BRUCE JENNER: who is he?

One of my problems with surfing the net is that I too often slam into Bruce Jenner. And I’m not interested in Bruce Jenner.
The most prominent approach to Jenner “news” is the “how does he look” angle. On the upcoming cover of Vanity Fair, he looks like a photo-shopped human. That’s all I get out of that photo. The cover shot reveals nothing about how he looks. What we see is what he doesn’t look like.
Why do I keep running into stories about him? What are my surfing habits? First, I follow the Golden State Warriors and the Yankees. Next, I follow courtroom stories.  I take a whirl through Huff Post. I read book reviews. Which of my interests has tabbed me as a likely reader of Bruce Jenner stories?  Perhaps it’s merely that he’s everywhere, and his appearance on my screen is a random occurrence.

The second approach to Jenner “news” is to portray what he’s going through as an affront to women and an affront to feminism.   I have trouble believing that Jenner has himself addressed these issues.  Apparently, all Jenner is worried about is that he has what he calls “a woman’s brain.”  What precisely would that be?  Do women think pink thoughts?  Do we solve mathematical problems with our instincts?  Do we cry when we read business reports that concern themselves with housing starts?   Do women write puffy, sentimentalized love stories, leaving the guns and the courtrooms to the big boys?  Of course, these questions ineluctably lead to “What is a man’s brain like?”  Well, Jenner claims he doesn’t have one of those.

Another approach to a Bruce Jenner piece is the “is this a sports story” question.   Maybe it used to be, during the Olympic Gold Medal days.  But now?

I don’t see the appeal in all these stories and photos.  Not even when they involve all the Kardashians and their enormous butts.  (It will maybe be intriguing to see what sort of butt Jenner chooses from the catalog.)

Jenner’s sexual choices, even one so out-sized as a total switch in gender, are, I feel, none of my business.  And I am puzzled that news outlets think they are.

Please, newsers, keep Jenner’s experiences on the Oprah couch.  Until you can find an approach that tells us the human story of this unhappy man (or woman).

THAT would interest me.  For now, though, the story seems trapped by photo-shopped images, Kardashian rears, and promotions for Jenner’s upcoming reality show.   The paradox is that a trapped story is free to make the rounds everywhere, and none of it is especially enlightening or emotionally true.




Turn Right, Past Eve and Adam’s: Physics and the Novel



Dark is a way and light is a place.

– Dylan Thomas

Confronting the moment – as he stands before the firing squad that is scheduled to shred him to bloody rags and end his life — the Colonel’s mind wanders: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” These are the verbal special effects that open 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 masterpiece.

But, many years from what? Why ice? Is the Colonel retreating into the past because the present is so unacceptable – all those rifles? Why does the author begin with the ever invisible future and then yank the gears into reverse to begin his story? Can it be that this circular story may begin only at the unknown future in order to establish that its trip back into the past covers a substantial countryside, a countryside so far away that signposts must be plugged in so that we can locate the territory long before there were ghosts and magic and the tell-tale pig’s tail, all inventions of the Buendia family. Something, some force in the novel, is attempting to escape the terrible vacuum created by bad luck and worse actions, and return to a new Eden, with Adam and Eve played by Jose Arcadio and Ursula Iguaran.

The Colonel becomes, in that unknowable future moment, an observer of his own life, in essence an outsider even to himself and therefore perhaps a trustworthy guide to the story of the Buendias, the outsider who can faithfully report their book of Genesis, the one man sent back by “Gabo” to find the truth.

Artists, including Gabo, must be sensitive to the laws of the universe. Art does not exist in the present, which I shall explain shortly. Nor can we experience art in the future, for there is no future – yet, and there never will be. We can’t get there, any more than the Colonel can.

