Friday, July 31, 2015

A Matriarchy of Feminist Writers

Powell’s Books is an Oregon bookstore chain with an affiliated store in Chicago. Its main store is in Portland. It is New York City’s Strand Bookstore of the West. Each of these stores boasts miles and floors of new and used books. It is easy to spend a whole day in one of these stores, once lured inside. I visited the Portland store once, but spent many happy hours in The Strand.

Powell’s recently posted a promotional ad on its site, “25 Women to read before you die.” The list was prefaced with:

Below you'll find our list — compiled following lively debate by Powell's staff — of 25 women you absolutely must read in your lifetime.

In one sense, singling out a small group of female writers as eminently worthy of attention feels like an injustice to a gender who has published an immeasurable amount of profound, enduring literature. At the same time, recognizing great female authors is an exercise we here at Powell's are dedicated to undertaking again and again — emphatically, enthusiastically, unapologetically.

And so we present to you 25 female writers we admire for their vision, their fearlessness, their originality, and their impact on the literary world and beyond. To get you started, we've included a book recommendation for each author. -

Frankly, with few exceptions, I had never heard of most of these writers until now. I’ve heard of Adrienne Rich because her name keeps popping up in the strangest places. She was a lesbian poet (poetess?). Donna Tartt’s name was recently prominent because she was a signatory of a petition protesting PEN’s award to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. She resembles a near twin of actress Diane Keaton. I read one or two of George Eliot’s novels long, long ago, but can't remember which ones. I was familiar with Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but can't recall if I agreed with her or not.

Joan Didion’s name also kept appearing in reviews of other writers’ works, especially when it had something to do with the “New Journalism.”  Margaret Atwood wrote The  Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel the movie version of which I also saw. Mary Shelley is noted for Frankenstein. I tried to read Patricia 8 HIghsmith’s Strangers on a Train, but it was so darkly introspective of the characters that I couldn’t finish it. Alfred Hitchcock stripped away all its darkness to produce a first class suspense movie. Susan Sontag? Her name keeps turning up like a bad penny in a variety of literary venues.

Well, that’s eight women writers I’ve heard of. No, nine. I’ve heard of Virginia Wolfe, too, but was never tempted to read anything she ever wrote. She looked morose and probably wrote that way, too. That leaves sixteen writers I’d not heard of until now. Excuse my hubris, but I think it’s a measure of the distance between the American public and the “serious” literary establishment that these sixteen names are alien to me and to many others, as well.

The reviews of these writers’ books were penned as Powell Books “staff picks.” The reviews are as good as anything one could read in the Washington Post Review of Books, the New York Times, or the New York Review of Books. While they are as flowery and adulatory as those publications’ reviews, they have the dubious virtue of brevity.

Many of these “ladies” are members of PEN, another contemporary, left-leaning, “non-governmental” cultural bulwark, which has hundreds of author members, most of whom one has never heard of. PEN International, however, is affiliated with the United Nations. Enough said. And every one of them has received either a foundation or government grant, or both. Don’t get me started on “25 men to read before you die.”

The late Adrienne Rich wrote lots of rubbish, but, as staffer Jill notes, her lesbian love poetry is what she was noted for. “Adrienne Rich is a feminist giant, and these poems, written in 1974, map and delineate the territory of women's love for women (sexual and otherwise) and the struggle of selfhood, consciousness, history, and art with strength, creativity, and fierce empathy.” The struggle for consciousness must have been especially difficult. After all, if one isn’t conscious, how can one struggle?

Alison Bechdel is a very masculine-looking but also geeky-looking lesbian cartoonist, a kind of distorted distaff Berkeley Breathed, creator of the Bloom County cartoons. She/It/Whatever is probably delighted to be called a “fellow,” and was recently bestowed a “Genius” award by the very loopy MacArthur Foundation, (which I parody in a doppelganger in Honors Due). Her/HIs/Its five-year “fellowship” of $625,000 will be paid in five installments of $125,000 each. All these grants come tax-free.  Bechdel is noted for His/Her/Its cartoon strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.

