Monday, August 24, 2015

Reviews: Lee's Go Set a Watchman & Miranda's Hamilton: An American Musical

Harper Lee and her novel cover for Go Set
a Watchman
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/
Getty Images. Courtesy of VICE & HarperCollins)
As I wrote yesterday, during my quiet stretch here I have been writing for other publications, and just before my last July blog entry, the double obit for E. L. Doctorow and Ornette Coleman, I posted a review of Harper Lee's new (old) novel at VICE, "Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman Reveals the Limits of the Liberal Imagination." Two paragraphs:
As a counterpoint and complement to the compelling fantasy of MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman possesses real value. What was often latent in the later novel is on full display here, ranging from the middle-class whites' classism, self-absorption, and entitlement to a racial-epithet-packed screed that would not appear out of place on a forum like Stormfront. Reading Go Set a Watchman also made me wonder how it might have been received by critics and the public if it had appeared in the late 50s, and whether there exists another work of fiction from these years by a young white Southern writer that so baldly lays bare the complicity of the mass of white Southerners, particularly the social elites and middle class, in maintaining white supremacy.

In its focus on liberalism's limitations, and its conclusion in Jean Louise's sentimental emotional accommodation with her father's and family's views—"I can't beat him, and I can't join him"—the book also feels very contemporary, since we still encounter unironic invocations of America as a "post-racial" society in the public discourse, despite constant  indications to the contrary.
There's more at the link above. Oh--and I definitely recommend reading Lee's new (old) book.

***

Ensemble and Lin-Manuel Miranda (at right)
in Hamilton (photo by Joan Marcus)
Recently I had the excellent fortune to see Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterpiece, Hamilton: An American Musical, which has made a smooth transition from the Public Theater, where it debuted to acclaim, to Broadway, at the Richard Rogers Theater. I could rhapsodize about Miranda's artistry at length, but VICE fortunately has word limits and editors, so you can read my distilled thoughts about this work at "The Best Musical of the Year Is a Hip-Hop Show About Alexander Hamilton."

Not only do I talk about all the kinds of hip hop (from freestyle to chopper) Miranda manages to incorporate, but I also devote a few paragraphs to the multiple political implications of this work. It's not a long review so please do check it out.

One quote:
Hamilton also offers one of the best and most compelling counternarratives to the increasingly extreme conservative rhetoric around immigration. Alexander Hamilton, Miranda never lets the audience forget, was an immigrant from a small island, with a sketchy education, no money, and few prospects, and became the target of constant social and political antagonism. Even factoring in the neoliberal undercurrent of the hardworking, self-made man the musical espouses, Hamilton artfully hammers away at the idea that power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, or that opportunity should not be extended as widely as possible, repeatedly connecting this thread to larger ideas about race and class. Many of the musical's catchphrases, including "We are a movement," "Rise up," and "The world turned upside down," would sound as fitting at a protest as they do on Broadway.
Above all, GO SEE HAMILTON! It just may rock your bells, and your world.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Checking In + Summer Notes about Counternarratives

The setting sun in St. Petersburg,
where I went for my niece's
wedding in July
The last few weeks ushered in an unexpected blogging hiatus. Between work on the house, C's birthday, end-of-August deadlines, and preparations for classes and my stint as chair, August has barreled forward, leaving my blogging here in the wake. So many national (the death of Sandra Bland in prison and other police-related deaths, the growing influence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the presidential campaign-circus, etc.) and international (the P5+1 Iran nuclear deal, the President's trip to Africa, etc.) news-making have occurred over the summer, and events continue to race by faster than I could ever cover or capture them, so rather than starting stubs as I used to do, to be completed down the road, I've mostly tweeted about them but haven't posted anything longer for lack of time or attention. I have long thought a better solution might be to post short entries, with just a few thoughts, perhaps with photos and links, and leave it at that. I may post longer entries when I can. I'll begin trying that this week.

***

Counternarratives continues to receive reviews, and thankfully very good ones. One of the finest came from the pen of a writer I deeply admire, Vincent Czyz, who also is an alumnus of Rutgers-Newark. Though I never had the opportunity to work with him while he was in the MFA program, we have developed an acquaintance based in part of aesthetic affinities that Samuel R. Delany pointed out in reference to our work. Vince's review, "Counternarratives--Stories About History's Metamorphosis," appears in Boston's Arts Fuse, an online arts magazine.

