Self Pity and Other Works of Art

Being of Sound Mind and Body

My grandmother, who raised me, used to joke about the Will she’d leave behind. It would say: Being of sound mind and body I spent it all.

Nice People

My father died this summer. We were and weren’t close. We saw each other maybe once a year. With the invention of email, we eventually kept up a regular correspondence, but only talking politics. He was a beautiful writer but his clean and concise prose went into translating technical documents from German into English. He wrote with greater clarity and concision than I do, but he had no gift for creative writing. (To his dying day he was correcting my grammar.) If there’s such a thing as tone-deafness as regards poetry, he had it. Might as well sell a raincoat in the desert than give him a poem. He may have read a handful of novels. I don’t know. He loved the precision of Kafka’s prose for Kafka’s flawless German. He also had a copy of the 1001 Nights translated by Richard F. Burton. As far as I know he didn’t read a single story. He kept them because of Burton’s introduction. Burton skewered the moral pretensions of translators who delicately edited out the best parts of the 1001 Nights—understood to be the uninhibited erotic parts. Of which there are many. My father, and his parents who raised me, detested nice people. I was never sure what they meant but they probably meant the kind of nice people who Richard Burton dismantled. To be on the safe side, I decided to dislike everyone; which is to say, I’m an introvert. I deeply get Wednesday Addams (if you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Netflix series). People are exhausting, especially nice people.

Stories

When my father died I finally realized that I probably would too. I looked at my possessions and thought to myself: What in the hell are you thinking? Why am I buying anything? I’ll probably be dead in another twenty to thirty years—maybe sooner. Who knows? The thought of death doesn’t disturb me at all. The thought of all my possessions? Deeply disturbing. What’s the point? But my most valued possessions are my stories; and I’m going to give those away as generously as I can. Those stores include some from my family. I’ve already snuck some of them into my novels and poems.

Don’t you want to say, Hello?

My grandmother grew up in a family of ten children equally divided between girls and boys. Two of the boys, my Uncles, were bomber pilots in World War II. There was a rule that if a pilot flew ten or twenty (I can’t remember) sorties, then they wouldn’t have to fly any more. There was also a rule that relatives couldn’t fly on the same plane. My Uncles George and Bill both had one more flight and decided, violating all the rules, that they would fly their last sortie together. They were shot down by the Germans and captured.

Being Pilots/Officers, they were, initially at least, valuable POWs.

The German interrogator brought them in, one by one. You’re both Kremers he would say. Good German names! Why are you fighting against your fatherland? But George and Bill would only answer with their names, ranks and serial numbers. This must have gone on for several days and the interrogator decided that maybe he could play each against the other. Bill had the character of Bob Hope, ready with a quip, gregarious and a lady’s man. George was the quiet, serious and stone-faced brother.

The interrogator brought them both in.

He sat behind his broad desk. Bill and George were marched out and each stood quietly facing the interrogator. They stared straight ahead, neither acknowledging the other. They knew better. Behind the interrogator was a blond bombshell, the kind of uniformed blond bombshell that’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. The interrogator said to George, who was standing next to Bill: Don’t you want to say, Hello? George answered giving his name, rank and serial number. The interrogator impatiently turned to Bill and asked: Don’t you want to say, hello?

Bill turned to the blonde bombshell and said: “I’m Bill. I didn’t catch your name.”

And as the family story has it, George sighed heavily exclaimed in exasperation: “He means me, Bill!”

Sticky Fingers

I decide to go for a walk and, wouldn’t you know, here comes the Devil the opposite way. That’s the Devil’s way, always to go the opposite way. He’s mumbling to himself and throwing up his left hand, now and again, as though shooing away whatever thoughts are nipping at his heels. For no good reason, he carries a cane behind his back.

“Up to no good?” I ask.

“You might expect as much,” he sighs.

“Best laid plans?” I ask.

“A mouse!” he shouts, then as though confiding: “There is not a single mouse in hell. Did you know? There are cats and dogs, but no mice. What does that tell you?” His expression changes to one of disappointment. “I nabbed another soul. A wretched soul. A selfish and petty soul. She loved no one and was a benefit to none.” He inhaled, held his breath, eyes closed, as though savoring a newly poured glass of chardonnay. “She detested children. Horrid little things. She lived alone, hoarded her wealth, hid it away where no one would find it. She was a mintage coined from my own heart.”

“You have one?”

“Does the nightshade have berries?”

“What about children?” I ask.

“Yes,” the Devil sniffs, “but only in hell to torment their parents.”

“Why so glum?”

“God!” shouts the Devil with a disgusted flourish of his hand, then calmly adds: “He of unbounded love and beneficence. Couldn’t leave well enough alone. What should happen to the old shrew’s house but God, in his bounty, makes a gift of it (of course the selfish old bat didn’t have an heir). A couple with their newly adopted child bought the house at auction—for a song and a dance. God’s reward for their good deeds. But that’s not enough. God elaborates. He sends them a stray puppy. A puppy! Nauseating. But it was the nice thing to do. And to celebrate their gratitude to God, they bake him a cake and light him a candle. The instant their backs are turned, the wretched little puppy eats the cake and knocks over the candle. God’s little gift burns down the house. Burns it to the ground.”

“One misery after another!” I say.

“The Devil’s work!—they say. The flames! The flames! The Devil’s work from beginning to end!”

“And you weren’t delighted by all that misery?”

“No,” the Devil sniffs. “The wretched little cheapskate. She hid all her money in the walls of the house. How was I to know? When the house burned down, there it all was. Piles upon piles. Silver coins. Gold coins. Bars of silver. Bars of gold. They built themselves a splendid new house. They gave to one insufferable charity after another. All my handiwork? They took it all. And what did they say? God works in mysterious ways! Praise be to God! To God alone the thanks!”

“Why don’t you like children?”

“Sticky fingers.”

~ For my father, Gordon Gillespie, who detested nice people and who, when asked why he detested children, answered “sticky fingers”.

What is contemporary Poetry?

Just published was an article in the Guardian entitled “The best poetry books of 2022“. I thought it was fascinating not because of what the author, Rishi Dastidar, discusses, but because of what he doesn’t discuss. To wit: Nowhere is there a discussion of the actual poetry. Quoting a line or two from any given poem is not the same. Rishi recommends collections of poetry according to their subject matter and he might as well be recommending cookbooks which, to be honest, seems to be how (the commodity known as) contemporary poetry is largely treated by poets, readers, editors and publishers of poetry. Do you want ‘queer poetry’? Well, try this book. Do you want words about the male gaze and the violation of pornography? No? How about the pain of black communities? Not that? How about resistance to Colonialism? I’m not saying these aren’t important subjects, but important subjects aren’t necessarily the same as good poetry, and to judge by the extracts, the poetry is pretty mediocre stuff. For instance, in another article by the same author from June 3rd, he praises “The Lascaux Notebooks by Jean-Luc Champerret:

~ The book presents a plausible, imagistic recreation of prehistoric living, its quieter moments and dangers, especially when bison are roaming: “We crouch behind the cover of the trees / watching their every step / burning inside with fear”.

