30 November 2006

"What is a reading?"

A recent trip I made to San Diego to read at UCSD started me thinking about readings and audience and publics. And I found myself recollecting an anecdote by Richard Wright that Juliana Spahr relates in her book Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Spahr argues that “complex works” empower readers by granting the latter equal authority with the author, and among the works she focuses on are texts by Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian. The anecdote occurs in a page-and-a-half end note discussing how what Spahr calls the “indeterminancy” of Stein’s race and gender dislocations (via the use of racialized language that she wished to defuse and disempower) in “Melanctha” has opened that text to charges of racism. Here is Spahr quoting from a magazine article published in 1945:

Believing in direct action, I contrived a method to gauge the degree to which Miss Stein’s prose was tainted with the spirit of counter-revolution. I gathered a group of semi-literate Negro stockyard workers“basic proletarians with the instinct for revolution” (am I quoting right?)into a Black Belt basement and read Melanctha aloud to them. They understood every word. Enthralled, they slapped their thighs, howled, stomped and interrupted me constantly to comment on the characters.

Spahr argues that often in her work, Stein, whose first (and even second) language was not English and whose childhood years in the US coincided with a great wave of immigration, explores “how people with different levels of fluency speak to each other” and “encourage readers to bring to them different levels of connection, of meaning, of resonance.” Using her immigrant experience, Spahr says, Stein is writing for everybody, not just those schooled in English conventions. (The latter are named as those “schooled in Dick and Jane” and trained to the mastery of “close reading.”)

Earlier, in her introduction, Spahr notes that her emphasis is “less on deciphering works, and more on what sorts of communities works encourage.” (5) Spahr means a variety of things by “communities.” In light of my reflections on readings that authors perform in public, I think it would be interesting to use her words as a different way of thinking about a problem we’ve been talking about on this blog since it began.

I wrote the following narrative during the first couple of days after my trip, then put it aside, for I thought it was a bit too much of a “day in the life” sort of piece to be interesting to anyone but myself. But I’ve decided that since my experience that particular day, however unexceptional, provided the focus for my thoughts, I’ll go ahead and post it and let people decide for themselves whether to bother reading all of it

Nov. 2-3, 2006. Waking up the morning after, it all seemed like a dreamflying down to San Diego for the ParaSpheres reading and stepping out of the terminal into sunlight so dazzling I had to grope in my bag for the sunglasses I’d remembered to pack; spending the day on the UCSD campus; going to the reading; and then flying straight back home. By contrast, it’s dark today in Seattle. The little light there is in the world seems to be located in the gold and red leaves that glow against the dark gray sky, swaying madly in the wind as rain spatters against the window. Indoors, lamps burn all day. Maybe it’s the contrast between here and there that makes it seem more dream than memory, or maybe my memory was warped by sleep deprivation (for by the time I arrived home, I’d been awake for 42 hours).

The long, disjunct day had an interesting shape to it, full of curiously parallelor should I say mirror?experiences. It began at 4:30 a.m., when I rose after a night spent sleepless but relaxed, to dress, drink coffee, and put in my contact lenses. Leaving the house and entering the frozen darkness, it felt like the middle-of-the-night rather than early morning, but even at that hour I-5 had a lot of traffic. And so with SeaTac. Expecting a quick pass through the checkpoint on my way to the gate, I found myself one of hundreds of sullen, anxious travelers crammed into the zig-zagging files of the coach-class queue at the security checkpoint. They were mostly silent, except for those who fretted in low voices about missing their flights or whether their hand lotion or contact lens fluid would be taken from them as contraband. (We are all school children now, it seems, endlessly subject to changes in the rules.) A tape loop blared interminably, oppressing our spirits with a stupidly hectoring male voice (what canthey be thinking?) delivering a barrage of instructions (including a new one that annoyed a guard when I slavishly obeyed it). Perhaps it was the hour, but as I stood in line watching my fellow travelers, gray and dreary and bleak, I couldn’t help thinking that all that was missing was an enormous image of the dictator staring down on us. Instead, an enormous banner advertising Toyota hung above the entrance to the checkpoint proper. The point wasn’t lost on me.

