I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.

She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.

Acker may be best remembered for writing very frankly about painful topics like child rape and prostitution. But she was also a blazingly original theorist with a constant urge to liberate classic fiction/poetry texts from any sense of ownership, property or meaning. She called herself a "pirate" and freely spliced together texts belonging to other writers, acting decisively upon the impulse that would eventually find expression in David Shields' Reality Hunger. One example of a literary cut-up that did not get Kathy Acker into trouble was her novel Don Quixote, in which a terrified young woman lying on a bed in an abortion clinic transforms herself into the knight Don Quixote, and eventually selects a dog as her Sancho Panza. This book didn't get Kathy Acker into trouble because Miguel de Cervantes was long dead.

But she did get in trouble when she cut up a comically commercial sex scene from a Harold Robbins bestselling potboiler into her own transgressive novel, and her account of the agony she went through when Harold Robbins demanded an apology (and her own publisher refused to stand behind her) stands today as a vivid, pained document of the agony of a struggling writer drowning in a world of misunderstanding. This account, titled Dead Doll Humility, may be the most accessible thing she ever wrote. If somebody wants to read one thing by Kathy Acker, this piece would be a good choice. It begins in screaming caps:



As the piece progresses, the author's voice becomes tentative and weak following the repeated application of public disapproval and apathy. Dead Doll Humility presents the losing struggle of a writer clinging desperately to the right to write, against all opposition:

Want to play. Be left alone to play. Want to be a sailor who journeys at every edge and even into the unknown. See strange sights, see. If I can't keep on seeing wonders, I'm in prison. Claustrophobia's sister to my worst nightmare: lobotomy, the total loss of perceptual power, of seeing new. If had to force language to be uni-directional, I'd be helping my own prison to be constructed.

There are enough prisons outside, outside language.

The Los Angeles Times article by Carolyn Kellogg that caused Kathy Acker's name to fly happily before my eyes yesterday offers some good news: a new book of letters between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark called I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995--1996 has just been published by Semiotext(e), which describes the correspondence as "a Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century, but written for queers, transsexuals, nerds, and book geeks".

A Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century is a tall order. But there's no doubt that our current epoch can use more Kathy Acker.


Kathy Acker's "Dead Doll Humility" presents the struggle of a writer to persevere against all opposition.

view /KathyAcker
Tuesday, February 24, 2015 09:02 am
Kathy Acker, Writer
Levi Asher

I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.

Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.

I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.

Flings by Justin Taylor

I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.

Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.

I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.

I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:

"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'

To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.

Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.

Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.

Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer

If Justin Taylor's collection feels like a grab bag, Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine feels like a tunnel, and it takes only a few words before we realize how fully we have entered it. Here's the first paragraph of her first story, "Eye Socket Girls":

I don't want to jump out any window. I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living. They pump the air in here out of machines. It stinks like Play-Doh. Open a window, please -- I won't jump -- I'm not a suicide patient. I just don't eat.

This eye-socket girl is hospitalized for anorexia bulimia, and her crisp, efficient narrative leaves us with the chilling realization that she has no intention at all of allowing herself to be cured.

An odd and Poe-esque physical or sexual dread is a lurking note in many of Paula Bomer's carefully composed short stories, which tend to cohere to a single structural backbone: we meet a person whose inner thoughts drive her crazy, and we follow these thoughts towards their inevitable collisions.

Like a recurring bad dream, this pattern was also evident in Paula Bomer's first story collection Baby, in which the protagonist tended to be a financially comfortable New York City socialite in a very troubled marriage. Inside Madeleine mostly takes us back to the growing-up years, as if a prequel to Baby. The intensity of Bomer's steady voice remains; in simple words and sentences, devoid of pop-culture distractions or historical events or grand intentions, Paula Bomer takes us into a dark interior space and asks us to look around.

What demons, exactly, do we find? Every reader may project his or her own concerns into these Rorschach diagrams, but when I analyze these confused characters I see a looming self-hatred. In "Outsiders", a college student with plenty to be proud of can only fixate on the superficial and trivial flaws that alienate her from her peers. In "Cleveland Circle House", a psychology student gets a job in a halfway house packed with rowdy mentally ill drifters, and then begins battling her secret sense that she is one of them.

In "Reading to the Blind Girl", yet another college student is so overpowered by the domineering personalities that bluster around her that she ends up guiltily avoiding the blind girl she has been reading lessons to, banking on the fact that the blind girl cannot see her walk by. But this is a Paula Bomer story, which means that even this blind girl somehow seems to catch the guilty act.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

I'm not going to lie; I didn't enjoy a couple of the stories in Hilary Mantel's new volume at all.

There's a story called "Comma" about a kid who goes to grandma's and sees a lady whose baby has birth defects and is wrapped up like a comma:

Now the dark flowers on her frock had blown their petals and bled out into the night. She ran the few steps toward the wheeled chair, paused for a split second, her hand fluttering over the comma's head; then she flicked her head back to the house and bawled, her voice harsh, "Fetch a torch!" That harshness shocked me, from a throat I had thought would coo like a dove, like a pigeon; but then she turned again, and the last thing I saw before we ran was how she bent over the comma, and wrapped the shawl, so tender, about the lamenting skull.

