Alex Pruteanu is the author of Short Lean Cuts, a novella which, amongst other topics, explores the ever-escalating narratives offered for public consumption. Fittingly, my acquaintance with Pruteanu developed online and progressed via Facebook, the ultimate forum for constructed narratives of life and self. A native of Romania, familiar of Moldova, and American of thirty years, Pruteanu isn’t waving a flag for any country, citing the natural clusters forming “villages, towns, or even cities” as the real loci of our allegiance. To quote Gogol Bordello, “Between the borders, the real countries hide.” In the following interview, Pruteanu, the second featured author in “The New Xорошо,” echoes the sentiment that “the programmed robots are buying and buying” and shares his thoughts on place, nostalgia, timelessness, and how bestand will eventually snuff the human species.
~T.M. De Vos
I found Chapter Twelve (Bestand) to be the crux, ideologically. For me, it spoke to the ethic of the extreme that is so ruthlessly bled in American media. The audience’s compassion fatigue seems to require that entertainment escalate into caricaturish intensity: soon, there will be no crazy shit left to do. Even our own wounds as human beings have to be shocking enough, or we’re not interesting, as creative people, as friends, as partners. I’m also imagining the environmental implications of this attitude; perhaps not imagining, really, because I think they’re pretty evident. Can you say more about what bestand means to you as an author and as a human being (if those two roles are indeed different)?
There are several ideas I examine in this novella. Consumerism is one of them. The word bestand literally means to stand around or about, beset, surround, to harass. Cognate with the German, bestehen, which means to subsist/to endure, and this is where Martin Heidegger’s concept, or take on bestand initially caught my eye. At the time I wrote Short Lean Cuts, I was reading Heidegger’s explorations of the question of Being and came across his idea that people tend to look at the world as a giant warehouse stocked with material ready for them to use; simple inventory available to be processed into something more valuable. Examples such as natural gas/petrol refined and re-sold, coffee beans ground down into fine espresso (commodities), trees shredded and manufactured into pulp and later into paper, animals mass-processed into unrecognizable foodstuff…basically products derived from natural resources. For those “have-nots” without access to the heavy-duty inventory like oil wells, diamond mines, natural gas pockets, it seems evolutionary to utilize the only thing they can tap: their own bodies or lives; their own intellectual property; their experiences as product; as entertainment, but as you say, as entertainment pushed to its ultimate limit—into “caricaturish intensity.” What Heidegger points out in his theory is the tendency to translate bestand into exploitation and enslavement for our own benefit.
I see Heidegger’s concept and its repercussions present in nearly every aspect of my daily life here in the States.
Do you think that this issue of bestand is geographically, or temporally, inflected? Is bestand an original sin of being human, or is it possible for cultures—and individuals—to be less guilty?
I think the tipping point (of no return) has been reached. Given the rapid population increase globally and the rapidly-decreasing resources, we are in for a miserable upcoming half of a century. I think humanity is glib enough to wipe itself off the face of this planet—whether via nuclear warfare or just systematically starving/satiating itself. I think it doesn’t much matter what austerity measures we employ from now on (if they can even be legislated or passed as legislation), we are on the downside of the curve. I think it’s too late.
From the obvious environmental impact of multinational corporations (extraction, seed re-engineering, genetically-modified organisms), to personal exploitation on national stages such as “reality shows,” to every day exposition and narcissism on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google +. I want to underscore that among everything and everyone satirized in this novella, I include myself. I stress that self criticism in these following not-so-subtle lines the main character confesses in chapter twelve (Bestand): “And so this is what this is. This story. It’s a shameless exploitation of my life; where everything becomes manufactured with a purpose: sell it to you.”
And to get back to our discussion, let’s be honest here: I am an author, peddling a product: a book. I want to sell that; to many people, in fact. In this way I, myself, am not above Heidegger’s idea of “bestand,” for as one of those “have-nots” I am utilizing the only thing I possess to reach into: my own experience, my own life turned into a product. It’s quite refreshing and exhilarating to come clean in this way. I imagine this must have been what F. Scott Fitzgerald often felt, while methodically eviscerating his generation in literature and, most importantly, his own (parasitical) social class. But then again maybe I should exercise a bit more humility and not place myself in Fitzgerald’s company or assume I have anything in common with him.