The line is shopworn from beginning to end. What hunter doesn’t crouch or do so under the cover of while also burning inside [as opposed to bursting into flames I suppose] with fear. The poetry sounds like generically uninspired prose. Maybe it’s not? I don’t know. Maybe that was just a poor example. The problem is that the poetry was never brought up, just the semantic content of the verse. Or if you’re looking for philosophic fragments, consider the following example from Unexhausted Time:

~ “There is no other life, but there are so / many lives … Thank you / for rescuing me with your words.”

This is the collection where you will find “the ramifications of the male gaze”. But without any context, the example above would make a comically effective “Deep Thought” for Saturday Night Live. But my impression is that the actual poetry of the verse is so far removed from the review’s concerns as to be irrelevant. He serves up the various collections of verse based on their content much as we’d purchase a cookbook according to its ethnic cuisine. What used to separate poetry from prose was poetry’s fusion of semantic content with the aesthetics of language—the way language rhymed and the way one could create rhythms/meter out of English’s natural stress patterns. There is also what one might call the arts of rhetoric—highly patterned and figurative language, metaphor and poems wholly constructed from a single conceit. These are also a part of the arts of language which poets elevated in a way that writers of prose (with different aims) largely didn’t. That’s no longer the case. The only thing that separates the majority of contemporary poetry from prose is lineation—and the lineation of contemporary poetry is simply a typographic “sign” indicating that a given set of words is meant to be read like a poem. There is no prosody of free verse lineation. Free verse lineation is an arbitrary aesthetic decided by the individual poet.

So, what is contemporary poetry?

To judge by reviews like those at The Guardian, poetry is no longer an intellectually rigorous fusion of content with the aesthetics of language, but a species of short-form prose where modern writers go to emote over given themes and subject matter. It reminds me of the transition from the baroque era to the rococo or early classical period. The great composer of the baroque era (and of all time really) was JS Bach. In the manuscripts of Bach, all the arts of music were fused together. Bach wasn’t just about writing a good melody, but in every composition he set out to demonstrate, to the greatest extent possible, the art of music—the degree to which elements like counterpoint, augmentation, diminution, harmony, canon and fugue didn’t just augment the emotional impact but created a work of art that transcended its utilitarian origins. Art for arts sake. Nothing more typified this than his Art of the Fugue. No one knows why he wrote it and Bach didn’t even specify what instrument or instruments should perform the music. The Art of the Fugue is pure music—a kind of summation that, perhaps, we’re meant to contemplate like Michelangelo’s David—in silence—a final summation of his life and era. The next generation discarded all that in favor of the melody. Likewise, the modern poet, reader and reviewer have discarded the arts of language in the name of content. Just as melody reigned supreme, content reins supreme. The contemporary reviewer of poetry doesn’t review the poetry because there’s nothing to review. But what would he make of poetry written for poetry’s sake?—like Keats’s Ode to Autumn, of which the subject matter is the least important element?—a poem that, in its exploitation of the arts of language—rhyme, meter, imagery and figurative language—utterly transcends its subject matter?

It’s too much to say what contemporary poetry is. Easier to say what it’s not—and that is art for art’s sake. It’s as though the modern poet has given himself over to erecting statues dedicated to messaging—monuments to themselves, to statesman, to this politician or that cause—and has discarded the notion that sculpting can be an art in and of itself. Given the world and the way it is, it’s possible no one would want to read any other kind of poetry—and so no one writes or publishes it.

By contrast, no one knows why Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue. There’s no message. It wasn’t commissioned by anyone. Its justification is itself. The final notes, left unfinished by Bach’s death, are the notes B♭–A–C–B♮, spelling out BACH in German musical notation, like a final breath before the last notes vanish into eternity, staves empty, the remaining music forever beyond our hearing.

Written in CPE Bach’s hand: “Über dieser Fuge, wo der Name B A C H im Contrasubject angebracht worden, ist der Verfasser gestorben.” (“While working on this fugue, which introduces the name BACH in the countersubject, the composer died.”

Is it me?

Be honest.

I just received my first rejection for 2022. The agent, who I really thought would click with my novel (and had specifically requested magical realism) wrote that she just didn’t feel the “spark”. That made me feel like a konmari’d pair of socks. But didn’t I used to spark joy? Did I not kiss your feet?yours and only yours? Does that mean nothing? To be fair, her rejection letter was one of the loveliest I’ve gotten.

In the meantime, I’m back on the official Manuscript Wish List and #MSL website. I ran across this on Twitter: “Okay, so about 70 percent of the editors at this speed meeting event want magical realism. ME TOO. Where is it?? #MSWL“.

Hello? I have two ready-to-be-published Magical Realist novels. Two. And they’re good novels. Where are you? Are we two ships passing in the night? Am I hanging out with the 30 percent who run around in bare feet? Am I wool? Am I hole in your heel? Are my toes blown out? Oh wait, I’m just noticing that the agent who wrote this isn’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Well. That explains it. Where is it? asks the agent who isn’t accepting manuscripts from authors like me.

Just sayin’.

And have I mentioned how finding an agent is like online dating? We go into this thinking we’re irresistible—who wouldn’t love us?—until we see ourselves the way everybody else sees us.

[Image of fool upper right-hand side: Self-Portrait]

This and that…

The Diminishing wage of Authors and Traditional vs. Self-publishing

Having finished North of Autumn, my second novel, I’ve begun another round of submissions to agents. I chose three this time, one of whom is in Berlin and who I’m hoping will actually want to read the novel. But the waiting game begins again. Based on submitting my first novel, about half of agents simply don’t respond if they’re not interested. So be it. Since I only have so long to live, however, I’ll be giving agents 4 weeks to respond, then move one.

On the other hand, I go back and forth as concerns traditional publishing. There’s very little money in traditional publishing for the vast majority of novelists. Don’t even ask about poetry. Agents are largely allergic to contemporary poetry (and for good reason). I was reviewing some other websites so I could write a minimally informed post, and stumbled across some interesting percentages. The most striking was a site claiming that 97% of writers don’t finish their novels. No source was given for this figure and so it may be click bait. I’m not even sure how such a figure would be calculated, so be skeptical. Less skeptically, another site offers some interesting figures on the percentage of authors who earn a living wage. The site reported that “63 percent of authors who reported receiving book-related income in 2017, the average total income was $43,247“. Alternatively, of course, that means that 37% of authors received no income at all. If I were to earn the average, that would be a step down from what I could make as a builder but a hell of a triumph given what I’ve made by writing so far. The site also notes that “three-sevenths of full-time authors with any earnings were making over $50,000″—the proviso being “full time”. If one is earning enough to be a full time writer, then it stands to reason that one is making something like $50,000 or more.

If you’re a writer like me, with ambitions to be published, there’s an interesting article at the Atlantic you might enjoy—entitled “Now Do Amazon“. The author, Franklin Foer, begins the article by stating a fact I did not know:

~ One of the great literary hoaxes of our time is the book spine. A staggering number of logos stare out from dust jackets, celebrating names including Crown, Vintage, Ballantine, Knopf, and Dial. But the pluralism implied by this diversity of monikers is a sham. In the U.S., nearly 100 of them belong to a single company: Penguin Random House. The rest are owned by a small handful of competitors, one of which is Simon & Schuster.

Foer’s main concern, however, aren’t the mergers and acquisitions (blocked by the Justice Department) that have largely turned publishing into a monopoly (to the detriment of authorial income) but Amazon, which he rightly labels a monopsony.