The tagline alone made me leap for joy: "What John Keene has given us in Counternarratives is fearless fiction." Here's a bit more (and he mentions the story "Anthropophagy," which explores a day in the life of Mário de Andrade, one of my Modernist heroes):

Among Keene’s priorities is language itself. While the notion of the invisible brushstroke became passé among painters more than a century ago, “transparent prose” — composed of disposable sentences designed simply to move characters through plots and meant to vanish in the reader’s consciousness as soon as they are read — still dominates short fiction. Keene, however, weights his sentences almost as though he were composing lines of verse. “The morning light” in “Anthropophagy,” for example, “is too bright to bear except in blinks, winks, the armor of fished-out-of-pocket spectacles.” Here is a striking passage from the same vignette: “ … the hours fall away, disappear, he lying on his side, in dreams or awake and a record cycles on the player, Debussy, Villa-Lobos, Pixinguinha, or a disc grooved from the recordings of catimbo from his journeys across the northeast, its sonorities drumming out a bridge between the present and the past …” And in “On Brazil” Keene offers this description of Portuguese soldiers lost in the jungle: “Sheer, green walls of trees that smothered the sunlight rose before them. An interminable carnival of beast and birds crisscrossed the canopies above, while insects spawned in the pens of Satan swarmed the ground beneath their feet.” The description is not only elegantly accomplished, it is specific in its reflection of the collective psyche of foreigners — of Christian invaders.

Two other recent reviews have appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review and the Barnes & Noble Review. As with nearly all of them I don't know the reviewers and wasn't expecting to appear in either publication, but in both cases the reviewers grappled with the book, and offered some insights for potential readers to think about.

Eric McDowell's review, "Counternarratives: The Power of Narrative," in the Michigan Quarterly Review, is perspicacious in its exploration of the book's treatment of "narrative." To put it simply, he gets it. A quote:
What about writers and stories who keep us both thinking critically and, at the same time or by turns, drawn in empathetically? Consider John Keene’s recent and deeply rewarding collection out from New Directions, Counternarratives
The book’s title already asserts the power of some stories to push back, challenge, or yes, counter the harm done by other stories. Keene’s “Counternarratives” (and “Encounternarratives,” accounting for about half of the collection) themselves are often about competing, stratified orders—Portuguese and Dutch imperialists, indigenous inhabitants of the “new world,” slaves abducted from Africa, to draw only a few examples from the beginning of the book, which proceeds chronologically—and are set during times of political and personal upheaval. But rather than simply retell the history of the Americas that has already been handed to us by our school books, in a feat of defamiliarization Keene’s work strives to offer us new perspectives, new versions, new voices. Not only new, but needed: these stories help restore agency, depth, and dignity to figures formerly denied full representation—Jim from Huckleberry Finn (“Rivers”), say, or the acrobat silent and frozen in Edgar Degas’s famous painting (“Acrobatique”)—as well as to the anonymous victims of white systems of oppression and control.
In the Barnes & Noble Review, Christopher Byrd offers a different take, via my first book, Annotations (New Directions, 1995). As he points out, the scope of the works is different, and, I must add, the mediation of discourses is more overt in the new book, something he marks as emotional "distance" and "flatness." He also connected the book to contemporary societal crises, which I'm always glad to see reviewers do. A quote:
“The Aeronauts,” was the first story in the collection to win me over from the outset on account of the fact that the main character in portrayed in a number of different lights — calculating, randy, industrious, capable of speaking in different registers to different people — in other words, fully human. 
In “Acrobatique” — a wonderfully measured account of the black acrobat Olga “Miss LaLa” Kaira, who attracted the painterly eye of Degas — the artiste sums up her ambition:
I intend to spend every waking hour in the air, to soar with the brio of a sparrowhawk and glide with a sparrow’s ease and float, as Kaira [my partner] and I do, as the audience perches on the tips of their seats, with the lightness of two creatures who have fully emerged from the chrysalis, how I want to suspend the entire city of Paris or even France itself from my lips if I could achieve that, how I aim to exceed every limit placed upon me unless I place it there, because that is what I think of when I think of freedom, that I have gathered around me people who understand how to translate fear into possibility, who have no wings but fly beyond the most fantastical vision of the clouds . . .
One finds a similar sense of complicated interiority and self-possession in the book’s other stories which move further away from the all-consuming context of slavery — which, again, leaves the reader to wonder if that was the point of the suffocating flatness of the earlier stories.
Do check all the reviews out, many thanks to Vincent, to Eric McDowell and to Christopher Byrd, and many thanks also to former colleague Eula Biss, who mentioned Counternarratives as one of her summer reads on the National Book Critics Circle blog. A good word from Eula, one of the best out there, is golden.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Remembering E. L. Doctorow & John A. Williams

There was a period a few years ago when I was posting memorials so often that I started to feel as if my blog was turning into an obituary site. It wasn't, of course, but I did worry about the morbid cast that posts were beginning to assume, though I realized it was a period of losses that in various ways touched me personally. I wrote but did not complete memorials to my late and dear colleagues Prof. Clement Alexander Price and Prof. Said Samatar, because of a confluence of issues, among them my health challenges earlier this year, but I do hope to finish the joint post in tribute to both of them one of these days soon.

