Being A Writer
Michael Stutz began exploring the literary/underground/DIY culture of the Internet as a writer for Wired and Rolling Stone so long ago that, way back when I first showed up on the lit/tech scene (which was a long time ago), he was already there to show me around. After a long self-imposed separation from the online world, he has now returned with a three-volume novel chronicling the entire life story of a connection-hungry connoisseur of online culture. Meet Michael Stutz.
Levi: Your novel Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age is a coming-of-age tale, hearkening back to other classics of the genre from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. But your hero's world is a new one for fiction: the emerging society of online culture, from the early Unix dial-up BBS's of the 1980s to the dot-com mania of the 90s to the more scattered social networking scene of today. What kind of reaction are you getting from readers to the idea that a life lived largely online is one worthy of heroic fiction?
Michael: The novelist Tony D'Souza just called the book's hero, Ray Valentine, "the Everyman of the wired age," so it seems to be natural -- and remember McLuhan: "technology forces us to live mythically." Yet, you know, heroic fiction of the kind we're talking about is almost nonexistent in contemporary literary fiction. Arther S. Trace, Jr., an outsider intellectual, wrote a powerful, prescient book in the early 70s called The Future of Literature. This is about the only book of literary theory to map out and show the decline of heroic fiction. It was a long process, but Trace shows how it really tanks in the day of postmodernism. And you know what? I've always been repelled by postmodernism -- in everything, from literature to architecture. I don't identify with it or fit in with it at all. For decades we've had the postmodern "anti-hero" in fiction, and everything has to be ironic and heartless, and that just doesn't connect with me. I'm Beat and before. Bring me back to that and let's go off in a whole new direction and forget all this other stuff. I want to do something totally different. So if the classical hero is the way, and the new world of the net is my ineluctable material, the combination is pretty much the way it had to be.
1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.
2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.
3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.
When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, “Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists.”
Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.
Griffith didn’t ignore Duchamp’s advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.
As he recently said, “I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of ‘oh no, this is not what I want to hear,’ but then literally a second later, I thought ‘wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn’t speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.’ I convinced myself that that’s what he meant.”
Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith’s work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith’s wife-to-be Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.
The producers of last year's film Atlas Shrugged: Part One, based on Ayn Rand's controversial 1957 novel about heroic business vs. corrupt government in a mythical USA, have just announced that the second installment in the three-part series will be released in 2012. The first installment got poor reviews and failed to pack theaters, so there was some uncertainty as to whether the second and third installments would ever secure funding. But it wouldn't be very Randian to yield to bad reviews, so I'm not surprised these filmmakers have found a way to persevere.
Ayn Rand was a hot-button topic through 2011, and there's no sign that the fiery author-philosopher's newly popular Objectivist ideology won't stir up the same intense debates in 2012. An avowed Randian named Paul Ryan remains one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney seems to agree with Paul Ryan's plan to drastically cut Social Security. That doesn't mean Mitt Romney is an Objectivist (though, we can imagine, he'd probably become one if necessary). But it does mean that the controversy over entitlements for middle-class Americans and safety nets for the poor will continue to be a gigantic topic of public debate through the upcoming election year. This is the controversy that Objectivists eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The ghost of Ayn Rand will continue to make herself felt in 2012.
I can tell that Ayn Rand is still hot by looking at the continuing sales of my short book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters). I'm about to pass the 1000 sales mark for this modest publication, and it's still selling more copies each month than the month before. There are 72 comments (some of them brilliant, some of them absolutely ridiculous) on the book's Amazon page, and several readers have also posted critiques of the book (sometimes harsh ones) on Litkicks.
I love it when readers give me negative or positive feedback about this book, and I don't mind the criticism. I'm aware that I advance some unusual (some might even say "quirky") ideas to support my argument, and I'm not surprised that many readers are initially put off by some of my premises or methods. (I do think, though, that the book stands up to close examination, which is why I always try to respond to a serious critique.)
I had an excellent blog post planned for today. But sometimes I just can't get it done -- or I get it done and it's just not good enough. Well, I've been working hard on many things, and sometimes I need a break. I'm taking one.
But, we've got something good planned here for next week. Michael Norris and David Richardson, who began exploring the works of J. D. Salinger in our Seeing the Glass Family series last year, are back with the concluding series of this project: a visual and textual tribute to the characters of Catcher in the Rye. See you in a few days!
I considered going dark today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (along with Boing Boing, Reddit and Wikipedia), but I decided not to for two reasons. First, I don't think little sites like Litkicks will make much impact at all by going dark. You've got to be pretty huge to pull something like this off effectively. Second, my favorite President has already signaled that he will veto the bad bill, so I'll save my protest for the next good cause. And here are some literary links, many of which seem to revolve around the classics:
1. We were with her a quarter of an hour before Eliz. & Louisa, hot from Mrs Baskerville's Shop, walked in; -- they were soon followed by the Carriage, & another five minutes brought Mr Moore himself, just returned from his morn'g ride. Well! -- & what do I think of Mr Moore? -- I will not pretend in one meeting to dislike him, whatever Mary may say; but I can honestly assure her that I saw nothing in him to admire. -- His manners, as you have always said, are gentlemanlike -- but by no means winning. Most of the letters in the new collection by the genius of Steventon, England, Jane Austen, are not this juicy, but the mundanity of the writer's daily routine is also valuable to read about, and the sickness-to-death letters towards the end are quietly, tragically moving. Jane Austen's Letters, the Fourth Edition, edited by Deirdre Le Faye.
