Twenty Years Later: B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series.


Twenty years ago this month, The Atlantic published a critical essay on the then-current state of American prose. As dry and dusty a topic that sounds—doubly so when published by an august New England monthly—it improbably became a cultural sensation, leading to op-eds in international newspapers, vitriolic letters-to-the-editor, screechy denunciations from professional reviewers across the media spectrum, and readers everywhere debating—of all things—the modern novel.

Writer B. R. Myers unexpectedly touched a raw nerve in an America that was better-read than the literati believed possible. “A Reader’s Manifesto” dissected without mercy the work of such literary lights as Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and David Guterson. Myers didn’t merely criticize their prose on terms of its grammar and diction, he attacked these writers on grounds of pretentiousness, and accused the literary establishment of abetting their ascendancy.

Charged stuff, but still very inside baseball. To rouse an impassioned response from readers over books like White Noise and Snow Falling Like Cedars was a remarkable moment in American culture. It’s more remarkable considering some of the above authors’ books satirize the inanity of American culture.

Looking back, it seems dream-like for a critical examination of literary novels to ignite such a furor. I can’t imagine such a thing happening today. Then again, it seemed equally unimaginable twenty years ago.

History of Manifesto

Fed-up with fawning reviews of works like Timbuktu and All the Pretty Horses, Myers first wrote his manifesto in 1999. Using careful, reasoned prose punctuated with wit and scathing humor, he analyzed passages from prize-winning books—passages which had been the subject of so much praise by literary reviewers as examples of masterful writing. In his hands, and using tried-and-true close-reading techniques, he punctured these writers’ obtuse and repetitive language to reveal prose he found to be turgid, meaningless, and pretentious.

Myers was convinced no magazine or newspaper would publish his critique. He was an unknown in the literary world; a monograph on the quality of modern literary prose hardly promises to fly off bookstore shelves.

So Myers did what many writers would do in later years: He self-published his manifesto on Amazon. He titled it Gorgons in the Pool: The Trouble with Contemporary “Literary” Prose after a particularly choice passage in a Cormac McCarthy novel. “Nothing happened,” he later wrote. “I went online and ordered three copies for myself; they were the only ones ever sold.”

One of the copies he mailed out for review wound up in the hands of an Atlantic editor, who offered to publish rather than review it. The Atlantic demanded severe cuts and revisions, and the version published in the magazine comes off nastier than he’d intended. He also had the gut-wrenching task of waving off the Times Literary Supplement from publishing a review of Gorgons, as he’d already signed a contract with The Atlantic. (“As someone said to me the other day, ‘How do you know [Times Literary Supplement] wasn’t going to tear you apart?'” he later remarked. “I suppose everything worked out for the best.”) Bad timing would develop into a cadence for Manifesto.

Gorgons in the Pool by B. R. Myers

The Atlantic article, tucked away deep inside the July/August double-issue, improbably made Myers a name-brand overnight. His outsider status only buffed his credentials as a hard-nosed reviewer. Even his use of first initials added a mysterious air to his origins. Although he received praise from many quarters, it mostly came from readers and (interestingly) journalists, a profession notorious for attracting writers shut-out of the book publishing world.

Although the literati initially ignored the essay, drumbeats of support from readers for Myers basic thesis—modern lit is pretentious—caught their attention. Much of the criticism directed back at Myers originated from book reviewers, book supplement editors, and literary novelists. Some of it was quite vitriolic, outraged anyone could even suggest the writers he selected weren’t unassailable geniuses. A few of these refutations had a smug air about them, as though they were slamming the door on Myers and putting an and to the dreary affair once and for all.

It didn’t work. The rebuttals only stoked increased support for Myers from readers around the world. The back-and-forth debate raged online and, as a mark of the times, across letters-to-the-editor pages, which printed point and counterpoint letters for weeks. This simply did not happen often, even in a time when a lot of people still had their news delivered to them via bicycle.

Frustrated. the literary professional class took up what is today recognized as a surefire stratagem for shutting down an Internet debate: They doxxed him.

Not exactly—while The New York Times Book Review didn’t print Myers’ phone number and street address, they did see fit to delve into his past for anything incriminating (much like the Twitterati today will dumpster-dive people’s feeds to dig up embarrassing tweets from eight years ago). With the ethics of a tabloid reporter, Judith Shulevitz dished to her readers that Myers was a foreigner (he’s not) who lived in New Mexico (i.e., not New York City) and was at that moment preparing to spend a year in Seoul “teaching North Korean literature to the South Koreans.” (Myers’ response: “I would probably have described my job in a way less calculated to evoke the phrase ‘selling ice to the eskimoes.'”)

Myers, Shulevitz wrote, “is not just a man without a stake in the literary establishment. He is foreign to it in every way.” His manifesto could have

proved that a critic needs nothing more than taste to make a case. Does Myers’s essay do all this? It does not, because Myers doesn’t have a sure grasp of the world he’s attacking.

Most of the denunciations of Manifesto are steeped in this kind of a haughty condescension, and it served Myers well.

(I should add that I’m uncomfortable throwing around the phrase “literary establishment” as a catch-all for a wide and disjointed segment. Yet, Shulevitz seemed comfortable acknowledging its existence in 2001, so I’ll assume it existed then and exists today.)

Manifesto continued to be a lodestone of bad timing. The Times‘ nativist pillorying of Myers was published on September 9, 2001. Two days later, the Times—and the rest of the world—was focused on a very different subject. The literary debate Myers had sparked that summer ground to a halt.

The history of Manifesto could easily have ended with the attacks on the World Trade Center, if not for events which nudged a little harder on the snowball Myers had started rolling in 1999.

First was Oprah selecting Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for her book club. To get an idea of how close this shaved against Myer’s Manifesto—and his continued game of footsie with bad timing—the same edition of the New York Times Book Review that exposed Myers as a Korean-teaching foreigner also included a glowing review of The Corrections with an ironic premonition of Oedipus Rex proportions: A winking approval that the book contains “just enough novel-of-paranoia touches so Oprah won’t assign it and ruin Franzen’s street cred.” Actually, Oprah was set to announce The Corrections as her next book club pick four days later (only to postpone it due to 9/11). When Franzen bristled that Oprah was attempting to smarten-up her book club by associating it with the “high-art literary tradition,” a new literary controversy erupted to displace Manifesto.

Although the imbroglio between Oprah and Franzen is better framed as tabloid-level tit-for-tat, Manifesto played a minor role. Online commenters made the point that Myers’ gripes about the literary establishment sneering down on the reading public were playing out before the nation’s eyes. Gone was his critics’ suggestion that, on this point, Myers was jousting with windmills.

The second event was Melville House publishing A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose in 2002 (one of the two first books produced by the then-fledgling publisher). This full-length treatment gave Myers the opportunity to restore much of what was lost from Gorgons in the Pool when it was adapted for The Atlantic. It’s this edition I’ve based this review on.

The backward glance

The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001
The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001.

I vividly recall reading “Manifesto” in the summer of 2001. I’d written my first novel and was discovering the ego-melting process called “finding a literary agent.” Over the prior years I had enrolled in evening and weekend creative writing courses around the Bay Area, where many of the books Myers lay judgment upon were held up as models exemplar. Also at the time I was a member of a weekly “writer’s reading group.” A member of the group handed me a Xerox of The Atlantic essay along with a half-joking warning not to take anything this Myers guy has to say too seriously.

I wound up taking B. R. Myers quite seriously. I had never read anything like “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Rereading Myer’s book for this post, I still marvel over his concision and convictions. It can be read in a single sitting, and unless you’re a grump, it will keep you engaged from chapter to chapter. Myers understands the game he’s taken up: He can’t poke a stick at others’ bad prose if his own prose is lacking. His manifesto is meticulous, refreshing, lively, and enlightening, as seen here when he trains his gimlet eye on McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

As a fan of movie westerns I refuse to quibble with the myth that a rugged landscape can bestow an epic significance on the lives of its inhabitants. But as Conrad understood better than Melville, the novel is a fundamentally irreverent form; it tolerates epic language only when used with a selective touch. To record with the same majesty every aspect of a cowboy’s life, from a knife-fight to his lunchtime burrito, is to create what can only be described as kitsch.

Not only is this arguable, there’s a lot packed in there to argue with: I find this to be a positive.

Or here, where he’s analyzing David Guterson’s output:

…a slow tempo is as vital to his pseudo-lyrical effects as a fast one is to Proulx’s. What would otherwise be sprightly sentences are turned into mournful shuffles through the use of tautology. “Anything I said was a blunder, a faux pas,” “a clash of sound, discordant,” “She could see that he was angry, that he was holding it in, not exposing his rage,” “Wyman was gay, a homosexual,” and so on.

This level of tight engagement with the work at hand shows this is well above the usual culture-war crap that’s saturated our nation’s dialogue for decades now.

Some of his lines of attack are novel. Performing a close and scathing read of Annie Proulx’s self-approving dedication in Close Range (“my strangled, work-driven ways”) is the kind of antic you’d expect of the University Wits or Alexander Pope. His oft-quoted rejoinder to an exchange between Oprah and Toni Morrison is his most acidic and least endearing: “Sorry, my dear Toni, but it’s actually called bad writing.” (Less oft-quoted is his explanation: “Great prose isn’t always easy but it’s always lucid; no one of Oprah’s intelligence ever had to puzzle over what Joseph Conrad was trying to say in a particular sentence.”)

Regardless of what you might have read elsewhere, the boilerplate attacks on Myers don’t stand up to scrutiny. Supposedly he values plot over form; he disdains “difficult” books; he cherry-picked bad passages from the books he attacks; he selected writers who’d gone out of fashion; or the confounding claim that he’s a humorless cur prone to sarcasm and snide shots. Having read his book at least four times now, I say none of these complaints hold water. (Sarcasm may be the lowest form of humor, but it’s not humorless.) I’m not saying there’s no room for criticizing Manifesto, only that dismissing Myers without engaging his points is not fruitful.

And there’s plenty in Manifesto for writers to take away. Rather than being satisfied with throwing spitballs at modern lit, he contrasts prose he finds vapid with prose that stands up. Myers will forever get grief for quoting Louis L’Amour’s Hondo with approval, but the passage he includes is a model of clean, effective writing. Myers makes the point several times that the prose he’s complaining about could have been written with less-pompous English, and takes a few stabs at editing it as proof. He’s engaged with the texts under the gun, a marked difference from his critics who sniff down on him (and, it seems, cannot be bothered to quote and refute his specific claims).

My take-away from Manifesto for writers is, don’t produce affected writing, produce affecting writing: Language that stirs the reader and shines a light rather than obscures. Good editing requires close reads of your prose, and questioning what every word is doing in a sentence. Ditch the idea that affecting prose is “easy” and affected prose is “difficult,” an avant-garde pose. “‘Prose,’ for [Myers], equals syntax plus diction, and is expected to denote, rather than to evoke.” I think he expects it to do both.

Revolt of the reading public

The significance of Myer’s Manifesto is not a perverse thrill of taking down holy cows like McCarthy and DeLillo, but how eerily it presaged the next twenty years in American publishing. The circuitous route Myers followed from Gorgons in the Pool to The Atlantic Monthly to Melville House is a once-in-a-generation aberration, but the elements of getting said critique out of the word processor and into the hands of readers rings awfully familiar today.

When I read in 2002 of Myers self-publishing Gorgons on Amazon, I was floored: I had no idea such an opportunity was available to mere mortals. It was a bona fide light-bulb moment, the first time I pondered the possibility of making an end-run around the New York City publishers and selling my work directly to readers. Ten years later, not only was Amazon still open to self-publishing, the company was rapidly tooling up to make publishing your own e-book as easy as clicking a mouse button. The Guardian has made much mirth over the quality of self-published novels and much hay over the coming death of e-books. After the pandemic shuttered libraries, bookstores, and schools throughout 2020 and 2021, I now see little resistance to the long-term viability of e-books.

Less obvious today, but notable in 2001, was a writer in a national magazine praising Amazon user reviews (of the books Myers was criticizing, not his own overlooked Gorgons). Before Manifesto, any reference in the popular media to Amazon’s user reviews was bound to be dismissive or sardonic. Cultural commentators back then saw putting opinion-making into the hands of readers as ludicrous as a truck driver penning a starred Michelin review. (Don’t forget, there were still people in 2001 arguing the Internet was a passing fad—that it was faster to drive to the bookstore and buy a book than for Amazon to deliver it, ergo Amazon’s days were numbered.) Myers didn’t merely approve of Amazon user reviews, he used them as evidence that readers can and do understand difficult literature. I believe this is the first time I saw anyone in the cultural sphere do this.

Self-publishing; “average people” versus the experts; the power of reader reviews; the pseudo-doxxing Myers was subjected to; online discussion boards keeping the debate alive; and vitriolic denunciations from on high. All that’s missing is a hash tag, some Bitcoin changing hands, and the dust-up around Manifesto would sound like any number of social media episodes we’ve seen in recent years.

Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public deserves mention here. Although I’ve not read it, I have read plenty of reviews and analyses, simply because this 2014 book appears to have predicted the rise of Donald Trump, Brexit, cancel culture, the Capitol Hill attacks, QAnon, #MeToo, and more. (It too was self-published on Amazon.)

Gurri’s thesis is that the Internet is destabilizing public respect for institutional authority and, in due course, undermining the authorities’ control over social and political narratives. The expert class, once considered the final word, now must defend itself from an increasingly skeptical public.

It seems to me that the narratives being disrupted by digital communications may not merely be political narratives but also traditional ones—the narratives offered by the literary novel, and the narratives sold to the public by the literary expert class. Not only are big-name authors being treated with skepticism by the general public, but their fawning reviewers as well. (There is less distinction here than would first appear: Literary novels are often reviewed by other literary novelists. This incestuousness would be a scandal in other fields. “Imagine what would happen if the Big Three were allowed to review each other’s cars in Consumer Reports,” Myers noted in an interview. “They’d save the bad reviews for outsiders like the Japanese.”)

A before-and-after example of the Internet’s effect on the publishing world is Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers (1995) and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003). Both were mega-bestsellers whose publication dates bookend the Internet’s ascension in daily life. Both were published as memoirs, and both had their factual accuracy challenged. The controversy around Sleepers was reported by the mass media copy-and-pasting publisher press releases and quoting book agents. A Million Little Pieces was put under the Internet’s collective magnifying glass thanks to an investigation by the amateur web site The Smoking Gun.

This people-powered exposé became a nightmare for James Frey, and his reputation never recovered. Editions of A Million Little Pieces (another Oprah book club pick!) now include a publisher’s note warning of “certain embellishments” and “invented” details: “The reader should not consider this book anything other than a work of literature.”

Carcaterra largely escaped unscathed in 1995 thanks to the controversy being framed by the media as a publishing industry squabble. Sleepers remains sold today as memoir. (Funny enough, it’s also listed under Amazon’s “Hoaxes & Deceptions” category.) Carcaterra’s luck can be measured in years. If Sleepers had been a bestselling memoir in 2005, the Internet would have torn it to shreds.

“Leaders can’t stand at the top of pyramids anymore and talk down to people,” Martin Gurri writes. “The digital revolution flattened everything.” I say A Reader’s Manifesto was the initial deflating puncture of the literary world’s cozy status quo.

Engendered reputations

In the conclusion of Manifesto, Myers writes:

I don’t believe anything I write will have much effect on these writers’ careers. The public will give them no more thought in twenty years than it gives, say, Norman Rush today, but that will have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with what engendered their reputations in the first place.

(If you’re wondering who Norman Rush is, I confess I had to look him up myself.)

I was tempted to produce a list of the writers whose work Myers criticized to see where their reputations stand today. I won’t do that; any reader so inclined could make such a list on their own. Some of the rebuttals directed at Myers in 2001 claimed a few of these authors were already “on their way out,” although each critic seemed to formulate a different list of who remained relevant and who was exiting stage left.

I will point out that some of Myers’ subjects have sunk into a comfortable life of teaching, penning the occasional pop culture piece, and a general resting upon of laurels. Myers makes a couple of pointed barbs about Old Man and the Sea, but at least Hemingway was still throwing left-hooks at the end of his life.

(When Myers’ critics claim that literary book awards and glowing reviews in highbrow magazines are “meaningless,” or that Myers ignored genre fiction’s own system of awards and reviews, they’re overlooking the enduring social capital of “literary significance.” A science-fiction writer receiving big-time accolades in 2001 is not going to be, in 2021, a tenured professor, traveling the writer’s retreat circuit as a featured speaker, and penning think pieces for Harper’s. The self-propelling feedback loop that is the literary world should not be discounted.)

Note that Myers leaves unsaid what exactly engendered these authors’ reputations in the first place. The optimist in me thinks he’s referring to the quality of their writing—live by the sword, die by the sword.

The pessimist in me suspects what really engendered their reputations is an enabling literary establishment, which has proven resiliently fickle, lacking a healthy sense of introspection, and is eager to maintain a country-club exclusivity while claiming commitments to diversity. Even in the face of a massive shift in digital publishing, and the concomitant explosion of voices now available via e-books and print-on-demand, the literary establishment remains a closed shop. Its reviewers walk hand-in-hand with big publishers who regularly ink seven-figure publishing deals and expect a return on said investment. Positive reviews in well-placed periodicals are an important component of any publishing marketing plan. (The podcast “Personal Rejection Letter” explored this question in 2017, along with a retrospective of Myer’s Manifesto.)

In other words, the authors Myers put under the microscope may or may not be relevant twenty years later, but the system that held them aloft remains alive and strong. The Internet has kneecapped it some—the literary establishment is less commanding than it once was—but it’s still humming along.

Well, then, could Myers have at least shifted the conversation? I would say he did. While Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 “Perchance to Dream” (re-titled “Why Bother?”) and Tom Wolfe’s 1989 “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” are both considered modern literary manifestos of great import, it’s plain to me that Myers’ Manifesto has shown far more staying power in the public’s and writers’ consciousness. Even in a 2010 critical response to B. R. Myers review of Franzen’s Freedom, the comments section swings back and forth on the significance of Myer’s Manifesto, with the most recent comment coming in 2016. There are YouTube videos produced as late as last year going over the debate Myers ignited twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, in creative writing courses across America, mentioning Myers’ name will still earn an eye-roll and a dramatic sigh from the instructor, wordlessly asking when this guy will just go away.

Sarah Dessen & the Internet’s new literary feud

Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen
(Larry D. Moore, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Last week a dust-up swirled on Twitter that grew to a Category 5 hurricane. Young Adult author Sarah Dessen learned her name was mentioned in a small-town university newspaper. The article was a feature piece on the university’s successful campus-wide reading program. One of the program’s student committee members—a junior at the time—told the newspaper

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

(Although I share the student’s last name and my father hails from the same state as the university, I’m not related to the student. Trust me: There are a lot of Nelsons in South Dakota.)

Miffed, Sarah Dessen took her disgruntlement to her Twitter account, where she shared with her over 268,000 followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

What ensued is a now-familiar pattern on the Internet: mob outrage followed by mob backlash followed by apologies followed by meta-analysis of what transpired (which includes this post, I suppose).

In the initial burst of Twitter outrage, the student’s remarks were construed as demeaning YA fiction, demeaning teenage girls, internalized misogyny, promoting abuse toward women, and worse. Her social media accounts were tracked down and she was hounded offline. She was even snubbed by other big-name authors she may have read and possibly admired. One of them attacked her by name in the newspaper’s comment section.

The authors’ attacks were amplified a thousand-fold by their supportive followers on Twitter, which only served to energize the authors’ continued denunciations and self-righteousness. Remember, most of the authors involved write YA, a genre whose subject matter centers around solitary young people being kicked around by those in power.

The backlash probably started on Twitter, but picked up strength when online commentary outlets voiced their incredulous disbelief at the mob mentality. The backdraft circled onto Dessen and her prominent supporters, leading them to delete their old tweets and issue apologies.

(This narrative is better covered by places like Vulture and Slate. For the gory blow-by-blow details, I suggest starting there.)

The story has more or less died down now. The media outlets have updated their reports to include these apologies. The door is closing on the story. Time to move on.

The transitive logic underpinning the entire affair is remarkable. A single college student opined that books by a certain author are not suitable for a college-level reading program. From a single paragraph in a tiny university’s newspaper (current enrollment: 3,622) sprang a hornet’s nest of vicious conclusions. The logic magnified an innocuous criticism of a single YA author to an attack on all YA fiction and its readers. Thus, the logic went, if you’re a reader of YA fiction, it’s a personal attack on you. From there the maelstrom spiraled off into more sinister territory.

It’s confirmed: One’s tastes and reading habits may now interpreted as a systematic attack on the underprivileged and powerless. Before the incident faded off, there were tweets (now deleted) declaring the college student wielded more power than Dessen—after all, the student was on a committee at a tiny Midwestern school. Imagine if she had dared to write a bad Amazon review.

The muted blandness of the authors’ apologies are no match to the heights of the original vitriol or the depths of the condescension. Some of the apologies read like the calculated boilerplate of a publicist or press agent. Some of the apologies suggest the problem is not with the authors’ own attitudes or sensitivities, but that the college student wasn’t more powerful and thereby deserving of attack. I could spend another thousand words attempting to reconstruct how the hell our culture reached this point. And yet, here we are.

Would these authors have trained the same level of indignation on a professional critic with, say, the New York Times or USA Today? I doubt it. There’s a lot at stake there. A lone reader in a flyover state? (“People have strange and inflated ideas about their taste level.”) Different story.

“For the man led a mob”

What’s at play here is the rise of the superauthor: Bestselling novelists who also maintain major media platforms—interactive web sites, message boards, podcasts, and social media feeds with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’re not merely authors, they’re brands. Many of these YA authors have crafted an online persona of a confidant and sympathizing mentor. You don’t merely read their books, you hear from them everyday. You see their vacation photos and hear about their pets. You share their ups and downs in the real world.

Utilizing the tidal hydropower of the platform to take down amateur critics is a new twist. G. K. Chesterton noted Dickens could not be ignored or dismissed “for the man led a mob.” Imagine if Dickens had Twitter.

Literary feuds are the stuff of legend, but they almost always involve authors, editors, and/or professional critics. We’re now seeing a new-style of literary feud in the Internet Age: author versus reader. This won’t be the last time writers hit back at reader criticism with the support of the multitudes behind them.

Judy Blume
Judy Blume

(This is not so far-fetched. In private channels, I’ve witnessed writers outraged over a bad Amazon review asking other writers what they know about the reader. I’ve never seen the anger escape those private channels, though.)

Successful YA writers are often adored by their fans for bringing magic and solace to a gray, heartless world. Classic YA writers like Judy Blume have shined a much-needed beacon for generations of young people who are struggling and desperate. Of course she’s adored. (I read Judy Blume when I was young. I thought she was wonderful too.)

But I simply cannot imagine Judy Blume engaging with the behavior on display last week. She’s a human being, a real person with quirks and faults, but she puts readers first—not only her readers, but readers of all stripes. Would Judy Blume have responded “I love you” to someone who posted worldwide “Fuck that fucking bitch” about a college-aged reader? I don’t see it.

Readers of any taste are comrades-in-arms with authors—this is doubly true in an age of Netflix, video games, and big-budget film. Fiction is increasingly perceived as losing relevance, if not irrelevant entirely. Of course negative reviews sting (I’ve suffered them too) but I hope I’ll never take for granted the grace of a reader devoting their time and energy to read my work. The college student’s remarks demonstrate she’s a passionate reader. It’s too bad none of the authors involved noticed that before launching their crusade.

That’s why I can’t let go of this line from Dessen’s original message:

Authors are real people.

As are readers.

Twenty Writers: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other reviews and essays


So far in this series, about half of the books I’ve discussed have been nonfiction and the other half fiction. This is the first time I’ve written about a text on critical theory—and it may be the best lit crit book I’ve ever encountered.

The text I’m speaking of is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Published in 1993, the book remains the definitive work on comics theory a quarter century later. Others have attacked the subject, but none come close to McCloud’s exhaustive treatment.

McCloud is an unlikely “Aristotle of comics.” Prior to Understanding Comics he was best-known for Zot!, a lighthearted superhero comic book series which introduced many American readers to the tropes and style of Japanese manga. While Zot! was a success in the 1980s, its reputation has not swollen over time, as evidenced by McCloud’s sheepish preface to a 2008 reprint.

There’s nothing sheepish to be found in Understanding Comics—McCloud is not merely comic’s Aristotle, he’s one of its best ambassadors. His belief in comics’ power and universality is unshakeable. Page after page he convincingly argues comics belong in the same inner circle as other high art forms, including art considered vulgar upon its first appearance, such as film and jazz. Comics may even be more inclusive than other forms, as the language of comics is the language of the modern world. Advertising, software, religion, news, and entertainment all employ comics’ visual cues for their own purposes. This isn’t so much a book on comics as a book on perception and semiotics.

When I first picked up Understanding Comics in the mid-1990s, I enjoyed reading comics occasionally, but only as a guilty pleasure. I’d read superhero comics as a teen but set them aside as childish even before I left high school. (And this was during the 1980s rise of so-called “adult” comics like The Dark Knight Returns and the all-but-forgotten Camelot 3000.)

McCloud’s treatise left me with a renewed pleasure for reading comics. He disassembled and reassembled what I “knew” about comics before my eyes, all the while with concision, humor, and infectious zeal. His unraveling of the “invisible art” also left me with a fresh re-looking of the world at large. I can’t think of higher praise for McCloud’s magnum opus.

The sequential art

Understanding Comics is not the first work on the principles of comics. That honor goes to Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art.

Before Eisner, books on comics focused on technical production: inks, scripting, musculature, shading, etc. (The most prominent example I know of is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, the standard go-to guide for aspiring fourteen year-olds back in the day.) Comics & Sequential Art focused on the language of comics, much as a book on film theory would discuss camera angles and shot selection as the “language” of movies.

Prior to Eisner and McCloud, books on writing comics skewed toward technique and process.

Sequential Art‘s biggest contribution is right there in its title—Eisner put forward a general definition for comics. He held up comics as a special style of communication with unique properties and advantages. Eisner saw the field still struggling to break free of cultural restrictions (“comic books are for kids”) and waiting to be applied to broader purposes. For example, Eisner advocated using comics for technical manuals and in education.

Reading comic books in grade school may be more acceptable today than when I was young, but I suspect the suggestion still earns chuckles among certain educators. That’s too bad; Eisner remains ahead of his time. After all, while IKEA’s assembly guides and their Ziggyesque “IKEA Man” character have elicited much lampooning, their ability to transcend written language stems from the fact that they are comics. And when Google wanted to introduce the world to its new Chrome browser in 2008, it hired none other than Scott McCloud to present the software’s design and features via a digital comic book.

Understanding Comics takes many cues from Eisner’s work, and McCloud is eager to tip his hat to the master as well as introduce readers to a plethora of other comic artists you may or may not have heard of. But where Eisner’s book is head’s-down on the drawing easel, McCloud’s eyes are fervently skyward. Eisner’s intended audience is other comic artists; McCloud’s audience is everyone. To McCloud’s thinking, the language of comics permeates the modern world. He’s not merely comics’ Aristotle and ambassador, he’s its evangelist. Understanding Comics may be the first foundational lit crit text written by a fan boy.

The invisible art

The care and thought put into Understanding Comics is evident from the front matter onward. Consider that a book subtitled “The Invisible Art” opens with an enlarged image of an eye staring back at the reader—an iris, eyelashes, and eyebrow framed by a comic panel. Seeing is everything for McCloud, which is why Understanding Comics earns a space on the shelf beside Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

One bit of lingo in the software business is “dogfooding,” that is, the idea software developers should use their own software to better understand the problems and bugs their users are experiencing. (Imagine if every Apple employee used Microsoft PCs and Android phones, or if the entire workforce of The Gap wore Armani suits.)

McCloud dogfooded comics. His entire thesis, from first page to last, is told in comic form. He demonstrates the ubiquitousness and power of comics by drawing comics. The only places McCloud “reverts” to pure text are the Acknowledgments and Bibliography pages (where he can be forgiven, since I doubt anyone wants to read a Bibliography set to comic form).

Cleverly, McCloud inserts a cartoon representative of himself into the book to gently guide the reader along (and even analyzes the strategy itself as a graphic device). He deploys every trick in the comic biz to illustrate his points: alternate panel layouts, strange word balloon shapes, odd and abstract art styles, and so on. Every page offers a surprise for the reader. I can’t imagine the quarts of blood McCloud must have sweat to craft this masterpiece. Whatever criticism you may lob at McCloud, you can’t call his book dry.

After an ambitious and vivid history of comics going back to prehistory (no, really), McCloud appropriates Eisner’s term for comics—”sequential art”—and develops his own rigorous definition. From this foundation he launches into the depth and breadth of the language of comics: panels, gutters, lines, word balloons, transitions, and the utility of color (as opposed to the job of coloring, a la How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way).

McCloud’s ambitious “picture plane,” from photo-realism (left) to iconography (right) with the degree of abstraction rising up the pyramid. The eye on the left is the realm of visual and the mind on the right is the realm of ideas. Notice on the far right how McCloud considers written language a kind of “pure” iconography.

But McCloud isn’t satisfied to stay grounded on matters pertaining to comics itself. He reaches further with chapters on iconography, the nature of vision, and perception versus self-perception. He muses on the unique language of comics, where pictographs plus written word combine, and how space on the page can represent shifts in location and time, and sometimes shifting both simultaneously. He concludes with a surprisingly moving chapter on the relationship between artist and art that should be required reading for students of all creative disciplines.

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, McCloud’s faculties for persuasion are appealing and impressive. The power of Understanding Comics is in taking McCloud’s tour through language and imagery, even if you don’t always agree with his destinations.

Recommendations

If you enjoy Understanding Comics, I recommend exploring the terrain McCloud mapped out. What follows is a list of graphic novels reflecting McCloud’s vision. They’re also rewarding in their own right:

  • City of Glass, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: Engrossing graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel. City of Glass reads like a pure application of Understanding Comics.
  • Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, Shigeru Mizuki: Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical World War II manga features a “cartoony” military against a backdrop of stark photo-realistic Pacific island landscapes, a visual strategy McCloud fleshes out in his book.
  • Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Guy Delisle: A story of palpable solitude, Shenzhen spends much page real estate showing off modern China via “aspect-to-aspect” transitions discussed by McCloud.
  • Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli: Like Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Polyp is a personal tale about a man hitting the road intertwined with philosophical musings on nature and existence. As with City of Glass, Polyp is obsessed with structure, symbols, and synthesis. Mazzucchelli’s detailed visuals slyly make the abstractions concrete.

For an entertaining stroll through the lingo and icons of the funny pages, I also recommend “Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips”

Twenty Writers: David Kidd, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on the series as well as a list of other reviews and essays.


Peking Story by David Kidd

David Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China has settled into a somewhat unnoticed shelf of American literature: the literary eulogy.

Serialized by The New Yorker in 1955, collected in book form in 1961 as All the Emperor’s Horses, and republished in 1988 under the title it holds today, David Kidd’s book is an underappreciated classic in American nonfiction. Memoir, travelogue, New Journalism, creative nonfiction—none of these terms seem a fit categorization of Peking Story. The book is wistful, mournful, and laced with dry humor—a eulogy.

As the book opens, Kidd is an American college student on a foreign exchange trip to Beijing in 1946. There he meets Aimee Yu, one daughter among many in a prominent Beijing family. In the span of a few pages, the couple are married. Courting Aimee is more glossed over than spun out, treated as a perfunctory narrative requirement. Peking Story is not a romantic book in the sense of love and matrimony. It’s a romantic book in the sense of Eastern exoticism and lost traditions. It’s right there in the subtitle: The Last Days of Old China.

As the book progresses, David Kidd the narrator develops as a kind of mystery himself. He doesn’t come off as one would imagine most Americans would talk or act in the mid-1940s, especially a college student from the Midwest. There are moments that read like a Graham Greene novel, the world-weary Britisher turning up his nose at the dreary reactionaries and their anti-imperialist manifestos—only Kidd studied at a state school, not Oxford, and his father was an automobile executive rather than a headmaster. That’s one of the many mysteries of Peking Story, this American narrator who sounds distinctly un-American, seemingly more comfortable in Chinese silks and soft slippers than sneakers and blue jeans.

The Last Days of Old China

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Kidd goes to some lengths to remain outside the books’ lens, preferring to focus on the events and people around him. Peking Story is a public story told by a very private man, and that shapes the book and contributes to its unique form.

Kidd alludes to his private nature (and the burden of telling his story) in his preface:

Only a few Westerners who once lived [in pre-Communist Beijing] are still alive today—no more than ten or twenty of us at most, scattered throughout the world. I used to hope that some bright young scholar on a research grant would write about us and our Chinese friends before it was too late and were all dead and gone, folding back into darkness the wonder that had been our lives.

To this day, no such scholar has appeared, leaving me, as far as I know, the lone, first-hand chronicler of those extraordinary years that saw the end of old China, and the beginning of the new.

Author David Kidd
Author David Kidd

With the courtship and marriage out of the way, David Kidd eagerly moves into the opulent Yu family estate just outside of Beijing. (“Beijing” and “Peking” are Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, respectively, for the current capital of China. As Mandarin is now the official language of the People’s Republic of China, I use it here and reserve “Peking” for the book’s title.)

Once situated within the Yu family compound, Kidd slides his marriage away from the reader’s field of vision. In its place he slides in the colorful Yu family itself and their grand estate, garden, and art collection. Beyond the compound’s walls the Communist revolution begins to encroach on their daily lives. These elements are Kidd’s true focus, with his marriage merely the frame to explain his presence on the estate grounds and in the Yu family’s lives.

The Yu’s are rich beyond the everyday meaning of the word. The family’s history and prominence extends hundreds of years in China’s past. The grandfather was at one time the Chief Justice of the Republic of China’s Supreme Court. The family estate is known for having one the best gardens in all of Beijing, and perhaps China. The Yu’s once held mansions and houses all over northern China, but declining fortunes and currency devaluation have chipped away at their holdings. By the time Kidd arrives, the Yu’s have only the family mansion, a burial shrine outside the city, and a stunning collection of historical Chinese art the family cannot bear to part with.

Arriving in Beijing two years before the Communist Revolution and leaving two years after it, Kidd witnessed China’s transition from a strict traditional society with deep class striations to a culture intent on leveling the field and erasing its past. Rather than write this story with a breathless, you-are-there urgency, Kidd describes the changes from the comfort and safety of the Yu estate. Kidd’s encounters with the new Communist regime comes fleetingly, such as when they must register with the local police that the Yu’s intend to hold a costume party. Kidd portrays the revolutionaries as dreary, inconvenient, and déclassé.

I normally hold little interest in British entertainment of the upper-class variety, the rich lolling about on their divans and club chairs, plotting intrigue against each other while servants rush up and down stairs attending their every whim. Peking Story is not this type of entertainment, but it certainly skirts its edges. For all of Kidd’s blind spots, Peking Story works because Kidd plainly sees the Yu’s way of life crumbling beneath their feet. Rather than pick up guns and defend their estate—what an American story that would be—the Yu’s shrug, brew another pot of tea, and reflect upon their garden before it’s wrested from them. The tension between dynamism and stasis is the backbone of Peking Story.

The bronze braziers

As a fiction writer, what I draw from Peking Story is Kidd’s skillfulness at sketching out characters and painting colorful scenes with graceful economy. Although Kidd comes across as waspy throughout the book (and a bit blithe to the poverty about him), his education and breeding gifted him with a clean writing style that flows effortlessly. It’s harder than it looks.

Kidd’s narrative construction is as classical as his prose. The chapters are arranged almost perfectly. Early scenes that read as little more than humorous anecdotes are later revealed as precursors of devastating consequences for the Yu family. Kidd neatly sews disparate events together to craft chapters that compare and contrast China’s culture and the steamrolling revolution. Although “compare & contrast” rings like a English teacher’s tired essay topic, these pairings illuminate the reader’s way through Peking Story like a trail of paper lanterns.

The most memorable episode in Peking Story relates to a collection of bronze braziers the Yu’s display throughout their mansion. As Kidd tells it, the luster of these incense burners is indescribable. They must be continually heated in order to maintain their luster, and so the Yu’s charge their servants to maintain a small charcoal fire burning beneath each at all hours. Kidd tells us the Yu family has kept the fires lit and the braziers hot for hundreds of years.

Encouraged by the Communists beyond the estate walls, the servants begin to question the people they’re working for. One morning the Yu’s discover the charcoal fires have been extinguished. The once-indescribable bronze braziers are now irreparably dull and gray.

The tale of the bronze braziers is the perfect metaphor for the aristocratic Yu family straining to keeping alive China’s culture against the Communist revolution threatening to upheave it all.

However, the story may be too perfect:

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry.

James Cahill’s rebuttal to Peking Story is well worth the read. He voices here a suspicion I too had in the back of my mind the first time I read the story of the bronze braziers. Their sublime beauty destroyed by petty malice seemed a writerly addition by Kidd who (possibly) felt the need to put an authorial thumb on the novel’s moral scale.

I’m torn on this subject. Cahill’s objections are worth any reader’s consideration, but I still find myself drawn to the elegance and power of Kidd’s prose. I don’t particularly care about his sexual orientation, although it certainly would explain why his marriage takes a back seat in the book.

In Kidd’s defense, unlike fabricators such as James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and JT Leroy, Kidd’s falsehoods—if they are false—don’t create an undeserved authority or prop up an exaggerated persona. His presence in China is documented, as is his marriage to Aimee Yu. The parable of the bronze braziers sweetens the book, the kind of misstep even a seasoned novelist might make to seal a point with the reader.

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China. Joe Hunt. (CC BY 2.0)

It’s not the first time a well-respected work of nonfiction was revealed to contain fabrications and get a pass. Questions about the veracity of Steinbeck’s Traveling with Charley have been received with a shrug by Steinbeck fans and academics. If Cahill is “angry” at the “deceptive” Peking Story, he must be outraged at Steinbeck. If not, why? Because Steinbeck’s sympathies are on the right side of history and Kidd’s are not?

(If Kidd stretched the truth, it’s conceivable a kernel of truth inspired the story. Even if the braziers were not required to remain heated to sustain their beauty, it’s possible the Yu’s kept incense burning day and night through the household, and that one night the servants rebelled, damaging them somehow. The metaphor of an Old China lost is not so strong, but its thrust remains. Where Cahill sees deception, I see craft.)

The reader’s reaction to the story of the bronze braziers is a leading indicator of the way they’ll receive the entire book. Some will toss the book aside, disgusted with Kidd’s approval of Chinese high society and disdain of the servants. Others will sympathize with the Yu’s, for no reason other than their desire to preserve a four thousand year-old culture and its rich traditions. In either case, Kidd’s parable frames the entire book and the reader’s reception of it. It’s that kind of skill that encourages me to write a 2,200 word essay on Peking Story.

However, I’m less sure Kidd’s sympathies lie with the Chinese aristocracy per se. Kidd does not hold up the Yu’s as bold keepers of the flame, but rather as eccentrics of the Miss Havisham variety. Without exception, Kidd’s tragedies are the loss and destruction of Chinese art, culture, and tradition. Kidd mourns for the dispersal of the Yu collection and estate more than any death in the book. He also mourns the death of common sense. In Kidd’s hands, registering a costume party with the Beijing police is as absurd as proving to the American consulate his wife is Christian to guarantee her visa out of the country.

Then there’s the matter of Cahill accusing Kidd of kowtowing to “anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S.,” guessing Kidd was “encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby.”

Kidd may be accused of all manner of motivation, I suppose, but Occam’s Razor strikes me as appropriate here. I see Kidd as genuinely upset at the rearrangement of Chinese culture and its priorities. He seems deeply shocked to witness a four thousand year-old cultural legacy deleted in a fit of moral outrage. The suggestion of shadowy, powerful forces funding a book that, frankly, did little to reshape American attitudes toward Communist China is unnecessary to explain the existence of Peking Story. I also don’t view The New Yorker—even The New Yorker of the 1950s—as a publication to kowtow to right-wing nationalists.

Fabricator or not, Kidd is forthright with his opinions and biases. When it comes to motivation, it’s simplest to take Kidd at his word. Cahill, on the other hand, appears more motivated by a sense of social justice than he’s letting on in his essay.

What’s more, for Cahill to argue Kidd misrepresented the Chinese Communists as a “mean-spirited movement” is to ignore the crop yielded by Maoism: The Cultural Revolution and its purges, denunciations, self-criticisms and “struggle sessions,” historical rewriting, and reeducation tactics. Kidd’s stories, first published eleven years before the Cultural Revolution’s earliest stirrings, practically predicts the furies to unfold. It’s a literary feat almost as impressive as Graham Greene warning the United States out of Vietnam in 1955’s The Quiet American.

The 21st century may be China’s century, but Peking Story eulogizes the price China paid to make its great lurch forward.

David Kidd died in in 1996 leaving behind a life as far-removed from his Midwestern origins as possible. After fleeing Beijing, he settled in Kyoto and founded a school of traditional Japanese arts:

As a tourist attraction, Mr. Kidd did not disappoint. To sit on a cushion before his throne, listening to his erudite patter, and seeing him sitting cross-legged on his kang, a divided Chinese sofa, rustling his silken gown as he gestured extravagantly with his inevitable cigarette, was to be in the presence of a presence.

With China’s role ascending in the 21st century, I would recommend Peking Story to anyone curious to learn about China’s future from its past. For those who want to go deeper, I would pair Peking Story with the superb Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang and Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

On Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz LeiberSaturday I had the pleasure to take Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour. Like his more famous Dashiell Hammett Tour, Herron recreates through personal research, recollection, and local points-of-interest Leiber’s life story and the circumstances that led him to spending his last years in San Francisco.

My attendance in the tour was accidental. In October, while talking with Nicole Gluckstern after the conclusion of the Bikes to Books Tour, I mentioned what can only be called a minor parallel in my life with Fritz Leiber’s, and how I’d been meaning for years now to learn more about this prolific author. Nicole told me she was in talks with Don Herron to have him lead a one-off, by-invite-only Fritz Leiber Tour. I eagerly jumped when she asked if I wanted to attend.

Leiber’s life defies a summary in brief. The child of actor parents (his father appeared in a number of early Hollywood productions), Leiber developed an avid readership over a career of decades with his wide-ranging work—science fiction, fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, horror & the occult, and more. In addition to experience in theater and acting, Leiber was an amateur astronomer and one-time editor of Science Digest, making him the rare science fiction writer with an actual background in science.

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Will Hart, (CC BY 2.0)

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Still by Will Hart (CC BY 2.0)

As a child and young man, I was familiar with Leiber through his science-fiction short stories (although I don’t recall reading any of his novels). His stories were featured in “best of” collections and back issues of science fiction magazines I dug out of dusty cartons in Livermore’s public library.

Then, via Dungeons & Dragons, I learned of a swords-and-sorcery series featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a duo comprised of an oversized swordsman and a diminutive thief. When I saw this series was penned by someone named Fritz Leiber, I distinctly recall thinking, “What a coincidence—there’s a science-fiction writer with the same name.” No coincidence, it turns out. (According to Herron, Leiber coined the phrase “sword-and-sorcery.”)

A personal friend of Leiber and his second wife, Herron is a fount of history and insight into this prolific author. Much like his Hammett tour, Herron led us down and around Geary Street and the Tenderloin (names which might ring familiar to readers of Bridge Daughter). Then we boarded MUNI and trekked up to Corona Heights (and its stunning views of the city) in the Castro District. All locations have some connection to Leiber and his semi-autobiographical Our Lady of Darkness. It’s a Lovecraftian novel that takes place in 1970s San Francisco whose main character endures a battle with the bottle and grief over the death of his wife, just as Leiber was undergoing at the time.

I hope Herron considers permanently reviving the Fritz Leiber tour—but I suspect the only way that would happen is if there was a strong revival of interest in Leiber himself. Personally, I’ve already added Our Lady of Darkness to my reading list, and I plan on searching out more of his work.

About that parallel

When I earlier claimed a parallel with Leiber’s life, I should explain. I don’t mean some personal connection with the author or his work, only that Leiber wrote about an event in his life that rang similar to one of my own.

Eight years ago, after going through what can only be called a divorce immediately followed by a second relationship gone sour, my trials culminated with me busting up my shoulder in a bad accident. I severed all the tendons there, leaving me with a separated shoulder. (To this day it looks like I have “two” shoulder bones.)

I found myself bedridden for six weeks and unable to move my right arm. Day and night I consumed painkillers, delivery Chinese food, and—unwisely—whiskey. (I wrote about this episode for We Still Like‘s “Gravity” issue, a piece titled “Taylor & Redding”.) I spent my time in my apartment, alone, absorbed with Miles Davis and Cal Tjader. I spent my less stuporous hours reading whatever I could get my hands on. In particular, I located at the library a thick collection of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, which I consumed cover-to-cover.

To keep from going stir-crazy, I took long walks up and down Nob Hill and through the Tenderloin, often at odd hours of night. Due to the painkillers, sleep was varied and sporadic. Some of these walks were as late as three in the morning, when the insomnia was too much to bear.

On these walks I discovered locations and buildings named in Hammett’s work, all mere blocks from my Geary Street apartment. The old part of San Francisco is rife with short streets and dead-end alleys, too insignificant to be incidentally included in a story for local flavor, yet Hammett would feature them prominently in his work. These names did not come off a map or phone directory, these were streets intimate to Hammett, a writer obsessed with specifics and verisimilitude. Some of the Continental Op’s stories are set in Chinatown. It got so I went out of my way to seek them out.

Humphrey Bogart and "the dingus." (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Humphrey Bogart and “the dingus.” (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This led me to reread Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (which I’ve written about not just once but twice). There, in this single detective novel, I re-experienced in concentrate everything I’d experienced the prior weeks poring over the Continental Op stories. In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade walks streets I walked every night, attends theaters down the block from my apartment, eats at restaurants still in operation. Sam Spade, living and breathing in San Francisco circa 2008. My front stoop was backdrop and stage for this classic of American literature.

It’s not merely the rush of casual literary association—similar to the rush of meeting a celebrity—that overwhelmed me. Details of the novel easily overlooked snapped into clear focus. That gunman Thursby is shacked up at Geary & Leavenworth suggests he’s residing on the hairy edge of the Tenderloin, an area rife with flophouses, while the supposedly-delicate Brigid O’Shaughnessy rooms on posh California Street. Sam Spade rides streetcars up and down Geary Street, a notion that defies imagination, as Geary in downtown San Francisco is narrower than the suburban lane I grew up riding my bike on. (The Geary streetcars were known as “Iron Monsters” and phased out in 1956 to make way for America’s love affair with automobiles.)

I’d been forced to move to Geary Street a few years earlier due to a bad break-up and the meager income I drew, living paycheck-to-paycheck tending bar. I wasn’t happy to reside a stone’s throw from the Tenderloin, infamous as San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood. It’s not—there’s a dignity in the TL easily overlooked—and Hammett’s work gave me a second sight, another way of reading my surroundings, and with it came another way to see my own circumstances. I say without qualification, Dashiell Hammett’s writings carried me through one of my lowest periods of my life.

Some time after my recovery—personal and monetary fortunes on the rise—I sat at the bar of John’s Grill in Union Square nursing a drink and waiting for my dinner to arrive. (“Jack LaLanne’s Favorite Salad”—a cold seafood salad with avocado slices, pure protein and fat.) On the back of the menu I found a newspaper article the restaurant had reprinted, “Stalking Sam Spade” written by one Fritz Leiber.

And I distinctly recall thinking, “That’s funny…there was a science fiction writer with that name.”

Stalking Sam Spade

Light reading while waiting for your steak medium-rare at John’s Grill.