~ Amazon is arguably the ultimate embodiment of monopsony power. It has, in the past, used its dominance to demand a large cut of publishers’ sales, according to industry insiders. And companies such as PRH have had little choice but to accept—or become bigger, so that they can bargain harder. Amazon’s pressure on publishers has sometimes come out of authors’ pockets in the form of reduced advances.

In other words, not only is Amazon making its billions by squeezing publishers (who are/were themselves hardly saints) but is greatly contributing to the long-term decline in authorial income.

Meanwhile, the website Reedsy argues, in an article entitled “How Much Do Authors Make? The Truth about Money in Publishing“, that Indie Authors (authors who self-publish) fare much better than traditionally published authors—all else being equal. They write:

~ …many more self-published authors make a living than traditionally published authors, with self-publishing royalty earnings outpacing trad pub’s advance plus subsequent royalties. This was proven by several years of Author Earnings reports — most notably, one study that divided authors into groups earning more than $10k, $25k, $50k, and $100k. The study found that the number of indie authors earning 5-6 figures/year from book sales was much higher than the number of Big 5 authors earning the same.

This is almost solely, from what I can tell, because of the difference in royalty. While a self-published author won’t get an advance, they can expect to earn 50% to 70% on each book sold while the average royalty for the traditionally published author is 7.5%, and that doesn’t include any agent’s cut.

And so I’m torn, and it’s not necessarily about the money. I probably have another 25 to 30 years to live, so what does a million dollars mean to me? A traditional publisher can market and promote my book and get it on shelves. I don’t have that skillset. On the other hand, a traditional publisher could also sit on the book and decline to market or promote it. That happens. Then all I’m left with, best and worst case, is a small advance and a book that will never see a readership. In that case, I would have been better off self-publishing. Even a small readership is better than none, and with a greater share of the royalty, I would still be apt to come out ahead.

If I’m disappointed by the results of shopping both my books this winter, then I am definitely open to self-publishing and/or looking for an Indie publishing.

Literary Revelations Publishing House

Speaking of Indie Publishers, I recently submitted a Shakespearean sonnet to Literary Revelations Publishing House. I haven’t submitted any of my poetry anywhere for years, not since founding this blog, but, you know, if I’m going to stop being a hermit… Their home page states that they are “an independent publishing house dedicated to showcasing the best literary and art work. We publish poetry, short stories, interviews, art, and novels.” Their website is really quite professional. My sonnet was in answer to their call for poems on the theme of childhood: “Hidden in Childhood: A Poetry Anthology – Call for Submissions“. If you have written poems on childhood, or have one to write, then consider submitting something and supporting your local, Indie publisher.

Chaucer was not a Rapist

Unfortunately, this article, entitled “Chaucer the Rapist? Newly Discovered Documents Suggest Not” is behind a paywall, but the gist is this: “A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from ‘all manner of actions related to my raptus’— a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.” Apparently, two scholars discovered a second copy of the document in which the word “raptus” had either been removed or omitted as a result of Chaucer possibly having hired a new lawyer. The suspicion, that this was Chaucer whitewashing, led the scholars to the original writ of the case (previously unknown). It turns out that Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were both the defendants and were being sued by a Thomas Staundon who accused Chaucer of poaching Cecily from Staundon’s service. In that case, the scholars argue, raptus refers to ““the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service.” So, Staundon was not suing Chaucer for raping Cecily Chaumpaigne but suing both of them—she for leaving his service and Chaucer for poaching her. According to the article, this discovery landed like a bomb. Needless to say, there is considerable resistance from scholars, especially among feminist critics, who have produced criticism predicated on Chaucer’s having raped Chaumpaigne. That’s a tough spot for them, but it’s daily life for any scientist. One day you’re working on your unified field theory and the next some new scientific discovery invalidates the entirety of your corpus. I personally am just as happy to see Chaucer’s good name restored. Judging an artist by their art is fraught with self-deception, but the kind of man who could write Chaucer’s stories, with their humor and wisdom, doesn’t mesh with a man accused of rape.

The first Poet & Writer

There’s a lovely article in the New Yorker about the Priestess Enheduanna. I first ran across her poetry about a decade ago and fell in love with it. It’s truly powerful and beautiful verse. The article is entitled “The Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author“. The article primarily addresses the strange reluctance of scholarship to acknowledge and celebrate Enheduanna’s primacy or that she even existed—emphasis on ‘she’. The author, Elizabeth Winkler, writes:

~ But since their discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have fiercely debated Enheduanna’s authorship. Did the priestess really write these works? Is the idea of a woman at the beginning of the written tradition—two thousand years before the golden age of Greece—too good to be true? This winter, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia,” will try to give the priestess her due.

Winkler later in the article elaborates on the apparently male-centric biases that have resisted Enheduanna’s identity not just as a writer/poet but as a female:

~ Of particular note is a statue of a woman with a tablet in her lap—evidence of women’s literacy and engagement with writing. (When it was first discovered, in the early twentieth century, the German scholar Otto Weber reported, “Our specimen carries a tablet on her knees. Its meaning is not clear to me.”) The statue and others like it have been ignored in the academic literature, Babcock told me. “If this was a man with a tablet in his lap, there would be twenty articles about it.” Such artifacts upend long-held assumptions—about literacy as the preserve of élite male scribes, and about Middle Eastern women as being confined to the domestic sphere.

What I didn’t realize, until reading the article, is just how much of her writing has survived (which is astonishing given how many thousands of years ago she wrote) and the extent to which her writing was kept alive by later generations, even to 500 years after her death. My own opinion is that when reading the poetry of Enheduanna we read the work of a literary genius—the Shakespeare of her age. To think that her voice could survive for thousands of years! It bespeaks a woman, star-gazer and poet who, in her suffering, was capable of communicating our common humanity with a language, symbol, metaphor and archetype that still holds meaning thousands of years later.

And that’s all for today, November 23rd, 2022.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I’ve been reading novels of Magical Realism. Since I’m writing my own in the genre, I thought I should see how other authors are managing it. My original post was entitled “Four Magical Realism Novels” but here I am, in Berlin, without any of the novels for reference. They’re all in Vermont. So I’ll have to write that post when I’m back in Vermont. I bought Ness’s novel from a little English Bookstore on Kastanienstraße. You might ask why, being in Germany, I’m not reading Magical Realism by German authors. I tried. Turns out, there aren’t any. For whatever reason, German authors haven’t taken up the genre. A number of Spanish and American authors have been translated into German, but that’s as far as it goes. Rather than wait until I’m home to include this bit of opinion in a larger post, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it on its own.

“A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness may be the story that has struck the nicest balance between “magic” and realism (among those I’ve read)—meaning that the story didn’t create alternate universes but remained firmly in our own reality. The magic was the right measure of maybe real and maybe not. That is, one wasn’t quite sure if the “magic” was imagined even as it seemed to effect the “real world” in tangible ways. My personal opinion is that stories that veer toward outright magic as a manipulable force (along with alternate realities) veer more toward the fantasy genre than “magical realism”.

