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Book Review: The Art of the Publisher

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso. Farrar, Straux, Giroux. 2015.

In the American popular literary imagination, there are two kinds of book publishers—both are placed behind the kind of iron mask where we put the business side, scraped and denuded of human qualities, or generative creativity, and put where we put our silver spoon or scrappy-capitalists like P.T. Barnum and Pulitzer—the publisher has the charm, the business acumen, the taste, but most importantly of all—the capital. Within this category though there are two publishers—the small, hyper-literary “independents” who naggingly remind us how independent and precarious and unique they are and how they’re the only ones who care about books and “real” literature in some ever-fading literary ecosystem, and whose houses we celebrate, but who make us privately anxious, because we know that these houses are the cast shadows of a single person or a couple or family and haven’t yet become fortressed corporate institutions, built to survive death, divorce and bankruptcy—the frightening thing about “the independents” is when that brave eccentric soul gets sick, goes into debt, goes crazy, or becomes tired of doing it, the quiet labors of many people could be lost to both the present and posterity.

The other publisher, in our imagination, is at one of the Big Five. They are a scion of one of those good kinds of Old Money Northeastern family where mum and dad taught culture, how to be a good friend and citizen, and these pretty young children were ingrained with values other than wealth accumulation or survival. They wear a suit, they have impeccable taste and manners, but to the writers and the others below them, they are somewhat faceless.

In this reductive dream, the writer fears the publisher as one fears a kind but symbolic authoritarian father, and knows that he or she must appropriately represent what this distant tyrant expects. The publisher has a deep respect for the artistic temperament and the generational myth of the creative individual and wants to be associated with writers and intellectuals and culture, therefore it is in everyone’s best interest for each to fully inhabit and embody their social roles.

The Clock (2010)

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

                —Jesus, according to the Gospel of Thomas

There are some people who will talk but will never do it. They will plan and be inveterate schemers but they’re waiting for a day that might never come. So many different ways to get derailed along the way. We continue to climb up this mountain past the wreckage of so many who have tried and failed. So many who have given up and will fall off. So many ways to be ruined:

You can talk a big game but never put in the effort.
You can plan to do it but then you get sidetracked and die.
You can sell yourself for money and then be too tired to pursue your dream.

You can scatter yourself with haphazard and cheap endeavors, trying to do too much, your energy scattered. You hope that one will sprout and save you, and are bitter when it doesn’t.

You can never achieve synthesis.

You can find a great person to spend your life with and decide that having a family and raising children is your true life.

You can overdo what you do and oversaturate others.

You can underdo it and have people tell you “It’s so great” but you’re secretly dissatisfied because you know you could have done better, could have done more.

You can be tragically born in the wrong time, like anyone who’s attempting a career as a poet in the late 20th and 21st century.

The Rush to get good at something, to become something! Always goals that lead to becoming something more! If only I read a couple more books or went to the psychologist to help me out with my problems or learned a new language or if this person loved me or if I marketed myself in my life differently everything would be different. This empty longing to become a more complete person. Better to just turn up the gain and volume knobs on what you already are. There is something unique genetically preprogrammed inside—all the words, all your achievements, all your failings, your life and death already written inside of you, seared onto your spirit. The problem is learning how to awaken it from its long slumber.

You can play little tricks on yourself in order to get blood from the stone of your life.

You can get a job you don’t care about so you can have to the time to work on what you’re really committed to.

You can pursue your passion without compromise or preoccupation at the end of the day—you do what you love without the nauseating scent of commerce.

You can continue with some horrible situation so you can have a repository of blame for all your easy self-distraction.

You can move into a nice, quiet house without distractions and are forced to confront your own shortcomings, and then either overcome them or fall victim to them. There’s nowhere else to place the blame. Once you’re in the good situation, it seems hard to go backwards, to regress back into the old. The hard questions that everyone is looking to answers to. But they’re looking in all the same places for answers—jobs, grad school, relationships, therapy—Why aren’t you becoming what you are? What’s the excuse this year?

