Diana Athill on Virginia Woolf

AN INSIDER’S HONEST LOOK AT THE INSIDER LITERARY SCENE

VIRGINIA WOOLF(Virginia Woolf.)

VIRGINIA WOOLF is considered one of the literary gods of the Twentieth Century, not just by British literary critics, but those in America as well.

I found it interesting, then, to discover this quotation in a book, Stet: a memoir, by long-time British editor-publisher Diana Athill. In this excerpt from her memoir’s final chapter, Athill is discussing “a particular caste” in control of British publishing:

Of that caste I am a member: one of the mostly London-dwelling, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people who took over publishing towards the end of the nineteenth century from the booksellers who used to run it. Most of us loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect that if we were examined from a gods’-eye viewpoint it would be seen that quite often our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste. Straining for that gods’-eye view, I sometimes think that not a few of the books I once took pleasure in publishing were pretty futile, and that the same was true of other houses. Two quintessentially ‘caste’ writers, one from the less pretentious end of the scale, the other from its highest reaches, were Angela Thirkell and Virginia Woolf. Thirkell is embarrassing– I always knew that, but would have published her, given the chance, because she was so obviously a seller. And Woolf, whom I revered in my youth, now seems almost more embarrassing because the claims made for her were so high. Not only did she belong to the caste, but she was unable to see beyond its boundaries– and that self-consciously ‘beautiful’ writing, all those adjectives– oh dear! Caste standards– it ought not to need saying– have no right to be considered sacrosanct. 

This applies not just to British publishing of the Twentieth Century– but to American publishing centered in New York City, and to those in the academy, now. A marked inability to look beyond their narrow world to see the possibilities that exist for the literary art today, and those which could exist, given imagination, ambition, and boldness.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Summer Reading 2019

YOU WANT summer fiction? WE have summer fiction.

beach reading

Three terrifically good stories, each very different, from three excellent new writers.

FIRST was “The Uncertainty” by Alexander Blum. A story about a displaced friend, a university, a Greek play, and many others things. The complications of life today.

NEXT was “Jerusalem” by Zachary H. Loewenstein— a quick but atmospheric look at that most historic and contentious of cities. Traveling this summer? This story exudes the feeling of travel.

MOST RECENT was “Spoiler Alert” by Angelo Lorenzo, an empathetic and romantic tale of the stirrings of love– or possible love– found at a movie about superheroes.

Something for everybody? We think so. All three short stories are highly readable and we think you’ll enjoy them.

sunset
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Jack London or Henry James?

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

jack london henry james collage

AN ARGUMENT FOR VIGOROUS LITERATURE

Populism or elitism? This was the choice American literature faced at the beginning of the 20th century.  Whether to remain on a path of robust fiction and poetry, immersed in the land and nature as embodied in the person and work of Jack London– OR switch paths toward the inward-dwelling, Eurocentric, strictly domesticated digressions of Henry James, for whom the natural world was a frightening and deadly place, full of ghosts (“Turn of the Screw”) and disease (“Daisy Miller”).

The lives of the two authors could not have been more different.

JACK LONDON never met his supposed father. He went to work at age thirteen, educated himself at libraries, studied in saloons, spent time in a penitentiary for vagrancy, hired on as a sailor, and joined the Klondike gold rush in 1897. He didn’t find much gold there but instead, many terrific stories, including his most famous, “The Call of the Wild” about a dog named Buck. To this day probably the best animal story ever written.

HENRY JAMES was the son of an independently wealthy philosopher and the grandson  of a banker. He traveled as much as Jack London did– but to Europe, and on a more comfortable scale. He attended Harvard, became friends with famous authors and future Supreme Court Justices, and in time, himself became a famous writer.

DESPITE the international popularity of populist novelist London, and the success of others of his kind like Rex Beach and Frank Norris, it was an unequal contest, as the critical establishment was based in New York City then, as now, their gaze toward the east, toward England and Europe, seeking approval there and not in the American people themselves.

The_Spoilers_first_edition

Clear-minded-and-active prose of the kind Jack London wrote was devalued– in part because of its universality, its popularity with every kind of reader. Teddy Roosevelt-inspired editors like Owen Wister, advocates of the physically-strenuous life, were few and vanishing. What became valued instead was literary difficulty. Convoluted sentences reflecting solipsistic obsession with febrile thoughts inside a character’s or narrator’s head.

Pushbacks against this by Hemingway, Kerouac, and others– by authors who deliberately pushed themselves into the actual world– have been rearguard actions.

A POSSIBLE CAUSE

televisions

In his groundbreaking 1977 book about electronic media, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander discussed the sensory deprivation of civilization and the modern world, arguing that mankind’s retreat from nature was pushing individuals further into the recesses of their own minds.

