This is the song that made me take Yoko One seriously as an artist, as a genius. "Don't Worry Kyoko" is a 16-minute blast of noise that appeared on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1972 album "Some Time In New York City". It's a musical tour de force that manufactures a primal scream, intended to represent Yoko's agony over her separation from her daughter, and it's also a howl for the Vietnam War, for a once-celebrated death penalty victim named James Hanratty, and for the plight of every human being on earth. Yoko mainly intones "Don't Worry" over and over, fast and slow, loud and soft, sometimes saying "worry, worry, worry" instead of "don't worry, don't worry", maintaining throughout a measured, controlled but near-hysterical intensity. Listening to the song can be a drenchingly emotional experience.
Yoko One has been made fun of through most of her career, and when comedians make fun of her primal scream schtick they are often making fun of "Don't Worry Kyoko". Despite the mockery, the song is a masterpiece, and it has more structure than its detractors admit. John Lennon was the co-author, after all, and John Lennon knew a bit about writing songs.
"Take what you have gathered from coincidence," Bob Dylan sang. Sometimes I'm not sure what to take, and what to leave behind.
Two mathematically improbable coincidences haunted me this Saturday, both related to current events and to this website, Literary Kicks. First, I woke up early Saturday morning and spent a calm hour sipping coffee, eating blueberry Special K and browsing through my complete Plato, intent on finding a kick-ass philosophical quote to put up as the day's blog post. I finally picked a choice snatch of dialogue from the Meno, an old favorite.
Just as this blog post was going up, a brainy, deluded and possibly schizophrenic 22-year-old creep from Tuscon, Arizona named Jared Lee Loughner was shooting six people in a shopping center. Later that day an online list of Loughner's favorite books was revealed. I was shocked to see on the list, along with titles like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, an excellent novel by Ken Kesey and two by Plato: the Republic and ... you guessed it, the Meno.
New York City's Book Expo America conference, where thousands of publishing industry professionals gather each year, takes place on Manhattan's West Side riverfront. The smoked glass walls of the Jacob Javits Center seem to contain an entire bustling city, but those who step outside and walk behind the building to make a phone call or enjoy some fresh air see a different vista: the mighty Hudson River, the modest cliffs of Hoboken and Weehawken across the way in Jersey, and a series of picteresque rotted piers, the only reminder of a shipping industry that once dominated Manhattan's riverside. The Titanic would have anchored near here in 1912, if if it had completed its first voyage.
Pessimistic pundits like Garrison Keillor might see a metaphor for the future of book publishing in these fallen piers, but, thankfully, many other industry observers are rejecting this type of gloomy nonsense for the craven self-flattery it really is (all people like Garrison Keillor and Philip Roth are really saying, when they claim that literature has no future, is that their generation was more sensitive and refined than any future generation can possibly be). Myself, I relish Book Expo every year as a chance to see book publishing's living past and exciting future as a single vast swarm. The conference brings out the veterans and the journeymen along with the eager upstarts and interns. Staring at the river, I see a slender elderly man who, I fantasize, might have once bolted drinks with John O'Hara, negotiated contracts with Jacqueline Susann, sipped cocktails with Kurt Vonnegut. He looks maybe 70 or 75 years old, his craggy face ravaged by plastic surgery, his thin hair an improbable red against a pale sun-scorched scalp. He's wearing a robins-egg blue seersucker summer suit with a folded handkerchief in his pocket and a yellow tie.
Behold: a thing. Whatever else it is in this world, it is a thing. It may or may not have a name, it may or may not be identifiably unique, but it is an object, an instance of a class. When we talk about the future of the book (and, well, a lot of people are talking about the future of the book) I like to mention a word that I encountered a few years ago when I worked for a company in the litigation sector that made advanced search software: "immutability".
My job was to be, boringly enough, this company's expert in the PDF format, and I know a whole lot about PDF files. One thing I know is that PDFs are immutable, which is to say that they can't be changed. You can share or save a PDF file, but you can't edit or modify one. You could hack one, if you really wanted to, but doing so violates the basic principle of the PDF format: it is an unchangeable thing. This is why PDFs (and not, say, Microsoft Word documents) are the standard format for legal contracts.