***

E. L. Doctorow (elperiodico.com)
I thought that I should probably post something quickly rather than waiting and mulling when I learned Tuesday about the death from lung cancer of my former professor and thesis advisor, E. L. Doctorow (1931-2015). I had the great fortune both as an undergraduate and a graduate student to study with many remarkable scholars and artists, and E. L. Doctorow--whom I could not bring myself to call "Ed" after graduation, since he would also be "Professor Doctorow" in my mind--was chief among them. He was in fact one of the reasons that I chose to attend New York University's then M.A. program in creative writing; the presence of the marvelous Paule Marshall was another. But before I continue in this vein, let me say a little about E. L. Doctorow's life and work.

Doctorow was a Bronx native and a child of the Depression, and both of these facts profoundly shaped his work. One could read his fiction as an extended, multilayered, highly inventive portrait of New York--and by extension, the United States of America--across multiple books, and the failure of Western capitalism, which included his father's business, colored his perspective. His adolescence unfolded during the New Deal and post-World War II period, but the City that preceded this era profoundly intrigued him, as did decades of Modernist writing and political dissent. He was an experimentalist whose work was accessible to all readers, and though an often outspoken writer of the Left, he did not espouse rigid dogmas. In Ragtime (1975), one of the most important and controversial American novels to appear in the late 20th century, these personal threads, filtered through a capacious imagination, combine to weave a strange and dazzling tapestry of a New York in which white immigrants, politicians and socialites, African American protesters, and the burgeoning city itself all become vibrant characters.

His melding of the real and fictional in this novel sparked considerable criticism. It would, however, prove influential for countless writers who followed, and suggested a more complex engagement with both history and fiction than one found in the work of many writers of his generation. Ragtime in particular demonstrated this, along with the effects of overlapping but distinctive social and economic spaces, which was true to life in the New York of the novel's era as much as it is, despite growing inequality, today. The leaps were probable for fiction, improbable for reality, but not impossible for either. The Eastern European Socialist immigrant and single parent Tateh, then or now, would face incredible challenges going from the working-class tenement streets to becoming a successful movie mogul and the new husband of the Westchester matriarch, but it would not be impossible; nor should we be astonished that Doctorow, in a 40-year-old work of fiction, indelibly captured the struggles, still ongoing today, by a black man--black people--to be treated with dignity, equality and respect in this society. Mirroring contemporary events, Coalhouse Walker does not meet a pretty end.

E. L. Doctorow published 12 novels over his career, roughly one every five years, in the process winning a number of the country's highest literary awards; in addition to Ragtime, which received the very first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, his other novels include The Book of Daniel (1971), which explored the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case; the 1985 novel World's Fair, which received the National Book Award; the acclaimed Billy Bathgate, which also received the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as the PEN/Faulkner Prize and the William Dean Howells Medal; and his late career masterpiece, The March (2005), which won him his third National Book Critics Circle Award and second PEN/Faulkner Award. His final novel, Andrew's Brain, appeared last year. He also authored a play, Drinks Before Dinner (1978); an assured book of short stories, The Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella (1984), one of my favorites among his books; and several collections of essays.

Before I ever read his work--and Ragtime was on my mother's bookshelves--I saw the movie version of the film. I didn't learn until I studied with him that he hated the movie version, directed by Milos Forman, which was Jimmy Cagney's final screen role, while providing early breakout roles for Howard Rollins, Elizabeth McGovern, Debbie Allen, Mary Steenburgen, and Mandy Patinkin. Other works of his, including Welcome to Hard Times (1967) and Billy Bathgate, also were adapted into films, and he detested those films too; the cinematic adaptations of his work tended not to work, in his eyes. The Broadway musical version of Ragtime, however, was much more to his liking, as he shared with our second year workshop, and debuted shortly before our sessions began.

He otherwise never talked about himself or his own work; instead, drawing from his earlier career as an editor at NAL and the Dial Press, he was gentle and generous in his critiques, with a laser-sharp ability to identify what was and was not working about a given text. I think he may have written a few words on our manuscripts, but unlike other writing professors, there was no extensive written or spoken commentary. Yet what he said counted, and I like I learned a tremendous deal from him, about my own work, and about teaching, and I have tried to bring some of those lessons to every class, especially writing workshops, that I've taught. At his death, he was the Loretta and Lewis Glucksman Professor in American Letters at NYU, a position he had held for many years. He also played a key roll, as I recall, in securing the New York Times Foundation fellowship that student writers, I included, held, allowing us not only the opportunity to study at NYU, but to teach writing in the New York public schools. That experience also was one of the best--and at times toughest, but always rewarding--of my life.

