. . . is born.

He's beautiful.  I am bald.

He’s beautiful. I am bald.


Cell phone 5 4 15 robot 102

So, Penelope Trunk has written something bizarro and cruel about someone of note who recently died.  I’m not going to link to it, but I’ll link to this article about it. And I’ll also link to a post I wrote about her back in 2012.  At that time, I decided that she was (and apparently still is) a very effective controversy-generating machine.  She had recently written about some purported domestic abuse and posted a picture of a big bruise on her naked body.  I said:

 As I said, I can’t know how much of what Penelope writes is true, whether that picture is real, whether she’s asking for help or not.  Certainly, a blog post is not the most direct method of asking for help.  If she isn’t asking for help, what is she doing?  Creating drama?  Driving blog traffic? Performance art? Trying to turn the world against her boyfriend, while at the same time becoming a martyr?  Or is the whole thing a massive fiction?

You may agree with Penelope in this instance.  She may be right! (Though it doesn’t seem so.)  But it would be a mistake to rely on her as a truth-teller.  She wants you to read her blog, link to it, retweet her, let your outrage at her on on her behalf lend a bit of motive force to her wheels. Getting the facts right is not job one, or even job ten.  She would appreciate me blogging about her.

Just an update:

1.  Today is the due date of Baby #2, but he is disinclined to appear. This page will be my courtyard easel.  There might be something on FB as well.

2. Overestimated Books has a Twitter account, but with no content at the moment.  Follow it at some point if you like! https://twitter.com/overestbooks


What does it mean when you don’t like something that everyone else likes?

The book in question is Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, a 2011 novel from Coffeehouse Press.  I was given this as a Christmas present (which I very much appreciate, gift-giver, if you read this), and I read it mostly on the train on my way to and from work during the worst winter of my time in Boston.

It’s hard for a literary novel to be better-reviewed than this one.  The back cover is a list of blurbs from a murderer’s row of luminaries (Jonathan Franzen) and reviewers from all the places that you would really like to give your book the seal of approval (the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, NPR).  The favorable pull-quotes are so numerous that they spill over onto the first five full pages of the interior.  (The title is borrowed from a John Ashbery poem, and Ashbery himself gives it the thumbs-up.) Leaving the Atocha Station won the Believer Award in 2011.  In short, everyone of any significance liked it or loved it.  Which is all very strange, because it is (or I found it to be) flawed on a number of levels.

Adam Gordon is a young poet who has snagged a prestigious fellowship for a year in Madrid, which he spends avoiding the other fellows in the program, smoking hash, visiting museums, and generally not working on the large poetry project that he is supposedly in Spain to complete.  During the year, he has two lovely Spanish girlfriends, the second of which appreciates his poetry enough to translate it in to Spanish (she is a translator) and arrange for it to be published and read.

So, what flaws?  Lerner seems dedicated to defeating any sort of character arc for Adam.  Forget learning or changing; Adam barely participates.  He spends most of his energy obsessing about what the people around him must be thinking about him, assuming that they don’t take him seriously either as a person or a poet, which in turn causes him to act childish or irrational.  The book’s central event, the terrorist bombing of the Atocha train station, not far from Adam’s apartment in Madrid, mostly causes him to fret that the girl he likes isn’t paying attention to him.

It could be interesting, or even funny, for a central character to be absurdly self-absorbed, but Lerner seems complicit in protecting Adam from any kind of disruption of his inner funk. He behaves badly with no consequence.  Adam lies repeatedly about his mother being gravely ill or having died in order to generate sympathy or to excuse some social awkwardness; when this is discovered, the people around him seem to have no reaction.  When his first Spanish girlfriend breaks up with him, he takes her on an absurdly expensive date using his parents’ credit card — supposedly a grave offense but we never hear a word about it again.  He abandons one girlfriend in a strange city (admittedly not his fault, since he gets lost) and abruptly changes plans on another, again on an out-of-town trip, but neither appear to hold it against him.  This non-reaction is a puzzle, a blank that the reader wants to fill with something.  What do these people think about him?