Books, I believe, are immutable. Many entrepreneurs are doing (or planning to do) exciting things with the basic structure of the book -- Richard Nash of Cursor and Hugh McGuire of BookOven come to mind. A recent display of a possible future issue of Sports Illustrated rendered in the emerging HTML5 standard shows similar ingenuity with the familiar structure of magazines. But an issue of a magazine, just like a book, must be immutable -- it is a distinct thing, an object, an instance of a class. As we zoom through time and space with the next generation of browsers, will the boundaries of a text's identity itself become fluid?
2. It's very weird that attempted Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad left a DVD of the anomie-striven movie Up In The Air to be found in his home. Novelist Walter Kirn, who we recently interviewed about the film of his book, wrote this on Twitter: "times sq. bomber leaving behind copy of 'up in the air' reminds me of chapman, lennon's killer, and catcher in the rye. icky feeling now."
(Dedi Felman's coverage of PEN World Voices continues with this tale of what it takes to put an exceptional novel in front of American readers. -- Levi)
What sells a book?
Picture an editor desperately scribbling at her desk. She’s drafting a “sell sheet” for a book for which she hopes to gain her publishing colleagues’ support. The author has indie appeal but virtually no mainstream recognition. Said author is also very dark, feminist, brilliant, and experimental. She’s perhaps just a bit too lucid about sexual power games to be a male critic’s darling (and most mainstream media critics remain male.) The zeitgeist also feels ever so slightly off. In her book, the author goes for the throat of an issue -- Race -- that most Americans, loudly proclaiming their liberalism in having elected their first black president, increasingly prefer to avoid. Evidence of the new postracial America is spotty but debate has, at least for the moment, been somewhat silenced. Finally said author, who is NOT Toni Morrison, is a foreigner. Even worse, the language in which she writes, Afrikaans, has associations that make people scratchy. The book is a masterpiece. Our poor editor is in a muddle:
In Charlie Kaufman’s classic screenplay Adaptation, the main character (also named Charlie Kaufman) is charged with adapting Susan Orleans’ colorful albeit densely layered book The Orchid Thief into film. Unable to find a through line (or spine), the sine qua non of narrative film, the vexed screenwriter moans to his agent, “The book has no story. There’s no story.” Replies the agent blithely, “Make one up.” As anyone who has seen the movie knows, it’s a response that can only deepen Charlie’s already high anxiety. Adaptation is a process that requires an improbable balancing act of fidelity to the author’s original text with sufficient creative freedom for the filmmaker. Torn between his responsibility to the author—and her many readers--and the agent’s and moviegoing public’s expectation of “story”, Charlie spends the rest of the film desperately attempting to pay proper obeisance to others while somehow also asserting himself and his own artistic vision.
Listening to the panel of novelists/screenwriters on stage at the Jack Skirball Center at New York University for the “Adaptation” panel at the PEN World Voices festival on Thursday, I was reminded of this delicious exchange—the bewilderment of the screenwriter, the callousness of the Hollywood agent, and mostly, the utter agony and joy that adaptation entails. The process of adapting books into film, it seems, can be a hellish vortex from which few emerge unscathed.
1. Beat poet Michael McClure's new book of poetry is called Mysteriosos. In his long and exciting career McClure has collaborated with Janis Joplin and Ray Manzarek, written influential plays like The Beard, and appeared as a character (a voice of sanity, strangely enough) in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. He's also, in my opinion, a better nature poet than W. S. Merwin, and a whole lot more fun to read.
Mysteriosos is a wildly adventurous (typographically and otherwise) romp through existence and language. Characteristically for McClure's work, the consciousness of the poetic narrator is not restricted to the human species, and instead generally aims for a universal or animal awareness. Sometimes this is even achieved. Check out this good book (an earlier version of which was previewed temporarily on LitKicks during our 24 Hour Poetry Party in 2004).
