Battle of the Books.
Posted: January 15th, 2010, 1:27 am
I have accepted the fact that the chances of my getting an agent for my not only literary but academic novel are about the same as getting struck by lightning on the day I win the lottery after spotting an ivory billed woodpecker sitting on the shoulder of Sasquatch at a party where Elvis appeared and was documented by CNN. As I said, I have accepted that. Others haven’t. The chair of my department called me in for the annual Faculty Performance Evaluation last spring and asked me in a by-the-way tone if I was not just devastated by a new instructor at our university getting an agent and a three book contract for her vampire novel. “Not at all,” I said, and pointed out that mine was a literary novel. “She wrote in it thirty days,” I added, as if that cleared the whole thing up. “My novel took six years.” “But that’s exactly my point,” he said and then proceeded to narrate a little symbolic tale: It seems as though he was on a fishing trip in Utah over the Easter break with his two nephews. One nephew carefully baited his hook, and sat still, except for moving his cork about, a model of earnestness and dedication. The other nephew propped his pole up with a rock and went running and playing about and, who caught the fish? Of course, we all know who caught the fish, and I am the earnest neurotic kid and the other kid is the golden child. I wanted to take the symbolism a step further and ask him, that as the most non-published individual who had ever had chair in the department, didn’t he feel even worse because he never even got his hook in the water. I did not because scores on our FPR’s are correlated with the raises we get (which are about as often as agents accepting academic novels). I do not pretend that story did not bother me. I am still whining and writing about it. His blasé attitude about the passing of the sui generis literary novel is far more prevalent than well, attitudes like mine. It was simply too quick of a funeral. I don’t know why the world prefers a sentence such as, “Would Zach be willing to step out of his comfort zone for me?” to my sentence rewritten a gazillion times, “Thus evolved another passage in their lives with nothing gained, nothing irretrievably lost, a passage backgrounded with a failure of language, and no real occasion, except spermatozoa ascending toward their own extinction through a treacherous cervical soup flavored with pharmaceutical necessity, unpublished dissertations, and far too much white space in joint portfolios.” Nevertheless, the wake, the funeral, by rights, should still be going on for the literary novel, for my ubermisspent youth reading Henry Miller, Edna O’Brien, John Steinbeck, Updike…For the twenty years I have spent trying to read Proust. For believing that THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN was the perfect novel. For my standing in front of a creative writing class and just not knowing what to say to them any more. Remember, THROW MAMA OFF THE TRAIN and the teacher in the creative writing class discouraging a student from working on a coffee table book about the twenty-five people he most wanted to sleep with? At the end of the movie, the camera pans in on the published book on the teacher's coffee table. That was portentous. Something else is wrong with this picture. AVATAR, an anti-capitalistic movie, has ironically made one billion dollars. Sitting in the theater with my sig other, he complains that robots jumping out of helicopters from that distance would have broken their legs. “But there are flying dragons in this movie,” I say helpfully. “If you can suspend your belief for that why do you need the laws of physics for the robots?” (This was to a man I suspect who came close to making me walk home for laughing all the way through DUNE. I honestly thought it was a comedy.) Those who choose have suspended their powers of belief that words create reality. And The Battle of the Books, or better the Skirmish of the Books as it is becoming, is a bit like AVATAR and the movie, PRECIOUS. A week before we sat in the same theater watching this “inner-city horror story,” about a morbidly obese abused pregnant teenager in NYC. There were, including us, seven people in the theater. I am not complaining that the serious subject matter is dead. I just have one last request. I simply want everyone, including my chair, and all the agents and publishers who have rejected my novel to stuff themselves into the Dallas Cowboy Stadium at one time, and sincerely say to me, “We're sorry.”