I don't know. I guess this is the kind of writing that wins awards, but it comes across a bit plummy to me, and I certainly wouldn't want to read an entire book in this Joycean voice (okay, if the book is called Dubliners I would, but it's not my favorite kind of voice).

There are a few stories in this volume that I didn't think amounted to time well spent, but then there were a few that scored, like the opening piece "Sorry To Disturb". In this story, which appears to be autobiographical, the wife of a Canadian engineer who is stationed in Saudi Arabia tries to make friends with another foreigner, a Pakistani.

This dignified housewife's effort is not a success, and it's clear that Hilary Mantel is a writer who likes to see fault lines move, who likes the crash of cataclysmic change. I really loved the title story of this collection, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher", which offers an alternate reality in which the rigidly Conservative British Prime Minister is targeted by an assassin. We see it all close up, very close, though the occasion is entirely accidental.

Hilary Mantel's voice is cool and elegant here, and with this comic material her command of the art of fast fiction can be clearly seen. Even when her stories don't move me -- and about half of them don't -- I am impressed by the authority and intellectual confidence behind her literary voice.

In the same way, I'm impressed by Paula Bomer's control and consistency, and by Justin Taylor's puckish agility. Maybe this is still a golden age for short stories after all.


New short story collections by Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel

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Monday, November 17, 2014 03:08 pm
New short story collections by Justin Taylor, Paula Bomer and Hilary Mantel
Levi Asher

Maggie Estep, the charismatic and accessible spoken word poet and author, has suddenly died of a heart attack. She was 50 years old.

Maggie Estep was a big part of the slam poetry scene that emerged from Chicago and New York City in the 1980s and briefly flared into pop culture via MTV in the early 1990s. Her early published works include records like Love Is A Dog From Hell. Later, she published novels including Alice Fantastic and the Ruby Murphy mystery series.

It's hard to comprehend that Maggie Estep has died of a heart attack, because she was so young and seemed so healthy, and was a familiar and casual presence in the New York City literary community. The news is still fresh; I'll update this page with more information as it becomes available. To start, here is Carolyn Kellogg's obit in the Los Angeles Times. Here's a blog post by her partner Seth Rogovoy, and another from her friend Amanda Stern.

Further back in the archives of Maggie-ness, here's a Bat Segundo interview from 2009 and and a prototype on her website for a magazine called Dog Lady Magazine that she was planning to launch with novelist Porochista Khakpour. And here's her cover version of "Vicious" by Lou Reed.

Here's Maggie on the television show Def Poetry Jam performing her signature piece about confused love, "Emotional Idiot":


Slam poet and mystery novelist Maggie Estep has suddenly died at the age of 50.

view /MaggieEstep
Wednesday, February 12, 2014 11:45 am
Maggie Estep performing on Def Jam Poetry
Levi Asher

Slovenian philosopher and Litkicks favorite Slavoj Zizek has been exchanging letters with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in jail for staging this protest in a Moscow cathedral:

The letters have now been widely published, and are well worth reading for their vivid energy as well as for the stark questions they raise about the outlook for economic justice around the world. Here's Zizek to Tolokonnikova:

In western Europe, we are seeing that the ruling elite know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with Greece.

No wonder, then, that Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don't know, and you don't pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don't know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.

Then, Tolokonnikova to Zizek:

I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.

Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche's definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.

We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: "This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath."

Hegel, Nietzsche and Heraclitus, all in the first few paragraphs! These are refreshingly intelligent letters, and their fast spread around the Internet is as refreshing as that of Russell Brand's popular message about the world's problems a couple of weeks ago.

Some people consider Slavoj Zizek a publicity-hungry fraud, but the eagerness with which he reaches out to discuss world economic problems with a punk singer in jail shows that he knows how to begin conversations that will engage listeners, which should be at least one big part of a philosopher's job description. His characteristic humility in these letters is gratifying, as when he accuses himself of being a male chauvinist for characterizing his academic philosophical theorizing as different from hers.

Some people likewise consider Pussy Riot a talentless band, though I have heard a few of their songs and think they're fairly pleasant to listen to, certainly in the same league as many anarchist punk bands around the world. They seem to be following the playbook that activist/Situationist Malcolm McLaren once had in mind for his Sex Pistols, though the Pistols themselves refused to play along and broke up after a single album. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's conversation with Zizek seems to indicate that Pussy Riot will have greater staying power.

I loved reading these letters, though I don't necessarily think that either the rambunctious philosopher or the jailed rocker have found the right path towards economic justice. I will always be skeptical of any attempt at an economic revolution that is not thoroughly pacifist in nature. I do not believe an economic revolution can succeed in a militarized world, which is why I think a revolution of world peace is the revolution we most need to have.

Zizek asks:

What can be done in such a situation, where demonstrations and protests are of no use, where democratic elections are of no use? Can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but also to offer the prospect of a new order?