Heh. Why do you suppose the “have-nots” and their misadventures are so marketable? Who are the consumers for this product?
The consumers are the “have-nots” ourselves. Commiseration gives us a sense of camaraderie, but it also naturally flows into immiseration—the view that the nature of capitalist production logically requires an ever greater reduction in real wages and worsening of working condition for the middle or working class. It isn’t just a Marxist thesis any longer; it’s what’s happening right now in the United States. All who refuse to see that are either blind, or speculating for a superior position.
You are correct when you decree: “soon there will be no crazy shit left to do.” I wholeheartedly agree with that. I am waiting for the day when “Friday Night Executions” will take over the #1 spot on some network. You know, that Schwarzenegger movie “Running Man” doesn’t seem all that farfetched now, does it?
I haven’t seen it. As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch most movies or TV shows, and my efforts to break out of that mode of being (Dasein?) are spotty at best. I’ll have to queue it.
The basic premise is a futuristic TV game show in which the “contestants” are convicted criminal “runners” who must escape death at the hands of professional killers. It’s set in 2017, and loosely based upon a Stephen King novel. We’re not that far off from this premise. We’re bored with most everything else; the stakes will more than likely be raised. And the ratings will follow. This is one of the ideas satirized in Short Lean Cuts; the extremism required for obtaining a high Q score.
I always get fascinated by the wrong things, in books movies, people, places, and so on. Towards the end of Chapter Fifteen (Good Therapy), as you’re listing the Latin names for esoteric phobias (I liked Bolshephobia, myself), I became hung up on the following passage:
“Coimetrophobia—fear of cemeteries.
Wrong. I’ve always loved them. I once read a book over satellite phone to a girl with blue eyes, in a cemetery. In another country. But I’ve locked that. That one is for me. I won’t tell you about it.”
It’s such an interesting act of defiance when the narrator gives this skeleton of the story but withholds the rest. What’s locked here, for him? “
Again, Short Lean Cuts—among other things—is my attempt at criticizing our prevalent, skewed sense of self-importance, entitlement, and narcissism. This is fundamentally the story of a man who will do anything to get a little face time (a high Q score, as it’s used in television). It’s also the story of crossing the line into becoming a product or a brand—again measured by a Q score—and exploited by various parasitical professions, such as psychiatrists, talent agents, or television producers. And one’s own self (or one’s id, un-checked by one’s super-ego).
I can see talent agents and television producers. I’m curious about your inclusion of psychiatrists in the parasite class. Do you view the other “helping professions” as harboring parasites on the have-nots?
I have to be careful here that I don’t sound like a Scientologist; I see and categorize most of the psychiatry discipline as a parasitical symbiotic relationship with its patients, yes. But please note the word “most” here. I view most of the medical system in the United States in much the same way. Again, I point to the word “most.” This opens up a brand new Pandora’s box of tangents and personal beliefs, but we may have to save that for another day. But since we’re onto this, I also view the financial/banking system, in particular the Central Bank model, as a parasitical institution onto the working class, again engaged in a symbiotic relationship. The paralyzing effect of debt on our society in the States is yet another form of Heidegger’s “bestand” theory.
I felt that the particular case in which the character withholds a personal story might add a bit to his complexity, and might humanize him a bit more. Here’s a man consumed by narcissism (and perhaps large parts of mental illness, paranoia, etc.), but not completely yet. This story he holds for himself. Maybe this is the last thing he has that’s his own that hasn’t become a product; a Lifetime movie of the week. It just rounds this character a bit more. I don’t necessarily think it makes him more like-able, however. And that’s good. He is us, now, in the 21st Century…tweeting/Facebook-ing our location, our every move, our every bodily function. I don’t like that. I don’t like us.
Valerie of Trick w/a Knife says that you have “mastered constructive nihilism.” I am a huge nihilist and, like any fanatic, I love it when anyone else is. Are you? How the hell have you mastered it?