2. James Franco, who was pretty good as Allen Ginsberg in Howl, has made another film based on the life of a 20th Century poet: The Broken Tower, about Hart Crane. Slate isn't impressed, but I'll give it a chance.
3. Ezra Pound's daughter Mary De Rachewitz is trying to make sense of her father's fascist past while protesting an Italian neo-fascist party that has attempted to adopt his name.
It's an unpretentious and friendly poetry board, but remarkable poems do show up here often. Every December between Christmas and New Years, we put up a randomized display of many of the favorite poems from the past year. Here, for your clicking pleasure, is Action Poetry 2011.
Half a year ago I began assembling Beats In Time: a Literary Generation's Legacy, an anthology of the best articles about the Beat Generation from the Literary Kicks archives. Many of these articles dated back to this website's first five years, 1994 to 1999, when Litkicks called itself the Beat Generation website.
I've expanded the site's focus since then (and vastly expanded my scope as a reader too), which is probably why I now look back at some of these early Litkicks articles with wistful dismay, even though I treasure them. I am no longer the same innocent person who wrote or published these enthusiastic pieces about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady and Gary Snyder, and I suppose a big part of my subconscious impulse in assembling Beats In Time was to gather all these articles together so that I could say farewell to them, and send them on their way.
In retrospect, this is not a good reason to publish an anthology, and fortunately my readers let me know this nearly the minute the book hit the Kindle store. The initial feedback I got was spookily perceptive; everybody seemed to notice that I had done a rush job on the editing, that I hadn't pored through every individual piece for necessary tweaks and fixes, that I hadn't even thought about the ways the book's implicit themes -- ecology, religion, digital communication, violence, love, the writing process, the mercurial process of literary criticism -- could be highlighted as relevant to today. One person, a book marketing professional who'd been following my ambivalent and semi-agonized blog posts about my editorial process, was particularly helpful and perceptive, and volunteered to work with me on a complete edit of the entire text, followed by the publication of a new, better edition of the book.
Finally! My book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters) is now available in three major formats: paperback, iBooks (for iPhone or iPad) and Kindle. I'm happy to report that the book continues to increase in sales every month, and retains very high numbers on several of Amazon's lists (#48 in Philosophy, 8 months after publication -- nice!).
More than anything else, I'm proud to have written a philosophy book (or a pamphlet, really -- it's only 50 pages long) that is being read by hundreds of new readers every month. I'm humbled to realize that I'm living the philosopher's dream: my ideas about the meaning and limitations of Ayn Rand's ethics are beginning to enter the popular discourse about her legacy. I've gotten a moderately positive response to Why Ayn Rand is Wrong from readers who do not have a lot of familiarity with Ayn Rand or Objectivism, and a strongly negative (but engaged) response from within the Objectivist community.
There have been a few bad reviews, and there's a rambunctious dialogue still going on over at my Amazon page. I don't mind seeing negative reviews from serious Objectivists. It means they're reading my book. Give them a few years ... it'll sink in.
If you are interested in philosophy, morality, ethics or the principles of modern liberal/conservative politics, or if you're buying a holiday gift for someone who is: please do buymy book in any of its exciting new formats (I can't tell you how happy I am to finally see the book on my iPhone). Next week there will be more exciting news about new formats and a re-release of another Litkicks book! And, since you loyal blog readers have always been my unofficial "writer's group" (and have helped me a lot with the publication of this book), here are a few links about writing or bookselling I'd like to share with the group ...
I just finished Charles J. Shields's gripping, inspiring, sensitive biography of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, a book that brings me back to my earliest days as a serious reader of semi-serious fiction. Kurt Vonnegut wasn't the first grown-up writer I ever read, but his Breakfast of Champions was probably the first novel I ever related to on adult terms. I sensed that I was crossing some line when I read this book at the age of 12, and I remember feeling myself transformed by the act of declaring to the world that Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite writer (as he would remain through my high school years). I guess he was my first literary role model.
I admired his message and also his pop/expressionist aesthetic, which is neatly encapsulated by the ultra-cool cover designs for the 1970s-era editions of his paperbacks. I collected these Vonnegut books like baseball cards, though I only liked about half of them. I favored Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, but Breakfast of Champions remained my favorite, not only because it was the first Vonnegut book I read but also because it was the most far out book he ever wrote. This was the one he drew pictures in, the one in which he invented a doppelganger for himself (the beautiful creation called Kilgore Trout) and then walked into the novel himself (as Kurt Vonnegut) to hang out with his own doppelganger. I remember feeling a big grin on my pre-teenage face when I read that chapter of Breakfast of Champions for the first time: is he allowed to do that? Apparently he was allowed to do that.