of authors who’ve been any good, George Orwell among them. Even Brave New World is a terrible novel.

DEPRAVITY LITERATURE

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Maybe horror novels can be grouped in this category (though many belong in fantasy with the vampires and werewolves). This category includes sub-Bukowski Lit, where the author becomes as gross and psychotic as possible in constructing the narrative– and likely, in real life, is. (Incel Lit is a new variation.)

NEOCON LITERATURE

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This category was popularized by Tom Clancy of Hunt for Red October fame, but might be more typified by spy novelists Robert Ludlum, Vince Flynn, and Brad Thor, who each presumably have teams of agents in Langley, Virginia writing their books for them. (They’d have to, because Ludlum and Flynn have moved on from this world.)

My attitude toward these novels might be typified by a review I wrote about one of their number back in 2012 at a now-defunct blog.

CONCLUSION

My informed conclusion is that nothing coming from one of these categories will rescue the literary game. They’re accepted and known.

What will take the literary art to another level?

THAT is what we’re working on. Stay tuned.

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-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit NEWS

 

 

Extreme Zeen Debut

THE FUTURE IS HERE

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(Pictured: Copy of Extreme Zeen in safety plastic.)

YES, it’s here. The world’s first (?) Technicolor literary journal. Includes colorful visuals. Made of high-quality paper. Merely an early sign of the many wonderful products on our drawing board.

HOW does one interest the world in books and literature?

By presenting a more exciting experience. Extreme Zeen is about having that experience.

Are you ready for it? Then head to our online Pop Shop and purchase a copy. Better yet, purchase TWO copies and give one to a friend or relative.

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The world is changing. So is literature.

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Start-Ups and Upstarts

BUSINESS HISTORY AND THE ARTS

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To understand the role start-ups have played in the economy and in reinvigorating the culture, one need only look at the music business. If America had been strictly a rigid tops-down nation, there would never have been the populist explosion of rock n roll, which began in the 1950’s. (And was followed by punk, hip hop, and other variations.)

WHAT if the only people entitled to call themselves musicians were decided by musicologists, requiring academic degrees and proper certificates? The institutional mindset.

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Rock n roll was started by low-rent hustlers like Leonard Chess and Sam Phillips, with upstart little record companies like Chess and Sun Records. Start-ups? Of course! They were nothing but– as was Motown Records, founded by Berry Gordy Jr. with $600 in seed money, “venture capital,” from his sister. (Gordy at the time was working on a Detroit production line.)

Rock n roll music, scorned by intellectuals and critics, was strictly a product of America’s lower classes. The entrepreneurs were two-bit salesman. The artists were from the poorest sections of the country, whether they be Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley– or the Supremes, who were discovered in a Detroit housing project.

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Hundreds of other start-up little record companies failed. Such is the way capitalism works. Enough succeeded to transform American (and world) culture– and in the process multiply the music business many times over, providing pleasure to millions– and opportunity to hundreds of musical artists, who in a rigidly controlled system, managed by apparatchiks and credentialed experts, would never have had opportunity at all.

The irony is the nature of free enterprise capitalism, when turned loose, levels the playing field more than a system which depends on decision-making from above– where selections are made according to a.) standardized testing b.) cronyism and connections c.) how well one conforms to the prevailing ideology imposed from above. It’s the difference between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. Between a dynamic system and a static one. (The dynamism of America, expressed through rock music, infiltrated the Soviet Bloc and contributed to its collapse.)

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Upstarts/start-ups have been with us for at least 200 years– seen in the careers of imaginative individuals like Elias Howe, Cyrus McCormick, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford  — on up to Steven Jobs, Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick. They propelled the United States to quickly becoming the world’s largest economy, creating millions of jobs and many trillions of dollars of wealth in the process. Economic value is the product of the human mind. All of this should go without saying, but in this bizarro upside-down world we live in, it doesn’t.

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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Love Story Examined: A Writing Template

A VALENTINE’S DAY ANALYSIS

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A WRITER who was far ahead of the curve with his writing style was Erich Segal, best known for his mega- best-selling 1970 novel, Love Story.

By accident or design (the book was based on his yet-unproduced screenplay) Segal keyed into a type of structure, with attached motifs, which made the novel a popular success but also left it as a template for experiments in future literary art.

Several literary projects including ours have decided “literature” in its current accepted form needs to drastically change. We’re analogous to fledgling auto companies fifteen years ago, knowing internal combustion engine technology was obsolete and scrambling to create its replacement.

The question is what the future will look like.

Creating a work with extreme clarity, as Erich Segal did– making it look simple– is more difficult than it appears, because everything is exposed: all flaws in the tale and the telling of it.