I have always closely associated my belief in nihilism with existentialism. I first came upon the existentialists around age 16 or thereabouts. I don’t quite remember how I bumped into the likes of Camus, Sartre, and Baudrillard—probably as a logical progression or a tangent of reading Kafka, but I did. I recall combining reading “The Stranger” with listening, at the time, to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and “The Final Cut” and in my mind then, the two—existential literature and Floyd’s two concept works—just seemed to fit nicely. It was around the same time I discovered the absurd theatre (Eugene Ionesco), so the trifecta was complete. I suppose I formed my initial thoughts on nihilism based upon my love and my identification with those first-encountered works; as well as a healthy dose of teenage angst and gloom and doom, naturally. But over the decades since, I feel I have never really strayed away from that belief base. That isn’t to say I haven’t progressed or understood logic better…in fact it’s exactly because of that I still hold strong to my existential roots.
I think a lot of people mistake nihilism with a belief in nothing. I may be wrong about its meaning, but my belief is, indeed, in something: that everything is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. I suppose I can be also shoved into the “moral nihilist” pig pen as well, as I also believe morality doesn’t inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. I pause here to chuckle at one of my favourite quotes from the eternal Oscar Wilde: “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people we personally dislike.”
There aren’t so much moral imperatives from on high as there are general agreements so that we can tranquilize Eros and Thanatos enough to live reasonably peacefully with others. Actions, really, aren’t so much objectively good or bad as they are harmful or beneficial to one being or another. Your opinion on them depends on your relationship to the subject.
How do you distinguish the protagonist of a story under these circumstances? The antagonist or antagonizing forces?
I don’t distinguish him or her. Or at least I try not to. I am drawn to characters that exist somewhere in between those lines; the anti-heroes. I think it all started for me after first seeing Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” sometime in my teens. Travis Bickle, for me, is the quintessential modern American anti-hero—whether in film or literature. I think of the narrator in Short Lean Cuts as Travis Bickle’s natural descendant; the son Travis never had.
Jean Baudrillard has called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch and many figures of religious authority have decreed that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that such a rejection entails some form of nihilism. I couldn’t agree more.
I don’t believe I have mastered anything, much less the doctrine of disambiguation. But my writing is peppered with ideas of despair and a perceived pointlessness of existence that many readers seem to recognize and perhaps give meaning to, or work out on their own. In most cases, my stories have no clear ending, if any at all.
Reading your blog, I was struck by how grounded your work is in place. Some places reverberated with all-Americanness, only to reveal that what an American reader might see as familiar is actually deeply bizarre or disturbing. Forgive me for pulling the nationality card, but how closely do these revelations fit with your own experience of American culture?
Ever since arriving in the States in 1980 I’ve felt trapped between two countries. I’ve felt I never really had a good, long chance to develop any allegiance or patriotism for my country of birth, Romania, but at the same time—or rather, subsequently—I’ve also felt a nonchalance for my adopted country (the U.S.), and a lack of identification with any fundamental cultural or social aspect or movement in the United States—basically, I don’t belong in either country, if anywhere at all. This is probably not something many people are used to hearing, and probably not something you were hoping to extract from me, when you initially decided to do this interview.
It’s really okay. This column is for the purposes of discussion, not flag-waving. You don’t need to be a cultural artifact.
It’s hard to say whether or not, given more time to live in Romania, I would have developed a sense of loyalty in the first place. I find borders and divisions of land into countries or states or territories quite comical and absurd. To look on a map of the world and trace the lines which divide Tanzania from Kenya or from Burundi or Rwanda, or to see how natural geography such as lakes or rivers divide appropriated land is preposterous to me. If anything, villages, towns, or even cities are the living breathing entities which theoretically could be partitioned, but anything larger than that, being divided and labeled in some way, and then administered by some sort of central government or government-like body, is incongruous.
That being said, I think my fiction naturally has that duality within it: perhaps a tinge of nostalgia for the country I knew my first 11 years of life, coupled with the “all-American-ness” of which you speak. But the finished product (story/novel/poem), I agree, is something that leaves the reader feeling uneasy and at times disoriented; something that is, as you say, “bizarre or disturbing.” I think that is spot on, because for me as the writer, the feeling of being suspended in between two countries yields that sort of perspective. I think it challenges the reader to find meaning in that, and to examine his or her own ideas of what patriotism or allegiance really mean.