When we reduce an aspect of environment from varied and multidimensional to fixed, we also change the human being who lives within it. . . . Researchers have found that when sensory stimuli are suppressed this way, the subject first lives a mental life because mental images are the only stimulation.

In his book, Mander talks about a person’s aura. What techno-nerd writers– those who spend the bulk of their time interacting with electronic media instead of the actual world (via TV, video games, smartphones)– don’t get is the analysis of individuals and the world which takes place when you’re tuned in to the small cues and signals the human animal gives, necessary for assessing and understanding that person, which you’ll never receive off an electronic screen. On the street you quickly learn to size people up in an instant– their eyes revealing aggression or fear, duplicity or defeat, strength or weakness. But you read as well the overall vibe– the “aura”– of a person.
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Henry James was the first solipsistic writer (at least since the ancient Gnostics)– pre-TV, obviously– removing himself from the stimuli of the reality of nature to that of the drawing room; of polite society– and into an obsessive focus on his own thoughts.

I should add that ART is about sensory experience. As writers we need to plunge the reader into that world of sensation. Doing so can only increase literature’s connection to the mass of people, and strengthen its cultural relevance.
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Today, as for the past fifty or sixty years, writing programs as well as literary editors and critics value most refinement, of sensibility and prose.

It’s time to change this.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

How to Save Literature

THE PROBLEM with so-called serious literature is that it’s pitched at a narrow audience, and not at the vast bulk of the American public. (Pitched really, at upscale editors at desks in London and New York.)

Building_class_O3

Occasionally establishment writers give the game away, as did renowned young novelist Sally Rooney in Issue #30 of The Moth Magazine:

A lot of what (literature) does, to me, is reassure bourgeois readers by saying, you read fiction, you are a member of a particular class. . . the question for writers who have a social conscience is, how do you challenge that in some way while still working within the same industry that produces it, and I don’t really know what the answer is.

Then there’s the recent rant in Paris Review by esteemed short story writer Peter Orner, explaining why he will not defend the short story– his remarks making clear he doesn’t believe the story art is for the general public– and no apologies for this from establishment writers are needed, thank you.
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boxNeither Rooney nor Orner consider a way out of the box in which the literary art is trapped, currently accessible only to “a particular class.” They have no incentive to seek an alternative.

We at New Pop Lit do, as we and our modest literary project exist on the margins of what has become a marginal art. We’re thinking of ways to change this.

ONE WAY is the multidimensional (“3-D”) short story, designed to be faster and more thrilling than the standard literary model, answering those attention-span questions Peter Orner scoffs at.

uzi - Edited

One prototype example of this kind of story has been released by us, “Vodka Friday Night.” More are coming.

CAN THE ART BE SAVED?

elvis-60-years-of-rock-and-roll-1(Early Elvis and friends.)

Business history of other arts shows that it can. I’ve given often the example of the music business and the rise of rock n roll– which multiplied the size of that industry many times over. This is well explained in this article by Johannes Ripken. Can writers duplicate that outsized success? Maybe– if they create more exciting short fiction that’s even faster and more direct than our prototype. Moreover, what’s needed are young writers who can connect with a new generation of readers via personality, talent, and attitude. In other words, stars.

Screaming_Jay_Hawkins(Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.)

Is this do-able? We’ll see.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

Destroying the Generic

THE DECLINE of an art form becomes apparent when the art on display has become generic.

Greta_Van_Fleet
In today’s literary scene we have the generic literary story, produced by the hundreds every year by university MFA programs, all competent, some better than others but all of a type. Most of them interchangeable.

In the underground literary world also the writing is becoming generic. Long masses of unbroken text in the style of Pynchon postmodernism, full of intellectual insights but little structure and negligible plot.
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WHEN has an art form not been generic?

Examples can be found in the music business, such as in the 1950’s when rock n’ roll burst on the scene. Maybe a dozen acts fully “got” it and could plausibly create the explosively fast style– Little Richard, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Carl Perkins among them.

Material to fill out their albums was limited. Few songwriters were creating the new style. Elvis filled out his albums with old country-western tunes, pop standards, and archaic ballads.

Covers were the norm. Here’s an example from a young country duo who turned into rockers, the Everly Brothers, covering a song penned by a penitentiary resident named Albert Collins that was first recorded by Little Richard–

When three rock stars– Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper– died in a 1959 plane crash while on a low-rent tour the talent pool was diminished. Many believed the fledgling genre was over.

Wreckage-site-in-Clear-Lake-Iowa-561922

Only when a UK band The Beatles fused the sound of Holly, the Everlys, Little Richard and a handful of others did the genre genuinely take off. Eventually the rock market became saturated with performers and product until rock bands were in every corner of every city and town and no one stood out.
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Is anyone in the literary business creating the non-generic?

YES! We are.

Right now there exists one released “3-D” multidimensional short story. We have several more on the drawing board. NO ONE else is creating the new form.

