Introduction: Issue 2.1
by Quimby Melton
The neoconservative political philosopher Francis Fukuyama is perhaps best known for his controversial "end of history" thesis, namely, that Western-style liberalized democracy represents the final stage of humanity's civic and ideological evolution.1 No matter how problematic such a thesis may be, at the turn of the 21st century it's all too easy to conclude similarly about literary history. What seems like an "end," however, is really just a smutty eddy created by two 20th century vulgarities:
(a) the editorial class' wholesale delivery of literary production into the hands of MBA's (or, perhaps, the insatiable latter's wresting of it from the inattentive former's hands);
(b) the branding of "creative writing" as a defined entity and its institutionalization as a state-supported, de facto trade.
The contrails of these two developments are all too evident in the 21st century. And while the first played out on a corporate level, and the second mostly on a governmental-academic one, they're both driven and reinforced by the proliferation of suburban values that have crept, and continue to creep, into almost every aspect of Western life. These values turn all things into commodities and all people into consumers, all gestures into sales pitches and all receptions into purchases, all writers into employees and all readers into profit facilitators, all educators into vocational instructors and all students into aspiring widget-stampers. In such a climate, enduring insight, truth, and beauty -- all happy accidents of raw, courageous art -- become liabilities, and the phrase "literary fiction" operates as little more than a cautionary label. (Most often, this is said of corporate publishing, but it's no less true at the university, for public and private grant committees, in public spaces, in tract home dens, &tc.)2
Even among this commercial fog, though, the first of these two developments might hardly matter were it not for the second.
After all, when haven't businesspeople gravitated toward books and the wider arts? When haven't earnest writers and artists tried to turn a buck on their work? But when else, we might also wonder, haven't there been writers and editors to challenge mercantile and patronage excesses and to deliver bold, subversive texts into the cultural bloodstream? When else have both writers and editors so eagerly raced one another toward corporate servitude? And when else have writers so eagerly mewled over the one-off colostrums, and sustaining lactations, that drip from the institutional teat?
Of the 20th century's great American editors -- Malcom Cowley, Maxwell Perkins, Albert Erskine, and Jason Epstein -- only the fourth has lived long enough to see all this become routine. Using his own experience to illustrate the MBA-takeover of literary production, in a recent New Yorker article Epstein notes:
When I went to work for Random House [in the 1950s], ten editors ran it ... We had a sales manager and sales reps. We had a bookkeeper and a publicist and a president. It was hugely successful. We didn't need eighteen layers of executives.3
In an earlier interview with Charlie Rose, Epstein also describes a systemic shift that took place in the late 20th century publishing industry. For a variety of reasons, publishers like Random House gradually moved away from the sustainable, backlist-driven business model of the early-to-mid 20th century and, in the 1980s, began embracing a riskier "frontlist," bestseller model.4 This, of course, is the model we continue living with today, but it's begun crumbling under the weight of its decadence and, as Epstein notes, because of technological advancements that have made traditional publishing houses culturally and economically redundant.
Predicting a radical restructuring of the 1950s Random House climate he experienced first-hand, Epstein tells Rose the literary future belongs to geographically-dispersed, "like-minded" editors who create low-overhead, internet-driven, print-on-demand publishing concerns focused on specialized areas of interest. In his issue 2.1 interview, Michael Jacobson discusses this development in terms of asemic writing, and SCRIPTjr.nl itself, of course, grows out of this trend. Our YouTube account and postSCRIPT -- which, in part, serve as citation-documented, effectively permanent, iPad/iPhone-driven archives of tattoos, graffiti, and other marginal(ized) textual forms -- also help us extend the notion of "publication," and projects released under the "SCRIPT" brand -- via the SCRIPTshop -- allow our particular constituency to participate in the emerging literary reality in even more diverse and constructive ways.
The poisonous commercial legacy of late 20th century literary production will, it seems, take care of itself. In many ways, it's already being retired. Self-publication is experiencing a grand renaissance and grassroots, internet-/social media-driven publishing collectives like SCRIPTjr.nl are emerging to fill the intellectual/commercial market vacuum left by legacy houses. However, this new literary generation must also purge readers of the barbaric MBA values they've internalized over the past three decades and inspire them to join those of us already exploring the literary frontier. (Re)inspiring readers to take their own adventures in the aesthetic margins isn't going to be easy, though. The traditional aesthetic ecosystem has been profoundly damaged, and companies like Bertelsmann and Pearson have trained two generations of readers to think of themselves as entitled consumers of commodities rather than as curious consumers of ideas.