The crowning moment following forty minutes’ wait came after I had entered the checkpoint and managed to strip off the outer layers of my clothing (including, it goes without saying, my shoes) and get everything onto the conveyer belt while still holding onto my passport and boarding pass. I had to wait to pass through the metal detector for the family being processed through the adjacent station (which shared the metal detector with the station currently processing my shoes, coat, and carry-on bag full of books and papers) to precede me. The man and woman with a baby and small child, unfortunately, were being given a hard time. First it was the baby’s stroller: one guard yelled at them for trying to take it through the metal detector and ordered them (juggling babies, passports, and boarding passes) to collapse it and put it on the conveyor belt. And then it was the baby’s clothing: a second guard snarled at the mother because she hadn’t removed the baby’s jacket, and when she had done that snarled at her a second time because the baby was wearing a cardigan sweater that the guard said had to come off, too. The mother was so frazzled and worried they would miss their flight that she yanked at the infant’s sleeves in a panic. (Miraculously, the baby didn’t freak out.) By the time I left the checkpoint, I had the taste of acrid disgust in my mouth.

This was the first time in my experience since the institution of the airport checkpoint ritual that even the semblance of politeness had been absent. (Had I just been lucky? Or has something changed?) It seemed that the security personnel had been reduced to gray elements of a clunky, clumsy machine, brainlessly enforcing rules for no reason but that they existed, while we travelers had been reduced to the anxious herd, enduring what we must without protest, knowing only that if we want to travel, we must submit. Never had it been clearer to me that airport security personnel are mindless enforcers of arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with “safety”: certainly that morning at that checkpoint they knew it and we knew it. And surely of those many women old and young, so anxious about hand lotion and toothpaste, most knew as they shuffled in line that if they had the clout of the merchants who lost money when the Bush Administration decided to make bottled water verboten and now have miraculously been saved by the revised regulation permitting water bought after passing through the checkpoint, their problem with items of personal hygiene, would, like the merchants’, have gone away by now, too.

After all that, imagine my 5:55 a.m. chagrin whenrushing to the gateI passed by the egress of another checkpoint I could have passed through: this one almost completely deserted of all but security personnel. Why in the world hadn’t the security personnel let those of us queuing for the other checkpoint know?

But the rest of my morning went smoothly. Although the shuttle I’d made a reservation with didn’t show, a driver for another company agreed to take me to the UCSD campus. Perhaps because I was the only passenger, he felt obliged to make conversation with me. We began (naturally!) with the weather, with my past visits to San Diego, and from there to the local issue of the airport’s expansion. (He favored a plan in which the Navy would share its base at Miramar with the civilian airport that he said the Government was opposed to.) After a brief silence, he asked me if I was a student or a professor. I said, simply, that I was just visiting for the day, to give a reading. And here’s where the conversation got interesting. What is that? he wanted to know. What do you do at a reading?

His question made me do some thinking. This man who was likely in his early forties really had no idea what a “reading” was: he was asking me because he actually didn’t know. And it occurred to me that “readings” aren’t often given representation in popular media (like movies and television) and how else would he have known? So I offered him a general description and added the comment that when readings are held in bookstores they also usually included book signing, where people buying the book ask the author to autograph it. He chewed this over for awhile, then said, “Does that mean you write books?” I said that yes, I did. Another silence set in, and I thought that was the end of it. But a few minutes later, he said, “I don’t read much.” I said, “I gather most people don’t.” Another silence, then: “I guess I’d never’ve heard of you.” (How wonderful that he didn’t ask “What name do you write under?” as strangers usually do.) He went on, “The last books I read were the Left Behind books.” I know these have been big sellers, but this was the first person I’d ever met who’d actually read them. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses, because I wanted to keep my voice and face neutral, and at that point I needed all the help I could get. “Were they gripping?” I asked, curious that he’d apparently read more than one of them, which from all accounts (bestseller status notwithstanding) were long and tedious and turgid in the extreme. “Did you get hooked?” “For awhile,” he replied. “But I stopped after the fourth book.” A fairly lengthy silence set in after that, and I thought maybe he’d let the subject of books drop now for good. But it seemed that he just couldn’t stop thinking about my being a writer (as though he’d discovered he had some exotic animal sitting in the van with him), for about half a minute after I’d decided that the conversation had dead-ended, he said, “So have you written many books?” He didn’t sound as though he was asking this just to keep the conversation going: rather, he sounded anxiously curious. (And of course it was the anxiety in his curiosity that made me curious.) “Yeah, I guess I have,” I said, not wanting to get too specific. We exited I-5 about then, and I knew it wouldn’t be far to campus. “What’s the name of your latest?” he wanted to know. That was a tough moment, because I had a hard time not breaking into giggles at the thought of a Left Behind reader picking up the next book (or indeed any book) in my Marq’ssan Cycle, parts of which take place in San Diego county. Tsunami, I said. It’ll be out in January.” “I’ll have to try to remember to look for it,” he said as he made the turn to enter the campus. And at that exact instant, the fact that I’d gotten no sleep the night before and had been through that surreal 5:30 a.m. scene at the airport and had shifted from 32F to 61F in the space of three hours clobbered me with a moment of impossible disjuncture as I tried to imagine what it would take to communicate the reality of the typical writer’s situation to this man who was both interested and reasonably intelligent but in no way equipped to understand.