Tolokonnikova does not have an answer, but she sure is good at stating the problem:

... here I am, working out my prison sentence in a country where the 10 people who control the biggest sectors of the economy are Vladimir Putin's oldest friends. He studied or played sports with some, and served in the KGB with others. Isn't this a social system that has seized up? Isn't this a feudal system?


Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has been exchanging letters with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in jail for staging a protest in a Moscow cathedral.

view /NadezhdaTolokonnikova
Sunday, November 17, 2013 11:31 am
Nadezhda Tolonnikova of Pussy Riot imprisoned while on trial
Levi Asher

(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)

LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?

As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?

ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.

Baldwin then says, “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel, the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

This is a bold series of statements which make no incremental sense. Sentimentality is certainly nothing to be proud of, and the best definition I know of it describes it as “emotion without responsibility.” But the wet eyes of the sentimentalist don’t betray his or her aversion to experience. Quite the reverse. He or she is reveling in a kind of limited experience. And these eyes don’t betray his fear of life or his arid heart, and there is no reason in the world to claim that sentimentality is always the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, nor is it the mask of cruelty. There are many many sentimental people in the world who are not secretly and violently inhumane or cruel.

So Baldwin’s premise is flawed, but his sentences are eloquent and his rage is impressive, and essentially he bullied his readers into believing him. His furious denigration of the novel cast it into serious disregard, which persists today. Baldwin castigates Stowe not only for her sentimentality, but for her portrayal of Uncle Tom himself. Baldwin calls Tom a stereotype, weak, accommodating and acquiescent. In this, Baldwin misses the entire point and power of the character of Tom.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister and wife of clergymen. She had grown up with Scripture. She quoted passages from the Bible all the time in her letters and conversation; it was a living presence for her. She felt it as a great power in the world, which was a large part of what gave her the courage to confront the entire nation, the economy, the philosophy, the political world, the newspapers. These were the loud and vehement voices of the world, all of which were raised against her when she wrote a book that opposed a fundamental aspect of American culture, slavery. Stowe called it what it really was in human terms – a vile and unconscionable institution that feeling people could not tolerate. This was not a sentimental premise[, though there are certainly sentimental passages in the book]. Her premise was clear and rational, but it was one that couldn’t be argued in terms of economics. It could only be argued in terms of humanity, and that’s what she did.

She had the courage to do this because she believed that the entire bastion of the Church itself was behind her. The Church, rooted in eternity, endless in its reach and mighty in its potency, was her source of strength and moral certainty. Scripture is present throughout the book, as are religious homilies which she thought germane and interesting. They may slow down the narrative (I think they do) but they demonstrate the profound importance of Christianity in the book and in Stowe’s sensibility.

My point is that Uncle Tom represents Christ. I think there is no other way to read his character.

He is a kind, strong, loving and deeply moral young man, who accepts, in the opening sequence, the fact that in order to save the world he knows (the plantation and everyone on it, black and white) his own life must be sacrificed. Though he is urged to flee, he accepts his fate in a spirit of moral obligation. He accepts the gradual worsening of his own circumstances until, finally, (again in opposition to advice to flee or resist), he gives up his own life for the good of the world. Tom is not cowardly but saintly; he is a Christian martyr. He reads the Bible himself, quotes Scripture, and is as good a Christian as Hattie is. He is kind, gentle and loving. He lives according to Christ’s teaching: he will not blame those who persecute him, and gives himself up in loving God.

Call the novel preachy, which it often is, call it sentimental, which it often is, but it’s impossible to call it “arid-hearted,” or “fearful of experience,” nor is it “the mask of a secret and violent cruelty or inhumanity.”

That sort of claim is nonsense, as is another of Baldwin’s declarations: “The virtuous rage of Mrs. Stowe is motivated by nothing so temporal as a concern for the relationship of men to one another – or even, as she would have claimed, by a concern for their relationship to God – but merely by a panic of being hurled into the flames, of being caught in traffic with the Devil.”

Actually, and quite obviously, Stowe was concerned specifically with the problem of men’s relationship to each other. The horrific state of that relationship was exactly what she portrayed. But many of Baldwin’s claims in this essay are spurious, inexact and obviously untrue. Baldwin is driven by rage, and for that reason he could not allow himself to be moved by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is driven by compassion.

I agree that the book is just as good as anything written by Dickens. It is wonderfully-well plotted, funny, moving, interesting and dramatic, full of diverse and eccentric characters, charged with energy and intelligence, and imbued with a great sense of high moral urgency. Like Dickens, Stowe takes on social issues as well as private concerns. Unlike Dickens, Stowe was willing to address a highly controversial subject, taking an explosive position on something that appeared to be the economic foundation of the entire country. What it lacks, in terms of literary merit, is characters of great complexity, moral and emotional questions of great subtlety or ambiguity, and great beauty in the writing. Because of those lacks I don’t consider it a novel of the very first rank, but it is still a work of great distinction.