Answer: they think he’s awesome.  It’s easy to believe that Adam is a thinly-veiled avatar of Lerner, a poet who had a fellowship in Spain — and at that level, the book feels like an exercise in self-aggrandizement.  The worse Adam’s behavior, the more esteem the Spanish characters have for him as a poet.  The woman who is translating his poems into Spanish, we learn, has some reputation as a cultural figure, and so her appreciation of him really means something.   Near the end of the novel, she affirms both his work (“Adam, you are a wonderful poet, a serious poet. If I weren’t sure about that, why would I be translating you?  When will you stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be a poet?”)  and his fluency in Spanish (“When are you going to admit that you can live in this language?”)  on the same page — I may have injured my eyes from rolling them so hard.  If only he could believe her when she tells him how great and important he is!  For a creative type living abroad, it’s pornography.

All that said, the book is extremely well-written, and certain passages are both beautiful and provocative.  A passage at the beginning regarding a man weeping in the museum was affecting, and there’s some amusing material about trying to converse in a foreign language. Adam’s internal life is well-realized, even if I wished there were more than that.  (He mostly seems like someone you wouldn’t want to hang around with.)

It may seems like I’m slagging off Lerner and the book.  I don’t mean to –it’s a decent first novel with some problems.  He would benefit from distancing himself from his main character, maybe allowing him to exist and change.  In my opinion.  He should write another one.

But the real question I have is this: What am I missing? They reception of this novel was not just positive but laudatory — words like important and brilliant and extraordinary thrown about.  It’s like a crowd laughing uproariously at a joke that you just don’t get — were just barely aware that it was a joke, in fact.

Just as an update to the last post: Apparently people are so upset by the few paragraphs Ryan Boudinot put up on The Stranger that there’s been a move to get him fired from the nonprofit he founded to get Seattle named as a City of Literature by the UN.  (Or something.  My reading comp isn’t what it was back in my GRE-taking days.)  That is, unless he apologizes for pooh-poohing MFA programs and I guess all the dweems of the students.  He got his pooh on them, is what I’m saying.

Which, whatever. The original article was fine, not particularly well thought-through, maybe, but I have no doubt that it reflected the man’s views and experience. And if I were someone heavily invested in the respectability of the MFA as a valuable degree and a worthwhile thing to do, I’d be pissed.  (I haven’t seen any word from anyone who used to employ Boudinot to be a teacher, but I haven’t looked very hard.)

There ought to be a difference between getting your dander up and going after the man’s unrelated organization, however.  If your project (MFA, stand-up comedy, startup software company, whatever) can’t take any criticism, then it’s not worth anything.  If you know that what you are doing is worthwhile, you can brush off someone squawking in the bushes.  But if you can’t take it, you have no substance, you’re just an Easter Bunny with a thin layer of chocolate surrounding a howling void.  If you have to silence any critic of your project, then you don’t believe in your project.

You don’t respond by attacking the critic, you respond by being awesome.

Keeping up to date.

Keeping up to date.

A guy named Ryan Boudinot recently wrote a piece in The Stranger commenting on, but really slagging off, the fiction MFA program where he used to teach and all the losers who signed up to be in his class. According to RB, a few students were the Real Deal: talented, insightful, deferential to their wise teacher. The rest — the hardworking and slacker alike might as well hang up their Moleskines, since no amount of work would ever make them great writers (and were they stupid for trying? certainly irritating to Boudinot.).  Also, boo to terrible, self-indulgent student memoirs.

Affected parties responded, also via the Internet, naturally.  One person took the opportunity to crow about being THE student who irritated Boudinot with his slacker ways but also to make sure that readers knew, in case we missed it, that HE was the Real Deal student that Boudinot admired. (Someone else set up a website to curate angry responses to Boudinot, which you can check out if you like.) It’s a rarified bunch, all these aggrieved fiction and poetry students — one imagines the most scandalized of them are the least used to criticism of their project and most accustomed to identifying themselves as artists, baby.