This odd, awkward conversation and the issues it raised in my mind recurred to me throughout the day. In the end, I found my reflections on the conversation more interesting that the actual experience itself (which I’d characterize as stiff and halting in the moment and though not painful, not pleasurable, either).

After exploring the campus to satisfy my curiosity about its differences from the same campus eighteen years ago (when I’d last seen it), I settled at a carrel in the library for a couple of hours to jot notes about my morning, read, and think. At three, I wandered into the food court at the Price Center where I sat down with a bagel and iced tea. I’d planned to read but instead ended up observing the students surrounding metalking on cell phones, working math problems, gossiping in pairs, or just passing the time in groups, laughing, joking, flirting. Several were logged onto the internet, and a couple were doing math homework on graph paper, but I didn’t see a single person actually reading a book. (But then I saw people online or reading magazines in the library, but not a soul reading a book there, either.) It occurred to me to wonder whether any of these people had any more idea of what a reading was like than the shuttle driver, which led to a what-if moment. As an undergraduate music major back in the 1960s, like every other music major, every Thursday morning I was required to attend a convocation that usually featured a recital. (We were also encouraged to attend several recitals a week. Recitals are, I suppose, the musical equivalent of readings. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, frequent attendance of recitals allowed me to be exposed to a wide variety of music. Sure, among the range of recitals given there were occasionally some stinkers, but it proved to be an easy and pleasurable way to broaden my musical experience.) What if, I wondered, attending readings regularly were a requirement of all English and composition courses? Might not at least a few students find their way to work they’d ordinarily not even know existed? And might not even a few of those few afterwards choose to attend readings voluntarily? Nothing is more important for shaping aesthetic and entertainment tastes than exposure, and of course we all know that there is little more powerful in one’s life than habit…

Since I’d arranged to meet Aqueduct author Kimberly Todd Wade at 4:00 outside the Visual Arts Performance Facility, at about 3:45 I headed in what I thought was the right direction. When I realized I’d probably taken a wrong turn somewhere, I stopped and looked around to take my bearings and contemplated cutting through one of the campus’s groves of eucalyptus trees still left standing. “Can I help you find your way?” a young guy called out (lanky, clean-shaven, articulate, and gay), and without further ado swept me under his wing and walked me to my destination. Of course he knew the Visual Arts Performance Facility. “It’s a perfect black-box space,” he said. He himself had attended events there when his organization helped bring in gay and lesbian authors and performers. He played the role of the responsible tour guide to perfection, for as we walkednecessarily skirting the huge construction sitehe informed me that UCSD is constantly expanding and hopes to reach an enrollment of (gasp) 30,000 students. He waved his hand at the massive construction sites and blithely chattered of vitality and “growth.” The campus’s expansion filled him with obvious pride and excitement, which took me aback a bit.