My main complaint as regards “A Monster Calls” is stylistic. Ness is capable of writing beautifully descriptive prose, as when he describes the Yew Tree’s transformation into a monster, but I all too often felt that he was “writing down” to his audience. He seems to adopt the kind of amateurish (and sometimes clichéd) overstatement and vernacular one would expect from the thirteen year old main character, not the author. It’s possible Ness wrote like this to ingratiate himself with a YA audience but I’m not sure. If it was deliberate, then pick one or the other. Don’t write like an experienced novelist one moment, then a thirteen year old at the next. Otherwise, one ends up with paragraphs like the following:

“Every time the monster moved, Conor could hear the creak of wood, groaning and yawning in the monster’s huge body. He could see, too, the power in the monster’s arms, great wiry ropes of branches constantly twisting and shifting together in what must have been tree muscle, connected a massive trunk of a chest, topped by a head and teeth that could chomp him down in one bite.” p. 49 [Italics mine.]

It’s those very last words that roll my eyes. The majority of the description finds us firmly in the hands of an experienced and evocative writer. Does he really need to wrench me into the vernacular of Conor, aged 13, by then observing that the monster sure could chomp him down in one bite! That sure is one heck of a monster there! Those words belong in Conor’s mouth, not the narrator’s.

Or an example of overstatement:

“It laughed louder and louder again, until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down.” p. 83

It sure did. It felt like the whole sky itself—not just the “sky” but the “sky itself” might tumble right down. And sometimes it wasn’t just the school but “it felt like the whole school was holding its breath, waiting to see what Conor would do” (179) And when the monster sat on top of Conor’s grandmother’s office it “placed its entire great weight on top”. Not just its weight, not just its great weight, but its entire great weight. The reader will find this sort of empty and mannered overstatement throughout the book, all in pursuit of something resembling “authenticity”. That is, Ness might think he’s writing like a 13 year old but none of my 13 years olds ever talked like this. Who did? Children in 1950s and 60s movies did. Too much of his writing sounds like the kind of nonsense put into the mouths of child actors by gin-sipping screen writers who went home to cigarettes and noir:

“The whole room was like a museum of how people lived in olden times. There wasn’t even a television.” (108)

Not just the room, but the “whole room”, and who doesn’t go to museums of how animals looked before the whole world was totally obliterated by a rock so big it was even bigger than the biggest mountain ever? And there weren’t even televisions! And who doesn’t go to museums of how people painted way back before you were even alive? And they didn’t even have printers! And “olden times”? Who talks like that? And the characters themselves, by the way, too often behave more like clichéd caricatures—as though Ness not only adopted the worst of Hollywood’s script writing but also their “Lord of the Flies” vision of education. There’s the predictable bully, the bully’s snickering sidekicks and the usual social dynamics that plague all Hollywood schools. Another trope that’s gone stale.

But maybe this is really the way Ness writes? All in all, as a stylistic matter, the best writing occurred when the monster appeared (though later in the book the descriptions flirt with repetitiveness) and during the close of the book when the subject matter’s emotional weight means, apparently, that Ness doesn’t have to try so hard. And while the writing then is at its best, simple and direct, even that is marred in the closing chapter by Ness’s all too earnest and explanatory moralizing. He can’t just let the story speak for itself but flirts with an almost Victorian fussiness.

My other criticism, which is more arbitrary, concerns the first story/fable told by the monster (who declares he will tell three stories, then demand a fourth from Conor). I noticed that readers on Amazon who disliked the story objected to its subject matter: sex and murder. They felt it didn’t belong in a YA novel. That’s not what bothered me. I did find the story silly and forced (even granting that it was deliberately absurd) but that’s not what bothered me. Oddly, it’s that he made the story about Kings, Queens and Princes. Aren’t we done with stories about the aristocracy? Hasn’t Disney done enough to drive that genre into the ground? And while I do get why he did it, I’d argue that Ness could have told the same story without recourse to a worn out trope.

All in all, I wanted to like the novelette more than I did. It possesses all the gothic elements I love. Just look at my poem “Into the Woods” (written, by the way, before I read Ness’s novel). But regardless of what I think, it’s an immensely popular book that’s been made into a movie with none other than Sigourney Weaver. And the reason for the book’s success is no doubt because Ness ultimately tells a good and meaningful story despite its flaws (the book is no masterpiece), interspersed with evocative imagery and an evocative monster. The book tells the story of a boy coming to terms with his mother’s battle with cancer. To anyone who wants to be a successful author the moral is simple: Writing well is optional. Writing a good story is a must.

by Me

Berlin, August 4th 2022

The allure of Freelance Editors, “Pre-Agents” & Reedsy

So these last couple of weeks have been productive.

And instructive.

I have a small list of Youtube subscriptions and one of them is Reedsy. The website is a portal/’middle man’ for writers—full stop—and writers, agents, ex-agents, professional editors and freelance editors who know a pot of gold when they see one. Reedsy is free to sign onto and offers, in exchange for your email address—Newsletters. Lots and lots of “Newsletters”.

  • Writing – Writing craft: a digest of writing advice from our blog and alerts for live writing events
  • Publishing – Understanding publishing: insights from our industry experts
  • Marketing – Book marketing: get one new marketing idea every week
  • Design – Book design: get access to our exclusive cover critiques
  • Product – Product updates: Get notified about new features on the Reedsy Marketplace.

And what is the point of these Newsletters? To connect you with writers, ex-agents, agents, professional editors, and freelance editors and publishers. VISA and MASTERCARD accepted.

Now, I do think that many, if not the vast majority of these “professionals” mean well, have useful information to share, and have undoubtedly helped to land some writers with a publishing contract. My hunch, though, is that such breakthroughs are the exception.

In my case, and as soon as I joined, I was [not too subtly] steered toward amateurs and professionals [see above] offering freelance editorial services—which Reedsy divides into Editorial Assessments, Proofreading, Copy Editing, or Developmental Editing. One writes a “Brief” (think of it as a ‘Help Wanted’ ad) that consists of blanks to be filled in by the author: Genre, Introduce yourself and your book, Book details, Target market, Main characters, and finally a 3000 word sample from your project. This “Brief” is then sent off to up to 5 freelance editors, chosen by you. It’s kind of like online dating. You will probably query the editor whose interests in theme and genre are like yours. In my case, determined to explore any and all avenues to publication, I wrote up my brief. Here’s what I wrote for Book Details:

My book is entitled “Tiny House, Big Mountain” and was completed January 1st of 2021. I sent it out to twenty agents last year and received form letter rejections. Thinking my novel might be too long and in need of an edit, I edited the entirety this past January, reducing the novel from almost 110000 words to just over a 100,000. The edit was a good exercise and needed. I may have also improved my “Queries”. The novel is—unique. When I was eleven years old I had a near death experience, saw behind the veil, and met God. You’re welcome to ask about it. I’ve been writing about that experience in one form or another ever since. Tiny House, Big Mountain tells the story of Cody, an eleven year old girl; her mother Drew; and Virginia—a woman who finds herself drawn into Cody and Drew’s lives when Cody’s father attempts to kill both Cody and her mother—murder suicide. Cody’s resultant near death experience changes her life. She foresees the arrival of Hurricane Irene, the destruction of her old home, and the start of a new life with her mother and Virginia. The women try to rebuild their lives—suddenly, if reluctantly, dependent on each other—and Cody forges new friendships. Cody and Drew are Abenaki. One of the traditions of the Abenaki was story telling in the raising of their children, and there are fables, short stories and poetry in this novel. There are also elements of “magical realism” based on my own experiences. As far as I know, there’s no other novel like it. If that’s good or bad, I don’t know.