Nor can we ever see the present. Images hurtle back at us at the speed of light, but even so, their trip is separate from our perception, and if we look, say, at a mundane good-sized rock, the light carrying the image must travel before we see the stone. It could be merely ten feet away, but there is still the voyage before visual information reaches our ability to see it. While light travels at almost unthinkable speed, it still travels. If you and I are sitting, looking at each other from opposite sides of a ballroom, what we see of each other is the way we looked BEFORE light traveled between us. That’s only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second; still what we see is not what is true NOW. We are seeing what was once true.  Still, events MUST have occurred; we can expect that they have left evidence of their existence, some footprint, some sign, some information about what we missed. The past is the territory of the ghosts of experience, and those ghosts – the remains of the past – wander around the artist and get themselves recorded. These ghosts are not former people; they are the representation of what got left behind by people.

Continue reading…

Where to Find the Really Happening Junior Apocalypses

Big apocalypses are so harrowing these days (March, 2015) that we have come to ignore them so we don’t scare ourselves witless.   Who wants to listen to a bunch of blowhards telling us the sky is falling (which is true) and democracy is dead (sort of true) and  asteroids are not our friends (give or take 300 meters)?  So, since we apparently cannot live happy lives without SOMETHING to send a chill up our spines, and we are too gutless to address our actual demons, we have developed an attachment to the small ogres of our minds.

Here they are, folks, the baby things we use to satisfy our need to worry — without actually doing anything about the large stuff that should, by now, have curled our livers, fried our brains, and sautéed our hearts.


1.  It’s a fact that any person involved in sports is cheating or handing out concussions.

2. Prince William’s wife, Kate, Duchess of Cornwall, has so thoroughly wrapped herself in the mantle of regality that she won’t allow anyone to touch her.  SWEAR TO GOD!

3.  Syracuse University awarded its basketball players academic credit for playing a charity softball game at the Oneida, NY,  local YMCA.

4. It’s no big deal if you cold-cock your fiancée in an elevator — unless someone sees it on a tape.

5. The New York Times is in the habit of publishing, on its front page, photographs of public figures — taken from the back of the subject.  This worked out okay for Obama; for Chris Christie, not so much.

6. It did NOT snow like hell in New York City, and meteorologists there are in big trouble.

7. Taxi drivers, also in the Big Apple, no longer have to pass tests on where the streets are to get or keep their licenses.

8.  The correct JEOPARDY! response two weeks ago was “E. Street.”

9. The correct response when someone calls you an ass is to text a New York Times photographer.

10.  The trail of the year’s Iditarod was moved more that 200 miles north because of lack of snow.  Alaskan meteorologists are claiming they had used New York weathermen as consultants

A Nation of Apologizers

I suppose they’ve always polluted our language:  liars, cheaters, criminals, members of Congress.  But, since we crossed the human timeline into “THE AGE OF APOLOGY,” life in the United States has been analogous to a seat on the fifty-yard line with 8O,OOO people screaming “I’M SORRY!”

And because the language of the apology is now ubiquitous, I don’t think we can hear anything beyond a giant roar when public people step up to the microphone to tell us why we should love them despite their hideousness.

Apologizing is nothing new.  But the development of an entire dialect in support of saying “I’m sorry” is new.  Let’s take a look at a sample of the wiggliness of words in this dialect.  I will avoid naming the chief culprits, mainly because I’m sick of them:  Lance Armstrong, A-Rod, the NFL, the former governor of Virginia, Scott Walker, Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Silas Nacita, the New England Patriots, the Atlanta Falcons, the NFL,  and on and on.   The wigglers.

Here’s what they say:

I misspoke.

I misled.

I misremembered.

I mislanded that punch.

I missed the cashier when I got those crab legs.

I dispurposely mischaracterized.

And on and on.

Here’s what most dismays me:  I don’t recall getting the memo that defined APOLOGY as a meaningful response to MISbehavior and a ticket out of trouble.  Why is everyone doing it?  Why is the media covering the phenomenon as if it mattered?  Whom has a public apology helped?  Today (February 27, 2015) the New York Times ran a column by the usually insightful Tyler Kepner that essentially said that nothing unusual had happened at the Yankees’ spring training camp, that no one had issued an apology for anything.