There does seem to be a collusion in the clusters that make up the life of a small town, or even a large city, that isn’t permeated by the political. When you feel nostalgia for Romania, do you feel nostalgic for the country, or for your own experience in the small society that enfolded you as a young child?
I fight nostalgia with as much vigor as I can—both in my daily life, as well as in my fiction, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t slip into my stories…it’s all right, however; I try to allow just enough to give some sort of emotion to these pieces, otherwise I might as well have a robot create them. Readers need to feel some emotional connection. To answer your question, I feel a combination longing for both the geography of the country, as well as my experiences and events surrounding them.
Your pieces set in Eastern Europe seem to emerge on your blog every few posts. I noticed that they tend to be written from a distance of many years, which gives them a mood reminiscent of looking at an old scar or visiting the site of a historical tragedy. How does setting affect your tone, and your sense of time, when writing?
Again, you are absolutely spot-on about these stories. They read like that because, in fact, they are written by a man who is standing on a far away shore, looking back. I try to remove all melancholy from these pieces in particular, when I write them, but there’s no way to mask the distance from which I’m revisiting certain events and certain settings. They are subjective, and my view on the geography or time frame of a piece is quite subjective, but ultimately I am more interested in digging up and presenting the human condition under various circumstances—usually futile circumstances. These pieces don’t seem to resonate with North American readers as much, or if they do, no one is commenting, and so I may have the wrong idea, but these stories are part of what I know and who I am. And little details that pop up, like Trabant cars, or eating stuffed cabbage leaves (sarmale) at Christmas time, are my homage to a slice of culture in which I was brought up. But they serve more as details or accoutrement to the central theme of the stories—which is usually isolationism, or an obtuse sense of not belonging anywhere.
In my head, Eastern European settings in my stories exist within the specific timeframe of the 1970s, but I write them carefully enough not to overtly place them there. The greatest thing about Communism is its ability to eradicate history, and effectively arrest time. (Walk around Havana lately?) If a writer is careful enough, that temporal permanence can be used to a great advantage as a framework for the intended purpose or idea of a story/novel, and not necessarily date it. It can work like a simple, wooden stage where only the play that is being acted upon it matters.
That’s an interesting idea—to present an ongoing dynamic about power—its wielding and abuses—and the banal, sort of poignant things people do and have done for generations—grow up, fall in love, look for community, lose people—despite whatever else may be going on around them. Are there other contexts, as well as Communism, that can create this effect of timelessness in a story—or, more accurately, this lack of location in time?
Offhand I cannot think of anything else that doesn’t enter into the science fiction rubric. I’m not well-versed in the sci-fi genre, so I may be wrong here. I suppose any repressive regime with the double-edged blade of eviscerating religion from the fabric of its society can work just as well. I’ve always found it fascinating that the most successful and longest-lasting dictatorships or repressive regimes are the ones that are based upon, or invoke a religious dogma. In fact, the process of answering this question has maybe yielded a response for you: Religion. Religion as an instrument of timelessness…or the eradication of temporal consciousness (offhand I can think of the Amish, in this country). Religion as the nullification of history; or science. Maybe that’s where the Communists failed; maybe imposing atheism on society was the fundamental flaw.
One of my favourite writers is the recently-deceased, Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago. In most of his works, he inserts allegories into un-named cities, un-named countries, and un-specified times (although most of his novels are dystopian by label). In fact, Saramago doesn’t even bother with proper names, and so we get to follow the fate of The Blind Woman or The Grandmother or The Government Functionary.
You commented on Facebook that your father, and you, are from Moldova, a country very close to my heart. What was it like to grow up there? How often do you get back? What’s your take on Transnistria?
I may have rushed with my comments (as I often do on Facebook) and may have been misunderstood; my father was born in a small village in Moldova, but I was born in Bucharest. However, I spent many a summer and winter at my father’s place of birth while a young boy. In fact, during a brief time in 1977 after a major earthquake nearly leveled Bucharest, I attended school in my father’s village. It is there that I got to see the Christmas ritual of my grandfather slaughtering the pig, and the simple, frugal, peasant way of life so many people here in the States talk about eventually recapturing.