I used to stay up all night doing nothing just biting my fingernails and watching my life pass. I would grab for any frame of reference to hold on to, which at the time meant books written by dead people who were about my same age. First novels—The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, This Side of Paradise, Other Voices Other Rooms, anything by a writer heading in their mid-20s. I would flicker through the Wikipedia pages of the authors–Stein, Baldwin, Hemingway, Wolfe, Didion, Capote, and look at their birthday, then scroll down in the biography and try to find what they were doing when they were my age. What they were doing was what I felt I should be doing. But what I was doing was so much different than what they were doing. Most of them were already grown-ups at 24. Most were married, they had been to war, they had worked steadily at many jobs, they had written articles and their first books. I didn’t know what to do or where to start with my life so instead I just voyeur their lives, looking for it to provide some kind of guidance to my present. Capote had already finished books, as had Fitzgerald. Wolfe didn’t do anything until he was 29, but it packed all the steam and emotion of 29 years into one great masterpiece. Hemingway put out a couple of measly stories and poems, the featherweight of the group, but hell, he was still published. Most didn’t get really revved up until they were about 25. I guess for a lot of people that’s when life really starts to set in—when you’ve explored your options and it’s time to start working on the thing that you’re going to do. I had some time, just a little bit, but what was I procrastinating for? Why as I obsessing over the milemarkers of the dead? I never thought so much about time as when I was twenty-three, feeling like I was standing on the cusp of something big and horrible— ADULTHOOD—and hoping that I would think about it less as it went on. I was playing a matching game—looking at their timing, their years and matching it with mine. What I know now is that age is just a number. As Gorilla Biscuits put it, you can start today. The problem is that of being defeated at to early an age, or having a limited amount of willpower and spirit that has to be rationed through your life with respect to your artistic pursuit. You can blow your load when you’re young, but accept that you will probably die young. The willpower is depleted by jobs, school, relationship, excessive masturbation. Without willpower, you don’t have the drive necessary to do your ideas justice—you slump out over your computer. There are benefits and drawbacks to the different approaches, a million little tricks and routines to maintain willpower— you can live outside it all with cheap rent and an easy job which provides you plenty of time for artistic pursuit but at some point you will be faced with the daunting prospects of either making art all day or losing your self-confidence because you feel like you’re doing nothing with your life. Or you can work and work on your art in the in-between periods, at night, in the morning. There’s also the problem of living in the city, this great core of human energy and willpower, but filled with so much culture that you have to beat away other people’s stuff with a stick—it’s hard to separate voyeuring what they’re doing from focusing on what you’re doing.


   "One day, maybe soon. 

   One day I’ll uproot the anchor that keeps my ship far from the seas. 

   With the sort of courage that’s needed to be nothing and nothing but nothing, I’ll let loose what seemed indissolubly close to me. 

   I’ll carve it up, I’ll knock it down, I’ll smash it, I’ll give it a shove. 

   All at once disgorging my miserable modesty, my miserable schemes and “needle and thread” chains. 

   Drained of the abscess of being someone, I’ll drink nourishing space again. 

   Striking with absurdity, with degradation (what is degradation?), by explosion, by void, by a total dissipation-derision-purgation, I’ll oust from myself the form they believed was so well connected, compounded, coordinated, suited to my entourage and to my counterparts, so respectable, my so respectable counterparts. 

   Reduced to a catastrophe’s humility, to a perfect levelling as after a big scare. 

   Dragged down beyond measure from my actual rank, to a low rank that I don’t know what idea-ambition made me abandon. 

   Annihilated in pride, in reputation. 

   Lost in a far off place (or not), without name, without identity. 

   CLOWN, demolishing amidst laughter, amidst grotesqueness, amidst guffaws, the opinion which against all evidence I’d formed of my importance. 

   I’ll dive. 

Without a cent into the underlying infinite-spirit open to everything, 

open myself to a new and unbelievable dew 

by force of being null 

and blank… 

and laughable…"

–Henri Michaux

The Anxiety Caused By Being in Two Minds

“When one has gone on being in two minds for long enough then fickleness (Luke 12:29) takes over the reins. Perhaps it had for a while seemed as if the state of being in two minds still contained the tension that is needed for choosing and therewith the possibility of choosing. That has now been used up (if it was ever there) and the pagan soul has become slack and it becomes clear what that period of indecision really concealed. For as long as one is in two minds, a certain power is still needed to manage one’s thoughts, and while one is trying to make up one’s mind, one is trying to be master of one’s own house by organizing one’s thoughts. But now the reins of office have been taken over by thoughts that know no master but only the impulse of the moment. Impulsiveness is the master now, also in relation to the question of choosing God. At one moment, an impulse moves the pagan to think that it would be best to choose God, but then at another, it is something else, and then some third thing. But these movements—which mean nothing—acquire no meaning and leave no trace, apart from increasing their lethargy and slackness. Imagine a sluggish pool of stagnant water in which a bubble slowly rises to the surface and emptily bursts—that is how the fickle mind bubbles with impulses and then repeats the same thing again. And so when one has gone on being fickle for long enough (which naturally, leaves one drained of blood and enervated, as all ungodly rulers do) disconsolateness takes over the reins of power. Where previously the pagans had wanted to get rid of the idea of God, they now want to sink down into worldly emptiness and try to forget, to forget what is the most dangerous because also the most uplifting of all thoughts—namely, the remembrance of God or that one exists before God. For when one wants to sink down, what is more dangerous than what wants to raise one up? They think that they have now cured their pain, chased all imaginary ideas away and learned to find consolation. Ah! But there it is: it is much as when someone who has sunk very low says by way of comforting himself to someone who reminds him of something higher (oh horrible comfortlessness!), “Let me pass for what I am.” 