As I understand it, it was Baldwin’s caustic diatribe that undermined the book’s standing. After the publication of that essay, the reputation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fell into a decline from which it has still not recovered, despite Jane Smiley’s wonderful essay “Say It Ain’t So, Huck!”, ten or fifteen years ago, in which she declares that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a better book than Huckleberry Finn.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is moving and powerful, it is one of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century, and maybe of all time. It was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and the second best-selling book (after the Bible). It was translated into dozens of languages and it was read all over the world. Tolstoy read it, while wrestling with the question of the serfs. It was an enormously important book in terms of philosophy, political morality, and humanity. It asked a question that could not be ignored.

As to whether or not the book is racist, it’s hard to take that charge seriously about a book that presents a black Jesus Christ.

LEVI: I'm glad you point out that Uncle Tom is a Christ figure – this is somehow at the same time both clearly true and also, I think, easy to miss. I have to admit that I didn't really make that connection myself, though I see it now.

There's an interesting contrast between the important role of religion in your family tradition (as you describe it now) and the place of religion in your novels. Tell me if I'm forgetting something, but I don't remember religion playing a major role in Sparta or Cost or Sweetwater or This Is My Daughter. Can you shed any light about this?

ROXANA: I don’t use religion specifically in my writing at all. I don’t think it’s now a very interesting presence in novels. I think it’s a bit like therapy – it plays the same part that the movement of the narrative itself plays – that is, a slow searching toward revelation and understanding. Religion is interior, it’s dependent on faith, it’s completely individual, and so it’s hard for it to have an important or useful presence in fiction. I think when Tolstoy uses it his work is weakest.

For me religion in literature has a presence that’s sort of like science fiction. It inserts a crazy card into the game, one that means anything that happen without following the laws of human experience. Religious epiphany is a transformative moment that is psychologically inexplicable, which means that it subverts the laws we know of human nature. So we can arrive at some sort of new knowledge, without having any idea of how we got there, or why it happened. It’s like waving a magic wand. I don’t think it’s a useful component in fiction.

So I don’t use religion per se. But what I think I have drawn, from the culture of my family, is a strong sense of morality, and I think that’s clearly present in my work. I think that part of the human question concerns morality, and this raises the question of our obligations as humans, and our roles in the world. What are our obligations toward each other? What does it mean to be a human being? What does it entail? I take those questions seriously. I do feel some kind of obligation or duty to the world, and also to humanity. So I think that drives my writing to a certain extent.

LEVI: I'd like to ask you a question that I'm going to try to also answer myself (though I'm sure your answer will be a better one). What do you have in common as a novelist with Harriet Beecher Stowe? I'm not thinking so much about your mission as a writer here (because you've already addressed that above) as about the craft of writing.

And, here's one answer to this question that already occurred to me: you are both particularly good at moving between the points of view of very different characters, and presenting each point of view sympathetically and in its own full context. I'm thinking of how Uncle Tom's Cabin moves deftly into the minds of slaveholders and slaves, adults and children, men and women, good people and evil people. You seem to write with the same wide psychological scope. But that's my answer to the question – I'd love to hear yours.

ROXANA: I think the real similarity is one of moral urgency, and sometimes of real outrage. My own outrage is not always directed at the national level, though in Sweetwater and Sparta it is directed at large and impersonal issues. But moral urgency seems to be the premise for many of my novels, a kind of troubled or grieving astonishment at the state of things, and a longing to present a situation so clearly to the reader that s/he cannot allow it to continue.

Also I share with her a sense of narrative, the impulse to create an individual story that will deliver a larger message, and the impulse to do it through the presentation of the family. (Which is what Tolstoy does, too.) I’m interested in the idea of the family as being the core of human experience, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe creates a series of family narratives that gradually and increasingly show the intolerability of a slave culture. She shows the damage done by slavery to the individual through the lens of the family.

I think the family is the crucible. The family forms us, it is our cradle and our prison, it’s what we build on and reject and refashion. It’s where our most powerful emotions are felt, it’s at the core of our deepest experiences. I share Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sense of that.

* * * * *

This is the second part of an interview with Roxana Robinson about her family legacy, which includes Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The first part is here. Roxana Robinson's most recent novel Sparta is about a troubled veteran of the Iraq War who returns to his family home.


"Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister and wife of clergymen. She had grown up with Scripture. She quoted passages from the Bible all the time in her letters and conversation; it was a living presence for her. She felt it as a great power in the world, which was a large part of what gave her the courage to confront the entire nation, the economy, the philosophy, the political world ..."

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Thursday, November 14, 2013 09:03 am
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Roxana Robinson
Levi Asher

(Carolyn Cassady, a major figure from the earliest days of the Beat Generation and a valuable spokesperson for the feminine side of Beat culture, has died at the age of 90. Carolyn was married to Neal Cassady and was also beloved by Jack Kerouac, who wrote her into both 'On The Road' and 'Big Sur'. She published her memoir twice, first as 'Heartbeat' (which was made into a movie starring Sissy Spacek) and then (with greater perspective) as 'Off the Road'. I was privileged to have hung out with the delightful and brilliant Carolyn Cassady a few times, but I did not know her as well as her dear friend Brian Hassett, who wrote the tribute below for his website and took the photos on this page. -- Levi)

Another giant has fallen — another angel taken flight.

Carolyn Cassady has just left us to join Neal and Jack on that great road trip in the sky.