Here is a note about the MacArthur Foundation (a.k.a., the George L. Sismond Foundation for Social Concerns and Problems in Honors Due):

There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.
I can’t speak for the recipients of the grants who are in science, but the MacArthur Fellows selection committee seems to seek out the ones in the arts, social work, and journalism who are altruistic frauds, charlatans, and about as creative as a chimpanzee fishing for maggots. The twenty-five women on Powell’s list also tend to win National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and other prestigious literary emoluments, are given alleged Medals of Freedom, and are often interviewed by Charlie Rose and other talking heads as though they were the best thing to come along since sliced bread.

Staffer Jill was also wild about Rebecca Solnit.

“Solnit is one of the most eloquent, urgent, and intelligent voices writing nonfiction today; from Men Explain Things to Me to Storming the Gates of Paradise, anything she's written is well worth reading. But her marvelous book of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost might be her most poetic, ecstatic work. Field Guide is about the spaces between stability and risk, solitude, and the occasional claustrophobia of ordinary life. With dreamlike transitions, Solnit considers a variety of examples which contrast created wildness with natural wilderness, including Passover, punk music, and suburban youth, the early death of a friend from an overdose, movie-making in the ruins of a mental hospital, and her affair with a hermit in the Southwestern desert. She explores the mysterious without puncturing the mystery, and that is a remarkable achievement indeed.” 

Indeed. There’s another unappetizing invitation to read another unappetizing “women writer.” Rebecca is a “human rights” activist, an environmental activist, and an anti-war activist, and is likely an activist in other realms she disapproves of, such as microwavable meals and the exploitation of silkworms.  In fact, most of Powell’s twenty-five darlings are also anti-something or other, in addition to being goose-stepping feminists.

Solnit has received two NEA fellowships for Literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan literary fellowship, and a 2004 Wired Rave Award for writing on the effects of technology on the arts and humanities. In 2010 Utne Reader magazine named Solnit as one of the "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World".” Her The Faraway Nearby (2013) was nominated for a National Book Award, and shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.

There’s nothing like a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to keep body and soul together while one is having visions about changing the world.  I wouldn’t know the pleasure.

And, oh, yes, let’s not forget another private contributor to the decline of our culture: the Guggenheim Foundation, also a cultural establishment racketeer. Years ago, when I was living in New York City and struggling to write my second novel (it and the first were never published, I don’t even have copies of them in my “trunk”), I twice applied for a grant from this outfit, unsuccessfully. After my second and final attempt, I obtained a list of the then-current winners, and saw that I was as likely to be awarded a grant by Guggenheim as I’d inherit a million dollars from a long lost aunt.

The performing arts are excluded, although composers, film directors, and choreographers are eligible. The fellowships are not open to students, only to "advanced professionals in mid-career" such as published authors. The fellows may spend the money as they see fit, as the purpose is to give fellows "blocks of time in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible", but they should also be "substantially free of their regular duties". Applicants are required to submit references as well as a CV and portfolio.

The Foundation receives between 3,500 and 4,000 applications every year. Approximately 220 Fellowships are awarded each year. The size of grant varies and will be adjusted to the needs of Fellows, considering their other resources and the purpose and scope of their plans. The average grant in the 2008 Canada and United States competition was approximately US$43,200.

Not as big a stipend as the MacArthur’s, but these grants, too, come tax-free.

As with the MacArthur Foundation, when it comes to sustaining artists and writers and other denizens of the humanities, the Guggenheim selection committee seems hunt for the fringe candidates, the nominally or least commercially successful, and the most disturbed, or not all there. Many of them have also been MacArthur Fellows.

I have never been anyone’s “Fellow.” Not even an Ayn Rand Institute Fellow. A correspondent objected to the fact that Ayn Rand was left out of that list of women to read before anyone dies, wrote Powell’s, and got this brush-off reply from Jennifer Cotner:

“Thank you for writing to Powell’s Books. We considered many important and influential women writers for the 25 Women to Read list and it was extremely hard to narrow the list down to just 25, but we created the list based on our staff’s votes. We realize there are far more than 25 important female writers of our time and that our list is by no means exhaustive. We appreciate your thoughts and I will be sure to share them with our team…. We started with a list of roughly 100 women authors, and both Ayn Rand and Agatha Christie were on there. Thank you for your interest in Powell’s 25 Women to Read promotion.”

Balderdash! Given the puffed up tripe that the staffers adored and drooled over, Ayn Rand was never debated or on the long list of women writers likely to influence the world. Powell’s staffers probably use Rand’s name to put a hex or a voodoo curse on people they don’t like.

I’m sure they would never like me. I’m not Establishment-worthy. Thank heaven. No Pulitzers or
Man Booker prizes for me. I like to be able to choose the company I keep.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Where Have All the Action Heroes Gone?

They aren’t much allowed anymore, neither on the pages of contemporary fiction nor in modern movies or on TV, not unless they’re latent homosexuals, confused about gender, tolerant of gays, lesbians and Muslims,  anti-gun, anti-violence, and worried about global warming.  Also, they don’t much smoke, don’t drink, aren’t “sexist,” try to keep their “microaggressions” to a minimum, know they must be non-patriarchal and non-patronizing to women and minorities, and they drive fuel efficient and environmentally friendly cars. They have become, as Chess Hanrahan calls them in Honors Due, “social workers with guns,” armed also with a clown’s trick flower to squirt into your face.  They’re little else but a corrupt, nihilistic culture’s court jesters.

Give them a serious moment or two, but always follow it up with laughter and humor at the hero’s expense, or at the expense of the story. Don’t let the public walk out of a theatre feeling uplifted and invincible, or let them turn off a TV without the uneasy feeling that they’re fools and that they shouldn’t take it seriously.

The action or thriller heroes of yesterday – yestercentury? – are persona non grata. They’re not politically correct by any stretch of the definition, because they pre-date the term and the mentality that has succumbed to the practice.

Novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand had more than a few words on the subject of thrillers. She was an avid fan of them on TV. I think her favorite series were Perry Mason (with Raymond Burr, a kind of courtroom thriller) and Charlie’s Angels. She wrote in her essay, “Bootleg Romanticism,” in January 1965:   

“Thrillers” are detective, spy or adventure stories. Their basic characteristic is conflict, which means: a clash of goals, which means: purposeful action in pursuit of values. Thrillers are the product, the popular offshoot, of the Romantic school of art that sees man, not as a helpless pawn of fate, but as a being who possesses volition, whose life is directed by his own value-choices. Romanticism is a value-oriented, morality-centered movement: its material is not journalistic minutiae, but the abstract, the essential, the universal principles of man’s nature—and its basic literary commandment is to portray man “as he might be and ought to be.”

Thrillers are a simplified, elementary version of Romantic literature. They are not concerned with a delineation of values, but, taking certain fundamental values for granted, they are concerned with only one aspect of a moral being’s existence: the battle of good against evil in terms of purposeful action—a dramatized abstraction of the basic pattern of: choice, goal, conflict, danger, struggle, victory.

Thrillers are the kindergarten arithmetic, of which the higher mathematics is the greatest novels of world literature. Thrillers deal only with the skeleton—the plot structure—to which serious Romantic literature adds the flesh, the blood, the mind. The plots in the novels of Victor Hugo or Dostoevsky are pure thriller-plots, unequaled and unsurpassed by the writers of thrillers. . . .
Thrillers are the last refuge of the qualities that have vanished from modern literature: life, color, imagination; they are like a mirror still holding a distant reflection of man.

In that same essay, she had no kind words for the producers and directors who spit in the public’s face by turning popular thriller TV series and movies into vehicles for their hatred of heroic values. Each of the series discussed here suffered that same fate.

While Dr. No, when it debuted in 1962, knocked the movie-going public flat, there was a lot in it that didn’t quite resonate with me. I had read Ian Flemiing’s novel, and while I concede that the film of it was a spectacular event even by the standards of the time, I didn’t particularly care for certain elements in it, such as how Bond disposed of Dr. No, the villain. In the novel, he is buried in a pile of guano dust. In the movie, he’s boiled alive in a bubbling nuclear bath.

All the Fleming Bond novels are producible as they were written, even the short stories. It is an indication of the producers’ and directors’ malign view of the public that while they based their productions on Fleming’s novels and even just took a title (A Quantum of Solace, a short story) and made “Bond” movie of it,  they made all the subsequent Bond movies gimmick-and-gadgetry laden jokes.

The actors who played Bond, aside from Connery, are Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore, Daniel Craig, and George Lazenby (once, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969). None of them held a candle to Connery. They lacked the confident panache that was exclusively Connery’s. The unfortunate thing is that after Dr. No, the Connery Bond movies grew imbecilic and less enthralling. The tongue-in-cheek undertone in Dr. No became more and more apparent as the producers and directors stuck out their tongues at the public.  “Let’s give the fools some heroics with lots of sex and pointless action, that’ll keep them happy and we’ll make lots of money.”

But, making lots of money has never been the secret desire of such esthetic saboteurs. Rather, It has been to kill Romanticism and to kill the best in men.

Post-Connery, perhaps the only memorable facets of the movies are many of the theme songs.

The low point in the whole series was when the pipe-smoking “M,” of the Royal Navy, Bond’s boss at MI6 or the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), was replaced by a bitchy Judi Dench. But I had long stopped watching the Bond films.

Patrick McGoohan as John Drake in Secret Agent/Danger Man was arguably brighter than Connery’s Bond, but no less ruthless, lethal and indefatigable in his pursuit of villains. Urbane, articulate, a good dresser without being ostentatious or bogusly showy (as most of the post-Connery Bonds were), and possessed of an intelligence one can see at work in his expressions, John Drake was my favorite TV man of action.

That persona was automatically carried over into McGoohan’s subsequent hit series, The Prisoner, when a nameless British secret agent resigns, is kidnapped and taken to “The Village,” where he is given a name, “No. 6.,” although McGoohan and the show’s producers deny that it was supposed to be John Drake. The series was intriguing and ingenious in many respects as one watched No. 6 outwit his captors and his attempts to escape. It was only in the last few of the seventeen episodes that the story began to fall apart and ended bizarrely and  inconclusively.

The opening credits of The Prisoner by Ron Grainer however, married to their story-telling visuals, are fabulous, as they serve to suggest how every hero ought to be introduced, as he ought to be introduced.

My next favorite TV action series was The Avengers, with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. This was the second and best version of the series; the first version with MacNee and Honor Blackman was never aired in the U.S. not to my knowledge. It was witty, often humorous without being self-deprecatory, and I developed a lasting crush on Diana Rigg, the svelte and swift Mrs. Emma Peel.  The badinage between Macnee as John Steed, the nattily dressed secret agent armed with a bowler and an umbrella that wasn’t much used to deflect rain, and Mrs. Peel was entertaining as they foiled the plots of various wacky and deranged villains.

The production in the U.S. of such series was largely disappointing. The filming of several of Donald Hamilton’s engrossing Matt Helm novels did not even bother introducing the hero straight up; it starred Dean Martin and was a farce from first film to the last. Gimmicks and gadgetry and snorts full of laughter.

There are a few other TV series and movies that I could discuss here – and I may make them a subject in a future column – but I think I’ve made my point.
Today’s “heroes” aren’t heroes at all. They’re creatures of neurosis and victimhood or they’re so bland that one wonders why their creators thought they deserved to have any serious conflicts.
They’ve been emasculated of any integrity moral certainty or certitude. Their values are commonplace if not bizarre. They are basically helpless existential eunuchs, incapable of idealism, powerless to pursue values, or corrupted by institutionalized pragmatism. They are what the killers of man’s spirit wish their victims to become.  

It’s that, or they’re “super heroes” with mystical or extraordinary powers based on comic book characters, often burdened with the same internal doubts and ethical conflicts as the more “realistic,” Naturalistic ones.

Now, when I was very young I was a devotee of the Mighty Mouse cartoons on TV, and also of Superman with George Reeves. But as I grew into adolescence and adulthood, my stock of knowledge also grew, as did my need for more “realistic” heroes and heroines. This is not to say that Superman and Mighty Mouse declined as values; they were replaced with heroes who were fundamentally linked to my struggles and existence in the real world.

So I discovered Cyrano de Bergerac, and Howard Roark, and John Galt. And a handful of others.

The extraordinary powers of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman et al. cannot help anyone pass moral judgments on Barack Obama or even understand how one has been abused by the esthetic pedophiles in today’s cultural establishment.  

My own philosophy of literature from the first novel I ever wrote – in case anyone familiar with my work has had any doubts about its purpose – can be paraphrased in Bond’s words to Professor Dent in Dr. No:

“That’s Bootleg Romanticism and grungy Naturalism, and you’ve had your six.”