Sunday, January 29, 2012

Apologies + J's Theater Gets Cited in Putin Critique + My Former Agent, Redux

First, my sincere apologies to all J's Theater readers for the typos that pop up here too frequently. I try to be meticulous about these entries, but I've found it's gotten more difficult reading and reviewing material on a laptop screen--though not on the iPad, which has a higher resolution, or on printed texts, such as books, students' manuscripts, or my own critical and creative work, which I always print out and edit by hand, with a pencil or pen--and when I rush to produce these (because have to limit the time I devote to these entries given my workload), the typos abound. I often do update my entries when I spot one or two (as with yesterday's post on "Blogs vs. Term Papers," when C spotted a typo in the first paragraph), and if you spot any gross ones or errors of any sort, please don't hesitate to post a comment or correction. Again, my sincere apologies, and thanks for reading!


Yesterday evening I was reading an article by Alexander Nazaryan in The New York Daily News, on a proposed "reading list" drafted by Russia's current and potentially future President, the beefcake strongman Vladimir Putin, that to Nazaryan's eye represents an extremely dangerous, nationalistic attempt at social engineering of the kind that prevailed in Russia before the fall of the Soviet Union. (He points out too that prior Russian governments, under the Tsars, also had censors, prescribed and proscribed writing, and punished violators.) But Putin goes further in the direction of ethnocentrism and racism when he basically suggests that for Russian to prosper, it must not only have ideological coherence (i.e., be under the boot of whatever Putin and his allies want), but ethnic social and cultural coherence as well--does this sound familiar?--and that a common literary canon will help to ensure this.

Putin lays out his ideas in a turgid essay entitled "Russian: The Ethnicity Issue," which basically rejects multiculturalism and pluralism in favor of Russian cultural nationalism, and, Nazaryan notes, includes the following inflammatory rhetoric:
The Russian people and Russian culture are the linchpin, the glue that binds together this unique civilization...this kind of civilizational identity is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture.
As I said, do this rhetoric and discourse ring any bells? Nazaryan's article would interest me in and of itself, but I ask you to keep reading further into it, for he cites the case of how a group of nationalistic, pro-Putin thugs, organized into a group titled Walking Together (a priceless name, really), burned the books and threatened the life of one of Russia's most important and path-breaking authors, Vladimir Sorokin (1955-), based on his 1999 controversial, experimental novel Goluboe Salo (Blue Lard).*

As part of his discussion of the Sorokin issue, he cites...J'S THEATER!!! Yes, this little blog makes an appearance as part of Nazaryan's critique, and he specifically cites my discussion of Sorokin's Blue Lard, which, as I've mentioned before, has not yet been translated into English, in part because of its linguistic difficulty.  That post has taken on a life of its own, I should add. First, a scholar working writing about the complexities of translating the book wrote to me and sent me a copy of her paper on the topic, and then, this fall, a young scholar writing a dissertation (I believe) was able to connect with the professor after coming across the post. But back to Nazaryan, his main point is that a great deal of Russian literature--one of the world's treasures, especially over the least 150 years--let alone other literary traditions, would challenge the narrow ideological and cultural prescriptions of someone like Putin, and so it won't make the list. Putin cites what appears to be a combination of Mortimer Adler's Great Books Program and Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, but in the cases of both, as excessively Eurocentric as they are, they do not suggest only one ideological and certainly not one nationalistic approach. Nazaryan mentions that a Muscovite is wondering whether the works of George Orwell will make the list, to which Nazaryan replies, "No, he won’t." I though the query was ironic and perhaps sarcastic. But not only would Orwell not pass muster, nor would a great deal of Russia's 20th century writers. Would any of its major poets or fiction writers other than the Socialist Realists clear the bar? What foreign writers would?  It very well could be a short list, a short list indeed.