There’s nowhere to hide.

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Segal’s style could be called Hemingway Squared. No excess verbiage to impress and distance the reader. Instead, reliance on aesthetic basics– plot and character, but also form. (The novel opens with the ending, then shows what led up to it.)

Segal sets up a superstructure– a square blank canvas– and fills it in, like a painter adding paint daubs. Tangible details. The clarity of the style helps the “aesthetics” of the novel to stand out:

-The contrast between rich and poor.

-The tense dynamic between authoritarian father and independent son.

The tagline– “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”– is used twice, once right near the end for maximum impact. Dialogue throughout is super-tight. The spare lines used by the characters stand out because they’re not overwhelmed by unnecessary literary verbiage placed around them. They “pop out” of the story. 

That Erich Segal was a screenwriter was an asset. The narrative itself is very tight, and contains another kind of aesthetics– tangible details.

(A James Bond movie, for example, is filled with tangible details– clothes, drinks, accents, cars– which you don’t consciously notice but which impress themselves on your mind.)

One of Segal’s details is the Harvard Club. He doesn’t need to describe it– the reader imagines it. Fills in the blanks.

Everything in and about the novel sets up the ending. 

Manipulative? Sure. But so was Oedipus Rex. Audiences– including audiences of readers– want to be manipulated.

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The novel Love Story is a template– a starting point from which more can be accomplished.

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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Adrienne Miller and the Big Brain Boys Club

DISAPPEARING FICTION AND WHY

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THE LATEST BOOK WORLD NEWS is a memoir by former Esquire magazine Literary Editor Adrienne Miller entitled In the Land of Men. In it Miller details her problems handling giant male egos during her years in the Manhattan magazine realm– most notably that of David Foster Wallace. The book is discussed in various publications, including in an essay, “Infinite Jerk” by Laura Marsh at the New Republic.

MOST INTERESTING to this commentator are the assumptions made by Ms. Marsh about the decline of interest in fiction, at Esquire and throughout the clubby New York City world:

Miller declares her faith in “vibrant, necessary fiction. . .”

. . .the decline of the publishing industry and the shrinking demand for literary fiction.

• . . .her industry is dying and that her publication is less and less interested in acquiring fiction also puts limits on her career. When she starts at Esquire, the magazine is publishing 10 short stories a year; by the time she leaves, she can barely get anything into print, and her bosses kill a Wallace short story that she has labored on for months. All this comes after she wins an ASME award for fiction.

Never once does Laura Marsh question why fiction was disappearing at Esquire. That maybe the award-winning stories Miller was accepting were failing to engage the public. That perhaps, “literary” fiction of the prestigious self-involved style written by David Foster Wallace and other Big Ego Members of the Club was obsolete by the time Adrienne Miller came along. (And more obsolete now.) That to Miller and her friends, impressive fiction was more important than an exciting story a typical Esquire buyer might actually read.

(During the 2000’s, while Adrienne Miller plied her trade, a change-oriented writers group named the Underground Literary Alliance, whose mission was to promote more authentic and relatable writing– as well as to expose corruption in the established literary realm– referred to hyped authors such as Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, George Saunders, and others of that type as “The Big Brain Boys Club.” No one listened to the group. Even for an Adrienne Miller it was more important to “go along to get along.” Question nothing.)

ARTISTIC CHANGE

In any field– including literature– change is inevitable. The more it’s delayed, the more drastic that change is going to be. One day the Manhattan literary crowd will glance over the high walls of their crumbling castle to see change approaching– and still won’t understand what’s happening.

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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

On Clarity and Clowns

THE TASK OF THE NEW WRITER

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CLARITY is totally underrated by today’s literary community. It starts with what the text looks like on the page. The wrong way to write in our eyes is to present dense blocks of text with no way in.

THE FIRST TASK of the writer is to show the reader a quick way into your narrative– your world. (Why hooks are important.) Reading can’t be a leisurely activity because we don’t live in a leisurely world. Life is fast– boom, boom, boom— rushed hustling images words sounds bombarding the body and brain from all directions, overwhelming.

HOW DO WE COMPETE?

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HOW do we as writers stay relevant against distractions of every kind, from video games to TV screens smartphones Pokemon, chat rooms, all the unintelligible irrational noise and nonsense, talking head politicians blabbering blather waving arms around, give me your VOTES, give me power you can trust me really you can. . . .

It’s all a circus sideshow.

The one thing you can say about the current occupant of the center ring of the three-ring circus is he recognizes the spectacle and is happy playing the clown.

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-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit NEWS