I always hear that kind of talk with a heavy dose of skepticism. How well do you think Americans would do at scaling back their bestand to that degree?
I always apply a heavy coat of skepticism as well. I don’t have faith that most Americans would do well under austerity measures of any kind. We are comfortable people now, more likely to start a revolution over the cancellation of the Super Bowl, than a legitimate cause. We are what I like to call “armchair supporters” of issues; that is to say, we’d much rather “thumb-up” on Facebook a movement or a crusade for (or against) something, than actually act upon it. So no, I have no faith that we, Americans, can voluntarily consume less. We will deplete everything before we even think about that.
I haven’t been back since I left in 1980. Since then, my father’s parents have passed away and the family house has been taken over and re-modeled by my cousin, her husband, and my uncle (her father). The house now has running water, a telephone, and almost all the modern amenities one would expect. The dirt roads of the village have been paved. Strangely, I am not in a hurry to get back and take in all the progress, or re-connect in any way. I am probably a rare case of an expatriate who doesn’t get too sentimental about concepts such as “homeland” or “Mother Country” or even geography in general. While I adore and appreciate nature and geographical features, I don’t feel any particular calling to it. My father, also a writer, has been back numerous times in the last thirty-one years, and that part of the world features prominently in his novels. In fact, his latest book is set in his home village and features as the main character my daughter, in an allegorical return to the homeland to be raised by a handful of strange and wonderful characters—all natives of the village.
I don’t mean to ask the most obvious questions, but here I go anyway: how much influence has your father being a writer influenced your own path? Would an overly deterministic reader detect any filial strain/conversation/rebellion in your father’s, and your, writing styles? And what titles would an overly deterministic reader look up on, say, her Nook or other e-reading device to find out?
I probably began to write because I was an only child in Romania and most of the fantastic worlds that existed for a young boy were found in books. And so I spent a lot of free time reading. I suppose that was a direction that my father encouraged, he being a writer, but I’d say my mother equally influenced that development. Or maybe it was just situational. We didn’t have entertainment on TV or much at the cinema.
As I got older, and came to the States, my father always supported my path as a writer, but he hasn’t had much stylistic influence on my own work at all. He is a much more classical, ornate kind of writer; he loves similes and metaphors, and he draws heavily from cultural/local myth and folklore as well as world philosophy. My father is much better read in, for example, Eastern philosophy than I am. Stylistically, I am less interested in allegory and symbolism—both which feature prominently in my father’s writing, and more concerned with the humanity—or loss thereof—of my characters placed within a modern setting or world. I would classify my father as a brilliant story teller, able to draw from the Romanian folklore and spin fantastic tales. He was also a working actor while in Romania, so he has quite the ability to deliver these tales. I don’t believe his work is available to purchase on electronic devices. All of his novels are written in Romanian and have been published and distributed in Romania only. Aside from the personal copies he’s distributed to family and friends here, I believe you can only purchase his novels from the publishers themselves.
On Transnistria I can only say that, like other post-Soviet frozen conflict zones such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, I hope the international community will eventually recognize it as an independent state.
How much do you follow the politics in that region? How does your stance on morality affect your reaction to the social issues there—such as discrimination against the Roma and human trafficking, for example?
Yes, I tend to stay interested and pretty well connected to that side of our world via news outlets and occasional interaction with friends or distant family. There is discrimination against everyone by virtually everyone—historically and elementally—within humanity. No atrocity can shock me any longer…not at my age. I am able to see both sides in the Roma/Gypsy situation. Neither side is necessarily clean or ethical in their generalizations or actions. I don’t believe in that “can’t we all just get along?” rhetorical bullshit. It’s been historically proven that we cannot. I can basically infer that we will not ever be able to. I’m not necessarily a squeaky-clean, ultra-ethical person either, so I cannot truly and honestly decree anything, or deem myself anything. In the exploitation of Man by Other Man I can only nod my head and acknowledge that it will never stop. It is how we are.
And how did you get to North Carolina?