This is MISery.

I think I’ll go read the classified ads.

Regaining that Virginity — the Blessed Unknown

When I read a novel, I read everything: the publication data, the acknowledgments section, the dedication, any epigraphs, the author’s disclaimer that the work I hold in my hands is, indeed, fiction.

In Jodi Picoult’s SALEM FALLS, the acknowledgements section begins like this: “If I could cast a spell, like some of my protagonists in this novel, it would be one to acquire unlimited knowledge.” That’s an intriguing thing to write. I gave it some thought. If a writer already knew everything, would she even need to write a book? Surely some works of fiction are animated by a spirit of exploration, a quest to unravel some moral dilemma, to discover some truth about what it means to be human, some driving question. The best example I know of an author struggling along the long path to “The End” is Leo Tolstoy. ANNA KARENINA works its often tortured way to the wrenching moment of its magnificent conclusion. Question after question arises in the novel, and the resolution’s impact on us comes, at least partly, from how hard the struggle to KNOW has played out throughout this masterpiece of doubt and searing questions – and when we read that triumphant ending, our own muscles feel sore as we have followed Tolstoy’s approaches to every side of the question of what it takes to live a meaningful life.

I recall the keen disappointment I felt when I held my first published novel in my hands. It was a mystery novel, and I already knew the answers to all the questions raised by it – who dunnit, how it was done, how anyone could do such things. I felt no impulse to read my own book. What I wanted was to return to the condition in which that first novel was born: a blank page and some human behavior I wanted to figure out. It’s been that way with each of my novels – they need not be cumulative. I want to start fresh with anything I write. That may not be possible. But I did make the attempt to start the process with a new set of unknowns – for me, those unknowns were the engines of writing a novel. I still feel that way: it’s better to start with a question than with an answer.

It can be so hard to determine what an author’s up to. Probably most of us have read Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS. When we read that Gregor Samsa awakened one morning to discover he’d been changed into a giant vermin, we may feel free to assume that Kafka was pursuing his own query into the absurdity of modern life. But, during a seminar with Harold Bloom when I was doing graduate work at Yale, Bloom shocked us by claiming that the little book we’d all read in high school and took oh so seriously, was no deep self-searching piece of literary enlightenment. According to Bloom, Kafka wrote THE METAMORPHOSIS as a joke to amuse his pals, and he laughed throughout the writing of this trick on the reader. If Bloom wasn’t pulling OUR legs, then Kafka’s classic is maybe still literature, but by accident of talent amidst a mischievous prank.

I wonder how my peers in the 21st century work. Do you start with questions, anxieties, a need to explore through words some puzzle in life? Do your characters come to life because they are searching for something important to us all? Do your plots arise out of some personal journey? Do you need to go back, when you write your sophomore novel, to that first blank sheet where your career started, to become fresh again, enough so that you can see doubts and uncertainties and injustices and happy outcomes that you’ve never seen before? To become virgins again, starting out toward different unknowns.

Writers: Unions and Disunions

Writers are whispering. Writers are grumbling. Writers are raising their voices in glee.
Writers are losing money. Writers are making pots of money.
Writers are angry, or jubilant or depressed or happy at last.

At the center of this tidal pool of growing irritation, or worse, is Amazon.

In July of 2014, the giant retailer launched Kindle Unlimited, and the troubled whispers have been turning into public outrage, because it looks to some writers as though Amazon is trying, during its ongoing battle with Hachette Books, to win the war and give Amazon a monopoly greater than its near-monopoly over books but also over all of culture. (Witness Amazon’s Golden Globe victories. Witness Amazon’s contract with Woody Allen to produce television shows.)

