The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz

A Review by Karl Wenclas

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Ernest Hemingway was a man’s man, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. He was born with a full beard and a cable-knit sweater.

THE WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO WHITE MALE WRITERS OF THE WESTERN CANON by twitterverse star Dana Schwartz operates on a level of mild satire. The reader isn’t entirely sure what or who is being satirized. Woke Culture? White male writers? Unearned privilege? Guys in MFA programs?

I almost signed up for a gender studies seminar my freshman year, so you could say I’m pretty “woke,” and so I can recognize when guys like Bellow say screwed-up stuff. This is the sort of thing I’ll tweet about so people who follow me recognize how sensitive and worldly I am. My voice needs to be heard on the important issues! Of course I’m actually drafting an op-ed in my head for when that PC stuff goes too far.

This from a chapter on Saul Bellow done in the voice of J.D. Salinger, who has his own chapter.

A schizophrenic project, no question about it. Does Dana Schwartz want to trash this series of white male writers– or celebrate them? They’re significant enough in her eyes to spend an entire book on them. As most readers out there don’t know the Western Canon– few people these days have heard of it– the book serves, believe it or not, as a good introduction to it. (The person off the street won’t recognize the “satire.”)

So even if your freshman-year literature professor at Harvard gives you a D because he doesn’t think you “comprehended, or even actually read” Pride and Prejudice, it doesn’t matter. In fact, it means you’re something like beloved American author Kurt Vonnegut.

Is Schwartz mocking a person who attended Harvard, or a person who didn’t do well there? Or Kurt Vonnegut? Is she satirizing someone who cares what grade a literature professor gave a person? Is the target the narrator, or the writer?

(Dana Schwartz herself was a high school honors student and Presidential Scholar who attended prestigious Brown University. Not quite Harvard, but close.)

Which illustrates the dilemma. Effective satire is written by nasty people. By those who’ve been hurt badly at some point in life and carry a reserve of unflinching vitriol. Of bottled-up rage– which they channel onto the page. Not by polite overachievers who attend colleges like Brown. The book– despite much advance twitter vitriol launched its way– doesn’t live up to its critics’ anger.

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It frankly doesn’t matter if Yellow Wallpaper is taught in high schools instead of The Great Gatsby (which is too deep and well-structured a book for high schoolers anyway). Raising the question is asking which texts students will be bored by. While outside the classroom they buy graphic novels about Spiderman.

Art preserved in canons or institutions becomes a force-fed museum piece. It breathes and thrives outside such places, amid the bustle and clash of society and life.

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But, the book. The mask of Schwartz’s narrator is flimsy. As in this passage about Charles Dickens:

Some may point out that most of Dickens’s female characters are two-dimensional (if not outright evil), or that leaving his wife for a teenager is a bit unseemly, and to that I say: sure, but Dickens had a reason for being sexist.

Coincidentally, I just finished rereading the Dickens masterpiece Bleak House. Narrator Esther Summerson is not a bit evil. Plot focus Lady Dedlock is very three-dimensional, once Dickens pulls the veil off her character. A powerful and tragic personality. So the question becomes: Is the mistake that of Dana Schwartz? Or an intentional one made by her implied narrator?

The confusion is exemplified by the Bukowski chapter, which admires the grittiness of the writer’s life (the narrator’s mindset) yet puts the man down for his apparent misogyny (Schwartz’s mindset). One could say, “Make up your mind!”

Or it could just be that these men were themselves three-dimensional. That they led fucked-up lives– by today’s standards were bad people– doesn’t alter the undeniable fact of their greatness (some of them anyway) as writers. Which Dana Schwartz acknowledges and doesn’t acknowledge at the same time.
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The book is illustrated with drawings by The New Yorker magazine artist Jason Adam Katzenstein. Katzenstein seems to be making a point of his own: that all white male writers look alike! I say this because most of his sketches of canonical writers look alike.

For instance, here’s Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy:

ray carver cormac mc collage

Or Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac:

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The caricatures don’t look much like Carver, McCarthy, Mailer, and Kerouac. Which may be the point.
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All kidding aside, a blistering no-holds-barred book was there to be written on the Western Canon– on the entire edifice of today’s version of American literature; writers, publishers, and media acolytes alike. Dana Schwartz chose not to write it. This leaves a book which doesn’t live up to the scorched-earth promise of its title. It gives the reader instead an amusing entry to the lives of many of America’s most lauded writers. Which is enough, I guess, for most of today’s literary readers.

ORDER White Man’s Guide etc. here.
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(Photo of Dana Schwartz.)