Three of the five editors readily turned me down (time constraints). Since they all wrote exactly the same thing, they probably picked their rejection notice from a convenient drop-down list. Fair enough. One of the freelance editors wrote me back a proposal and recommended/’bumped up’ my request for an Editorial Assessment to a Developmental/Copy Edit. Allow me to translate: the proposed job went from a $1700 job to a $2700 job. The reason given stemmed from my Brief in which I commented that my MS had already been rejected by a dozen agents. Maybe the problem was more serious? I tend be hopelessly naïve in my dealings with others, always assuming the best intentions. I could assume that this particular editor genuinely thought they were doing me a favor, but it’s also not lost on me that these are tough times, the editor is freelancing, and that the offer stood to put an extra thousand dollars into their pocket. Did my manuscript (MS) really need a combination developmental and copy edit? In the case of my own MS I question whether any editor could say that after 3,000 words (out of 101,000), but why not err on the side of a thousand dollars? Including Reedsy’s cut, the total would have been $3,000. It should be self-evident as to why Reedsy is kind of, sort of, questionably pushing hopeful writers toward their stable of (albeit vetted) freelance editors. It’s a pot of gold. Let’s just say it.

I came within a mouse click of taking up their 4 figure offer, but then I went out and researched the subject. (No doubt my own post will be read by the next authorial hopeful.) What I found out was not conclusive; but it made me decide against hiring a freelance editor. When actual, practicing agents (not agents now freelancing as editors) are asked about the benefits of an edited MS, the responses are mixed. Stating that one’s MS as been professionally edited in one’s query can be a turn off at worst and irrelevant at best. Agents described the professionally edited MS as sometimes an improvement and sometimes not. The response that made the most impression was this: Many agents stated that they weren’t looking for flawless manuscripts with unimpeachable grammar and spelling, but good stories. Publishers already have their own stable of professional editors who will help the author hone their MS, but there has to be a good story worth editing.

Here’s why I came very close to hiring a freelance editor. Agents/Publishers have shown zero interest in my novel. When a professional, albeit a freelance professional, praises one’s writing, says one’s story is compelling and states that they want to collaborate to help one reach one’s goals, that feels like heady praise. What author doesn’t want to hear that? But here’s the thing: It’s kind of like buying your manuscript a night out with an escort. I’m going to assume that the vast majority of editors at Reedsy have integrity and really do enjoy their work, but I’m also somewhat troubled by the way many of them are marketing themselves—as sort of “pre-Agents”.

Here’s the thing, if agents and publishers are to be believed, they are being deluged by manuscripts. Apparently every dog and their uncle is writing a novel. There were 407,000 books published in 2007. Published. Now just imagine the number submitted to agents that weren’t published. Publishers threw up their hands. They quit accepting unsolicited manuscripts and farmed out that job to agents. Lo and behold, now agents are drowning under waves of unsolicited manuscripts. Most don’t even have time for an automated rejection letter. So what are agents and authors to do? Farm out the job to “freelance editors/pre-Agents”. Let’s create a whole new industry.

“I do not represent projects that I freelance edit but I am happy to help guide writers to representation.”

This is from a freelance editor who just appeared in this morning’s “Newsletter”. This seems harmless enough. All the freelance editors list their experience working at agencies and in publishing houses. That’s to be expected. But the quote above is grounds for worry. If Reedsy’s freelancers don’t explicitly state it (like the editor above) then it’s not lost on me that they judiciously include “pull quotes” from their clients stating that they were able to guide them to agents and/or publishing houses, in addition to editing their manuscripts. Although it’s not spelled out, here’s how I read the situation: These individuals are marketing themselves. Some quit their jobs to do it full time (I assume) while other professionals are now doing it on the side. They’d be fools not to. A few thousand dollars in this economy is a nice bump. There are a lot of bad writers out there with money. To be clear, if there are half a million novels being published every year, just imagine how many novels aren’t being published, backed by authors willing to pay for any advantage. There is a pot of gold big enough to float a yacht. And Reedsy’s freelance editors, along with others elsewhere, are competing for it. If they can offer not only editing, but also insinuate that they “know” people, what hopeful writer isn’t going to pick them?

Essentially, what’s going on is the de-facto (perhaps unwitting) creation of a whole new industry for would-be authors to navigate. Publishers are overwhelmed, so let agents screen unsolicited manuscripts. Are agents overwhelmed? Then grease the wheels with the right “editor”. Look how well it worked for [insert client’s pull quote]. This is ethically troubling. It’s a whole industry devoted to making money off hopeful writers. Want to improve your query letter? Reedsy just this morning offered me the first chapter free. Want to read the rest? VISA and MASTERCARD accepted. Want a freelance editor with, you know, “connections”? VISA and MASTERCARD accepted.

As for myself, tempting as it is to pay for an editor’s devoted and loving attention, I decided against it. It’s very alluring to think that one can buy one’s way into a book contract. Better to do it the old fashioned way—luck, timing, research and persistence. And faith in one’s own writing abilities and judgement.

I want to stress that the freelance editor with whom I spoke explicitly stated that they were only offering their editorial services. They were the real deal. Reedsy appears to be a good resource for the judicious writer, but don’t be fooled. They’re in it for the money—your money. I do not think that paying a freelance editor between $1500-$3000 is unreasonable (depending on what is being offered), but its utility and usefulness is conditional. If an author is self-publishing, and can afford a good freelance editor, then it’s probably worth it. For those seeking a traditional publisher, focus on telling a good story. If it’s compelling enough, publishers have their own stable of editors to clean up your typos, punctuation and questionable grammar.

In other news, I’ve begun my second novel and am writing 888 words a day (writing this post isn’t helping). The goal is to write the novel in 3 months. I already posted an initial poem here. And for the inspiration behind this 3 month plan, watch this.

February 19th 2022

The Wages of Art

I’ve been in a strange sort of fall and winter. I started my blog twelve years ago and have written—quite a bit. The blog continues to be well read, I can’t complain, but it’s an odd sort of success that butters no parsnips. I just received another rejection from another agent: Sorry for the form letter; but form letter; at this time; volume of submissions; “project described”; list; doesn’t fit; good luck. Meanwhile, authors are encouraged to tenderly and exquisitely tailor their queries to each individual agent—please enclose perfumed rose petals. Also, if you need help writing your queries, I notice now that agents and editors are offering courses (VISA and MASTERCARD accepted).

I also find myself in the odd position of being treated like the rich uncle. There are many writers, poets and websites who, suddenly my best friends, write me glowing comments, telling me they’ve always loved my website, only to end with a request that I review their poem/book/website. Can you spare a dime brother? This happens a lot. I remember one poet—published, successful and nicely ensconced in academia—who, after I reviewed their book, asked if there were local venues where they could read their poetry, as if I might be their pro bono outreach coördinator. Not long after that they sent me another book to review. Did they ever mention me or my poetry? Did they acknowledge my writing? That other poets and authors ask for reviews or to be mentioned on my blog is okay. That’s called self-promotion. I get it. What rubs me the wrong way is when none of these individuals offer to return the favor—and that doesn’t take much. They don’t mention my blog on their own sites and never comment on my poetry because, of course, they’ve never read it and apparently have no interest in doing so.