One final point, which is professional. Toward the end of the time that my fiction cohort and I were finishing up what was then the M.A. program at NYU, and I had been admitted into the Ph.D. program and was going to go with the standard Masters degree, Doctorow announced to us that NYU had received New York state approval to award the M.F.A. I remember him recommending all of us to go for the M.F.A., since we would then all have a final, professional degree, and if we wanted to teach, it would be(come) essential. I ended up publishing my first book, wishing the Ph.D. a fond goodbye, and haven't looked back, though I think all the time about how sage his advice was and how thankful I am that he was looking out for us. As with his mentorship, so with his writing, which continues to point a way forward. RIP, E. L. Doctorow

***

John A. Williams
(Photo by Stathis Orphanos)
A writer that I always wanted to meet but never had the opportunity to was John A. Williams (1925-2015). He passed away on July 14 from complications from Alzheimer's disease. I knew that the prolific Jackson, Mississippi native had been a longtime resident of New Jersey--Teaneck, to be specific--but I had not realized until a few years ago that he also a pioneer in teaching creative writing and journalism at Rutgers-Newark, serving as a professor in the English department from 1979 through 1994, when he retired as the Paul Robeson Distinguished Professor of English. This was long before my arrival, but some of my colleagues who had the good fortune to work with him described him in glowing terms, and deeply mourn his passing.

As I wrote in a response to a university PR query about him: "John A. Williams was one of the major novelists, and one of the most important African-American writers, to emerge from the generation that came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s. Primarily working in a realist mode, Williams captured and reflected many of the major issues of his day, in a vivid, fluid, accessible style, laced with humor and social critique, that was always more complex—and demonstrated a complex grasp of his subject matter—than it appeared. His influence can be seen throughout contemporary African-American prose fiction. His directness in addressing major social and political issues, and his deep interest in African-American history and culture, especially in his marvelous novel Captain Blackman, have been incredibly important to me."

Captain Blackman, a 1972 speculative fiction work in which a soldier travels through time from the Revolutionary War era to Vietnam, was one of his triumphs; his final novel, Clifford's Blues (1999), in which he recounts with nuance, empathy and convincing detail the trials of a black gay saxophonist trapped in Nazi Germany, was another high point. Yet his best-known novel and true masterpiece was The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), a fictionalized account of the lives of exiled black writer Richard Wright, that succeeded in also depicting the US's Cold War shenanigans, including the horrifying "King Alfred Plan," a genocidal CIA-directed project which aimed to erase black people from the face of the earth. So convincing was Williams' account that the King Alfred Plan entered black popular consciousness, leading musician Gil Scott-Heron to write a song, "King Alfred Plan," that appeared on his 1972 LP Free Will.

Williams grew up in Syracuse, New York, served in the US Navy during World War II, and graduated with a degree in journalism and English from Syracuse University in 1950. Encountering difficulty in pursuing a journalistic career, Williams worked at a series of jobs before moving to New York City, where he found employment as a vanity press publicity director and as information director for an organization promoting African liberation movements, though his desire to write for periodicals hardly abated, and by 1958, he was the European correspondent for Johnson Publications' flagship magazines Ebony and Jet, with later stints at Newsweek and the former Holiday magazines.

John A. Williams' first novel, The Angry Ones, appeared in 1960, and he would go to publish 12 in all, including Sissie in 1963 and Click Song! in 1982, which received the American Book Award. The latter novel, like many of Williams' took the measure of racial relations in the US, this time through an acid narrative about the publishing industry. Some 33 years later, Williams' reading of the state of things still holds validity. He also published books in other genres, including the decolonization-era overview Africa: Her History, Lands and People in 1963; the biography The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright, and the more idiosyncraticThe King God Didn't Save: Reflections on the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., which was sharply criticized; and, in 1991, with his son Dennis, If I Die I'll Stop: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor.

Quoting again from my statement to the university, I said that "[Williams] was unfortunately underappreciated as a literary figure, but his literary oeuvre serves as an excellent testament to his many talents and gifts. I continue to read and teach his work, and I hope that his passing sparks a renewed interest in one of the most stylistically versatile and critically engaged writers of the 20th century....I mourn John A. Williams’ passing, and I hope more readers and writers will return to the excellent literary trove he has left us."

There is much to learn and gain upon delving (back) into Williams' large and often daring oeuvre, and I look forward to doing so as soon as I can. RIP to John A. Williams.


Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer Notes

July is racing by. I was wondering when the brutal summer heat would finally appear and today, it settled on our doorsteps. I no longer gallivant about in it like I used to; age and health have a way of finally impressing better sense on some of us at least, so I made sure my trips outdoors today were brief. This blog post will be like those trips, brief and full of little snippets.

>>>

Counternarratives continues to receive reviews, and very good ones, for which I am extremely thankful. In addition to the slowly gathering ratings on Goodreads (thank you!), an excellent review recently appeared in Bookforum. Written by Max Nelson, it offered a distinctive, affirmative, nuanced critical take on the book. One thing I really appreciate about the piece was his discussion of the collection's prose. Here's the opening snippet:
The American author John Keene writes sentences that begin in states of tight restraint, steadily loosen, unravel, sprawl or expand, and then—in their last few beats—contract suddenly into piercingly acute points. One such sentence comes two-thirds of the way into an epically named story, “Gloss on A History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” included in Keene’s remarkable new short fiction collection Counternarratives. The sentence conveys—among other things—one of the story’s grimmest plot twists. A dead, unidentified newborn has been found at a secluded convent in early-nineteenth-century Kentucky. None of the nuns or students could have been responsible, two schoolgirls decide among themselves, because “none of them could possibly have been with child.”
I thank Max Nelson, and invite you to savor his critical acumen and prose, which are quite artful themselves!