Moreover, the Western middle class -- especially the American form it, which has essentially franchised all the others -- exhibits an extraordinary narcissism and never seems to tire of representations of itself or of reaffirmations of its experiences and values. Granted, any lifestyle as miserable as the average commuter's needs a constant stream of propaganda and reinforcement to survive, and this perhaps helps explain why people who work in offices, and who spend their weekends in the 'burbs and at shopping malls, consume so many representations of those exact same experiences (via shows like The Office, movies like Revolutionary Road, and their endless textual equivalents). Engaging in a sort of trauma-dulling repetition compulsion, demand for this type of narrative therapy -- in a phrase, "bourgeois realism" -- has exploded to the exclusion of almost anything else save, in the bookstore, political and financial nonfiction, adult adventure stories, and "childult" fantasy fiction.
But these, of course, are inconsequential mass readers. The other, jury-awarded instances of Creative Writing™ are high art, and in case we somehow miss this, they even say so, right on the cover, next to the discount sticker, the movie tie-in announcement, and the ubiquitous orange "O" that Jonathan Franzen -- a reluctant but illustrious bard of literary suburbia -- got so worked up about.
Desperate to eke out an identity somewhere between the ownership-commercial and the proletarian-artistic, the American middle class has always preferred separating "high art" from popular culture so it can serve as the arbiter of difference.5 But during the late 20th century, something changed. Dissatisfied with refereeing a contest they themselves invented, the educated (that is, "degreed") middle class tossed their blacks and whites to the sidelines and orchestrated a remarkable touchdown of their own.
Lacking the generative capital resources of the executive class or the organic genius of the artist, the American bourgeoisie had only one grand resource at its disposal: tax dollars. And since their bosses are too rich to pay taxes, and the artists too poor, this tremendous pot of gold -- dispersed at the both university level in the form of "creative writing" programs and at the government level in the form of grants -- fueled the creation of middle class "high art." Ever pragmatic, polite, and working within the system, the American middle class deftly created a system in which their Caesar-rendered hard currency supports an MFA-mill and arts-funding infrastructure that fills warehouses and bookstores with textual soma.
For the better part of two decades now, self-satisfied, insular creative writing programs have trained their graduates to create this homogenized mediocrity, this self-replicating, ecophagic grey goo that manifests itself most prominently in the solipsistic, frequently mendacious, memoir and in poetry and fiction obsessed with the excruciating minutiae of bourgeois life.6 As such, canonical instances of contemporary American literature radiate a soporific, particularly Midwestern form of unimaginative politeness effectively trademarked by the Iowa Writers' Workshop.7
These works avoid pushing people beyond their average suburban educations, offer little in the way of formal or thematic subversion, and usually trace the benignly transgressive acts of generic everymen ...
A beer with lunch? For shame!
... that lead to some sort of uninteresting epiphany ...
There, standing in the wrench aisle of the big box hardware store, I realized why my father could never love me.
... and/or middling catharsis ...
And that's how a social networking site helped me make peace with my old high school bully.
Managing a grand cultural Skinner box, arts funding institutions and prize juries reinforce these values by rewarding representations of quotidian heroism, narrow vision, and other celebrations of the banal. While "MacFound" deserves a nod for their recent, progressively-minded recognition of David Simon, such entities almost always serve as lagging indicators of the status quo.8 The one that missed Mark Twain, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce is certainly no exception, but Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, got this much right about contemporary American literature:
Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States ... The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature ... That ignorance is restraining.9
While a cosmopolitan world of writers may quarrel with the myopic, 19th-century idea that Europe, somehow, is still "the center of the literary world," Engdahl's systemic observation scales down to the atomic level nicely. The insular whole he sees is composed of a thousands of isolated textual whines: the introverted memoir, lyrics focused on life in the 'burbs, and the "academic novels" of Gen X and the Millennials. America's crimes against literature go even deeper, though. These textual artifacts represent more than just uninteresting literary expressions: they, in fact, represent the unfortunate triumph of the absolute lyric, the monologic, and the pure subjective over heterogolssia, dialogism, and the third-person.
As the saying goes, it made no difference to the people on the trains to Auschwitz if mother drank or father was cold.10 One must situate his/her experiences in a historical moment and braid them together with the larger cultural zeitgeist to wrest meaning from inane personal mumblings.
These complementary, reinforcing forms of middle class realism have become so common in American literary life that they seem like a natural status quo. Formally, their vehicles -- the novel, the memoir, the lyric -- are so overwhelmingly grounded and venerated in literary history as to seem beyond reproach. This certainly insulates them from casual "groundling" critique, and an emperor-has-no-clothes groupthink achieves the same within the literary establishment. As such, when we see the great literary forms recast as carriers of nonsense, it's easy to despair and conclude we've reached the end of literary history. But just as the emergence of China's "commucapitalist" hive-mind dates Fukuyama's trademark idea, the emerging, heretofore marginalized textual forms SCRIPTjr.nl concerns itself with suggest literature will indeed live on but in new, dynamic arrays and via much altered forms.
Like its previous two issues, SCRIPTjr.nl 2.1 offers readers a diverse array of work from the literary frontier that suggests literary history is far from over. And just as the literary movements of the past disposed of proceeding ones, middle class realism will eventually collapse in on itself and, likely, be entirely forgotten as the localized expressions of a decadent, self-obsessed moment in time. Moreover, just as we speak of philosophy's early 20th century "linguistic turn," and early 20th century literature's "psychological turn," we will one day speak of literature's 21st century "visual turn" toward the sorts of literary forms SCRIPTjr.nl explores.
Issue 2.1's afore mentioned interview with New Post-literate curator and asemic novelist Michael Jacobson furthers our goal of offering discursive, conversational interviews that have a filmscript's fluency and tone. Tom Bradley and Aaliyah Miller's script excerpts further expose audiences to the readerly possibilities of script forms while Milcho Manchevski's generous script sample from his new film Mothers illustrates the fascinating on-page expression potential of the same. (Especially noteworthy and unique is Manchevski's third section).
Andrew Horton's review of Mothers bears witness to SCRIPTjr.nl's belief in the co-equality of criticism and art, and the evolving critical constellation accompanying Tim Ely's work reflects our desire to experiment with innovative analytical forms. Issue 2.1's cryptotexts special section -- with essays on Luigi Serafini's Codex Seraphinianus by Kane X. Faucher and Peter Schwenger -- tries to bring attention to overlooked literary texts like the Codex and Voynich manuscript and introduce new ways of discussing them. Finally, Mauro Césari's SPAMTEXT challenges readers to experience newspapers in new ways.
Echoing a line from Barton Fink, in SCRIPTjr.nl 1.1, I asked (screen)writer Caitlin McCarthy if writers of her professional persuasion are "undomesticated." She declined to identify herself as such, and everyone within and without these (web)pages is free to pick and chose his/her alliances and identity, of course. (This power informs the untamed essence of liberated actualization, that is, of "undomesticity.") But SCRIPTjr.nl will always be a place for writers like those featured in issue 2.1: the wilderness criers, the samizdat inkers, the wild ones, the gonzos, the roughs, the crazy outliers, the bat-shit crazies, and those, most of all, who want to breathe aesthetic fire and piss whiskey on the ashes of Random House with the ghost of Bill Faulkner.
In short, SCRIPTjr.nl will always be a place for undomesticated writers, and the future belongs to us.
- "The End of History," The National Interest (Summer 1989). Fukuyama later expanded the essay into a monograph titled The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992), and Wikipedia has a fair summary of the thesis Fukuyama's explores in each text ("The End of History and the Last Man" [10 November 2010]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_History_and_the_Last_Man [19 November 2010]). The essay can be read in its entirety -- in somewhat rough, albeit persistent, form -- here: http://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm (10 November 2010. Ed. Wes Jones, 2003), and the book can be previewed via Google Books: http://bit.ly/cJcOq8 (19 November 2010). ↩
- In his article "Suffragium: From Vote to Patronage" (British Journal of Sociology 5 ) and monograph The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Cornell UP, 1981; Google books: http://goo.gl/ifzbe [22 January 2011]), British classicist G.E.M. de Ste. Croix famously used the word "suffragium" to trace the decline of Rome (developing, as the word did, from meaning "voting tablet" to "bribe"). The phrase "literary fiction" could be used similarly to trace Western literary culture's 20th century decline, moving as the culture did from the independently-published, experimental masterpieces of the 1920s, through the mainstream political fiction of the 1930s, through the mid-century Beat and "hippie" movement, and, finally, into the decadent, middlebrow-dominated, business-driven contemporary day. For a neat summary of de Ste. Croix' ideas, see Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 96-98. This section of Murphy's book can be read in its entirety via Google books: http://goo.gl/ykrM1 (22 January 2011). ↩
- "The iPad, the Kindle, and the Future of Books," The New Yorker (26 April 2010. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/04/26/100426fa_fact_auletta?currentPage=all [22 January 2011]). ↩
- "Jason Epstein," Charlie Rose (11 January 2010. http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10804 [22 January 2011]). ↩
- By comparison, earnest artists and hustling executives see "Art" and popular culture as the cooperative banks of a seasonal river that, even when flooded, can be crossed using a heavily-trafficked, ever-present causeway. After all, the wise executive casts his lot with public desire and exploits that desire to line his pockets regardless of the form that desire takes. And unless, by some fluke, s/he has internalized the late Romantic, suburban concept of "selling out," the aspiring artist does similarly no matter how subversive and suppressed society's desires may appear when manifested in his/her work. Only "art school" students and the graduates of MFA mills -- beneficiaries of middle class paternalism eager to keep the care packages flowing -- seek validation by intentionally catering their work to public preference. In almost every case, this guarantees such work and artists a brutally swift ephemerality. This is of no concern to the executive; he's on to the next con. But novelists beware: A.S.M. Hutchinson's If Winter Comes was the bestselling novel of 1922 ("Publishers Weekly list of bestselling novels in the United States in the 1920s," Wikipedia, 4 August 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publishers_Weekly_list_of_bestselling_novels_in_the_United_States_in_the_1920s [29 January 2011]). ↩
- Granted, one might toss Jason Epstein's recent memoir Eating: A memoir (Knopf, 2009) onto this pile. But unlike James Frey, et al., Epstein's done more than his share to shape American literary history and to correct the commercial and institutional excesses of the late 20th century. Not only did he help Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, and Philip Roth find their industry legs, in recent years he co-founded the Library of America and has empowered citizen writers in a variety of ways. He argued (unsuccessfully) for the sales of eBooks at Random House, co-founded On Demand Books, and developed the latter enterprise's Espresso Book Machine. In short, Epstein can write whatever the he wants, and a grateful public thanks him for his efforts. ↩
- While her quarrels are political and ethnic in nature, Sandra Cisneros, Iowa graduate and writer of a decidedly un-bourgeois form of urban social realism, gets this: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2009/apr/23/the-house-on-mango-street/ (19 November 2010. "The House on Mango Street," The Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, 23 April 2009). ↩
- See http://www.macfound.org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.6241271/k.8712/David_Simon.htm (20 November 2010. "David Simon," MacArthur Foundation, September 2010). This is MacFound"s only such recognition of a screenwriter, unless one counts Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (see http://www.macfound.org/site/c.lkLXJ8MQKrH/b.1142681/k.5724/Fellows_List__March_1984.htm [20 November 2010]. "Fellows List - March 1984," MacArthur Foundation, n.d.) whom they recognized in 1984 but who primarily writes in "traditional" genres such as the novel.
As the first "full time" screenwriter recognized by one of the West's "major" prizes and awards, Simon's award deserves additional comment and perspective.
As Kevin Alexander Boon reminds us literati, we're "fully absorbed with drama" but ignore the screenplay (Script Culture and the American Screenplay [Wayne State UP, 2008], vii). We see screenwriting as either (a) something greedy, star-struck, and less talented writers do to make money or, harkening back to the mid-twentieth century experiences of William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald, (b) something down-on-their-luck literary geniuses do to make ends meet. As the latter's Pat Hobby reflects, "scenario writing" is "[v]ery well paid ... if you can get it" (The Pat Hobby Stories [Scribner, 1995], 128), and, as such, screenwriting is often seen as a primarily for-pay rather than for-art exercise.
Playwrights like David Mamet (Redbelt), Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), Tony Kushner (Munich), and Harold Pinter -- who wrote nearly thirty screenplays including The French Lieutenant's Woman, the film adaptation of Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, and the 2007 remake of Sleuth -- have doubtlessly enhanced, however slightly, the aesthetic legitimacy of screenwriting within literary circles. Film critic David Ansen, in fact, found Pinter's 2005 Nobel laureateship notable because he was the first winner to have worked so extensively in film ("Nobels: A Pinter Perfect Recipient" [Newsweek, 24 October 2005. http://www.newsweek.com/2005/10/23/nobels-a-pinter-perfect-recipient.html [20 November 2010]). But the idea that a writer could reach Mamet, Pinter, Kushner, or Stoppard's strata of literary renown by writing screenplays alone seems outlandish. One suspects this would be true even for someone who possessed Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, and Eric Roth-level writing talent. Authors of dozens of well-crafted screen narratives abounding with piercing dialogue and captivating, memorable characters, Wilder and Kubrick, of course, achieved their greatest renown not as writers but as directors. Had they merely written scripts and not directed films, one suspects each would be significantly less well-known and generally less well-regarded as artists, regardless of their exceptional literary abilities and beliefs about the importance -- and even primacy, in Wilder's case -- of writing vis-à-vis film production. As true as it was in Hobby's day, throughout the twentieth century, and in the contemporary moment, "not so much as a trio of picture writers [are] known to the public" (The Pat Hobby Stories, 75).
Like university syllabi, mainstream literary awards reflect this instinct.
Before Simon, even MacFound's admirably laissez-faire and otherwise broad-minded "Genius Grant" routinely overlooked the literary potential of screenwriters unless, like Jhabvala, they wrote in more traditional genres as well. Solidly middlebrow awards like the Pulitzer and haughty European ones like the Nobel ignore screenwriters, except Sir Harold, and their filmscripts altogether. While they showed some creativity in their early days -- recognizing philosopher Henri Bergson, polymath Bertrand Russell, and orator-writer Winston Churchill -- the Swedes aren't all that eager to award their prize to writers who write, more or less exclusively, for the stage, let alone film writers. And while one can't help but read the Nobel committee's recognition of Pinter as a semi-significant step toward a re-conception of the filmscript as a literary artifact in its own right, there's little real hope that the Swedes would ever recognize a screenwriter working exclusively in the medium for his/her contributions to literature. After all, as Ansen correctly points out, the Nobel committee neglected to cite Pinter's literary Others in their prize announcement. (Faulkner's shares this notable omission.)
America's own Pulitzer could, perhaps, with the most ease, begin considering filmscripts eligible entrants in their drama category, but this would take a giant leap of imagination from an institution that overlooked Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, neglected Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway until the twilight of their careers -- and directly rebuffed the latter's For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1941 -- and seems to have deliberately brushed off Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in 1974. Admittedly, the Pulitzer drama jury's track record reflects an appreciably more sensitive palate -- having recognized both Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller early -- and quite a bit more imagination -- having given their nod to seven musicals -- so all hope is not lost. For the meantime, though, only awards like the Oscars and Golden Globes -- primarily director, actor, and producer awards rather than writers' -- have the progressive wherewithal, as they alone have for over fifty years, to recognize the filmscript as something more than a disposable piece of narrative scaffolding. But these awards frequently rank somewhat below the Nobel and Pulitzer in terms of cultural prestige, seen as they are as "entertainment" awards. Moreover, the screenwriter can't help but feel marginalized in such production and performance-oriented awards and must content him/herself with the comparatively obscure Writers Guild of America Awards, AMPAS' Nicholl Fellowships, and Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest. ↩
- Suzanne Goldenberg, "Nobel prize judge slams American literature" (The Guardian, 1 October 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/01/nobelprize.usa [20 November 2010]). ↩
- Judith Nies attributes this line to the poet Czesław Miłosz. See Jonatha Ceely, "An Interview with Judith Nies" (The Bookwoman 72.1 [Winter 2009]. http://www.wnba-books.org/wnba/bookwoman_16.pdf [21 November 2010]). ↩