As far as blogging goes, I’m struggling to feel motivated. For three straight years I wrote a post a day. That’s a lot. Writing this post is maybe an effort to motivate myself.

If any of you wish that I’d discuss this or that, let me know. I haven’t been posting much if only to avoid being repetitive. Presently, I’m working on more poems and still developing ideas around my next novel. I’ve written the opening pages but am already thinking of all the many ways I can make it unsalable—including poetry, stories within stories, the blurring of genres upmarket/YA/women’s/erotic/magical realism/literary etc… It’s what I do. I write meter and rhyme when the rest of the world writes prose. I write, apparently, what (so far) nobody wants to read or publish. This may simply be a reality I need to accept.

There’s also the possibility that I’m a poor judge of my own art. History is littered with mediocre talent unable to recognize its own limitations. I don’t think that’s the case, but of course I would say that. It’s possible that my writing is universally rejected because I’m just too mediocre and daft to recognize it. I see it in other poets, writers and artists every day. There’s no reason why the same shouldn’t afflict me.

What do we do in life when nothing works out the way we expected? Don’t ask me. I’ll just write a poem or story about it. Once one has decided to paddle across the ocean, quitting mid way probably isn’t going to end well.

    mid-
        field in February's snow—the inexplicable
            crow

            February 8th 2022

What Makes a Great Writer

An interesting article at The Guardian suggests that the late Philip Roth had a firm fix on the meaning of literary greatness—awards. Lots and lots of awards. The Guardian’s subtitle says it all:

Correspondence found in archives shows how ‘pushy’ novelist used ‘collusion, networking and back-scratching’ to win literary awards

In other words, his many awards reflected not the quality of his writing but the ethics-free tenaciousness of his self-promotion. The author of the article writes:

It might be assumed that his work spoke for itself in securing these plaudits, but previously unpublished letters reveal he was, in fact, a master of self-promotion, networking and mutual back-scratching.

And later, a biographer of Roth’s adds:

It was a bit disillusioning for me, as I thought – naively – that the great writer cared only for art, its integrity, its austere demands.

The obvious word that nobody in the article seems willing to use is dishonest. The simple fact that the activities of Roth and any number of editors and critics involved in these quid pro quos remained, for all intents and purposes, a closely kept secret until now, suggests that they all knew better. Why hide (or demurely fail to mention) something that one needn’t be ashamed of?

Of course, Dalya Alberger, the author of the Guardian article, quotes Berlinerblau as saying that Roth’s manipulations were “all the more surprising because Roth was such ‘a magnificent writer’”. But was he really? Doesn’t all this bring such claims into question? Is it any surprise that Berlinerblau would say this given that his forthcoming book is predicated on Roth’s “greatness”? (His book, The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race and Autobiography, is slated to be published by the University of Virginia Press this coming September.) So it’s fair to ask whether Berlinerblau’s praise for Roth might also be self-serving and dishonest. And given that many of those who colluded with Roth are probably still in the publishing industry, the argument could be made that it’s in Berlinerblau’s interest to rationalize his and everyone’s behavior as “in the service of a nevertheless great writer”. Why would Berlinerblue risk his connections by dissing Roth? Unfortunately, it’s fair to question any estimation of Roth (along with the currency of all those awards):

Berlinerblau also pointed to an extensive correspondence with a literary critic, which includes discussions about literature: “But mostly they’re talking about how they can help each other with this award, this position… It made me a little suspicious about the publishing world. There’s a lot of networking.”

In one letter, that critic – a close friend – congratulated Roth on receiving a prestigious literary prize, when he had actually headed the committee making the decision. Roth, in turn, helped him. The critic wrote to Roth: “I am also applying for another fellowship… So, may I ask you to dust off the letter you recently sent and send a version of it again.”

If you ask me, the damage to Roth’s literary reputation can’t be overstated (or the damage to the whole institution of literary prizes and awards); but it’s surely something all those involved in the industry would rather gloss over as “the game of publishing” (see below).

Sure, anyone can point to Roth’s readership and to the legion’s of readers who swear by him, but one can do the same for Danielle Steele and she (apparently for lack of having friends in the right places) didn’t win the Pulitzer. But why did Roth win the Pulitzer? Was it for the quality of his writing or because he effectively bribed the right people?

Roth understood, as any grifter and flim-flam artist understands, that if you tell enough people that your product is great (and in this case that you’re a great writer) they will read and treat you like a great writer. This trick of mass persuasion is especially pertinent in today’s political environment. The imprimatur of an award committee is little different than the sort of “trusted sources” that are used to manipulate the opinions of social media users. From the Scientific American article above, the same caution applies to any and all “Award Committees” including the Pulitzer:

[G]iven the lack of transparency, the privatized nature of these models, and commercial interests to over-claim or downplay their effectiveness, we must remain cautious in our conclusions.

Scientific American: Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion

So, what I’m getting at is this: How much of Roth’s readership like and admire him because he’s a great writer and how many like and admire him because they were told he was a great writer? Time will tell. And you have to wonder how many biographers and critics, like Harold Bloom, were taken in more by his reputation than his writing—and should have known better? Each generation is notoriously bad at distinguishing their genuinely great artists from their mediocre ones and that’s because the genius of the mediocre artist is, precisely, in their ability to speak to and celebrate the mediocrity of their era—which is why when the artist’s given era ends, so does their reputation. I confess that I haven’t read all that much of Roth’s writing, but what I have, I found mediocre. I expect we will see more estimations of Roth like this one. And those, we can be much more certain, are actually honest ones.

I have never submitted my writing, poetry or otherwise, to any kind of prize or award committee for all the reasons above and more. I don’t begrudge anyone who does. As Roth demonstrated, it’s a great way to shape your reputation and further your career. In certain respects, I’m the fool for not pursuing the same strategy. But the next time you come in second, third, or forty-third, it may not be because your writing isn’t up to snuff, but because the fix was in. The judge needed a letter of recommendation from the winning author and only a fool wouldn’t prefer and further their own career over something as trivial as your career.

All that said, graft, corruption and dishonesty in the publishing industry is nothing new (though hopefully limited). It’s just gratifying to see it exposed despite Roth’s wish (as suggested by The Guardian) to have the evidence destroyed after his death. The next time you read something like this:

Another leading scholar, Ira Nadel, author of Philip Roth: A Counterlife, said: “It’s absolutely true. He was a great self-promoter from the beginning. I’m not sure he didn’t need to do it. He played the game, the game of publishing. He knew self-promotion was the key to keeping your name out there and getting your books both published and sold.”

Ask yourself what leading scholar Ira Nadel got out of it. Why is he a “leading scholar”? Whose back did he scratch? Who scratched Nadel’s back? After all, as Nadel (the “leading scholar”) says: It’s all about getting your books published and sold.

A Writer’s Life: Deafening Silence

Nothing to report this week. No agents have responded to my queries and I suppose I’ll send out another round this coming week. My queries, I think, continue to improve, even if my novel doesn’t. That said, in an effort to demonstrate that I’m not a prima donna who thinks his words are writ in gold on gold plate, I’ve been editing my novel and have already removed around a thousand words from the first four chapters.