Will they?

The potential for artistic growth is enormous.

Exciting times are ahead.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Revolutions in Literary Style

IN MANY ARTS there’s a push-pull between simplicity and complexity. It happened in the rock music scene, where what started out as direct and immediate– early rock n’ roll– transformed itself into increasing virtuosity and complexity with the pretentious “prog rock” of Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, ELO and Company. The reaction to this barrage of bombast came with the in-your-face simplicity and immediacy of punk rock.

sex pistols

A similar situation occurs in the literary world. Literary revolutionaries like Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac strove to cut the excess detritus from what they saw as a corrupted and decadent art– corrupted by the convolutions of Henry James and similar stuffy esoteric literary icons for whom direct communication with the reader was a secondary consideration.

WHY CLARITY AND DIRECTNESS?

Over the past few decades literature has been beat up badly by rival arts like movies, comic books, even video games, whose advocates place their favorite art on the same level as novels– which those of us who understand all the novel can achieve artistically, emotionally and intellectually view as an absurdity.

What those arts are able to do, and do well, is communicate. They make a direct connection to the individual experiencing them, stressing what have been the strongest parts of literary creations– character and plot. Aspects which elite writers have downgraded as they’ve retreated further into the solipsistic mind and the contortions of their writing styles.

If literature begins once again to compete, it will sweep the field of every rival. After all, comic books have their roots in the Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo— which in itself remains a far greater artistic work than any comic book, any superhero movie, any video game.

monte cristo

THE SOLUTION

The solution to the dilemma of literature in today’s world will be found in another stylistic revolution which simultaneously cleans up and strengthens the literary art, leaving it more readable and far more exciting.

The 3-D Short Story we’ve been advocating and constructing is only the first step.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

How to Write the New Story

WRITING THE BETTER SHORT STORY

feather pen

ONE THING which surprised me after we released to the world the first3-D” multiple viewpoint short story is how not-obvious the technique appears to people. A tribute to how well the tale is put together to maintain momentum and flow, despite there being 82 individual mini-chapters, with continual switching of point-of-view– what had been told to me by esteemed literary writers should never be done by the serious writer.

(When an expert tells you something is impossible, or shouldn’t be done, that’s exactly what you want to work on accomplishing.)

MOST story writers maintain a single viewpoint throughout, whether that of one character, one consciousness, or for the more ambitious, the omniscient narrator, who in a short story still tends to have a narrow focus. Many use first person, which strongly emphasizes the single viewpoint.

A similar narrowing effect is created when writers eliminate quote marks normally used to distinguish when characters are speaking. (See Sally Rooney.) This strengthens the solipsism of the work. Many writers today, focused more on themselves than the reader’s experience, are solipsistic.
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The new 3D fiction writing technique destroys all of this to bring in a multiplicity of viewpoints. Shifting angles, so that characters, events, and the world are viewed multidimensionally. The technique gives a more real depiction of the world, but also makes for a faster-paced story. “Vodka Friday Night” compresses enough plot and number of characters for a short novel into a 7,000-word short story. The overall effect of the piece becomes more concentrated. Intense. Dynamic.

HOW IT WORKS

A few simple tricks are utilized to do this. One is dividing the story into chapters, making sure each one is extremely brief. Separating them in some way, whether by asterisks, titles, or chapter numbers. F. Scott Fitzgerald did this in his long 1920 story “May Day.” Jay McInerney did something like this as well in his 1998 novella, Model Behavior. (I’m sure other authors have done so also.)

How brief of chapters?

I settled on a 240-word limit. Fitzgerald’s “May Day” chapters are way longer– except for the concise conclusion, which comes in at 238 words.

I came to the limit though by having the McInerney book open before me, on a particularly A.D.D.-tired eyes day, and choosing which chapters held my interest at a glance, and which didn’t. The ones at 240 words or less always came out right.

If you notice in the “Vodka” story, I also play with time in it, using a flashback or two, or not putting a few sections in strict chronological order. The idea being that we don’t experience the world in a straight line. Interspersed with the moment may be memories of past happenings, or images of future dreams.

There’s a lot more which can be done in that regard. The idea is to get the short story out of the narrow corridor it’s been trapped in, by playing with both time and space. (Ideally, expanding the number of views, characters, directions, broadens the work.)

THE RESULT

The result is a faster-paced yet more involved story. The reader enters a new world– of hyper-experience.
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I plan on using other tricks in future prototypes. My co-editor Kathleen Marie Crane plans to do so as well. (Her first foray into the idea was when she took the title story from her short story collection, “Aloha from Detroit,” and rewrote the same events from the perspective of another character– which we ran at New Pop Lit as “Aloha from Detroit Revisited.” Reading both stories one after another adds roundedness; depth.)

THERE REMAIN many, many aspects of the short story form which can be played with. It’s time writers began playing with them.