<<<

As an entrant to their annual award, Larry Dark at The Story Prize invited me to contribute a short post about Counternerratives for its blog site, so I tried to think of something I had not yet discussed extensively in interviews or public conversations, but which has come up in reviews. What I thought about was the music of the prose in many of the stories, and here is the link to what I wrote, keeping under the 750-word limit: "John Keene's Hidden Soundtrack."
If you were to place any book against your ear, what would you hear? Unless it were an audiobook, very likely nothing behind the sound of paper on skin, along with background ambient sound. One aspect of my collection Counternarratives that surprises me when I reread it, however, is that each story's prose contains an internal music and rhythmicality specific to that text, and both function in complementary, productive ways in relation to the stories' narration. I find myself surprised because when I was writing the stories, I was not consciously considering this element of my prose, yet somewhere in my subconscious, I apparently was scoring and setting pitches. Additionally, among the thirteen stories in the collection, only two specifically explore the lives of musicians, and in only one of these, "Cold," which recounts the final day in the life of the minstrel composer and performer Bob Cole, was I intentionally attempting to convey what the composer's music might have sounded like.
There's more, along with sharp pieces by many others at the Story Prize's blog and website.

>>>

I had never before set up Google Alerts, but did so recently, and given my ineptitude with online technology, it has not alerted me to a single new thing that regular Googling or searching Twitter also reveals. The other day, via Google's standard search tool, I happened upon a beautiful mention of Counternarratives and Annotations (!) by the acclaimed writer Maud Casey in the Washington City Paper, in a column focusing on what local DC-area writers are reading this summer. Casey mentions that she is currently reading Maggie Nelson's highly acclaimed The Argonauts, and then says:

The book I’m in the middle of is Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, a raw, beautiful, elegiac love story involving a ginormous goshawk. The book I’ll be reading next is John Keene’s collection of stories and a novella, Counternarratives. His first novel, Annotations, blew me away, and Counternarratives looks to be as nimble and strange and awesome. James Baldwin wrote, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden beneath the answers” and Keene—and Nelson and MacDonald—do that. I’m very pro-questions these days.
Talk about fine company! Many thanks to Maud Casey for the shot out!

<<<

Some of last week's harvest from the garden. The blackberries are thriving, though smaller than in prior years. All of the other plants are also thriving. Caterpillars are eating the collard greens, so we'll have to find a non-toxic solution to get rid of them. Any suggestions are welcome.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Photos: Image Text Ithaca II

More photos from my stint as a Senior Fellow at Image Text Ithaca. You can find out more about this year's excellent program here.

Ben and Ben reviewing
possible book options
Claudia Rankine's template 
Detail of one of Claudia's images
(Christine Hume and Andre
Bradley in the image)

Viewing the falling photoshoot
Watching the shoot 
Photographs in the walled pool area
People preparing for the photoshoot
Lucas Blaylock and
his large format camera
At the symposium: Daniel Augschöll
and Anya Jasbar presenting their work 
Tonya Foster presenting her
multimedia piece
Christine Hume, reading 
A still from the piece Claudia and
the interns co-created
A still from Ching-In Chen
and Jen Hyde's collaborative piece 
Andre Bradley depicted in a still
from Catherine Taylor's and Nick Muellner's
collaborative piece 
Ching-In Chen, Jen Hyde, Claudia
Rankine and Matvei Yankelevitch
answering questions after their presentations



Friday, July 10, 2015

Photos: Image Text Ithaca

I'm currently at Image Text Ithaca, an extraordinary weeklong immersion in art-text collaboration at Ithaca College (organized by Catherine Taylor and Nick Muellner), and have been going nonstop since I arrived, so I haven't had an opportunity to post any thoughts about the experience. But it has been energizing and freeing, in so many ways. I present on two of my projects--I have many more in mind--today. Below are some photos from the week so far. Enjoy!

"We are programmed by colors." - Matvei Yankelevich
"The book is a physical object." - Matvei Yankelevich

On the patio at the barn
Preparatory conversations
Photographers chatting
The barn
Downstairs
Lunchtime
Talking about projects
Conversations unfolding
Working together
Photographing prep
Designing books
Examining photographs
Work underway
Creating
Conversations between photographers
Creating away
One of my books

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Book Launch III @ McNally Jackson + Flavorwire/WSJ/Time Out Reviews & Picks

Last night marked the last and final leg of my launch of Counternarratives. At McNally Jackson Bookstore in Manhattan, I read and participated in a conversation with the super-smart writer and Harper's New Books columnist Christine Smallwood. The room was packed, so many friends, colleagues and former students were there, and the dialogue with Christine, whom I'd never met before but am glad to have had the opportunity to chat with, was lively, in no small part because of Christine's excellent questions, and, I hope for those present, entertaining and informative. We also sold a great number of books!