1. Does anybody out there believe Macmillan wants to sell electronic books? I don't think they do.
There was an exciting and dramatic showdown this weekend between Amazon.com and Macmillan, the parent company of many top book publishers including Farrar Straus Giroux, Times Books and Tor. Amazon wants to price e-books at $9.99. Macmillan wants to price e-books higher and introduce tiered pricing so that an e-book costs more when it's new. Amazon tried to kick Macmillan where it hurts by suddenly refusing to sell their books on Amazon.com, cleverly timing this surprising move for a weekend so as to blunt the press response. Macmillan held strong and Amazon gave in on Sunday afternoon.
Most of the commentary has followed the "Amazon blinked!" line. Obviously their gambit failed, and their strategy in threatening access to Macmillan's books does not seem to have been well-chosen. Their strategy in pulling this stunt on a weekend failed too, because this is the weekend between the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl and the suspenseful Amazon/Macmillan standoff only provided the gridiron battle football fans were missing. Still, I'm not joining the anti-Amazon cheering section today, because I believe a $9.99 price point will help e-books flourish. Book publishers are wary of e-books, and may use higher price points as part of a strategy to discourage and delay customer acceptance of electronic publishing.
If you've been around here a while, you know where I stand on book pricing. I think premium-level/tiered pricing is an archaic and dysfunctional tradition that discourages impulse buying and customer experimentation. I don't understand why Amazon thought this weekend's showdown would work, and I also don't understand their use of the word "monopoly" to describe Macmillan (of course a book publisher has a monopoly on its own titles!). But Amazon is trying to create a new electronic marketplace for books, and Macmillan's action to tightly control e-book pricing amounts to a chokehold for this marketplace. I'll ask it again: does anybody out there really believe Macmillan wants to sell e-books at all? Sure, just as much as record companies want to sell MP3s instead of CDs.
This was a fair battle and Macmillan won, but the e-book pricing situation reminds me of Barack Obama's smart question about health care reform during this week's State of the Union address: "does anybody have a better idea?". Macmillan's victory is a victory for traditional premium/tiered book pricing. MobyLives's closing line above says it best: "this ain't over yet".
2. I'll be part of a panel discussion titled "The Oldest Media Goes Social" this Wednesday at 12 noon in New York City, along with author A. J. Jacobs, publicists Natalie Lin and Meryl Moss and BlogAds.com entrepreneur Henry Copeland.
3. Notable novelists playing cards. Shut up and deal ...
I still haven't mentally returned from vacation, still haven't gotten back into the LitKicks swing. I've been running around a lot, actually, as well as working hard behind the scenes on a new software platform for the site that has so far only succeeded in breaking the Action Poetry pages (they will be back soon, I promise). More soon! Till then ... links:
1. I first spotted New York City "character poet" Bingo Gazingo at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002 doing a crazy improvisation about his lust for an R&B singer named "Mariah Canary". I then caught many more unhinged performances at the Bowery by this elderly Queens rhymer, who, I'm sorry to hear, passed away on New Years Day. The world of poetry may not long remember Bingo Gazingo, despite a brief long-ago moment on MTV, but I hope every poetry nightclub in the world has a weird old geezer like him around to liven up the room.
2. "We are not slumming here, or surrendering to the carnival of the web. Quite the contrary. We are hoping to offer an example of resistance to it." Really! Just by showing up, they're going to do all that? The New Republic has launched it's new book section The Book with a big blast of self-congratulation.
5. Jim Morrison's favorite beatnik cafe.
7. Rani Singh, an old friend, has finally published a book about the oddly great Harry Smith.
10. Scott Esposito ponders writers vs. commentators.
11. The Millions asks a few bloggers to name the best literary readings they'd ever attended. It's a good question, and I had to pause for about three seconds before coming up with my own answer. Then I remembered seeing Allen Ginsberg. The kind of full-body, whole-soul performances he delivered -- funny, dead serious, totally in the moment -- set a standard for me that no other performer has yet matched.