333DDD 2-page-001 - Edited (1)
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit News

The Future of Fiction Writing?

THE 3D MULTIDIMENSIONAL SHORT STORY

333DDD 2-page-001 - Edited

NOW that it’s been introduced, the multidimensional story technique won’t be stopped. All attempts to shut out new ideas in art inevitably fail.

What makes 3-D Story technique unique is that it pushes against the bounds of time and space– short story limitations– in so doing working against the standard linear, one-viewpoint model which has sustained the short story form for decades.

A BETTER MODEL

The idea behind the 3-D “pop lit” short story– modernist pop– is that it’s faster-paced therefore more exciting than an old-fashioned story. Especially a finely drawn literary story. Taking advantage of rapid cognition. More complex yet still readable. A fuller look at the world but also entertaining, even thrilling.

SO FAR we’ve released for public viewing a single modest prototype.

tesla early view(Early Tesla Motors vehicle.)

Like all prototypes, it’s practice. Testing. Experiment. Example. Learning. Many more examples of the format, from both of us at New Pop Lit, will be forthcoming. We hope other writers talented and daring– early adopters– will try the technique, and go far beyond our own forays. A door has been opened. A glimpse of innovation. Once artists move past boundaries, possibilities multiply.

There’s no bandwagon for the technique, yet. There will be.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Anti-Consensus Theory Applied to the Literary Game

FOUNDATIONS OF 3-D WRITING

Teslathinker

THE PREMISE of the 3D Short Story and the New Pop Lit project is that literature can become not only better, but way better.

We humans are at a primitive understanding of most worldly things. Including the nature of art and the waves and flows of cultural history. Yet expected consensus on this issue or that one is the rule of the day. We’re expected to agree– even if agreement is impossible. Because total knowledge for us is impossible. It’s usually one side attempting to impose its unique perspective on another side.

The classic work addressing the pack mentality is The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon. (Much studied by creators of the Madison Avenue ad industry.) Itself a primitive work, for all its insights.

We can reach a consensus on some things, sure– that the earth is round. That planets revolve around the sun. As often as not a consensus is wrong. Especially if accompanied by arrogance or complacency.

Robert-McNamaras-by Cecil Stoughton

The classic example of that is brainiac Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his team of the “Best and Brightest” who blundered into, then misfought the Vietnam War. (Replayed forty years later in Iraq.)

JFK_best and brightest

They had their charts and computer models and “experts” generating reams of data– kinda like the FiveThirtyEight crowd in the last big election– and broke the fighting of war down to a matter of graphs, statistics, and body counts. Then were outfought or at least outlasted by impoverished bands of guerrillas. The lessons of arrogance.

The lesson is that one needs to continually search for counter narratives. Other sides.

Sometimes statistics are the counter narrative. Sabermetrics was a leap ahead in understanding the well-regulated game of baseball. But other leaps await, even there.

nixon chou

We need modesty about our understanding of anything. The kind shown by Chinese Premier Chou En Lai in 1972, who, when asked by Richard Nixon his opinion of the French Revolution, said “It’s too soon to tell.”

IN THE ARTS we can assume the current consensus is wrong. Art has always been about cultural change. Change, and more of it. Mimicking the nature of the universe. An art reaching moments of perceived perfection– then throwing the moment over in the interest of discovering an entirely new way of viewing things.
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We should strive for the imagination of a Nikola Tesla, who circa 1880 imagined fantastic happenings– who conceived then the world we live in now. The trick is to look beyond the moment, the “now”– what’s directly in front of us– to envision new ways of thinking and creating.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

The Tunnel Vision of Contemporary Literature

THE ROAD TO THE 3-D STORY

PostcardDetroitRiverRailroadTunnel(c/o Wikimedia Commons/T.C. Photochrom.)

THE RISK for any arts critic is to embrace the consensus of the presumed greatness of their art.

They’re almost forced to believe in it, surrounded as they are by the promotional noise of giant media conglomerates– including “Big Five” publishing– and other arms of an enormous status quo literary scene. That for all its enormity, whose many appendages carry the same premises and think the same way.

On some level the careers of the inhabitants of the established literary hive are dependent upon that belief in their art’s greatness. Their very number and the very size of the hive reinforces the belief. Which prevents them from looking outside the art, away from the current system.

The latest well-hyped release appears on their desk, and everyone is praising it. Can they fail to do likewise?

This limits their imaginations. They don’t search for those who don’t-play-the-game-the right-way. They don’t look for ways their art could be changed– or seek out those who are changing it. They fail to glance outside the tunnel– for instance, at other possible ways of writing the short story. At alternate modes of literary creation.

Many of them dismiss the idea.

Which reinforces cultural stagnation.

The mundane, the predictable, the dreary.

The authentic artist destroys the predictable. The cautious. The same.

It’s the only way to operate.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit News