June 13, 2015

Difficult Modernist Literature

I am used to the idea that literary modernism was too elitist or obscure, or too difficult: but I ran across startling statistic yesterday in Richard Sieburth's 2010 edition of Ezra Pound's Selected Poems. T. S. Eliot's poems published in a 1948 edition sold 50,000 copies. I had heard long ago that around the same time Eliot gave a lecture in a football stadium somewhere in the NYC area and filled it, but have never confirmed that factoid. 50,000 copies of a poetry book in the year of its publication is astonishing for a poet of any kind. He had an enormous popularity at midcentury. I'm talking about the author of The Wasteland here. (Maybe I shouldn't be surprised; after all, there's a Wasteland App for the iPad.) But what the number really tells me is that the standard publishing distinction between popular taste and literary taste is entirely mistaken. If there's an audience of 50,000 or more readers for the most difficult of modernist works, then the fact that literary fiction is at the Do Not Resuscitate stage of life support should be blamed not on readers but on publishers. Maybe it's just Eliot, who is as famous a poet as ever lived, other than Shakespeare. What what astonishes me even more than his 50,000 is to learn that in 1967 Faber and Faber issed a paperback of Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos in a run of 34,000 copies. (The Cantos--not the more accessible, shorter lyric poetry that he wrote before he started his epic. The Cantos, impossibly difficult to read because full of Greek and Latin and Chinese.) It would be tempting to believe that the 34,000 copies never quite sold out, but I took out my copy, and on the copyright page I found that it was reset in a new edition in 1987, and that there had been second and third editions (I don't know how big the press runs were) in 1969 and 1974. So just between 1967 and 1969--while I was in graduate school getting my MFA in writing--this edition sold 34000 copies (and there is also a separate American edition of the same book from New Directions) and it continues to sell. This suggests to me that we are entirely misinformed about the popularity and success of literary modernism. This kind of poetry is supposed to be of interest only to elites who have seen their day and who were snobs to boot. It's supposed to be too inaccessible for the ordinary reader. These are numbers, for the poet generally considered the most difficult and obscure of the 20th Century, that any poet alive would be startled and delighted to sell. One can't estimate the size of the current audience for this literature, but I'm guessing it's much larger than we believe. So no requiem for serious writing in the English language. It ain't over till it's over.

January 11, 2015

Goodbye Robert Stone

When I started work on my MFA in Creative Writing, Robert Stone was the model for us all. A graduate (in a remarkably talented cohort) of the Stanford creative writing program, at the time the only serious competition to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, Stone published his first novel that fall and got a rave on the front page of the NY Times Sunday Book Review. Hall of Mirrors was ambitious, powerful, inflected by marijuana yet stylistically in the great realistic tradition. Stone went on to a great career that through its ups and downs remained that of a serious novelist. He had a couple of literary heirs, most notably Dennis Johnson, Robert Bingham (who died of a heroin overdose, overdoing the hommage), and possibly Seth Morgan, whose great first novel Homeboy seethed with promise, but who died in a motorcycle crash just as the book came out.

Stone wasn't particularly productive. If I remember right, his total was eight novels, two short story collections, and one memoir. (Although he clearly disliked talking about it, he wrote for television, as well as teaching.) Others in the Stanford program with him were Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry. In time, Stone came to be identified with sixties drug culture, a friend of Kesey from the days at Perry Lane near the Stanford campus, a witness to the bus trip of FURTHER (though not a passenger), and with his friends and contemporaries a believer in the myth that they were the inventors of a new world and the owners of the future. Kesey, although he put out several big books, was increasingly a guru. Stone was a different type; he stood a little off to the side, observing, but aware--or believing, anyway--that he was observing something central to the culture of the day.

His novels don't exactly reflect that new morning. He didn't get on the bus. Reinhardt, the protagonist of Hall of Mirrors, is more a beat sensibility than a hippy. He is an alienated jazz musician; strangely, his instrument is the clarinet, not one that has seen much jazz prominence since New Orleans. At the time the book came out the only jazz clarinetist was Jimmy Giuffre. There's something retro about Reinhardt, although at Kesey's places, on Perry Lane and later La Honda, the music being played was Pharoah Sanders. The house band of the bus was the Grateful Dead. Stone was there, a full participant, but his viewpoint was not quite in synch with what was going on. In Dog Soldiers he stages a scene in which his protagonist, Ray Hicks, a composite of Neil Cassady and a couple of Kesey's other friends, goes to visit a guru named Dieter in a place modeled on Kesey's La Honda home, and ends up shooting him. (I once asked Stone, "Did you know he was going to kill Dieter?" Stone said, "Sometimes your characters surprise you.") Much that he was to write about Kesey was admiring, but killing him off in his second novel says he wasn't entirely comfortable with the cultural changes going on at the time. Likewise his most overtly political novel, A Flag for Sunrise, is ambiguous, as is his book about Israel, Damascus Gate. He saw too many conflicting (and often dark) forces at work to take sides.

Maybe it had something to do with the way he was brought up. His father disappeared when he was born--if he ever knew who his father was--and his mother was a schizophrenic who had to be intermittenly institutionalized. Stone grew up in an orphanage and developed a kind of institutional personality. He had a little trouble looking you in the eye, and may have been mildly autistic--or maybe just a survivor of some kind of abuse. Kicked out of Catholic School in his senior year as a troublemaker, he enlisted for a long hitch in the Navy. His novels variously chronicle the social and political changes of the counterculture years, but they are written in a way Zola would have approved of, without a trace of postmodernist experimentation. He saw himself as writing about America, which I think shows how much of an outsider he was. You could hear it in his voice: an old-time Brooklyn idiom tricked out with mannerisms verging on pretentious that he may have picked up from priests and Englishmen along the way. No one who felt at home with America would see it as his subject. Stone was a lapsed Catholic but his work has a constant religious dimension, whether it is the spiritual side of the journey on drugs (always ambivalently portrayed) or some kind of human solidarity. He was sometimes a serious drinker and it showed on his face and especially in his eyes. He was a loner type who was married to the same woman for 55 years. She--Janis Stone--is the model for the heroine of Hall of Mirrors.

Stone was a large scale writer, mostly, ambitious, serious, a writer of big books. Unlike many of his peers his talent was for novels, although he published two story collections. Some of his stories even showed up in The New Yorker. He was an alert observer of literary changes as well as wider cultural changes; he was quick to recognize that Ray Carver was not only a good writer but that his stories were a sign of "where the short story is headed" as he put in in 1980. As a reader he had sophisticated tastes (he introuced me to Henri Michaux). But he was never a joiner and didn't feel too many affinities with other writers.