After Leiber snapped out of the grief over his wife’s death and started drying up, he too rediscovered the city he lived in by reading it through Hammett’s lens. Geary Street, he wrote, is the “spine” of The Maltese Falcon, and he set out to locate its landmarks much as I’d attempted myself. Leiber was more organized about the project than I ever was, and “Stalking Sam Spade” does a much better job detailing his discoveries. Learning about San Francisco’s past through a detective novel led him to search for the history of the apartment house he lived in, culminating in his building becoming the nexus of Our Lady of Darkness.

Perhaps the allure of “rediscovering” a city through literature is not unique to San Francisco, but it’s certainly an active and avid pastime here. While some people move to San Francisco solely concerned about which address is currently beau chic or which nightspots are ripe for seeing-and-being-seen, I’ve encountered just as many who’ve found themselves ensnared in this game, the game I played those sleepless nights. It’s much as the Baker Street Irregulars “play the game” retracing Sherlock Holmes’ footprints as though he’d lived and breathed. With each step of the game comes the chill of revelation, the buzzing realization you’re walking the streets Hammett, Kerouac, Frank Norris, and others once trod daily. Each San Francisco writer is inspired in very different ways by the same city—a city that reinvents itself every generation, granting each artist who lands here a bed of fresh soil to sow and till. Some waste it, some fail to tend their seedlings. Others grow oak trees still standing today.

As Herron pointed out on our tour, Leiber got one fact wrong in “Stalking Sam Spade”: Spade’s apartment was most likely at Post & Hyde (not Geary & Hyde), the same location as Hammett’s apartment when he lived in San Francisco. A landmark plaque is on that building today, just as there is one at Burritt Alley—the location of the first murder in The Maltese Falcon—a plaque that did not exist when Leiber wrote his article.

Photo by Parker Higgins

Photo by Parker Higgins (CC0)

Another plaque that did not exist at that time is today placed on the Hotel Union at 811 Geary Street. It’s dedicated to Fritz Leiber and the book he wrote while drying up there, Our Lady of Darkness, a book inspired by his quest to re-walk the chapters of Hammett’s San Francisco and see the world anew.

Learn more about Don Herron’s tours and books at donherron.com

Rewatching Slacker

Slacker

Although I can’t imagine any of the characters in the film Slacker being terribly nostalgic about anything, it’s worth noting this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater’s gem. Sanctified in The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” and topping numerous critics’ “best indie film of all-time” rankings, Slacker is an odd addition to any best-of list. After all, this is seemingly a film about not giving a shit.

At least, that’s the most immediate impression on first watching Slacker, that and its nontraditional film narrative. Slacker doesn’t follow a story arc of one or two characters, and it’s not a collection of marginally intertwined stories like Altman’s Short Cuts or the animated Heavy Metal. In Slacker the camera floats from one group of people to the next, eavesdropping for a minute here or ten minutes there, taking snapshots of the lives of tens of people connected only by the slenderest of threads—in sum, documenting a day in the life of Austin, Texas, circa 1991. Often these moments have no distinguishable beginning or ending, just slices of time in the company of cafe philosophers, conspiracy theorists, guys trying to get laid, and girls trying to be taken seriously.

Entirely linear, Slacker never flashes back or forward, always remaining in the moment, giving the film a kind of bald, unprotected sensation. The camera drops into discussions midstream. We have the opportunity to watch and listen but the film leaves it entirely for us to surmise backstories and histories. Then, as one or two people in the group grow fidgety or distracted—or bored—they move on, as does the camera, riding along with them to the next interaction. There’s no soundtrack to speak of, only the occasional background music from a radio or club band. The camera is the star of Slacker. It took me years to realize it.

The film opens with a young man (director Linklater himself) arriving in Austin. He launches into a chain of free-form ruminations on a dream he had the night before while the uninterested taxi driver takes him into town. (The dream is a wispy summary of the movie to follow, but most viewers will miss that, even after repeating viewings.) The film closes with a raucous group of friends driving a convertible up the mountains outside of town and, in a final pique, throwing the camera—the star of the movie—down a cliff. In between, the camera moves between perhaps fifty different vignettes, eavesdropping on everything from the inane and mundane to the fantastical and bizarre.

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)
Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Impossibly, each of these moments is wonderful in its own right. Some of the episodes reach farther than the others. Everyone who’s watched Slacker remembers its most famous scene, the overly-familiar young woman (Teresa Taylor, drummer for the Butthole Surfers!) fencing a stolen jar containing Madonna’s pap smear, pubic hair and all. My personal favorite remains the inept burglar caught in the act in an elderly anarchist’s house, only to receive a gentle education on the history of anarchism in America. It’s the most complete and well-rounded episode in the film, a luxurious Carveresque vignette with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It comes near the film’s midpoint, giving the audience a kind of narrative breather before Linklater’s tour of Austin’s alt-underground bestiary continues.

Considering its unconventional narrative style, Slacker is refreshingly not self-conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its rule-breaking. (The opening with Linklater in the cab may be the only “meta” moment in the film.) For all the rules this self-financed film breaks, it’s comfortable and comforting viewing, the absolute opposite of the avant garde. That’s another reason Slacker sustains after twenty-five years. It’s hard to mock a film-school film and its no-name cast when it’s so relaxed in its own skin.

Any review or retrospective of Slacker is bound to name-drop “Generation X” and I won’t disappoint on that count. (After all, I’ve got some skin in the game.) Slacker is often called the definitive film of my generation. But when I think of the “great” movies of a generation—Easy Rider and The Big Chill for the Baby Boomers, The Social Network for the Millennials—I see yellowing, curling Polaroids losing their currency with each passing minute; movies of like-aged, like-minded, similarly-groomed people bellyaching they’ve not gotten their due. Slacker is not that film.

Critics sometimes make hay that this is not truly a Generation X film because not every character is of that age. It’s true, but it’s also true the older characters are treated more reverentially than the Gen-X hipsters and artists and kooks. In films like Easy Rider and The Social Network, the older generation is sniffed at with disdain and suspicion. In Slacker, those suspicions are reversed. An age-worn hitchhiker and the anarchist mentioned before are voices afforded the opportunity to air their wisdom to a welcome audience, while the specious logic of the younger generation is treated as clever amusements. In the film’s final moments, an elderly man strolls down a street narrating into a tape recorder the quiet poetic wisdom of a long, full life—only to be interrupted by a young man, 20 or 21, driving a car with mounted loudspeakers and blaring into the microphone empty rage about guns and knives solving all political problems. It’s obvious where this film’s sympathies lie. It’s also why this film truly is the definitive Generation X movie: We’re so suspicious of inauthenticity and hollow idealism, we don’t even trust ourselves. We don’t even trust our distrust.

For the A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” review, Scott Tobias puts his finger on why Slacker is distinguished from other generation-defining movies:

It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.”

My personal introduction to Slacker was in 1992, not long after its release, watching the movie on VHS at a Saturday night pasta feed. Eight or nine of us were crowded into a San Luis Obispo duplex living room, me and my college-aged friends, some I knew well, some only slightly. In particular, the singer and rhythm guitarist of my band was there. (We were going to be big, but no one understood what our music was doing.) We feasted on plates of red-sauce spaghetti and hot garlic bread. One of the women had made her easy-bake Apple Brown Betty. Others brought ice cream and red wine and bottles of the local beer. Dinner and a movie, on the cheap.

The singer was engaged to marry one of women there, the Brown Betty baker who was a housemate of mine. I was becoming involved with another woman in the room, a second housemate of mine that I would go on to live with for thirteen years. There were likely other sub-plots in that room I was unaware of. We were all young and about to grow old.

We knew, collectively and subconsciously, we were about to be dropped on a high-speed conveyor belt and told to run as fast as we could to keep up. “Getting ahead” sounded an awful lot like “falling behind” to our ears. Some of the people in that room thought they could step off the belt and steer clear of the inevitable. The rest of us knew, it’s called inevitable for a reason. We were resigned to what was coming, and resigned to it in our own ways.

That’s why Linklater’s cafe au lait Dostoevskys and tin-foil hat savants engage us twenty-five years later. The game for the viewer is not teasing apart thought-provoking insights or brilliant dissections of American culture. Most of the musings in Slacker are, in fact, well-adorned horseshit. The game is piecing together how reasonably-educated people would arrive at such philosophies—and everyone in this film has their own philosophy, make no mistake. There’s a postmodern dignity that comes with assembling a personal credo from piece-parts and staying true to it, no matter how whacked-out it may be. And that’s what’s going on in this film, with zero irony and zero sarcasm.

Pre-Internet and pre-Seinfeld, on the surface Slacker appears a grungy sun-drenched film of a drearier, less-snarky age. I say Linklater offers blueprints for an examined life—not the examined life, but examples of them. This is an earnest film of multiplicity and pluralities. With few exceptions, the characters in Slacker withhold judgment of each other. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even when it’s obvious one of them is babbling nonsense from out in the weeds—”We’ve been on the moon since the ’50s!”—the other characters give them their space. There’s a moment in the film where a character takes a swipe at Texas Libertarians, but it seems to me that Slacker‘s code of live-and-let-live stands not far off.

Most critics pick up on a line uttered late in the film: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” It’s often interpreted as the film announcing its own thesis statement (possibly the only other “meta” moment), so it’s worth taking a closer look.

I don’t see a lot of disgust in Slacker. There’s a bit of it sprinkled around: the roustabout hitchhiker (“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it”), a mouthy “anti-artist” berating a hipster at two in the morning, an enraged polemicist in an old-fashioned electioneering sound truck. That may be about it in the disgust department, though.

Slacker 2011, a "re-imagining" produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.
Slacker 2011, a “re-imagining” produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Listening to the director’s commentary recorded for Slacker‘s 20th anniversary, I gather Linklater’s not terribly interested in elevating emotions like disgust, rage, vengeance, or hatred. His anecdotes regarding Slacker are soft recollections of easier days: a buddy who came through with film equipment, good times working in a T-shirt shop, a girlfriend-actor he’s still friends with, that sort of thing. Slacker is a Baedecker for a particular way of life. Sleeping on couches, trips to dusty used-books stores, pick-up games of Ultimate, the quest for the best burrito—any smallish city or town with a college or arts school has this scene. For people living this life, Slacker is a documentary.

Returning to that immortal line—”Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”—I don’t even think there’s much apathy in the film, at least in its purest form. Shrugging off others’ pet theories or forgoing a work ethic is not apathy. Questioning whether ex-convicts should be denied the right to vote, or wondering if the media used Smurfs to inculcate America’s youth—both voiced in the film—doesn’t strike me as apathetic either.

Withdrawal is the common filament of Slacker, the third rail powering the camera’s dolly as it journeys across Austin. The closest Slacker gets to engagement is a gung-ho “cultural terrorist” selling T-shirts on the street. Slacker‘s characters don’t merely question, they question the act of questioning. The film seemingly about not giving a shit is more subversive than most people think.

What did E. M. Forster write in Howards End? “Only connect”? Slacker is “only connect” put to film.

Twenty-five years on, I’ve lost touch with the folks in that San Luis Obispo duplex watching Slacker over glasses of red wine. Over the years I intersected with a few of them, connecting briefly before moving on.

I’ll be bold and surmise that back then, laughing and marveling over Linklater’s creation, none of us wanted to leave San Luis Obispo. We didn’t even want to leave that room. Perhaps some of us never truly left it behind.

I suppose that’s why I rewatch Slacker every few years, just as I reread certain books which have deeply affected me. Rewatching Slacker is reconnecting with a past and making it a present, even if only for a moment. It keeps alive within me a little bit of that necessary withdrawal. It reminds me to only connect.

The absence of technology in literary fiction

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of my complaints about literary magazines—both the small lit mags of university English departments and the literary lions like New Yorker, Tin House, and so forth—is the peculiar absence of up-to-date technology in their fiction. Characters don’t send much email. People rarely text each other. Voicemail is about the most modern of the Information Age conveniences in contemporary literature, and even then, it’s usually summarized by the narrator rather than “heard” by the reader. Why?

It’s no longer cyberpunk for your characters to have instant access to cyberspace in their coat pocket. It’s not science fiction for your character to read the morning news on a handheld view screen. Literary fiction often preens itself as being “realistic” compared to genre fiction, but how realistic is it today for a mother of two in Long Island not to have a 4G touch tablet in her purse or a FitBit on her wrist reminding her she’s not burned enough calories today?

Unless it’s set in the past or some truly remote locale, you forfeit your right to call your story a work of realism if your characters don’t have access to the Internet and they’re not using it fairly regularly. Digital access is simply that pervasive, worldwide. Yes, there are exceptions. I’m certain some writers think their characters or their settings are those exceptions. Probably not, though.

One reason for technology’s absence in literary fiction, I suspect, is that modern tech screws with storytelling. As greater minds than me have pointed out, we live in a age bereft of bar bets. The Guinness Book of World Records was originally conceived to settle pub arguments, but it was Wikipedia that ultimately fulfilled that burning need. Any question we have about the world or history, the answer can be located in an instant.

It carries into personal relationships as well. People no longer craft letters and post them in a box, then anxiously await a reply over the next days or weeks. When I was young, a friend might say he would call at eight—and so I would have to wait by the phone in the kitchen at eight o’clock, telling everyone else in the house not to make a call because I was waiting for one. My parents would wake my brother and I up in the middle of the night to say hello to our Midwestern relatives because the long-distance rates dropped after 11pm. (Remember paying a premium for long distance calls?) For years, many of my extended family members were nothing more than a tinny voice at the other end of a phone line and a yellowing Kodachrome print in my mother’s photo albums.

For all the nostalgia value of these tales, I’m happy to no longer be bound by such ancient analog technology. The key word of modern communications is instant. Unfortunately, such friction-free gratification often runs counter to a lot of storytelling precepts, things like tension (which involves time) and desire (which involves immediacy).

But mostly I suspect the writers of contemporary literature simply don’t like modern tech. Receiving a pop-up on your phone for an email explaining a long-forgotten lover’s death lacks a certain airy elegance that a hand-penned note on hospital letterhead offers. The terseness of SMS and instant messaging grates against the literary author’s desires for eloquence and nuance.

More broadly, there’s a general disdain for popular American culture in our contemporary literature. SUVs and dining at Olive Garden are often literary code words for boorish, crass people. Sympathetic characters tend to read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, walk to work, raise a vegetable garden, and run into friends at farmers’ markets.

This is one reason why I don’t buy the assertion that contemporary American literature is realistic. Too often it presents a world the writer (and their readers) would like to live in. That’s not hard realism. And this restrictive view of proper living feeds back on itself: literary magazines print these stories, developing writers read these stories and think they represent “correct” fiction, and so they write and submit likewise.

Give your characters the technology they deserve. If you’re writing about the past, that’s one thing, but if your story is set in modern times, don’t shortchange your characters’ resources.

Instead of viewing commonplace technology as a liability to storytelling, consider how vital the technology has become for us. Watch this magic trick, from Penn & Teller’s Fool Us:

The audience feels the risks the emcee is taking when instructed to place his own phone in an envelope. The surprise when the mallet is brought out, the tension it raises. Look at the audience’s visceral reaction when the mobile phones are hammered up. Even though Penn & Teller see through the act, there’s a kind of narrative structure to the magician’s “story.” At each step of the act, the stakes are raised.

Do this: The next time you’re out with a group (people you know and people you’ve just been introduced to), pull up a photo or a message on your smart phone, and then hand your phone to someone else. (Or, if someone offers you their phone, take it, twiddle with it, and hand it to another person.) Rare is the person comfortable with this. We don’t like these little things leaving our grasp.

That means, as writers, these devices are a goldmine.

We are wed to our new conveniences in ways we never were with “old” modern technology like microwaves, refrigerators, or even automobiles. Americans may love their cars, but they are married to their smart phones. Our mobile devices are lock-boxes of email and text messages, safe deposit boxes of our secrets and our genuine desires (versus the ones we signal to our friends and followers). Gossipy emails, intimate address books, bank accounts, baby pictures, lovers and lusts—our lives are secreted inside modern technology. This is rich soil for a writer to churn up, this confluence of personal power and emotional vulnerability.

Why dismiss or ignore this? Why not take advantage of it in your next story?