Her son John, the light of her life, was there by her side till the end.

After a year’s refusal of entry into the U.K., just 3 months ago he was able to return to England to be with her.

She was her regular rockin self up through Sunday, woke up with a tummy ache Monday morning, had an infected appendix, and checked out by Friday.

I hope I’m as lucky. She was 90 years old and still drank her white wine and smoked her More menthol ciggies every day.

That is to say — she was living the life she chose, on her own terms, in her own house, until the very end.

Besides Neal, it’s my considered opinion that she was also the love of Jack Kerouac’s life — and in life they both pledged to be together in the next one.

So there’s that.

Carolyn was spiritual, an intuitive channel, naturally smart, well educated, well read, independent, strong, creative, had an ethical sense of right and wrong, and was a helluva gifted portrait painter. She grew up in a library of a house with a biochemist father and English teacher mother, and intellectual discourse and reading were the orders of the day.

She got her BA as one of the first students at the revolutionary Bennington College in Vermont, and then earned her MA in Theater and Fine Arts at the University of Denver, where she was living when she met Neal.

As I’ve mentioned before, Carolyn was the first of the (still unnamed generation of) Beats to move to San Francisco, and she was the reason Neal went there, which is why Jack went there, and so tumbled the dominoes of history.

I used to phone her at her cottage in the forest near Windsor Castle every few months just to chat, and a little over a year ago she told me she didn’t expect to be here next year.

Since none of her three kids could get over there at that point, and I was sort of freed up for the first time with my mom just passing, I went and lived with her for 3 months, and boy did we have a good time!

When we first started hanging out in the early ’90s, we were having so much fun, it made me realize I could be doing this with my own mom, who was about the same age. And from that point on, for the next 15 years my mom and I took our adventure even further and were even better friends than we had been before — and it was thanks to Carolyn opening the doors wide so I could see how much possibility there was.

Carolyn was born a week after my mom in April, and died a week after her in September. I always wanted to get the two of them together but could never pull it off. Talk about fabulous roman candles exploding across the stars — those two together woulda lit up the night sky until dawn!

And she wasn’t just a surrogate mother to me, but was the den mother to the entire Beat Generation, the only one in that whole crazy krewe who maintained a home with kids and a garden — and a Kerouac bivouac under the backyard tree. And she remained a mother figure until the end to hundreds of fans who would email her, and she’d write every one back, always offering her advice and years of wisdom to any problem anyone else had.

She maintained a routine for at least the last decade of her life, where she would do emails in the morning, read from a stack of books beside her bed all afternoon, and at 5:00 it was okay to have a glass of wine and watch the evening local and then Beeb national news, then quiz shows or nature documentaries in the evenings.

She had shelves full of Beat movies that I went through and had us systematically watch every damn one, and we would hit pause and I could ask her any question and we’d go off on tangents and get another glass of wine and maybe watch another five minutes then something else would come up and it would take us about ten hours to get through one movie!

And she’d always say to whoever was talking in a documentary, “That isn’t how it was!” and be correcting the history as it’s being presented. And the best time was when she was yelling at screen, “That’s completely wrong! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” and it was her being interviewed!

She is survived by her beloved son John Allen Cassady — named for Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal — but she called him Johnny. As well as her daughter Jami “Jack liked me best” Cassady-Ratto, and her first-born Cathy Sylvia, as well as her grandson Jamie, and her great-grandson Cody.

Carolyn rocked, but she also held down the Beat so others could solo.


Carolyn Cassady, important voice of the Beat Generation, has died at 90.

view /Carolyn2013
Friday, September 20, 2013 07:12 pm
Carolyn Cassady and her book collection
Brian Hassett

A surprise announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post has signaled the end of a distinctive era in family publishing. The Washington Post has been owned by three generations of a single family since Eugene Meyer bought it in 1933. The Post was then only one of several scrappy newspapers in the District of Columbia, and it wasn't until Eugene's daughter Katharine married a very smart young journalist and entrepreneur named Philip Graham that the Washington Post began to rise above the Capitol City sludge to become a world-class newspaper. Eugene Meyer entrusted his new son-in-law to run the entire Washington Post organization. Philip Graham became a sensationally successful newspaper publisher, also establishing himself as an early multimedia visionary when he bought Newsweek magazine and a radio station.

Philip and Katharine Graham married for love -- they were part of a fashionable young set in Georgetown, and had a strong relationship at first. But Philip Graham was a complicated man, prone to terrible episodes of weird manic-depressive extremes, and he seemed to resent the fact that he had only become publisher of the Post by marrying into the family. The young businessman pushed himself hard and pursued risks, alternately stumbling and flying. He became a close friend and supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which gave him a distinctive position both as a newsman and as a Georgetown socialite when LBJ was elected Vice President in 1960. He fell in love with another woman, which put him in an impossible position because his marriage to Katharine Graham was his connection to his business, his life: the Washington Post/Newsweek company.

Caught in an unbreakable bind, and in the midst of a painful emotional spell, Philip Graham violently killed himself in June, 1963, just a few months before another gunshot would put his friend Lyndon Johnson in the White House. He enacted his suicide in the Graham family's idyllic Virginia country house, as his perplexed wife relaxed nearby.