I picked up The Poet’s & Writer’s Complete Guide to Being a Writer. The book is 480 pages printed on acid-drenched, grocery-bag paper but is nevertheless comprehensive and, I think, a worthwhile purchase (if one wants an overview of the many particulars to writing and publishing). This book and Before and After the Book Deal might be the only two guides one really needs (at the outset at least). Beyond that, I thought I might make a couple quick observations. Every source off- and online stresses the care, etiquette and consideration with which a prospective writer should approach an agent. In an effort to, as accurately as possible, illustrate the relationship between prospective writers, agents and publishing houses (a picture being worth a thousand words) I prepared the following meme:

If you have any questions as regards this diagram, feel free to query in the comment section. Additionally, all of the various sources that I’ve read go to great pains to emphasize the importance of clean, clear, typo free and grammatically correct prose (on paper preferably dipped in myrrh and frankincense) when addressing an agent. As an example of the kind of query/synopsis no agent would consider, the following can be found online:

You’ll notice that the author has egregiously misspelled astronomy as astonomy. No agent worth their salt would ever consider a book from an author who can’t be bothered to spellcheck their synopsis. And rightfully so. I’m not sure if this author’s book was ever published but clearly the author is an amateurish hack. Let this synposis be a lesson to any writer in search of an agent.

Also, agents and editors have years of experience in the publishing industry and if and when they’re willing to volunteer advice to aspiring writers, the writer should always carefully consider what they say. Given their years of experience in the book industry, they’ve no doubt developed a sense for the marketplace and what kinds of books readers are looking for. To wit:

This was for the Cuckoo’s Calling, a book by the little known author Robert Galbraith. One can only hope that Mr. Galbraith followed the publisher’s advice and successfully placed his work elsewhere. Every aspiring writer should carefully review what topics, themes and books any given agent, editor or publisher is looking for along with what books they’ve already published. They know what sells. Lastly, any aspiring writer would do well to read all of an agent’s/publisher’s books before submitting their own manuscripts.

And that’s all for today.

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out-

The age old pastime goes back to King Lear’s quote and before. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s star rises? Who’s falls.

I’ve been enjoying an email discussion in which an opinion was made that Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s reputations may be solidifying as the best of their generation: rising above the likes of Jarrell, Berryman, Schwartz, and Wilbur.

That was news to me, although there’s no reason why it should be. I have no inside spies in the court of public/academic/critical opinion. The question really raised by such speculation is: How do we know the best poets of a generation? Can we? And who decides?

When bookstores dotted the land, my exceedingly unscientific method of deciding which poets were in and out was by seeing what poets were represented on the bookshelves. College bookstores, like the Dartmouth Bookstore, used to have an extensive collection, an entire wall. As to whether those books were being curated by academic taste or by reader interest, I would say the former. Poets in academia, in my experience, foist on their students all those poets who are most like themselves. But when the Dartmouth Bookstore began shedding its inventory before eventually closing, the first section to be gutted was the poetry section. By the time they were done, the poetry section had gone from an entire 8X16 foot wall to a sparsely populated waist high bookshelf about three feet wide. Who were the poets shelved there? Whitman. Frost. Stevens. Yeats. Mary Oliver. Moore (maybe). Bishop (maybe). Cummings. Flavorless translations of Rumi. The various poets teaching at Dartmouth. Shakespeare. Eliot. Sundry anthologies and whatever books about poetry or Collected Poems had been most recently published. You get the idea— poetry’s eminences accompanied by a ragtag of hopefuls.

Now that most bookstores are gone, we have online bookstores.

And the only/best? way I can think of to tease out who’s in and who’s out is by the number of raiyngs/comments an author or poet receives—the closest equivalent to Rotten Tomatoes but for books. And, to me, how many stars a given author receives is less important than that he or she is being discussed. But, knowing that one can’t assert anything, ever, without someone disagreeing, I’ll just assume there will be a coterie of readers who dismiss “comment counts” as trivially meaningless. Maybe so, and I’m open to suggestions. There’s also Amazon sales ranks to consider:

  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 50,000 to 100,000 – selling close to 1 book a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 10,000 to 50,000 – selling 5 to 15 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 5,500 to 10,000 – selling 15 to 25 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 3,000 to 5,500 – selling25 to 70 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 1,500 to 3,000 – selling70 to 100 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 750 to 1,500 – selling 100 to 120 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 500 to 750 – selling120 to 175 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 350 to 500 – selling175 to 250 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 200 to 350 – selling 250 to 500 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 35 to 200 -selling500 to 2,000 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank 20 to 35 – selling 2,000 to 3,000 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank of 5 to 20 – selling3,000 to 4,000 books a day.
  • Amazon Best Seller Rank of 1 to 5 – selling4,000+ books a day. 

The website from which this list comes, makeuseof, makes clear that this solely pertains to books—which is perfect for our purposes.

So, Robert Frost’s leather bound collection of poems has garnered 867 ratings and currently has a sales ranking of 10,015. If you ask me, that’s impressive; and for a poet who’s been dead for over half a century. He’s selling roughly 15 books a day. There was a time when the critical consensus ran against Frost, asserting that his poetry lacked the “textual/critical difficulty” and “originality” of his peers (both supremely prized attributes of 20th century poetry), but critical consensus was wrong insofar as Frost’s durability goes. Any critic still dismissing Frost’s standing as one of our great poets, if not the great poet of the 20th century, is on the losing side of history.

  • And that assertion is going to rankle any number of readers who do not accept public appeal as tantamount to an artist’s greatness. I agree in the short term that public acclaim is a double-edged sword. Best selling poets, in the long run, as my correspondent pointed out, “rarely figure in the history of poetry, except as a joke”. However, for those poets who are still best sellers in the long run, the joke is on those who critically dismissed them. In short, what defines greatness has to be something like universal appeal—an artist’s ability to appeal to audiences across time and cultures. If one is going to assert that public appeal has no relevance (and I notice there’s always an element of sour grapes from those who disagree with the verdict of history) then the idea of genius or greatness has no meaning. And some do argue that, arguing that all artistic valuations are relative/subjective, that there is nothing that objectively separates so called “great art” from so called “mediocre art”; but I find those who make such assertions to be so blissfully ignorant of the evidence as to be comparable to Flat-Earthers.

TS Eliot’s most commented collection, Collected Poems, has garnered 361 comments with a sales rank of 132,563. So, Eliot is selling something less than a book a day. I have a hunch that the critical consensus would put Eliot and Stevens before Frost, but I think that reflects the biases of the 20th century critical apparatus. What’s clear is that Eliot and Stevens, or any of the other modernists, fall short of Frost’s appeal even after half a century and more has gone by. Having written that, I do hold that Eliot and Stevens both wrote enduring poems—poems that will endure in our collective memory as surely as Frost’s.

