The Writer Grouses Into His Hat Before Doing What Everybody Else Does, Flog His CV
It’s pretty obvious that whatever struggles the artist has with him or herself — by far the most interesting part of any biography — the reader cannot be far behind. They’re watching from a short distance. Getting seen, becoming a public scandal, a disturbance, is everything. You want to get there but how ? Anyone without the proper pedigree, who isn’t a part of the system, is up against a certain resistance. Shouting is definitely not going to do it. The internet has more cold, empty spaces than all the galaxies combined. You have to be patient and you have to have good aim.
I’m not talking about journalism. The world is full of journalists. They all have their opinions - because that’s what journalism has become, a vending machine full of take-down opinions about operettas people forget in a week. I wouldn’t claim to be a journalist, I don’t have the training and whatever I’m doing here on Substack, as half-realized as it is, needs another name. But changes to the business mean that writers and journos do share one trait now. It used to be enough to have the diploma from the good school, where you made the necessary contacts and kissed the skinny derrières of the professors who’d mentored someone at the Atlantic or the Paris Review or NBC (if coiffure and reading someone else’s copy was your goal in life). Now those positions are shrinking drastically in number and what’s worse, stand revealed as irredeemiably square. No one wants to be there anymore. The money is good at the Times but you’ve lost your audience. Maybe you have a source at the National Endowment and maybe the NSA whispers sweet nothings in your ear but who’s reading ? People too lazy to get up off the couch. Who broke the Jeffrey Epstein story ? Nobody from the Bigs. Just a hard working woman no one took seriously until she’d amassed a pile of evidence they couldn’t ignore.
So now journalists, of whom we’ve established beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are too many and no one cares about their cover story on the current New York magazine, have to fight for attention like any other writer. It’s a real come down for them. They were always so superior to lonely writers trying to figure out the world. They had a position, a regular paycheck and they looked good, but now, presto-chango, they don’t.
But being seen. That’s the essential thing. Where is the question. There can be innummerable wheres, none of them credentialed. The elder statesmen, the university-supported, still printed on paper literary magazines run submissions through a pay-to-play internet site now, a humiliating confession that their networks aren’t what they used to be. They want some of the wild life out there but they want it at a clean remove, so please submit your work to the thresher and maybe we’ll read it, or maybe not, before we reject. I scan their line-ups of established gray wigs and university writing-program crumb-crushers and say, Ah, still at it. They believe that those of us out here in the world, living through gale-force winds, ought to be interested in their latest pronoun debate or who said what to whom in the cafeteria while we’re struggling to put a new roof on the house. But if we say that, we get banned.
That tremendous whoosh you just heard was the sound of meaning being sucked out of a literary and publishing world that totters along like a drunk with pockets full of casino money. The words float across diaphanous space while the investment tranches swim around the globe in an instant without ever coming up for air.
The question was about how to go about getting a hearing. We’re at the beginning of a new era, the end of Humanism when smart machines will take over and humans will work less while figuring out what it is they want to do with themselves. Our cat-eyed internet salesmen invited us to the Celebration of the Holy Algorithm and when we weren’t looking, fleeced us naked. They always have a new product to feed our susceptibilities. Bitcoin, of course, will make everything transparent, except for those who don’t have it. For them, it will be a long night but maybe not too cold, provided they can get their hands on the territory to exist apart from the big machine humans have created.
Where does that leave criticism and poetry ? Where does that leave writers, who as bad and as selfish as we are, function as some sort of conscience for a race whose main goal is to feel good about themselves after a day of slaughter ? Where does that leave the very human desire to create an intimate world, either in an amphitheatre or on the pages of a book ? Is the whole thing going to be erased ? We’ll have to fight to be heard, but more importantly we’ll have to create strategic bases where we can be together, breathe together, make collective decisions. Even Kafka had friends, one of whom saved his work from the bonfire. I can imagine a Paolo Soleri settlement in the desert that did nothing but print pamphlets advocating the wildest humanist ideas, which the traffic leaving the oasis took with them and distributed in the far cities where people have lost heart, where they are unfamiliar with the experience of sitting down with the slender pages of a book to argue things out with themselves. That remains a far more radical experience for human beings than fast-loading internet.
I’d been out of the States for eight years when Covid struck. I came out of my cave and went around asking people what they knew about what to read, flipping through piles of magazines and trying to find allies, making lists of internet journals, most of whom never reply or who sniff, We’re not reading now, as if some disaster had just struck and they were busy cleaning up a flash flood in the kitchen or — and maybe this is the truth — reading other people’s work is only a part-time vocation when they’re not grading papers. I sent my work everywhere. I sent to the prestige magazines and the ones with universities in the title. Magazines named after cities and towns I like. I found allies in small and medium-sized venues. The ones that paid, it was all transactional. You publish, and they never talk to you again. America is built on that, ever since that fateful encounter when the Indians gave up Manhattan for a handful of beads. Not that they knew what they were getting into.
A short list of articles, essays and fiction follows, from the last six months. I could write twice as much as everything here but somebody has to ask, somebody in the English-speaking world has to say, what about that guy in Paris, what does he think ? This isn’t just a question of technology but of culture, of disposition and curiosity. Writers are like horses, we need to be in harness. Even so, we have to get over the waiting-to-be-asked jazz and the I’ll-hack-it-out-myself Western playboy myth and come up with something better. I’m profoundly grateful for the repeated interest shown by both KGB Literary, the bar on dear old East 4th Street. Edouard Launet translated a piece of mine for Délibéré, while La Folia continues to be a great place to experience the music of words dancing around the sounds.
Now you can say you read it before everyone else : le Plouc de Paris (in Engish)
Old News on Medium, which I never remember to update but has a few things
Counterpunch : an article on French tax evasion, from the boardroom to the guy at the train station with bags full of cash. Pretty good. Also on here, Substack, somewhere.
More Fiction, murder and mayhem from Amsterdam to the Pyrenées, this one at Baffler
Musique : Georges Brassens and others, some pieces under a nom de plume I nicked from Sexus, Iddhis Bing
The Jim Haynes part of the essay started here on Riffs but grew to include the life of the marvelous Ghédalia Tazartès : Radical Lives in Paris, on KGB Bar Lit. Pretty famous dive in the East Village, now you can read it on line minus the gin and peanuts.
The Assange piece below was reprinted in different places. KGB also has a rant about the West’s Political Prisoner No. 1 in the current issue. I don’t think there’s any shame in banging on the can a few times to get a guy out of the worst conditions imaginable. Nobody cares who wrote it if it at least causes an echo somewhere : Here on Barricade and here on The Reading Room.
I start my day with Délibéré to keep my French sharp. A short reminisce, a few pix, a toast to the old days on the vélo here in Paris.
Thanks for coming this far. Rest assured, there is a way out of the labyrinth. The main thing is, the trip out should be just as exhilarating as the way we got lost going in was perplexing. Those who prefer light entertainment can trip on down to the letters below.
This is a very good piece of writing. Ever since Ronald Reagan became Governor of California in 1967 the downfall of journalism started, and it's become worse and worse every year. What he introduced was the idea that making money was the be-all and end-all of human endeavor. Forget about making money. "I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love." Or maybe it started with Samuel Johnson. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Forget about making money, write for the pure joy of making a single good sentence, or two, or three...or a whole book of good sentences. That's the point of writing. Pure joy.