The light of spirit is extinguished, a soporific mist clouds the vision, nothing is worth taking an interest in and yet such people don’t want to die but to go on living as what they are. To dissolve in that way is horrific; it is worse than the dissolution undergone in death: it is to rot away while one lives, without even the strength to despair over oneself and one’s condition. The light of the spirit is extinguished and such disconsolate persons become crazily busy about all manner of things as long as nothing reminds them of God. They slave away from morning til night, making money, putting it aside, keeping things moving, and if you talk to them you will hear them constantly saying that this is the serious business of life. Oh frightful seriousness, it would almost be better to lose one’s mind.”

-Kierkegaard, "The Anxiety Caused By Being in Two Minds"

Big Hands sighting on New Yorker blog

Work from Copenhagen

I did some pieces at the COP15 Conference, mostly about the panels, the alternative climate summit, and the protests. This is a little directory: my pieces up on Audubon Magazine, Huffington Post, and N + 1.

Printable PDF of “Unemployment” zine

Printable PDF of Unemployment Zine (9.1 MB)–Print copies available from Microcosm at Microcosm Publishing



When the excavators uncover the fantastic ruins and archeological remains, they will gasp at our last poses; our grimacing visage frozen forever like a Polaroid in black molten lava–thin waifish young men crouched under long boards to protect themselves from the fiery onslaught, post-Slacker jaws agape and Christ-like hair pulled straight backwards like a solid wave. We will walk in museum awe beside the preserved and labeled human forms, the androgynous male/female pairs standing in awkward contrappostos holding clay-sculpted medium iced coffees. The Kias, Subarus and Zip cars all scattershot through the street, their drivers facial features reduced to the simplicity of stone golems–two charcoal holes for eyes and a contorted, gaping line for a mouth, a maw-like cave opening in the death masque–a car accident was inevitable, cancer, of course, a bad fall, alright–but who expected this?

The businesses and box store logos are indistinguishable now, the commercial details lost, like in the folds of those sensational and decadent Christo wrappings from a past epoch. The commerce corridors and bland two-story buildings are drawn across the landscape like some dusty unbroken plateau, blank now without the freshness of products and fluorescence, no longer containing within them the certainty of a mutually beneficial interaction between the buyer and the seller. No more cell phone rings or soothing background music, no more "Welcome to Chipotle, what can I get for you?" No more gushing conversations about gluten, soy, and vegan ingredients in the co-op grocery line. Now, just the dusty silence of the dead earth, the sound of shoots of weeds sprouting up after long rains. The Revivalist City Hall looks canonized and dignified, like a chocolate-covered holiday mold of some Roman temple. There’s no more government to run, no more order to keep, no more deficit to close, no more media to wrangle. The faces of the last bureaucrats (not that there were many of them in crunchy, "Keep Portland weird", where suits simply weren't worn) look the most disappointed of all–they had built up the tax base by attracting the mobile, left-leaning white middle-class interested from distant cities with the lure of white picket fences and vegan restaurants. They had put in bicycle lanes and installed gold public water fountains, and made it really easy to get food stamps. They instituted all the modest policy ephemera of the welfare state, but perhaps no one was more disappointed by the end than these policy wonks who thought that human happiness could be achieved by a liberal tweaking of the framework.

All of the urban farming initiatives and afterschool programs, dust. All the water conservation plans and the biodiesel filling stations, the energy efficient refrigerators and automatic shut-off hand dryers and sinks, dust. All the recycling trucks and gyms and healthy organic food, dust. “Rose City” imprisoned forever in black rock and muck like some child's massive LEGO construction that got caught in a house fire–smeared and melted plastic faces, whole record collections, money, useless. The excavators who declare the site archaeologically sensitive will never know our brand names or quite understand what we were looking at inside those thin little boxes with cords coming out on tables that so many of us perished in front of, staring into with blank faces, trapped in cryogenesis.