Through a mélange of fortunate and unfortunate events, my journey from Romania took me to Cleveland, Washington D.C., a brief stop in Los Angeles, south Florida, a quick flirtation with Toronto, and finally the research triangle area (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) in North Carolina. The story is too long to tell here; even I couldn’t compress thirty-one years in one paragraph, but suffice it to say I am quite content with co-existing in this part of the country. I have fairly quick access to family in Washington D.C. and south Florida, as well as proximity to New York City, Atlanta, and even New Orleans if I feel the need to visit or go on short holiday.
Your reviewers wax pretty lyrical about diamonds amid dross, slashing scalpels, and punches in the face. The word “dark” also came up a lot. What about your writing has such a visceral effect on people?
Dark is good. It’s nothing to be afraid of. I love the recent discovery of dark, rogue planets floating freely in space, not ensnared by the gravity of a star or a particular solar system, but I digress. I think the writing is what the reader says it is. In fact, re-reading through the final copy of the Short Lean Cuts manuscript I found myself bursting into laughter many times. I’m not sure that’s a by-product of “something dark” but again, it is what the reader says it is.
As a reader of your own work, what would you say it is?
I’d say this particular novella certainly explores some of the nastiest, seediest sides of our private lives or thoughts or fetishes. And the short, sharp, poking style in which it’s written definitely adds to a sort of urgent undercurrent that flows throughout the book—it’s all leading pretty quickly to an end of some sort; whether real or imagined. But again, reading through the final manuscript I found myself laughing quite often. I think there are parts that are hilarious in this book. Maybe that doesn’t make me too normal.
I learned the mechanics of writing in English by reading Ernest Hemingway initially. I was attracted to the enormous amount of feeling and complicated emotion living within (or hidden by) deceptively sparse language. We all know how much Hemingway revolutionized the written English language, but I don’t think we realize just how many writers and artists he influenced. I think his reach into an artist’s brain is gargantuan—whether conscious or not. One of my favourite writers, Hunter S. Thompson, used to sit down at his desk, while learning how to write, and type out passages from Hemingway’s novels in order to learn pacing.
And so, having English as my second language, I was immediately attracted to a simpler, less Dickensian or Proustian kind of style. But I also was attracted by what was being said, or rather, left out…and how much of it there was. Yes, I see delivering sentences similar to delivering jabs or upper cuts or hooks to the ribs, but never to simply shock…or as a gimmick. I also think that style works to my advantage in this time when people have shorter attention spans and will not hang in with long, verbose passages or novels. Expostulation of ideas in hundreds of thousands of words does not interest me. My ideal novel is eighty or so thousand words.
I think readers are attracted to this style because it delivers that punch without mucking about for too long. I spend quite some time choosing and picking simple language that carries and delivers much more that what’s on the surface, and often times I re-write quite a bit—most of the time looking to cut and cut some more. I once kidded with a writer friend that one day I’ll have this science down to basically not writing anything at all. The manuscript will be one nice, neat, blank page; everything distilled down to nothing. That will be the scam of the century. P.T. Barnum will be proud of me. And I will sell that to many.
The perfect nihilist novel. Wasn’t there a musician whose entire performance was the sounds of the audience as they shuffled around, waiting for the show to start?
I don’t know, but that sounds like a piece of “music” I’d be drawn to.
What was some of the material you cut: background about the character, additional scenes or relationships, more inner musings, a longer stretch of time, other?
In fact, with this book I ended up adding material, bridging the chapters with unifying details to round out the story. I originally had the idea of writing each chapter as a piece of flash fiction that would be able to stand alone if chosen to be published as such, as well as serve as support for a larger story. In pulling all the chapters together, I found it necessary to fuse them into a more coherent, general idea. Because of the revisions I did, I think at this point one is no longer able to pluck out the chapters and have them stand independently. That being said, I think this particular style of writing will grate on a reader’s brain if experienced for too long—and so this is exactly why I decided Short Lean Cuts should be a novella. I cannot imagine it being any longer than that.
You commented about your recording of “May Day” for Pank that you found that “author readings take away some things from a piece.” What do you feel is lost, in general? What was lost from “May Day” as a result of this recording?