Many, many thanks to Alice Whitwham and Valerie Slaughter at McNally Jackson and to the store; to Christine Smallwood again for her extraordinary review of Counternarratives and for participating last night; to New Directions for making the book and this event possible; and to everyone who has supported me in any and every way along the way, including by attending these three readings. I hope to see friends and readers who could not attend at events down the road, and I'll post future reading dates as those firm up (there are several under plan for this fall)! Again, thanks so much!

Some photos (all by C):

Reading
A sliver of the audience
Christine Smallwood and I in conversation

Signing books 
Signing (never loses its thrill)
+++

From the delightful artist Kate Gavino's Tumblr site, Last Night's Reading:



Check out her Tumblr blog for many more readings and writers!

+++

More good news on the reviews and book selection front. First, on Flavorwire Jonathan Sturgeon selected Counternarratives as one of its "15 Best Works of Fiction of 2015 So Far"! I will simply quote the entire blurb, which is about as good as these mini-reviews get.

Richly conceived and brilliantly executed, the most original set of fictions to be released so far this year, John Keene’s Counternarratives does for American literature what Alexander Kluge’s fiction has done for German literature — it reopens its future by laying bare its ideological roots. The long narrative “An Outtake From the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” which documents the lost story of a runaway slave — as if this story were cut from Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history — is a masterpiece of short fiction.
I particularly love the mention of Kluge, who is one of my favorite writers, and whose work I've written about many times and even translated on this blog.

Second, critic Sam Sacks delivered a strong affirmation in his June 26, 2015 Wall Street Journal review of Counternarratives. Pairing his discussion of the story collection with Iranian writer Bahiyyah Nakhjavani's novel The Woman Who Read Too Much (Redwood, 2015), which he praises highly, Sacks says of Counternarratives
He exerts superb control over his stories, costuming them in the style of Jorge Luis Borges as dispassionate archival documents—found diaries, newspaper clippings, obscure scholarly texts; Carmel’s story is literally structured as a footnote to a reference work on early American Catholicism. Yet Mr. Keene preserves the undercurrent of excitement and pathos that accompanies his characters’ persecution and their gropings toward freedom. The book’s post-colonial angle may not be wholly new, but storytelling prowess is something that never grows old.

First Kluge, now Borges. That's empyrean company!

Last, the exemplary folks at Park Slope Community Bookstore, which hosted my first launch reading, selected Counternarratives for Time Out New York's list of "15 books you should read this summer." Again, fantastic company, with wordsmiths of the highest caliber, including Naomi Jackson (whose debut book The Star Side of Bird Hill just appeared from Penguin), Celeste Ng, Siri Hustvedt, Kamel Daoud, Neil Gaiman, and Ian McEwan.

Thanks a gazillion to these reviewers and listmakers! I'll keep knocking on wood, and I ask that you keep reading and telling people about Counternarratives.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Supreme Court Affirms Obamacare & Marriage Equality

In this March 23, 2010, photo, President Barack Obama
signs the Affordable Care Act in the East Room
of the White House in Washington.
 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
This year's Supreme Court of the United States session is nearly over, but the court has just issued two major decisions that will resonate for years to come. In the first, in a 6-3 decision to King v. Burwell, a lawsuit brought by four conservative plaintiffs to challenge the legality of subsidies for people buying plans on the federal Affordable Care Act--a/k/a Obamacare--exchanges, the court ruled in favor of the landmark law. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who had previously voted with the majority in the 2012 case NIHIB v Sibelius to uphold Obamacare's mandate as a tax, again wrote the winning decision, stating that the ambiguous wording of the statute, "established by the state," should be understood in light of Congress's intentions, which were that the subsidies should not be limited to state-established exchanges, but were legally extendable to the federal ones as well. Roberts was joined in his decision by Associate Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy, and Sonia Sotomayor. Dissenting were conservative Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

As a result, not only will the 6 million+ people in danger of losing their subsidies retain them, but this ruling effectively ensures the existence of Obamacare through the end of the President's term. What is also clear is that given its proven successes of providing health insurance to 16 million new people through the state and federal exchanges, and of guaranteeing coverage for over 160 million by striking the pre-existing condition bar, it very well may become as popular, despite its multiple market-friendly, neoliberal components, as prior social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid now are. This, along with the taxes levied on high income owners has been, I think, one of the major reasons behind the conservative hatred of the law. The other major one was, despite its origins in and similarities to early 1990s Congressional Republican health care plans and to the state plan Mitt Romney successfully implemented in Massachusetts, the fact that this marked a major legislative victory by President Obama.