I don’t have an MFA, but I was MFA-adjacent for a couple of years at Indiana University while I was getting an MA in English. (Full disclosure, the MA was a degree they gave you if you dropped out of the PhD program after two years, and I was only too happy to do so.) Although I was in the regular program, most of my friends were MFA students, and when they offered a “fiction workshop for people not in the MFA fiction program,” I signed up.  My memory is not very good, and this was nearly twenty years ago, but I recall that it was kind of controversial that I would get into the class — that “not in the MFA fiction program” meant “in the MFA poetry program” — but either I talked my way in or they decided that it was no big deal for me to join the workshop.  It was taught by Alyce Miller, who still teaches there, and it was the best academic experience I had in Indiana to be sure.

(Regarding my work at that time, I will say that my fiction . . . has improved a lot since then.  The standout moment of the semester was when one of the MFA poetry students made a remark during the workshop to the effect that I seemed to belong in the class.  As someone who has never really belonged anywhere, that meant something to me.)

All this is by way of saying that I have some idea — but not much — of what I’m talking about.

The MFA — I guess the question is why to get one.  From the perspective of a writer who wants to improve his writing — I’ll just parrot Dan Kois on this topic from the Slate Culture Gabfest: the main benefits of the program are 1) a long period of time to concentrate on your writing with few distractions, and 2) the chance to make connections with students and faculty that will further your career (i.e., friends).  As I said, the class I took was great.  I completely understand why someone interested in writing would take it, and as many like it as possible.

I legitimately don’t know the value of an MFA as a degree program.  You don’t need a degree to write either fiction or poetry, or to read them. Often a terminal degree, the diploma may qualify you to apply for positions as a writing faculty member or writing instructor.  None of these positions are strictly to “be a writer,” of course, but also of course there aren’t many W-2s issued for novelists or poets.  Perhaps the degree is a credential that helps you get into the writing industry of English departments and, yes, MFA programs.  Maybe that’s a good day job while you toil away on your novel by whale-oil lamp in the middle of the night.  But is it?  As a vocational degree, the Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate program might lead to a more secure career.  (Cue old joke about guy sweeping up elephant poop at the circus saying he hates his job, but he “just can’t quit show business.”)

Two or three years is an awfully long time to carve out of the beginning of a career for a degree that isn’t likely to pay for itself.  If you end up as a wage-earner (as opposed to a rich and famous author), it’s usually better to have started earning those wages earlier, to advance in whatever kind of job pays the rent. If you bounce around, you’ll spend the rest of your career explaining to your job interviewers about that line on your resume: “Yes, I did get an advanced degree in fiction writing, Mr. Jones, but what I really want out of life is to work in your accounts receivable department!”  Maybe the decision to get an MFA shouldn’t depend on factors like opportunity cost, but I have a hard time thinking about it any other way.  I’m sure it works out very well for some, less so for others.

And, to get back to Ryan Boudinot and those terrible student memoirs: the unspoken tragedy of the MFA program is that the students are usually so young, with so little experience to draw upon and the irresistible urge to write about themselves.   But that is another story . . .


A pictureless post just to get this out of the queue.  After the Super Bowl, Charles Mudede of The Stranger  had an item about a brief, stupid controversy regarding one of the ads.  The spot quoted a speech by President Kennedy in which he remarked that we are tied to the sea; significantly, we have the same percentage of salt in our blood as in in the sea.  Creationists objected — if you want to know why, you should ask them.

Mudede, in his normal jumble of semi-profundity, tells us that:

In fact, some years ago, a scientist told me that the ratio of salt to water in our body is not actually that of the sea we have today but of an older, more ancient sea. We are the record, a memory of a kind of sea that no longer exists.

That literally brought a Keanu-esque whoa from my lips when I read it.  It’s a beautiful thought, well-stated, that we carry around in our cells the last remnants of the world in which we arose. It is a sea teeming with life, our cells, upon which no sun ever shines, living and dying with each of us, yet which will continue so long as we survive as a species.  We are living pre-history.

The right thing to do is stop there.  What I shouldn’t have done is Google around to see if this mind-blowing eon-spanning wisdom is actually true — Mudede didn’t cite anything, and so I won’t either — because it PROBABLY ISN’T TRUE.  Not even the original thing that JFK said is true.  Or maybe it is. Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

Does it matter if it is true?