I met Kimberly as arranged, and we chatted for about twenty minutes before we went in. The space the reading was held in was indeed a black box. Near the door a couple of women were seated at a table with a cash box and stacks of ParaSpheres. At the front of the room, in the far corner (to the left of the lectern), Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan (the editors of ParaSpheres and the publishers of Omnidawn) had loaded a large round table with fruit, shrimp, smoked salmon, cheese, crackers, raw vegetables, and madeleines. The second person I asked pointed Rusty out to me, and I approached her and introduced myself. I was given a form to sign, granting UCSD permission to record the reading and the rights over any recordings, audio or video, that might be made, and in short order met the other writers who were reading Carol Schwalberg, Noelle Sickels, William Luvvas, and Mark Wallace. At once everything snapped into place, becoming familiar and comfortable, and I lost my sense of being a stranger. I hadn’t actually met anyone there in the flesh before (although I’d had brief email correspondences with three people present). But now I was among other writers, and that was enough to make me feel at home. Strange, isn’t it? Writers are notoriously solitary and independent souls. (“Organizing writers is like herding cats,” I recall hearing Vonda McIntyre once say.) The works we read and the answers to the questions the audience asked us marked us as very different in style, formative experience, and ideas about narrative. But after a day spent moving in a world in which readings and writers are exotic and alien (at best!) or irrelevant and invisible (for most), I felt a rare appreciation of what we shared in common. Adding to my sense of ease was the speed with which Rusty helped me resolve the problem of getting back to the airport (due to the shuttle company’s flaking out on me that morning).

As well all chatted and nibbled, an audience assembled around us. I spotted a few young undergraduates attending, but most of the audience was older people, likely not students. Anna Joy Springer spoke first and introduced Ken. Then Ken spoke for a few minutes about how ParaSpheres came about and talked a little about “New Fabulism” and “New Wave Fabulism.” And then I read, for the first few minutes struggling with a microphone that persisted in drifting lower and lower over the lectern until finally it blocked my view of the page I was reading and Anna had to come up to adjust it. Mark Wallace read next, and as he read, I imagined the shuttle driver in the audience. And I thought: though Mark’s story is “odd” by conventional narrative standards, the fact is, it’s both entertaining and accessible. Anyone whose literary taste hadn’t gotten stuck in a hopeless, habit-driven rut must surely enjoy hearing this story read. When Mark finished, Carol, who was sitting on my right, whispered into my ear, “His humor’s like Kafka’s, isn’t it?” And another moment of trying to imagine what the shuttle driver would make of the readings worked powerfully on me. And so, for the rest of the event, I listened with a sort of dual-perception. I especially loved the idea of him listening to Carol read about a woman who conducts an extramarital affair in serial dreams, night after night, with the husband of the woman she buys fish from. The dry wit of Carol’s performance would surely seduce just about anyone into wanting to read her story for themselves. I don’t know if Ken and Rusty just happened to get such a diverse stylistic mix of stories to be read for the event or if they planned it that way, but the range of styles represented in the five stories we read from offered a fair representation of the diversity of the anthology itself.

After reading, the five of us, joined by Ken Keegan, lined up in a row behind the lectern, facing the audience, and fielded their questions. Two different young people asked us questions about how we had become writers and when we had realized we were writers, and each of us offered answers testifying to just how different such stories can be. Though after so many hours without sleep I wasn’t exactly a model of alertness, the questions about non-realist fiction actually got my brain working. Anna Joy Springer commented from the audience that too much of the fiction we need is getting “thrown away” into the genres and expressed a sense of frustration that there’s little interest in the mainstream for fiction that doesn’t conform to realist conventions and forms. Echoing his earlier opening remarks, Ken said that that was one of the reasons he decided to publish an anthology of “New Fabulism” and “New Wave Fabulism” stories. He then said that such stories “transcend” their genres. I’m leery of “transcendence” generally, myself, but in the case of fiction, I think it’s a serious error to suggest that good work “transcends” its genre (though it’s a claim that many peopleincluding Steve Erickson, for instance, in a recent interview in Black Clock with Samuel R. Delanymake, when work they consider first-rate uses genre conventions and requires genre reading protocols of its audience. Someone else asked what fables are, which led to a collective attempt to offer a description. Another question from the audience asked us to talk about the difference between “New Fabulism” and surrealism. And finally, someone asked if there was a reason why so many writers were writing fables or fable-like stories now. I suggested that we live in a time in which we find it difficult to speak the truth, and nonrealist stories provide us with the space to speak freely. William Luvvas asserted that such writing has nothing to do with the political. And Mark Wallace offered an interesting, complicated elaboration on the difficulty of breaking past clich├ęs at this particular, postmodern stage of capitalism. In another context, this could have been an opening to a fruitful, possibly fascinating discussion.

I regretfully said good-bye to everyonewishing I could stay long enough to join the Omnidawn contingent for dinnerand left with Eileen Miles, who had generously offered to drive me to the airport. We stepped out of the room into night, which I found a bit disorienting, since, living in Seattle, I tend to associate warm temperatures with long days. The talk flew so fast and easily between us that the drive to the airport from campus could be taken as the polar opposite of the drive from the airport to campus. Eileen is best known for her poetry, but she writes fiction, too. And she is one of those rare individuals who came new to the academy in middle agesomeone suddenly inside the academic world after years of experience as a working writer outside. So we talked about the academy—my decision to abandon it came up during the Q&A—and cities and the pedagogy of writing, all with amazing fluency, considering we had just met. Afterwards, I was struck by the observation that we share a good chunk of the same language, as the shuttle-driver and I so painfully do not.

When I arrived at the airport, the terminal was all but deserted. Nevertheless, a woman security officer stopped me from entering the checkpoint in order to give me a mini-lecture about liquids in carry-on luggage; and she insisted that I trade my transparent sealed plastic bag for an identical one of hers. Surely this was pointless mystification! Looking from her bag to mine, it struck me that our world had taken a shift sideways, into a fantastic baroque dimension where officials wield arcane rules the ordinary citizen knows nothing about with bizarre, arbitrary inflections. Soon our fashions and architecture will begin resembling the rococo grotesquerie that rules Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. My head spinning, I entered the checkpoint and was greeted politely by name by a dapper little man in a suit & quickly processed: the mirror experience of 5:30 that morning at SeaTac. And whereas I boarded the plane almost as soon as I arrived at the gate that morning, here I ended up waiting for hours. The monitor said the plane was on time, but it did not show and did not show. Though the population around the gate remained sparse, as I tried to read I was constantly distracted by indiscreet conversations about office politics or intimate exchanges shouted into cell phones of the few passengers sharing the space around the gate with me. Finally, though, the plane arrived—the same one I’d flown in on—and the few of us taking it boarded, and I spent the flight stretched across the row of seats, lying in the dark, staring out at the stars, listening to music. And so, eventually, to home and bed.


Writers don’t live in “ivory towers.” Most of us write about the world we all live in, using language anyone willing to make the effort can grasp. And yet, the contrasts I experienced that day, outside my daily round, a thousand miles from home, argues it’s not that simple. (Big news: as though we didn’t already all know that.) Juliana Spahr gestures toward one possible way of refusing the gap, but her discussion is, in a sense, mostly a glorious assertion about what could be without any hint of how to get there. The fundamental problem, as Andrea Hairston told me when we faced the abysmal turnout to her reading in Seattle last April, is how to get people to leave their homes, their television sets, their computers, and physically into a performance space. She’s been running a theater for years and years: and the hardest part, she said, is getting people to attend performances that will give them pleasure, if only they could be coaxed into the theater.

I’m interested in the ideas Lyn Hejinian expresses in her essay “Who Is Speaking?”

At stake in the public life of a writer are the invention of a writing community; the invention of the writer (as writer and as person) in that community; and the invention of the meanings and meaningfulness of his or her writing…But the invention of oneself as a writer in a community is only part of a larger question; it should be accompanied by the necessity for inventing that community, and thereby participating in the making of the terms that, in turn, themselves play a crucial role in making invention possible (or, in bad scenarios, impossible)…

…Do we need community? Do we want one? One quick way to answer this is to say that, want it or not, we have it. And this is the case not just because the world is with us. To the extent that humans know about humans, community occurs. A community consists of any or all of those persons who have the capacity to acknowledge what others among them are doing…

I’ve understood different things in these passages every time I’ve read them. What I’m thinking now is that we alternative writers don’t just need readers, we need a more expansive invention of community than the one that just happens to form among and around us. How do we do that? I think many of us are working at it in diverse ways. (I know I have been doing so!) This blog, obviously, is one. I think it could be helpful to be more conscious of it, to conceptualize it more clearly.