And what about Robert Lowell and Elisabeth Bishop? Lowell’s Collected Poems (a giant book) has so far received 58 ratings and has a sales rank of 850,689. Maybe that’s less than 1 every couple months? His selected poems, having less ratings but costing much less, has a ranking of 751,636. Not much better. There’s an argument to be made that Lowell is of a later generation and so hasn’t had as much time to steep as the modernists, but Lowell only died 11 years after T.S. Eliot and 15 years after Frost. He was writing his best poems roughly contemporaneously with theirs. So, if we treat Amazon’s online bookstore somewhat like Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus on Lowell may be high, but the audience consensus isn’t that great. And how about Elizabeth Bishop? Her best book, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, has 131 ratings, close to three times that of Lowell, and has a sales rank of 196,323. That shows considerably more appeal than Lowell. Does that mean she’s a better poet than Lowell? Maybe. I was just reading John Carey’s new book, “A Little History of Poetry“, he writes of her: “For a major American poet she had a small output, barely a hundred poems. But she has a wider range of tone and feeding than any other modernist, even Eliot.” (p. 243), and that probably applies to Lowell as well. Carey praises Lowell’s Life Studies, but otherwise repeats the critical and negative assessment attached to his other works: “Seemingly random images and memories are common in Lowell’s poems, making them hard to follow. They also strive to enhance their significance by strained allusions to religion, mythology, and literature.” (p. 264) Micheal Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes of Lowell that he “wanted to be known as the greatest poet in America, and he was.” (p. 819). But, like Pary, while Schmidt gives Life Studies high praise, he also calls Lowell’s earlier verse “formally congested, opaque”, having “a forbidingly bricked-in quality” and “semantically overheated”. He closes his passage on Lowell by describing his final poetry “eloquent but formulaic, like those endless and relentless fourteen liners, a form that will spin out two lines worth of occasion or boil down fifty…” (p. 818) Schmidt samples more of Bishop’s poems, even quoting Lowell’s praise for her and ends writing: “Few poets of the century are as candid as Elizabeth Bishop.” As far as these two authors go, I would have to say that the critical consensus favors Bishop over Lowell, corroborating what we see as far as ratings and sales rank goes. Bishop’s star is rising (or has risen) and Lowell’s star, contrary to the assertion of my correspondent, has faded and settled somewhere below that of Bishop’s. If he was considered American’s greatest poet when he died, then he’s no longer considered such by the reading public—if greatness is in any way related to public appeal. The critical consensus is mixed.

And this brings me to Kaur. Anyone in disagreement with what I’ve written so far will immediately point to Rupi Kaur (as I’ve already done here and elsewhere) as the signal reason this doesn’t work. But, citing Kauer isn’t the killer counterpoint one might think it is. But why mention Kaur? Here’s why: Rupi Kauer’s most commented collection Milk and Honey, has so far netted (are you sitting down?) 32,445 comments. In Lowell’s favor, he gets 5 stars instead of Kaur’s 4.5. But then there are Kaur’s other two books. Her sales rank is, as of today, 374.

What does this tell us?

If you take everything I’ve written at face value, it means that Kaur is God’s gift to poetry—a full-blown Mozart.

But more seriously, it means one can’t argue with her appeal or popularity, and so one is forced to grouse that “serious poetry” never has great sales (serious poetry being a euphemism for literary, difficult, stylistically ambitious and/or great poetry). But, let’s unpack that and see what comes of it.

First, is it true that serious poetry never has great sales? No. Absolutely not. But only with this proviso: It depends on how one defines serious poetry. If one defines serious poetry in ones own image—ones own poetry and ones own tastes in poetry—then there might be solid self-serving reasons to make that assertion (because if ones tastes aren’t as popular as one might like them to be, it must be because the masses don’t like serious, read real, poetry.) That is: the answer isn’t that ones own tastes in poetry are questionable, but that the unwashed masses aren’t up to ones standards. And fortunately for poets in the grip of the Dunning Kruger effect, there is an argument to be made that popular taste is indeed fickle and mediocre. The indispensable geniuses of each generation fill the next generation’s landfill. Carl Sandburg, for example, rivaled and often exceeded Frost’s reputation, but Sandburg is a thoroughly mediocre poet now relegated to a small coterie of readers (such as most poets may depend on) who will fiercely circle their wagons when their poet is maligned. Note: I look forward to my own coterie of readers.

So who decides what gets to be called serious poetry?

This is why I like Amazon’s comment section. Put enough people together and over time we begin to see which artists might endure. Take the Beatles. There’s always going to be the coterie who insist that [pick your 60s band] were and remain the greater band, but the weight of performances, recordings and comments are on the Beatles’ side. It’s not even close. The latent genius in all of us has decided. The same goes for Mozart and Salieri. And it’s in this sense that the assertion that serious poetry doesn’t sell simply doesn’t hold water. Is one going to claim that Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver (2806 ratings with sales rank of 1400—100 to 120 books a day) aren’t serious poets? Maybe the problem isn’t that serious poetry doesn’t sell well but that ones ideas of serious poetry need revision?

And that brings me to poets like Rupi Kaur and Atticus.

If their thousands of comments aren’t an indicator of their writings’s value, then they’re nonetheless an indicator of their appeal. That can’t be ignored. Kaur does something that a great many serious/contemporary poets don’tshe has something to say. And it’s to the discredit of “serious poets” (ironic quotes) that they don’t have something to say, make affect their message or have decided (like many poets of the latter 20th century) that serious poetry isn’t about anything at all—but is rather a textual performance devoid of any notional or semantic content. In this context, I see Kauer and Ashbery as the endpoints of two extremes in contemporary poetry. With Kaur you have an author with something to say and who says it with little to no artfulness or intellectual vigor while with Ashbery you get a voluble poet with little to say (or who is at best incomprehensible) but who was a master of textual performance (his poetry was the peak achievement of his generation’s aesthetics.) With that in mind, if there’s a reason that serious poetry isn’t as read as Kaur, it’s because serious poetry probably fails to do the one thing that all literature must do, like it or not— and that’s communicate. None of this makes Kaur better than her generation’s “serious poets”, but it also doesn’t make them better than Kaur.

But having written all that, I suspect that Kaur and Atticus will go the way of Emmanuel—an invention of Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton (whose poems are essentially Kaur before there was a Kaur). (Because time and the durability of an artist’s works must also be weighed.) My thought is that most critics/academics would define serious poetry by its literary and stylistic ambitions (as do I); which would exclude Kaur’s poetry. She displays neither literary nor stylistic ambitions. In fact, as I’ve argued previously on my blog, I don’t consider what Kaur writes to be poetry. As I wrote here, “My observation is that the best instapoets are not writing poems. They’re writing proverbs.” That will fly in the face of a contemporary poetics that considers anything that calls itself a poem a poemla!—including a comic strip, (see the periodical Poetry) but there you have it. That’s not to diminish her appeal or accomplishment but rather to say that we really shouldn’t be comparing her to an Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell or Mary Oliver. She’s writing in a different genre with different goals. So, in my view, bringing up Kaur is apples and oranges. You can do it, but then let’s include novels as prose poems if we’re going to go that route.

Anyway, that’s my probably too long foray into sussing out what’s going on in the court of poetry.

Despite knowing that not everyone enjoys these games of who’s in and who’s out, I, like Lear, enjoy them and find, if nothing else, that they can lead us down informative and productive side-streets.

  • Incidentally, Wilbur exceeds Lowell reputation in the court of public opinion. His ratings are slightly less than Lowell’s but his sales rank, for his Collected Poems, is 113,588. He’s not far from selling a book a day, far in excess of Lowell and exceeding Bishop. Randal Jerrell’s Complete Poems rank at 246,482. John Berryman’s Collected Poems at 230,703. Delmore Schwartz’s most commented book, Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, ranks at 182,693. It was hard to find Lowell’s best selling book but it seems to be Life Studies at 452,981.

upinVermont | May 8th 2021