At this point, the story told in Katharine Graham's Personal History -- one of the most amazing, charming and unforgettable memoirs I've ever read -- begins to get happier. This is a rare story where most of the tragedy (Katharine's childhood relationship with her eccentric mother is another) happens early. After Katharine's husband's suicide, nobody believed the bright, prim, genteel wife of the publisher could possibly do the job herself except for one person: Katharine Graham.

Following her husband's suicide, Katharine Graham named herself the new publisher of the Washington Post. This was an unusual step for a woman in a man's business, and much of Personal History describes the powerful sexist barriers Katharine Graham had to knock down. She found that she was good at knocking down barriers, sexist and otherwise. In the next two decades, Katharine Graham would surprise the world and probably herself by becoming an even more legendary newspaper publisher than her husband or father had been.

This is mainly because she found herself with a hotter potato to handle than either Eugene Meyer or Philip Graham ever had in 1972, when her city beat reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began digging up odd messy stuff about the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon. The Watergate scandal exploded, and Katharine Graham handled her key role coolly. She and editor Ben Bradlee agreed to support Woodward and Bernstein through some risky acts of reporting, and the Nixon White House began to threaten the Washington Post both directly and indirectly.

Kay Graham became a tangible symbol of the weird Watergate state of mind when Carl Bernstein reported that Nixon's close associate John Mitchell had hissed to him during an intrusive phone call that Kay Graham would get her "tit caught in a wringer". If John Mitchell could have read Personal History, he would have understood how tough Kay Graham was, and would not have bothered trying to frighten her.

These stories and more are told in a sparkling voice with a deep penchant for honesty in Personal History -- a book that I only began reading because I am a Watergate buff, but liked far more than I ever expected to. There is no book I'd recommend more to anybody who wants to read about adventures in journalism, or about the unique insular culture of Washington D.C., the city where Graham was a regal presence until her death in 2001.

It's her probing self-directed honesty that makes this memoir so remarkable. At one point, during a thoughtful summary of the strengths and weaknesses of her past marriage to Philip Graham, she reveals that her beloved husband never really did respect her mind. Worse, he often made fun of her for having a "limited intellect" in front of family and friends. It must have been painful for Katharine Graham to reveal something as personal as this. I guess that explains the book's title.

For one year of my life, in 2009, I found myself working for the technology department at Slate, a Washington Post company, and I was invited often to meetings in the famed Washington Post building on 15th and L Street in Washington DC. I cherished the moments when I could walk into this building (though I didn't always cherish the meetings of the Washington Post digital brain trust, which often consisted of a lot of huffing and puffing and very few ideas other than "let's add a Facebook button").

The Washington Post building always had a homey, warm mood -- much more so than the New York Times or Time-Life Buildings in New York City. This may have been due to the friendly presence of several members of the Graham and Weymouth families, who were always around. It happens to be a favorite WaPo fact of mine, for anyone who'd like to know, that Tina Weymouth, bassist of the Talking Heads, is a member of the extended Graham-Weymouth family -- here she is with the Tom Tom Club:

It's been a few years since I stepped inside the Washington Post building, but I wish the legendary Washington Post well as it transitions into whatever the hell it is that Jeff Bezos plans to transition it into. What would Katharine Graham think? I don't know, but maybe she'd think "I could do it better."

"Personal History" by newspaper publisher Katharine Graham is one of the most stunning and inspiring autobiographies I've ever read.

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Monday, August 5, 2013 09:30 pm
Personal History, the memoir by Katharine Graham
Levi Asher

With all this acting experience behind me, Shelton thought I was ready for a crack at the movies. Not Hollywood, just Astoria, Long Island. He got me a part out there playing mob scenes in a picture with Paul Robeson. From that I got a real part in a short featuring Duke Ellington. It was a musical, with a little story to it, and it gave me a chance to sing a song -- a real weird and pretty blues number. That was the good thing about the part.

The rough part, of course, was that I had to play a chippie. Opposite me there was a comedian who'll kill me because I can't remember his name. He played my pimp or sweetheart. He was supposed to knock me around.

He knocked me down about twenty times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my falls except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn't even think about breaking my falls. I must have hit that hard painted pavement about fifty times before the man hollered "Cut."

I saw a little bit of this epic one time at the studio, but that was all. Mom, of course, thought I was going to be a big movie star and she told everyone to watch for the picture. I don't know if anybody else saw it, but we never did. It was just a short subject, something they filled in with when they couldn't get Mickey Mouse. We'd have had to hire a private detective to find out where the hell it was playing.

What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published in 1956:

We've been looking at some great lost rock memoirs (by Ian McLagan, Dee Dee Ramone and Chuck Berry) lately, and some of these feel pretty vintage today. But the earliest rock memoirs have nothing on the early jazz memoirs for raw authenticity. The best jazz memoir of them all may be Billie Holiday's slender but gut-punching tome, which was turned into a popular movie starring Diana Ross in 1972, but should be read, not watched, for full effect.