One effect of the ruling I noted was that in those states that faced challenges in rolling out local exchanges, shifting to the federal exchange was now a viable option, thereby federalizing the law even more through the back door. Whether this will lead eventually to Medicare-for-all or, even better from a logistical and economic standpoint, a form of single payer health insurance, remains to be seen. But the President was right to point out that as this ruling ratified Obamacare for the near term; it is here to stay, and in the loss, the Republicans dodged a major bullet, since they had no viable, comparable health insurance plan to speak of. Even conservative journalists had begun to question some Republican leaders on this fact. Now they won't have to devise one; it already exists, and is working.

One final thing I'll say is that it struck me that a bit of literary critical study--or even basic reading comprehension--could have led the court to reject this challenge outright. "The state" in common parlance certainly does mean an individual state, as in "the state of New Jersey, like all others in the US, issues drivers' licences." However, "the state" also has the popular meaning of "nation" or "federal entity." It's not just the literary gambit of William Shakespeare writing of"something [being] rotten in the state of Denmark," but regular invocations of "state violence" or "the state's overreach," etc., that point to this other meaning being valid. Thus it strikes me that the Congress's alleged inartfulness was actually quite clever; in those four words, they had already made their case, and all that was needed was careful reading, which Roberts and the five other justices gave the law. Dissenting conservative Associate Justice Scalia disagreed, in spiteful fashion, but what else is new?

***

Black lesbian couple marrying
on beach (BlackEnterprise.com)
Not to be outdone with the Obamacare decision, on LGBTIQ+ Pride Weekend in New York City, the Supreme Court affirmed, in a 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and several other linked cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, that according to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, same-sex marriage was a federal right for all Americans under the Equal Protection clause. The opinion, written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, cited equal protection and due process, and effectively federalized same-sex marriage, which only 15 years ago existed in one state, Massachusetts. Kennedy's decision, joined by Associate Justices Breyer, Bader Ginsburg,  Kagan, and Sotomayor, was the culmination of decades of work by marriage equality activists and theorists.

As Huffington Post notes:
In the majority opinion, the justices outlined several reasons same-sex marriage should be allowed. They wrote that the right to marriage is an inherent aspect of individual autonomy, since "decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make." They also said gay Americans have a right to "intimate association" beyond merely freedom from laws that ban homosexuality. 
Extending the right to marry protects families and "without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser," the justices wrote.
In response to the ruling, each of the judges on the losing side, Chief Justice Roberts Jr., and Associate Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas, wrote separate dissents, some of them extreme in their rhetoric. Roberts cited problematic historical precedents; Alito wondered whether people who disagreed with same sex marriage would be discriminated against; Scalia harshly mocked Kennedy's opinion and writing style, while seemingly approving sexual liberationist rhetoric; and Thomas, perhaps most offensively, wondered whether enslaved and interned people did not still maintain their dignity, thereby calling for continued discrimination.

The ruling could have been narrower; Kennedy could have found only for cross-state recognition of marriages performed by a state that had legalized same-sex marriage in ones that had not, but the ruling not only ratified that principle, but also legalization in states that had overtly passed anti-marriage equality statutes. The case's lead plaintiff, Ohioan James Obergefell, had married his late partner of three decades, John Arthur, who passed away 3 months later, and had sought to be listed as Arthur's spouse on his death certificate.

Kennedy's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized state laws against sodomy--in its same and opposite sexual forms--was an important step in the decade and a half-long process towards marriage equality. Another step came in 2013, when the court struck down the odious 1996 Defense of Marriage (DOMA) law, which the GOP-led Congress had passed and President Bill Clinton had signed into law. The decision also tracked the shift towards public support of same-sex marriage, which currently stands at 60% (Gallup), after having been as low as 44% (vs. 53% against) only a decade ago, and 27% back in 1996 when DOMA passed. A major component of this cultural and political shift has occurred because of younger Americans, who show higher levels of LGBTIQ acceptance than their elders.


Despite the significance of the ruling, numerous challenges for LGBTIQ people remain. First, there is no guarantee--despite the legal ruling that some recalcitrant states will apply the laws as required, without visible or invisible resistance. (State responses to various civil rights laws and rulings offer a precedent.) In addition, a number of the leading GOP candidates have called for resistance to the ruling, and several, such as Mike Huckabee, have called for a Constitutional Amendment to counter the new status quo. Perhaps more importantly, in a majority of states, as NPR noted in April, it is still legal to discriminate against LGBTIQ people, or those thought to fall under this category, in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Surprisingly to me, many people, including many queer people, seem not to grasp this. To put it another way, you can now get married to a person of the same sex in Mississippi, but if you live in a municipality that does not offer civil protections, you can be fired, lose your apartment, and be denied a hotel room! You also may risk losing custody of your children as well.