I often wish that more people would comment on this blog--though not the spammers, who once threatened to overwhelm the comments section--and do often wonder if anyone is reading it, but then I come across a citation like the one in Nazaryan's news article and realize, just because most of these posts meet with silence doesn't mean no one is reading them. So thank you, Mr. Nazaryan, and thank you to the regular and occasional readers!

*Can you imagine even the most extreme right wingers (or anyone on the far left, whatever that might be these days), organizing a book-burning and threatening the life of an American author of experimental literature? Sorokin's book, as I have discussed several times on this blog, is actually quite innovative, formally, linguistically, and thematically.  Most of Sorokin's work is not as formally experimental as Blue Lard, but having read several of his works in English translation--the hilarious The Queue, the utterly chilling and horrifying Ice, and its strange follow-up Bro Says, part of the Ice Trilogy--I can attest that his work always pushes the limits--formal, thematic, structural, political--in some way or other. Jonathan Franzen and the mainstream of contemporary American literature it is not!


(Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)
As C put it last evening, I have come across some very interesting people in my lifetime. I'll admit it. So here's a little story about someone I knew once upon a time. When I was in graduate school at NYU I had a good friend, a lovely woman with whom I was in several fiction workshops and who has gone on to publish a novel to some acclaim. One day she introduced me to her boyfriend, a very friendly, enthusiastic, preppy young guy who was looking for clients for the literary agency he was working for. He read my first book, and became a fan. He was very supportive of my work, and I gave him several things to try to get published, but nothing came of it. I then would get the material published myself. This went on for a while, and while I always felt he was very encouraging, supportive, friendly, decent, a good person, he could not sell any of my work. He even once got some of my poems into the hands of the poetry editor of the New Yorker, who said that she was "holding them," but they were never published. I ended up submitting one for a prize, and, to my amazement, it won. (He did once hammer the editors at Out quite relentlessly, though, on behalf, so that I could paid for an article I'd written; they blithely held my check for as long as they could, which reminded me that being a freelance writer was not the way to go.) So we agreed to part company. I still thought very highly of him, and loved to hear about how successful he was with selling other people's work.

A few years down the pike, I heard over the grapevine that he and my friend had broken up, and that he was now seeing a guy. This surprised me, because I didn't think he was interested in men, though C had pegged this the first time they met. (My gaydar is often not very good with people I'm close to.) But more power to him and anyone coming to terms with who they are. His boyfriend was a filmmaker, and the boyfriend's first feature film appeared to some acclaim. I saw the film and found it quite disturbing because of the racist discourse in it. I won't go into it, but suffice it to say that a mixed-race character living in the South ends up striking out not against his white oppressors so much as against black people. Hmm. I have seen such crap all my life--though not as well-made as this film, I'll give it that--and really tire of it. At any rate, another friend told me that the agent was seeing this director, and my friend didn't think the film was so bad at first, until he later thought about it, and then agreed he wasn't a fan. Another friend told me that the agent was getting huge advances for his writers, who now included some very famous people, among them award-winning poets.  I ran into my former agent on the street around this time, and I believe we had a brief, pleasant conversation. That was that.

A few years later, I was reading the newspaper, and happened upon an article about my former agent, in which it was revealed that he had been a crack addict. A crack addict. I fell out of my chair. Literally. Not only that, but according to the article, he had burned all kinds of bridges, lost his clients, hit the skids professionally, gone through rehab (I think), regained old and new clients, and  was now writing a memoir, for which he had received a $350,000 or so (perhaps it was more, I'm too lazy to Google it) advance--as I said, he could score advances! The book's title was Portrait of Addict as a Young Man, riffing off James Joyce's similar, incomparable Bildungsroman, and when I told some undergraduate students that this book was coming out, I gather several thought I might be exaggerating in its title or particulars, though I assured them I was not. I subsequently came across excerpts of the work, which were both more lurid than I expected but yet not as outrageous as I imagined.  I also flipped through the book at the bookstore, but I have not purchased it. Another friend told me that my former agent, who had been quite friendly to him, cut him cold at an event; he wasn't sure why, or whether it had to do with my former agent's newfound fame. I actually did spot him, from a distance, one evening last winter or spring in Chelsea, but he was hailing a cab, so I didn't try to get his attention.