Writers (outside of WGA) have no unifying force to bring their concerns – either for or against Amazon – to be resolved by rational minds and unbiased hearts. Yet, among the growing whispers is a word that might just turn this controversy into something big and frightening and truly interesting, yet maybe even a useful engine for sorting out the villains and heroes — that word is “union.”

On January 5, 2015, The New York Times printed in its business section
a story headlined “For the Indie Writers of Amazon, It’s Publish or Perish.” The story features Kathryn Le Veque, a California writer who has self-published 44 works of fiction since 2012. According to the Times, her audience is mostly on Amazon, along with its subscription platforms for music, video, and book services. The fear of such services, probably most eloquently expressed by Taylor Swift, is that art produced by traditional, non-Amazon outlets is being devalued. Those who recoil at the idea of so-called “indie writers” are worried that, when some writers can dump 44 books into the market by partnering with Amazon and self-publishing on vast scales, readers will be buying their reading material by the pound, rather than according to any standard of merit.

Before Amazon came up with the notion of author partnerships (minor unions?) that seem to emphasize quantity over quality, Ms. Le Veque had the infamous 44 books stuffed away around her house. Almost all of these books had been rejected by traditional publishing houses. Since she joined “Amazon’s writers” (the retailer’s phrasing, not mine), Ms. Le Veque, according to the Times, “is growing more popular by becoming less expensive [she has more than once dropped her prices to lure more buyers], which is making her more popular.”

The natural question becomes whether the output of traditional publishers is better than the torrent of works presented on Kindle Unlimited. Is there a difference between Amazon’s writers and “real” writers? Is Amazon promoting mediocrity, establishing itself and its writers by setting up as a publisher? Do they have editors on their staff?

The old saying is that “everyone has at least one book in him.” Is that true? Can anyone write? Is Amazon actually benefiting all readers through the enabling of new writers by removing some obstacles to publication? Why should a writer sit around until a publisher deigns to come calling?

Some established writers, with Taylor Swift the leading voice, want somehow to put a leash on Amazon and its practice of selling writers from its own stable – and neglecting established writers. This is where the word “union” is coming from, from writers published by analog houses. I don’t know how that would work – can you imagine a union of artists that included Michelangelo and Monet and Picasso? What standard would such a union use to induct its members? Would Amazon’s writers have a chance at membership? How would the new bylaws read? Who’d lead the union? What city would house it headquarters? Would it have a mascot? Or would a union, with high seriousness of purpose, identify qualified writers and somehow give them a voice regarding what they see as discrimination against talented writers – themselves? Will they punish Amazon? How? Or, is it the Amazon writers who should form a union? I can see how they could really hurt Amazon. It seems to me that such a group could be effective in collective bargaining with the Big A. The “traditionally published” writers – well – it’s much more difficult for me to imagine them unionizing. If they followed the model set by Taylor Swift – she took her music off Spotify, the music subscription service that is paying musical artists a fraction of one penny per play of a song. Swift believes that the non-digital album is not dead, that her rejection of Spotify can demonstrate that music can still be sold in stores, without subscription services.

This is my greatest worry about what’s around the bend: the increasing stratification of writers cannot be healthy.

In an incredibly stupid op-ed column (“I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” The New York Times, January 9, 2015), David Brooks wrote about writers, “Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people.”

To me that’s as good a definition for bigotry as anyone interested in the practice will ever need. But Brooks wasn’t done. He went on to set up his brand new taxonomy for the relative worth of writers:

“Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect.”

What strikes me first is how easily Brooks can be proven wrong: Satirists should NOT be relegated to some sort of secondary slot. Think Voltaire, Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, Ambrose Bierce – all exemplars of high canonical work. How many among us think, like Brooks, that snobbery will elevate their work? Brooks’ even HAVING the idea of sorting out writers by category is repulsive and wrong. I hope we don’t follow his example in stratifying writers – good, better, best? It seems to me that these are the days when writers and other artists need to stand together, rather than participate in a fruitless display of bad manners, counter-productivity, and bigotry.

Polly Whitney