Eleanora Fagan was born dirt poor in 1915 and shuffled between broken homes, reform schools and jails in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City throughout her young life, She scrubbed rich people's homes for nickels, was raped at age ten, then spent her early teenage years in a bleak reform school on Manhattan's Roosevelt Island, then called Welfare Island, before becoming a prostitute at 14. She liked to sing Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong songs while she scrubbed, and eventually she gathered her courage and auditioned at a Harlem bar.

It turned out she was the very epitome of a natural singer, with amazingly expressive instincts, and she shot quickly to fame. As some actors are character actors, Billie Holiday (the name Eleanora Fagan took on) was a character singer, imbuing emotion and personality into every word, enunciating with a wide range of vocalizations. In her voice you could hear a child crying, an angel humming, a mouse squeaking. Modulating her theatrical impulses with a self-trained instinct for timing and a disciplined command of tonal control, she revolutionized jazz singing, and is still remembered as one of the great voices of all time.

It turns out that Billie Holiday tell stories as well as she sings. Maybe better. She loves to talk, and often hovers above philosophical themes, as when she evokes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.

I never forget this wonderful old Spaniard Pablo Casals, who played the cello once on TV. When he finished some Bach he was interviewed by some American chick. "Every time you play it, it's different," she gushed.

"It must be different," says Casals. "How can it be otherwise? Nature is so. And we are nature.

So there you are. You can't even be like you once were yourself, let alone like somebody else.

She wields slang as expertly as Jack Kerouac, and is always amused by her own quirky life, even when life serves her nothing but problems. In this book, she goes to jail early in life and returns over and over. She marries repeatedly, attaches herself to one man after another, and eventually loses much of her self-control (though, from the evidence of this book, none of her self-respect) through severe heroin addiction. But Billie's tough. In the pages of Lady Sings the Blues, she smirks through all the pain, always finding the wit in the situation, as when she is arrested in California.

It was Joe Tenner, boss of the club, who went to bat and called Jake Ehrlich, a famous San Francisco criminal lawyer. Mr. Ehrlich recently allowed his biography to be written. My trial is included in it as one of his "picturesque criminal cases". I thought he was picturesque myself that day when he walked in and got me and John Levy out on bail.

The anecdote at the top of this article about Holiday's attempt to be a film star shows her tendency toward comic self-effacement -- because the short film she's talking about here was no Mickey Mouse cartoon. It was Duke Ellington's 1935 masterpiece Symphony in Black, an attempt to update George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with a grittier African-American jazz/classical synthesis. It's no surprise that Duke Ellington, who could have chosen any singer in the world, chose Billie Holiday for this ambitious cinematic work. You can watch the entire 9 and a half-minute short here, including Billie Holiday's sidewalk fight, followed by her big number and some jazz combo dancing that I like almost as much as Bang Bang by Will.i.am:

As an early pop music memoir, Lady Sings the Blues was written without heavy editorial oversight, and the word on the street is that many of the facts don't check out. The book was "written" via interviews with William Dufty, who assembled the book from their conversations and didn't do any advanced fact-checking. So, these are the stories Billie Holiday told. The artistry is all in the telling.

True, not true -- does it matter? The book definitely tells the truth about what it felt like to be raped at age ten, and then to get blamed for being raped in juvenile court. That's plenty enough truth for me.

Here's Billie singing Fine and Mellow:

And here's Strange Fruit, one of her signature songs, and an extremely intense number:

I love this memoir even though I am not particularly a committed Billie Holiday fan. I'm much more likely to groove out to Sarah Vaughan, who was nine years younger than Billie Holiday and added a smooth melodic touch to the rough-edged Billie Holiday sound. But Sarah Vaughan did not invent herself from the ashes like Billie Holiday, and she could never have told stories like Billie Holiday. It's not surprising that Billie Holiday could tell great stories, as she was also a songwriter (God Bless the Child, for instance, was her own composition).

(If Sarah Vaughan could have written like Billie Holiday, she might have gotten revenge, since Billie Holiday savages her younger competitor -- with a gentle feline touch, of course -- in a couple of amusing scenes in Lady Sings the Blues)

Billie Holiday's life story really was a tragedy, because she lived much of her childhood, adolescent and adult life either in jail or under threat of police persecution. Like Chuck Berry, she was constantly sent back to jail for one mild offense after another (clearly, it was not always safe in 20th Century USA to be a successful African-American musician, especially a bawdy and uppity one with a taste for the fast life).

It's a tragic fact that Billie Holiday struggled for money at every moment of her life. Even when she had it she didn't have it, and she never learned how to handle money and was exploited and stolen from constantly by men she wanted to trust.

The rock singer Lou Reed must have loved Lady Sings the Blues, because his tribute song Lady Day encapsulates the beginning and ending of this book in two succinct verses. First, we see her auditioning at the little Harlem club:

When she walked on down the street
She was like a child staring at her feet
But when she passed the bar
And she heard the music play
She had to go in and sing
It had to be that way

Then, in the short song's second verse, we fast-forward to the end of her life.