And then, yesterday, I was reading The New York Times, and saw on the front page an article about the distinguished editor, translator and poet Jonathan Galassi, who helms what one of the most prestigious publishing units in the United States, Farrar Straus & Giroux. Without a doubt FSG publishes many of the finest writers from the US and across the globe, and although it is no longer an independent house, it continues to operate like one, with a distinct and distinctive editorial approach, producing beautiful books of the highest quality. As is often the case with articles in the Times these days, the writeup by Charles McGrath functioned a bit like a combination of a gossip column, book review and a press release. In discussing Galassi's new book of poems, Left-Handed, it reveals that the subject matter of the book, a middle-aged man's ending his marriage to a woman and falling in love with a younger man, not exactly new in American or many another literary tradition, was also Galassi's personal life story.

The tone of the article, which I urge you to read, unfolds at a pitch one will find only in the Times; there is something almost prim about it, even as it vies to spill all the juicy details. It is especially interested in citing how Galassi is a member of the upper-middle-class, invoking Harvard College more than once (the Times has an obsession with my alma mater, news to no one), which is the main reason, along with Galassi's exalted position, that the Times even reported on it.  Truthfully, were he some random New York poet or even editor, and certainly were his skin brown, going through the same experiences, we wouldn't be reading about it in that newspaper. Fair enough. I immediately printed the article out and plan to show it to my LGBTQ class, along with Frank Bruni's piece on Cynthia Nixon's comments on "choosing" to be gay. And you thought we were in a "post-gay" world, did you?

So what does this have to do with my former agent? Well, lo and behold, if you read to the middle of the article, it turns out that the "younger man," who in the poetry book is named "Tom," probably was and is my former agent, and that this relationship provoked a real hubbub in the New York publishing world in 2007. How could it not? But it gets better. The former boyfriend filmmaker is now making a movie of my former agent's book too! So it will be onscreen at some point within the next few years, I gather.  And since the memoir appeared in 2010, and the affair treated in the poetry book occurred in 2007, I am wondering whether my former agent was still an addict as he was canoodling with the editor-poet? McGrath rather politely dares not go there.

We all have various bright lights crossing our horizon. For those of us who are creative, we might think that they belong in something we're creating, be it a book, a play, a film, a song. Whatever form is amenable. Often we will do so, whether we're conscious of it or not; lesser lights, and certainly family members, loved ones, you name it, enter our work in some way or fashion, and it might everyone except an astute reader or scholar who comes along years down the road.  When I try to reconcile what I recall of my former agent, a delightful but not especially wild person, I draw a blank when it comes to these later shenanigans. But he is now the subject of his own memoir, of a film, and, it seems, of a book of poems by a distinguished poet. (I am sure a novel featuring him is on the way too, by someone, and a play wouldn't be inconceivable either.) That is really something when you think of it.  Can any J's Theater readers think of another contemporary figure who has been so honored? In a book of POEMS? Also, the behavior described above would not be that unsurprising were we to be talking about many a writer throughout history.  But a literary agent? Talk about a first! At any rate, I do know that I'll be getting Mr. Galassi's book!


  1. OK, I have to study your post and also forward it around. The reason you don't get more comments is that your posts are so information rich - not frothy - so one wants to wait to comment until one has a serious comment - you know how it is.

  2. What is the movie with the mixed race character rejecting the Black parts of his identity? Must know.

  3. Profacero, thanks so much for commenting, and I take your appraisal to mind. The film is The Delta, by Ira Sachs. When I get another little moment of respite I plan to post about Sachs's new film, which is explores his life with the Former Agent, among other things.

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