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

A Review by Karl Wenclas

white man's guide book

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:

mailer kerouac collage

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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dana schwartz

(Photo of Dana Schwartz.)

 

 

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

Reviewed by New Pop Lit

journey book homeless

“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.
****

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.
****

The-Resurrection_Ricci_Sebastiano_wikimedia-commons(“Resurrection” by Sebastiano Ricci.)

Go-Go Day by Elizabeth Sims

Reviewed by New Pop Lit

go go day

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.

E Sims PS head shot BW

(Photo of Elizabeth Sims.)

1987 and Other Stories by Vladimir Kozlov

Reviewed by New Pop Lit

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Igor died at the end of the ninth grade in May. He was drinking wine on the bank of the river, then he went swimming and drowned.

Ten tough stories from Russian author Vladimir Kozlov which are distinctly unromantic. Most are set during perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, examining the lives of those coming of age in that system. Incidents include a man picking up a woman on a bus, a boy falling off a roof, punks celebrating Hitler’s birthday; protests and police; classrooms, liaisons, rebellions, fights– a lot of them– and unemotional, often awkward dates. To say this is a world without illusion is an understatement. There are enough glimpses of now to believe things in Russia since then have not greatly changed.

Lenka’s father was an alcoholic and used to be a math teacher. People said he sobered up and fell off the wagon a bunch of times, and that he was fired from his regular job because of it. Now he was working as the school’s security guard at night.

But he also used to be a poet, and ten years ago or maybe longer, his poetry always used to get published in the city newspaper. Lenka hated her parents and they hated her.

The two best stories in the collection are the title story, “1987”– about the arrival of punk music and punk attitudes into a Soviet town– and “Olya.”

I walked on further to Victory Square. I went into the Dawn Bookstore, in the five-story building next to the trolley bus stop. Olya was sitting behind the counter, reading a book wrapped in a newspaper dust jacket. She looked up at me and said, “Hi.”

“Hi,” I answered. “You work here?”

“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” she said.

“Olya” is a pessimistic tale about a young woman with much promise, then with no promise. An analogy to the society. The character is never described, but we can see her, the expression on her face, based on her words and her life. Fallen potential– the story opens with the narrator thinking he glimpsed her twenty-five years later, but he isn’t sure.

The theme of these stories is the absence of dreams– the impossibility of dreams.

“Worker’s is a neighborhood for lame-o proletarians and peasants. The worst part is, the teachers that work at that school get to be the same way after a while. I know they all used to talk about me. But I don’t give a shit.”

Another very good story is “The Major,” which we’re privileged to present as our current fiction feature, for the first time anywhere in English, as translated by Andrea Gregovich.
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After I read the stories, I went with my contributing editor KMC to a small diner in a depressed community downriver of Detroit. Three high school students, two boys and a girl, lounged in one of the booths. Tough kids. I realized that Kozlov’s stories reminded me of downriver Detroit. The same sense of being trapped in a box; same gray attitude and acceptance of life.

Vladimir Kozlov’s stories are unflinchingly real.
****

Right now you can purchase this collection as an e-book for only five dollars, at Fiction Advocate, here. Buy it and keep up with the authentic literary world.

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(Photo of Vladimir Kozlov.)

 

Howls From The Underground

Reviewed by New Pop Lit

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IS the literary underground on the rebound? The new anthology from Screamin’ Skull Press suggests the answer to that question is YES!

Screamin’ Skull is a very cool literary project run by one of the coolest couples in all the lit world, Tony and Nicole Nesca (both whom we’ve reviewed previously). Their wonderful words bookend this collection and are in themselves highlights.

HOWEVER, the big surprise is a host of other indie word talents included as well.
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Talents such as Ali Kinteh, who contributes two superb essays.

The world is filled with whippets laden by pubertal and piteous interests and I can ill afford to fritter away my time when I have so little of it left. I am only interested in what is equitable and authentic.

-from “The Agony and Ecstasy of Penmanship”
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Or Laura Kerr, an artist-poet who’s able to turn words into a type of visual artistic display.

I am split screen greens and
scarlet line rockets
upright on my reinforced skyscraper legs
lifting my battery-box torso arched against
election guns and a phosphorescent socket

-from “In The End”
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C.S. Fuqua has 14 poems in the collection, and also designed the cover.

eyes avoiding eyes,
smiles fleeting, dismissing,
attention centered on phones connected
to the disconnected media of society,
platforms from which platitudes and concern
suicide dive into oblivion.

-from “At the MRI”
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Definitely among the highlights are three slice-of-life short stories by Chrissi Sepe overflowing with gritty reality combined with wistful melancholy and a dab of cynicism– with humor in the last one about a strange European couple, and cockroaches, and. . . .

sepe two - Edited(Chrissi Sepe.)

They’re stories which give the same feeling as listening to New York City-style punk rock songs. They show the reader life.
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With his poetry, Scott Laudati gives some of the same feeling.

the city is finally yours.
just a faraway hum of an ambulance.
no taxi horns.

-from “Leave Me Alone”
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Stephen Moran offers two striking short stories.

“Transitory” is a written-out nightmare. The kind of paranoid dream each of us has on occasion. A sense of disconnectedness and alienation.

“A Parable” has a double theme.

First, the toxicity of males in this society which must be restrained.

Second, a subconscious unspoken unheard complaint at the restraint.

It’s another example of words becoming a painting in which the viewer sees various things– depending on the viewer, of course.
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G.H. Neale is a fiction writer who pushes at the outside envelope of what can be done with language.

“Carlo, don’t cuss, you should think of your body, hun. You should treasure your body,” hypocritically interjected the beefy American’s double-fatted wife, whose spaghetti-strapped crop top was salami-slicing deeply into her own fleshy chorizo heftiness of unctuous and glutenous lard.”

-from “En La Plaza Mayor”

(Reading this story started me thinking how close writers are to breaking through a literary sound barrier– using words in newly-creative ways, as G.H. Neale uses them, one part of that.)
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I wish I had the space to quote more from this collection. From Ted Prokash, Thom Young, and the Nescas themselves.

I wish I had the words to convey the experience of opening the book and finding all these variegated pieces together, reflecting on one another like a many-sided cubist three-dimensional painting.

I wish I could more fully express the importance of underground writers creating outside the mental conformity of boxes of one-size-fits-all programs and artistic-dictatorship conglomerates.

These are stimulating reads from a variety of authentically underground talents– in spirit and fact. They present literary punk– literary jazz– with all manner of heartfelt-and-honest notes in between. Literary music. Present and future writing.
****

Check out Screamin’ Skull Press here.

tony & nicole nesca

(Photos of Tony and Nicole Nesca.)

 

Let It Bleed by Nicole Nesca

UNDERGROUND RIFFS PART TWO
A Review by New Pop Lit

letitbleed

“–throwing my arms around the world, Buddha, Christ and anyone else who has an ideology a purpose and a yarn and a barn to sell twisting into shapes and people and things wandering and wondering into the shadows of the new day–“

THIS is the second publication we’re reviewing from Screamin’ Skull Press. There’s more reality, more humanity, in the two modest volumes than in scores of books of conglomerate-produced “literary” works.

“I think of all the books I want to read and that I want to write. I think of all the original music in my head and the paintings I have yet to create.”

This comes at the end of one of Nicole Nesca‘s prose poems. It’s the credo of the writer. Of any artist.

LET IT BLEED is a writer bleeding emotion, history, and imagination onto the page. Nicole does this in chapter after chapter, a many-hued mix of poetry, prose and stories bleeding into one another, sublimated to her intelligence and her voice. It’s appropriate for Nesca to mention paintings– these are word paintings. When you read them you see the emotion– the artistic blood– dripping from the sentences, as if she opened a vein and out flowed creativity.

“I raze myself every couple of weeks to allow the pain, the happiness and the beauty of life to melt into a pot to ponder to create to sell to be as the gentle reminder that one day I too will be old and unable to do things that foolish people do my eyes sting–“

Paintings set to rhythm, combining all things words are able to be:
-Be visual. These works are visual.
-Be musical. The words flow rhythmically into the ear like a cool jazz cadence.
-Be real. They’re real. Hyperreal.

Do we have a favorite from this collection? Yes! “Absinthe,” and “Johnny,” and “What would Hemingway say?” and “Nephew,” and “Should we all ‘let it be’?” and “Red, White and Very Blue,” and. . . .

Reading this slim volume is like late night listening to a just-released album of new jazz or new rock, discovering that writing can still come alive, be direct, be relevant, be today.
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Check out their site here. An exciting lit happening.

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(Photo of Nicole Nesca.)