After the applause had died down
And the people drifted away
She climbed down off the bar
And went out the door
To the hotel
That she called home
It had greenish walls
A bathroom in the hall

Billie Holiday died while being arrested for drug abuse in 1959, three years after Lady Sings the Blues was published.


What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, 'Lady Sings the Blues'.

view /LadySingsTheBlues
Tuesday, June 4, 2013 10:18 pm
Paperback edition of Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday
Levi Asher

I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal.

Elizabeth Wurtzel has written a New York magazine article that looks back harshly at her social life and her writing career of nearly 20 years. The article has created a big buzz, both favorable and highly critical. "I start reading every Elizabeth Wurtzel essay with optimism, like maybe finally she put her talent to writing about something than herself, and by the end of paragraph three that optimism has fled" says Jessa Crispin at Bookslut. "A deliciously hathotic middle-aged whine" says Rod Dreher at the American Conservative. "I like this lady's style" says David Lat at Above The Law.

Well, whatever you think of Elizabeth Wurtzel's moral value system, one thing's for sure: she's a dynamite writer. She stirs up strong emotions with sneaky, crafty paragraphs that know exactly what they're doing. No wonder she's a lawyer. Here's how she describes this career:

Most people who think they are practicing law are actually making binders, and my guess is that most people who think they are doing whatever important thing they are doing are making binders. The binders from law firms go to a locker in a warehouse in a parking lot in an office park off an exit of a turnpike off a highway off an interstate in New Jersey, never to be looked at again. No one ever read them in the first place.

The painful self-criticism in this piece -- her mixed feelings about never marrying or having children, her ambivalence about her successes and failures as a writer -- make it awkward and embarrassing to read, which is probably why so many have mocked the author for writing it. However, I respect writers who are brave enough to appear foolish by writing bleak confessionals.of epic scale. The writers I like best are the ones who have the courage to deliver themselves to us in full -- not as heroes but as failed mortals, and to reveal every painful truth. Isn't this what we love Dostoevsky and Nietzsche for, after all?

I had a long talk with Elizabeth Wurtzel once, back in the Prozac Nation days of the mid-1990s, when she was an A-lister and I was just a newbie bookish webmaster, excited one night to have an opportunity to sit at a table at a downtown club and mingle with some literati. Elizabeth Wurtzel was holding court at one table, and doing so in a very entertaining and generous way, When she heard my name she immediately asked if I had taken it from Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev (indeed, in a way, I had) and then called for attention so she could describe the plot of this novel to everybody at the table in effusive detail, which she proceeded to do.

Reading her latest New York Times essay, she depicts herself as having been pretty strung out during the Prozac Nation craze. All I remember is a very smart and energetic woman who wanted to talk about an old favorite novel. Why criticize Elizabeth Wurtzel for this New York Magazine piece? She's only doing what a true writer does -- telling us the truth.


A painful and honest look back by Elizabeth Wurtzel at her social life and 20-year writing career has created a lot of buzz, both positive and negative ...

view /Wurtzel2013
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 03:55 pm
Elizabeth Wurtzel
Levi Asher

There are a lot of ways a book called Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World's Oldest Profession can go wrong. Fortunately, this brisk new study of the cultural history of prostitution by Tyler Stoddard Smith aims for big intellectual and sociopolitical connections, and finds quite a few.

The book is mainly a collection of anecdotes about famous people who have been prostitutes, madams, gigolos or pimps, and the reach is wide: Xaviera Hollander (who wrote a popular memoir called The Happy Hooker), Heidi Fleiss, Wyatt Earp (he owned brothels), Madame Pompadour, Mata Hari, Eva Peron, Casanova, Snoop Dogg and Mary Magdalene are all covered. Perhaps the book's biggest revelation is the sheer number of show-biz celebrities who either told of or are rumored to have worked in the sex trade: Al Pacino (he told of briefly surviving as a gigolo to a wealthy older woman as a 20 year old in Sicily), Dee Dee Ramone (this was immortalized in the Ramones song "53rd and 3rd"), Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Steve McQueen, Valerie Solanis, several Beat writers, and at least a couple of notable political figures from the recent past in Washington DC. A longer and more in-depth study might examine what it means about our society that a large number of ambitious young creative people have resorted to prostitution as they were finding their way in the big city, and search for moral conclusions. That's not what this book tries to do, but Whore Stories does succeed in opening the topic for further public discussion.

The tone of the book is snarky, hip and refreshingly intelligent, often daring to cross the line into realms of hallucinatory imagery or bad taste. Why not? Here's the author's explanation of the project, from the introduction:

I've visited prostitutes from Nuevo Laredo to Amsterdam, Hamburg to Tokyo, and Las Vegas to Havana, and one thing never changes. People are too quick to make assumptions about what "visiting" means. Where I'm from, "visiting" can mean anything from "talking and catching up with folk" to "setting fire to a miniature pony," although I haven't heard it used that way in ages.


Whore Stories by Tyler Stoddard Smith is a refreshingly intelligent cultural history of prostitution in the modern world.

view /WhoreStories
Tuesday, November 6, 2012 05:57 pm
Whore Stories by Tyler Stoddard Smith
Levi Asher