Actually, I think my reading of “May Day” in Pank did the piece quite the justice it deserved. In general I find that for me, authors reading their works take away from the dynamic or the intensity of the passage they’re reciting. Either the author is reading in such an affected manner or with such a grave cadence that it literally makes me laugh and distracts me from the work itself, or—as is the case with some younger authors I’ve heard—they rush through their pieces, often times up-talking (ending every sentence as a question) and, again, taking focus away from their written work.
That manner of speaking? Totally seems? To be, like, the curse of today’s youth? You know what I mean?
I do, I do…it’s precisely that sort of cadence that distracts me from the piece that’s being read. But you know, that was “the curse” of my youth as well…remember in the early 80s Moon Zappa had that hit “Valley Girl.” Totally, like…you know?
I remember, during my teenage infatuation with Hemingway’s work, I once came upon a recording of him reciting some early poems he had written in the early 1920s and I was shocked at how morose, how affected, how serious he sounded. He even had a bit of a Queen’s English accent—he being raised in the Michigan countryside. I was speechless. I began to laugh. I recall even saying out loud: how in hell can you take yourself so seriously, man? Fitzgerald was the same. Even though I adore Fitzgerald’s writing, hearing him read just distracts me from the work—again, that classic, affected, upper-strata cadence that just kills me. Of course, I do understand Fitzgerald was upper class personified, so he may be allowed a pass.
I think we writers often take ourselves way too seriously. We all piss into the same porcelain pot, really. Let’s stop with the shenanigans and pretension.
That being said, the best readings I’ve heard were Charles Bukowski reciting his poems. He always delivered in that laid-back, everything’s cool, southern California manner, and he always had a little smirk on his face…alongside his bottle of wine, of course.
I do have to admit I don’t like the “author reading from his work” model that bookstores seem to still employ, in order that they sell the product. I find that authors at the lectern reading, inserts some sort of divide between them and their audiences. I’d much rather attend a question-answer only session with an author, than sit quietly for upwards of an hour, hands in my lap, while the artiste showers me with his or her interpretation.
What do you think of some of the alternatives to the traditional literary reading—for example, the “Brothellian Movement,” wherein patrons buy one-on-one sessions with costumed poets, or scripted performance art/literature that involves the audience to varying degrees?
I must admit before you mentioned it, I’d never heard of the Brothellian Movement. But it sounds comical to me. At that point, why not just have it be theatre? That being said, things like Renaissance festivals and war re-enactments are big here in the States. I’m not sure why, and I’d never attend any of them as I’m not interested in re-living the past, but that’s just my personal preference. The thing that is probably the most creepy and bizarre to me is the Civil War re-enactments that go on here every year consistently. I truly don’t understand those. Or any war re-enactment for that matter. Why are people interested in exploring strife and depravity and horrific death, or deplorable conditions? Why not move forward?
But to get back to your question, I suppose if an artist can make a living any which way he or she can, then it’s quite acceptable to don tunics or tights and recite some poetry.
We are writers, not voice-over personalities. We should just write.
This is in a different vein, perhaps, but what is your take on the industries that have grown up around writing, such as the MFA program and the Expensive Literary Retreat in a Nice Place? Local workshops and writers’ groups are, I guess, their poor cousins. Why do you suppose so many people believe that they have poetry, or a novel, in them?
Personally, I’ve never attended or have been part of such things…nor am I interested in any of them. My take on them is that they wouldn’t have helped me more than just reading voraciously, in general. And writing. I suppose so many people believe that they have poetry, or a novel in them because they are misinformed by the ones who love them. Or they watch too many films that feature “the common man” suddenly being plucked from obscurity and recognized for that hidden, well-tuned talent. They are misguided and wrongly encouraged. I think there is nothing wrong with telling a family member or a friend that, despite his or her belief, he/she cannot write well. But…perhaps he/she can draw well, or sing well, or play an instrument well, or just be a good mother or father or husband or wife, etc. All of that is equally important in a life. One doesn’t have to be an artist at all, to contribute positively to society. And…finally a cliché has found its way to the surface.
T.M. De Vos is co-editor-in-chief of Gloom Cupboard and author of The Dimestore World, a poetry collection forthcoming from Patasola Press. She is a lover of sad languages, independent republics, and being in transit. Eastern European authors interested in being featured in “The New Хорошо” should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.