Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

At play in the fields of the word--

What is the front of the jacket of Glimmerglass
doing here? Because the book is now in
pre-order, and I have a duty to thrust
it in front of noses! So here,
I have done my duty by my publisher,
and I hope you'll read it. If you do,
let me know what you think. It's
very, very different from my 2012 novel,
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage.
Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt.

Today I feel like exploring Dan Piepenbring's article in The Daily Paris Review about Cory Arcangel's little book (Working on My Novel) of other people's tweets. The tweets are things like this: "Currently working on my novel and listen [sic] to music. Yeah I'm a writer deal with it." Examining the essay is a bit like exploring the outermost box in an array of puzzle boxes (tweeters inside Archangel inside Piepenbring), but I think the effort may reveal something about the state of things. What things? Oh, art, literature, writers.


Dan Piepenbring is fairly severe on the book:
it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen.
Well, that is a sad assessment, isn't it? To counter it, I'd say that a good many of us have managed to build our own little world inhabited by fellow artists near and far, and that there are many worlds inside this one. It really is a multiverse, even when you don't leave the planet. I have plenty of friends in the arts who feel some sort of struggle with invisibility, but I don't see their attitudes in that depressing, sour list of adjectives. Nor do I find "exercise regimen" as a good description of novel-making by my friends, though I know exactly what Piepenbring means. Those of us who pursue the arts don't have to live in that kind of atmosphere. We can shape our own world within this world. We can choose.

Even as fewer people read novels, we’re made to feel that writing one is a worthy, rigorous enterprise for serious thinking people, a means of proving that we have reservoirs of mindfulness and discipline deeper than our peers’.
Really? Could this be a sincere statement? I am not made to feel such things. Making a piece of art does demand a certain amount of focus and persistence, but I'm bemused about why anybody would write one simply to prove him- or herself better than others. That's certainly not my experience. I write a novel when I have a whopping desire to tell a story, to thrust words around in wonderful patterns, and to revel in truth and beauty. I want to frolic in language.

And also I want to write a novel or story or poem because of that old-fashioned word, inspiration. I may feel a rush of inspiration; it's heady; it's joyous; it's wondrous. I want to make something because life is bigger and more satisfying when I make things. (Reading, I should say, is also a participation in making a world and is an experience made by writer and reader together.) For a writer, there's little better than what Tom Disch called the lyric gush, and once experienced, a writer tends to want that sensation again and again. It's found more in poetry, but also at times in the novel.

And so we try to write fiction, though certainly we don’t need to, and, as this book attests, we often don’t especially want to, even if we greet the task steeled by a perfect cup of coffee, a glass of red wine and a hot bath, or an Eminem song.
Nah, we don't "need to"; the human race got along just fine without novels. But hey, some of us want to write novels and stories and poems and long-poems. We just do. We feel the desire bubbling up like a spring--like pent joy. We don't need the right pen or the right drink or the right background sound because we have the rush of desire, the onset of high playfulness, and the pleasure in pouring words into new shapes.

Indeed, if you hope to Fail Better—and if you hold up literature, as a writer or reader, as a form of bettering yourself, warts and all—you risk ensnaring yourself in a paradox that Jonathan Franzen wrote about in 1996, more than a decade before Twitter even existed:
You ask yourself, why am I bothering to write these books? ... I can’t stomach any kind of notion that serious fiction is good for us, because I don’t believe that everything that’s wrong with the world has a cure, and even if I did, what business would I, who feel like the sick one, have in offering it? It’s hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream; sooner or later the therapeutically minded reader will end up fingering reading itself as the sickness.
The Glimmerglass minotaur is here
because I thought he went well
with Beckett. Didn't Beckett
advise young writers to despair?
And youth was sacrificed to
 the original minotaur...
Okay, we're back to Beckett once again and the recent converting of a literary phrase into a fashionable buzzword for the business and sports world. Fail better. Failbetter. Really? Is that a workable goal? Did anybody ever continue reading and find out what came next? As, "Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good." Etcetera.

This "better yourself" business is a peculiar way to look at art. Piepenbring and Franzen are both right about that. But the idea is not wholly wrong because art is one of the things that makes you bigger on the inside. It just is. There's no way to avoid that change. Pursue truth and beauty (rather that bestsellerdom and fame), and you will live a larger life. Period. Maybe that's not something you can take to the bank, but it is wonderful. It's silly to reduce everything to dollars.


Hawthorne's Artist of the Beautiful, Owen Warland, looked very strange to his American materialist friends, but the art he made and shared with them--whether they appreciated it or not--did indeed change the world. Pursuing beauty and mystery and the truth of nature changed him. It enlarged his being. It changed his life. It changed his discernment. It added to the sum of beauty and truth in the world, even if his perfect work of art lasted only a little while.


Moreover, what's wrong with being estranged from the mainstream? I grasp the whole passage and its tone, but I still don't like it. Being "estranged" from the mainstream tends to be a positive good for that unfashionable substance, the soul--or if you don't like the idea of a soul, well, it's a positive good for the mind and heart. I think both writers probably know this, but it's not fashionable to talk about heart or soul except in an ironic way; that's part of why the reader ends up "fingering" literature itself as sickness-causing and estranging. He's already estranged from parts of himself...

And so Working on My Novel is a brilliant litmus test—there are those who will read it as a paean to the fortitude of the creative spirit, and those who will read it as a confirmation of the novel’s increasing impotence. A form that should provide a “radical critique of the therapeutic society,” as Franzen writes, has instead been co-opted by that society. It’s failing better than the best Fail Better adherent could hope.
"Paean to the fortitude of the creative spirit" is deliberate jargon, a glass of liquid horse manure with a twist of lime, as the writer of the article meant it to be. The tweets chosen don't seem inspiring to him, so the writer may well be leaning toward "increasing impotence" in his judgment of culture and the novel. But you know what? Writing or making art generally is not about "fortitude" of "the creative spirit." It's about the unfailing energy of Creation; it's about a person longing to catch some of that waterfall energy in a net of words, in sub-creation. It's about the sheer, raging joy of playing with words. It's about having more life. It's about trying to make something live--to capture the feeling of life and energy in words.


There's more than one way to make "radical critique of the therapeutic society." A truly radical turn away from current-day culture could well be a book that looks nothing like the "realistic social novel" to those who like to categorize types of novels and romances. (I don't, and I don't believe in realism. As I've said many times, if we could reach realism, we could replace reality. Novels are all on a spectrum, and they are all fantastic in nature, being worlds made out of words.) In fact, any truly living novel would automatically be a critique of an ailing culture simply because it held life and energy.

You know, it doesn't matter if somebody thinks the novel increasingly impotent. Because the novel will either be replaced by other forms better suited to the age, or else people will come along and show us that everything we thought about the novel has to be considered anew. Why? Because they will take the form and do something irresistible with it. It's that simple.


  1. Novels increasingly impotent? That argument has been going on since the "invention" of the novel. Even Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky complained about the viability and limitations of the novel. The argument is all hogwash. As long as there are readers and writers, there will be some things called novels. Write on! I am so exasperated by the argument and so "motivated" by your posting that I might resume working on that novel I began 40 years ago. The first words, which I still remember, written at night on board a Navy ship, were "Ben Franklin hanging on the wall died last week, the family of Armenians in the basement will not move out, and I'm contemplating another murder. But first, let me tell you a story about last night."

    1. Tim, go right ahead! Finish that tale!

    2. Well, perhaps not since it was too influenced by my reading then of Vonnegut and Brautigan, two overrated satirists whose work I then too much admired. But aren't all writers influenced by other writers? And thus all writers are anxious about that influence. That anxiety then silences people like me who must avoid being derivative. Silent writers! What a concept!

    3. It all goes into the great alphabet soup of the mind, and from it come new dishes, tasty and strange...

    4. FYI . . .

  2. Wow, you've been reading some cynical-looking stuff. I love what you wrote about writing as making something that makes us bigger inside. You make exquisitely beautiful things, and I can only dream of the satisfaction that must come from finishing the creation of a work such as one of your books.

    People create art because they have something to communicate, to others or just to themselves sometimes. That's the bare bones of it for me, anyway. If there is no joy and every step toward the keyboard is a march to the gallows to prove oneself somehow, well...I don't think one understand what one is doing, maybe.

    1. Julie, there's a lot of cynicism out there--I think it's understandable in a world where Jeff Koons balloon animals are high-low art and corporations pick the books to finance for bestsellerdom and measure art entirely by dollars. The nineteenth-century writers complained about a dollar mentality, but it's much worse now, of course. It's a strange time, time to make one's own world of readers and fellow artists and strive to hew close to the true and beautiful.

      I agree with you and would say that plenty of people don't understand what is worth the doing. I hope they come to greater understanding, but the mainstream culture is not helping us with that change!

  3. Wow, I didn't know the world was this cynical, hidden as I am in my studio away from all that. These lines resonate for me:

    'I want to make something because life is bigger and more satisfying when I make things. (Reading, I should say, is also a participation in making a world and is an experience made by writer and reader together.)'

    And 'untrammeled joy in creation'.

    Julie says it for me.

    1. Tucked in your studio sounds quite nice! And yes, Julie is good--I met her while I was in Ohio! She is just as thoughtful in person, too. (And she brought weird blueberry beer... Never knew the world contained such a thing.)

  4. Interesting Marly.
    We make things because the world would otherwise be so empty without them.
    It reminds me of the marginalia in that article about medieval illuminated manuscripts you posted today.

    1. Interesting comparison...

      I don't think it would be empty if there were no people. But now that there are people, the world would be barren without its art-fruitfulness.

      Good night!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.