 

 

Pop Quiz: Brian Eckert

A NEW POP LIT Q & A WITH A TALENTED WRITER

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TODAY’S QUIZ IS WITH ONE OF THE BEST WRITERS NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT, BRIAN ECKERT.

1.)  Favorite writer?

BE:  I’m far too mercurial to have a favorite anything that lasts for very long. I’m currently stanning mountaineering nonfiction and philosophical pessimism, which, I suspect, are deeply related.

2.)  Why did you become a writer?

BE:  About ten years ago, while working on my first novel (which never saw the light of day), I wrote the following, which is as good of an explanation as any: “To not write is to submit without a fight to that external authority which some attribute to the divine, others to the intractable laws of nature. To not write is to live without a voice. It is to live as a ghost.”

3.)  Year the world ends?

BE:  The world ended in 2012. We dropped out of history and nobody noticed.
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NOW read Brian’s new Featured Fiction with us,  an excerpt from Into the Vortex.

Pop Quiz: Angelo Lorenzo

A NEW POP LIT Q & A WITH AN EXCITING WRITER

Angelo Lorenzo

TODAY’S QUIZ IS WITH ONE OF THE BEST YOUNG SHORT STORY WRITERS ON THE PLANET– ANGELO LORENZO

1.)  Who’s your favorite short story writer living or dead?

AL:  I have to admit that before I got engaged with short stories, I’ve spent my early years as an avid reader by getting immersed in novels. When it comes to fiction, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, and George R.R. Martin would definitely come to mind. While Lewis and Tolkien made it to my reading lists when I was in elementary and high school, King and Martin helped me with style and voice when I got serious with writing in college.

But for short stories, I must say Edgar Allan Poe would be one in the list. Horror and dark tales have their ways of engaging the reader. Poe, regardless of his personal life, innovated literature by shortening the narrative form and hooking the reader with terrifying imagery. “The Masque of the Red Death” is one of my favorites.

In the local literary scene, I have been following the works of Nick Joaquin, Dean Francis Alfar, and Elena Paulma. Joaquin has been one of the most recognized Filipino writers because of the socio-political issues he depicted in his short stories. While he may have passed on, universities still study his works. Alfar, on the other hand, has written short stories which can be categorized under the genres that I love – magical realism and fantasy. Paulma underscores women empowerment with her characters. She keeps classical themes of family and love in contemporary setting.

2.)  Why did you become a writer?

AL:  When I was 11, my mother took me and my sister to watch the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was amazed by the story, as well as its allegory. I remember obsessing over the series since then. I read the books, got introduced to fantasy, and then started reading other books. I think it was at that time when I started dreaming of becoming a writer someday. I wanted to explore further the kind of worlds that Lewis, Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Paolini, and J.K. Rowling created.

It wasn’t until I was 18 that I started getting serious about writing. I wrote a couple of drafts, self-published them online, and also practiced translating my idea into words. I took advantage of the knowledge I gained while in college to hone this skill, especially when it comes to writing with structure. I majored in Development Journalism, and the program made me familiar with the discipline.

Currently, I am taking my Master’s Degree in Literature. Reading and writing will always be a part of me, and I think that’s a good thing. Nothing compares to the feeling of fulfillment once a writer completes a manuscript or makes worlds out of words. After all, I believe everyone is creative. The medium which we prefer to showcase our creativity makes the difference. I think it was Elizabeth Gilbert who introduced me to this idea after reading her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Also, I write because I feel good doing it, and I feel accomplished every time I finish what I’m writing.

3.)  Can writers be pop stars?

AL:  Taylor Swift, I believe, is a great writer. Her songs made her a sensational pop star in this generation. The same goes with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Karen Carpenter, Patti Smith, and the many names in the constellation of music.

But when it comes to art in the written format (or literature in general), I think writers can definitely be pop stars. However, the work matters before the name. Genuine artists focus on the craft before anything else. Fame, reputation, recognition and wealth may be side effects, but these should not be the end-result or the main objective. Art is not about hoarding attention or money. These may come or these may not. But what every writer should keep in mind is that their craft is their outlet to deliver their message. These messages may inspire, disturb, reflect, frighten, encourage, motivate, etc. And whether these would spark attention or generate income, that’s for the odds to decide. The value of the craft – and in the case of writers, writing – should always come first. 
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NOW READ ANGELO’S STORY, “SPOILER ALERT.”

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Pop Quiz: Rachel Haywire

A QUICK NEW POP LIT Q & A WITH AN EXCITING WRITER

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TODAY’S QUIZ IS WITH TRANSHUMANIST PARTY CANDIDATE– AND WRITER– RACHEL HAYWIRE

1.)  Have you done anything in your life bolder than running for President?

“Too many things. Running for President is my attempt to learn how to be normal. When I was a teenager I hitchhiked across the country. I stayed in a bunch of hacker squats and played live shows in between going to conferences and festivals. Meanwhile I was running a record label, organizing street kids, and dining the elite. Seriously, running for President is a boring game.”

2.)  Is the new generation too shocked by out-of-the-box ideas?

“Yes. They think out-of-the-box means wearing a quirky t-shirt with their cat on it, or attending a poly gamer meetup. Yet the minute they meet someone who is actually out-of-the-box, they run away screaming and claim toxic vibes or micro aggression. They are careful and boring, yet then again they are far more stable than me and my friends were growing up.”

3.)  As a futurist, do you see a future for literature?

“I do, yet it will be nothing like the literature that we know today. Instead, it will be immersive and break down previous genre expectations. There will be an eclectic return to tradition mixed with a postmodern pop sensibility. It will have a vitalist current that will shake readers out of their comfort zones. Underground subgenres will mutate into new forms that will eventually penetrate the mainstream.”
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NOW READ RACHEL HAYWIRE’S STORY, “THE KINGDOM.”

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This Hasn’t Been A Very Magical Journey So Far by Homeless

Reviewed by New Pop Lit

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“I move through the world like it’s some sort of mirage. I move through the poetry the same way someone moves through a ghost they don’t see but is still there. And it really is there, the poetry. Poetry is everywhere because life is everywhere. But how can you write about life when you’ve completely fallen out of love with life? You move through the world, or your perception of the world, like some kind of lethargic tumbleweed.”
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Everything in the established literary world is geared toward standard status quo opinion. Everything among the literary cognoscenti is geared toward their peers, the herd of acceptable thought. NOT toward those writing outside the margins of approval or disapproval of the Big Five-financed literary establishment. Which are the only margins that matter. If you’re announcing your love of the marginalized at swanky dinners in Manhattan, at hyper-expensive chi-chi restaurants on Wall Street– Big Five-published marginalized– then how marginalized are they?

One writer who’s not on Wall Street but is marginalized and has named himself Homeless has written a novel published by an indy outfit named Expat Press.

The novel: THIS HASN’T BEEN A VERY MAGICAL JOURNEY SO FAR

I suspect Homeless is one of those homeless or near-homeless people you see throughout the island of Manhattan– that hyper-expensive island hyper-blind to its own authentic artists and writers– one of the characters handing out flyers to tourists in Times Square trying to survive to keep their art alive in that insular island dreams and disasters. . . .

His novel “Journey” has the vibe of homelessness, though it reads like a surrealistic dream, one of those dreams we all have which seem starkly real yet also mad and last forever, for days, then you wake up and you’ve been asleep for two hours. An experiment in reality and time.

The plot? There’s not much of a plot. Only a tale that begins in a hospital when the lead character meets a talking cat–

Hank Williams knows cats don’t speak. He knows they only purr or meow or sometimes screech and howl depending on their mood. But something about this unnatural act of the cat greeting him seems very natural, like it’s supposed to be happening, this unusual verbal exchange between human and feline.

–and they go on a long highway which might be a real highway or could be a highway of the mind. A mix of reality and unreality.

Isabel stops cupping her breasts and looks up around the ceiling, her face expressing intense levels of anxiety.

“I feel like an angel is locked onto my head with a sniper rifle. Like an angel’s lying on a cloud somewhere above me, staring down his scope at my head with his finger resting lightly on the trigger, ready to blow my brains out the back of my head and all over the wall.”

The narrative has the poignancy of a dream.

Expat Press is publishing more than a score of striking new writers. Fascinating, confident, intelligently imaginative writers. I see announcements about them everyplace. Their work isn’t pop and it’s not literary– it’s something underground that you’ll have to read for yourself to decide if it’s your thing. They might be, like Homeless, from the streets, or they might be instead the refuse of the academy. Or something in between. Are they the future– a possible path or magical journey showing the literary future?

That’s not for us but for you the reader to decide. They’re here and aren’t going away.
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Purchase his book here. Do it.

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(Photo of Homeless.)

 

The Triumph of Christianity by Bart D. Ehrman

Reviewed by Karl Wenclas

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–we need to make a special effort not to think that somehow monotheistic faiths are inherently “superior” and that the movement away from paganism is somehow “progress.” It is not progress. It is not regress either. I am not making any evaluative judgment or asking whether one religious system is better than another and closer to some ultimate truth.

No judgments? Why would someone then pay twenty-eight dollars list price for the book? The subtitle says, “How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World.” Does the book answer the “how”?

THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIANITY concludes that, yes, the religion did triumph– but is unwilling to say much beyond that. According to his thorough research (Bart Ehrman is a much-lauded historian; he’s published many books), the obscure sect– begun in his words by “twenty or so illiterate day laborers”– triumphed over hundreds of other cults and sects, and the mighty Roman Empire itself, by using a strategy similar to that of Avon and Amway. Yep folks, that’s it. Have a few friends over while you work your job. Tell them about this neat idea you found out about. And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell. . . .

Well, maybe. Or not.

The chief question the book raised for me is why Bart D. Ehrman hedges his bets. A severe avoidance of risk. A Simon & Schuster marketing person must have come up with the hyperbolic subtitle. My question is how intently a Simon & Schuster editor was looking over Ehrman’s shoulder tamping the emotion down. “Can’t offend anybody, you know. Not even pagans. They might be a vocal interest group– they have a good turnout on Halloween, anyway. All those werewolf movies! Nope. Too risky. Be careful.”

I was hoping for more. Ehrman scarcely mentions the Resurrection. Might that have been important? Transformative?

The Gospels? Did their words, depictions, narrative, drama, light a fire under people? Hardly touched on.

resurrection of Lazarus by leon bonnat(“Resurrection of Lazarus” by Leon Bonnat.)

Missing for the most part is the element of fanatical belief.

As for himself, Bart Ehrman indicates he kinda once believed, but now he kinda really doesn’t. But he can’t be sure.

Why does this matter to me?

I have an interest in cultural movements. (My focus has been on arts movements.) I’ve studied them assiduously, looking for clues. I can testify from experience they’re not sustained by the timid, the weak willed. By hobbyists or dabblers. They can be put through only by fearless 100% committed balls-to-the-wall individuals willing to face anything in pursuit of their cause. Anything— from prison to lions to upside-down crucifixion. Such movements require irrational passion– passion nowhere to be found in the careful pages of this book.

crucifixion of peter lorenzo veneziano(“The Crucifixion of Peter” by Lorenzo Veneziano.)

Like most other things in today’s culture, Bart D. Ehrman’s Triumph of Christianity is thin gruel.
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The-Resurrection_Ricci_Sebastiano_wikimedia-commons(“Resurrection” by Sebastiano Ricci.)

Go-Go Day by Elizabeth Sims

Reviewed by New Pop Lit

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Regina knew perfectly well what Barb and everybody else thought of her. She was a Seybold. Her brothers and sisters, all way older, were gone from the house except Earl, the third oldest, who had been and come back from Afghanistan and was having a hard time getting interested in working. The Seybolds lived in the shabbiest double-wide in Dustin Point, Michigan. You could almost smell the cigarette smoke and dirty feet from the street.
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ANYONE assessing America’s best short story writers needs to include Elizabeth Sims in their survey.

GO-GO DAY presents four stories– only four, but every one, in different ways, is terrific. They’re sustained by hidden wit and a large underpinning of humanity.

The four tales:

“Dixon Amiss”:  Two one-armed men show up at a man’s door one Saturday morning, ostensibly to look at an old-fashioned printing press, bringing with them much tension.

“The Cashmere Club”:  Two high school girls discuss shoplifting a cashmere sweater in order for one of them to join an exclusive school club.

The best story in the collection,  “The Cashmere Club” is also one of the best stories you’ll read this year, or any year. Like the other three tales, the narrative keeps the reader off balance at the same time it achieves– beyond the complications of plot– surprising understanding and depth. Ultimately, a sense of context about the dilemmas of time and life

“West Forkton Days”:  A young man with expansive dreams arrives back in his Indiana home town from Los Angeles for the funeral of his father.

Hale knew that hardly anybody who wanted to succeed in the film business actually did. Everybody he met in LA told him over and over how hard it was to make it, what a bastard of a market it was to crack. And yet everybody was trying like a maniac to be the one.

This story could be called wise but it’s also hilarious. Hale Hobson is all of us– a striver, a dreamer, but a little bit lazy and more than a bit hapless

“Go-Go Day”:  The title story is about an elderly home owner asked by her city to clean up the swimming pool in her yard, which hasn’t been touched in years. Memories and complications ensue. Catch the double meaning of the phrase “We’re Going Places!” evident at the end

These are four excellent stories which demonstrate that the short story can be readable and engaging, yet also contain wisdom and convey meaning about what it’s like to be a human being in this crazy world. Which is what literature is really about.
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Find out how to read Go-Go Day here.

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(Photo of Elizabeth Sims.)