I should also note that there will be increasing pressure on LGBTIQ peeople to marry and thereby (homo)normalize our relationships, a push counter to the gay liberation ethos of the 1970s and early 1980s, in which LGBTIQ people sought to define ourselves as we saw fit, against and outside the demands of oppressive heteronormativity. Not only will innovative and distinctive forms of domestic arrangement between consenting adults become frowned upon, but legal possibilities such as domestic partnerships and civil unions, which my partner and I have, may also be phased out, forcing LGBTIQ people into the same narrowed options as heterosexuals. While this may be fine for some--many?-- homonormative people it may not fit for all, and while I personally and strongly support the legalization of same-sex marriage and support marriage equality under the law, I also believe consenting adults should not be restrained by such laws in creating relationships that work for them. The question no longer may be whether the state will recognize alternative relationship possibilities, but whether LGBTIQ people will sanction them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Amazon to Pay by Page Turn + WORD Jersey City Reading

The behemoth strikes again. By behemoth, I mean Amazon, the global retailing corporation that also is the world's largest bookstore, and a major force in contemporary (American) publishing. According to a Monday report in The Guardian, the most recent big news in the annals of Amazon's publishing ventures involves its decision to start paying writers based on page turns. Page turns! This policy won't, however, affect all authors whose ebooks are available on Amazon. Yet. Right now it applies only to self-published authors whose books appear in Amazon's Kindle Owner's Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited services. But it portends a shift in publishing that writers may want to pay attention to.

Amazon, as a book publisher, originally paid self-published authors royalties once a customer read 10% of an ebook. This unfairly penalized authors of longer works (compare a 600 page novel to a 60 page novella, or long form essay), who got nothing if readers stopped reading before the royalty trigger. Some authors then decided to start dividing up works into shorter pieces to ensure their royalties, leading to a potential flood of material--or more than already exists--on Amazon's site. So Amazon came up with a new plan to address the problem, as well as a system to normalize the meaning of "page" in ebooks and what counts as "reading it"; think time spent on the page, standardized fonts, and so on.

In The Guardian, Amazon says of its rationale,
We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read. Under the new payment method, you’ll be paid for each page individual customers read of your book, the first time they read it.
In other words, if you write that 600 page novel and someone reads it all the way through, you'll be paid more than the author of a 60 page novella. But if a reader gives up 10% of the way through the longer book (i.e., 60 pages), both of you will earn the same. It should also be noted that the payments will come from a limited, dedicated pool of money Amazon calculates on a monthly basis--based on total sales?--so authors will be competing against each other directly for royalties.

As I noted previously in a February post on ebooks and surveillance, this is part of the advancing corporate intrusion into what had previously been for centuries a private experience; since the advent of silent reading of codex books, no one truly knew how much or in what ways you read. With e-reader tracking, this information is readily accessible by all e-book publishers. E-devices, however, can now track you down to how far you get into a book, what you reread, and where you stop reading, as many readers do with many books. These activities are being commodified and financialized, quietly in the cases of the e-reader companies themselves, but overtly now with Amazon's new move.

In my earlier post I also suggested, following the lead of Francine Prose, who wrote about e-reader tracking in The New York Review of Books, that this surveillance and the data resulting from it would begin to reshape how some authors imagined their work, which is to say, their aesthetics. It's a direct line from anticipating, based on data, what will draw readers, to feeling pressure to write based on what will generate page views--and turns--and then from there to publishers' demands to do so. Longer books with each element shaped by data about what keeps readers turning pages...of course this is something some authors may grasp intuitively, and some books that fit this criterion are very well written, and true works of art.

But the write-by-the-numbers approach could also have disastrous effects on literary production, while also further breaking down the already shaky publishing system's financial base. This may sound like dystopian view of things, but we have, as I pointed out, the example of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. If no one ever reads a book to the end or stops halfway through most books, most authors will earn even less than they already do. And as the examples of the journalistic and music industries show, will any but a very few earn a fair and liveable amount for their creative labor?  The lure of market-based thinking is a strong one these days. Amazon is a apex predator corporation, and other publishers, especially the bigger ones, will feel the need to follow Amazon's lead.

Put the two together...well, let's write that horror film another time.

***

Many thanks to everyone who came out to last night's reading at WORD Bookstore in Jersey City! Thanks also to everyone at WORD, especially Caitlin and Zach, for making the reading possible. It was energizing to see a healthy crowd, filled with so many familiar faces, and to be able to share with a live audience something I hadn't yet read aloud--the final pages of "Rivers"--from Counternarratives.  

Also, thanks to WORD for having a good number of copies of Counternarratives in stock, and to everyone who bought a copy. I have one more New York area reading, on July 1, before heading off to Ithaca for Image Text Ithaca, so please come out to McNally-Jackson Bookstore, where I'll be reading and participating in a conversation with Christine Smallwood!

If you are in Jersey City, make sure to stop by WORD, which is at 123 Newark Ave., just steps away from the Grove Street PATH station. A few photos: