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Literary Permission

On Permission


Permission, a term used by writers and publishers, can be a fearsome and expensive proposition. Essentially, the concept means that if we “use” another’s words or music, we pay for the privilege.  While in our new open-source paradigms, such exchange might seem anyway a debatable construct, writers face an even more important issue, one large and metaphysical: who gives us permission to tell an artistic truth?

 In my case, my artistic family of ancestors are motley: one liberated woman, three misanthropic men, one man masquerading as a woman, one gay man, one omniscient if self-marginalizing man, and a couple more fearless women. In their range, you can easily see how high art meets low, given that one group of yea-sayers could be listed here: Erica Jong, Milan Kundera, Michel Houellebecq and J.M. Coetzee, Norman Rush, James Baldwin, Don Delillo, Maya Angelou, Grace Paley.

            When I place them on the page in this way, I feel as if I have taken a premature action, as if these hearty beings, named, become specimens squirming about, placed in the wrong butterfly phyla, still so alive for me, writers who are, at their core, unready to be placed in any neat box. Perhaps it is this very uncategorizable dynamism that makes them singular artists.

            I first came across Erica Jong as one of those alluring paperbacks with a photographed cover, neither slim nor overstuffed, on my mother’s side of the bed. Perhaps I was eight, perhaps ten. The book clearly belonged to the adult world with its secret decoder ringlike title: FEAR OF FLYING. What child does not secretly wish a portal in to the world of adults’ fears? How wonderful to be let into the realm of adult secrets as a way to better master one’s own. I remember reading FEAR OF FLYING and coming to understand whole realms of existence only distantly guessable to me as a child growing up in busing-era Berkeley. Worlds involving the following ideas: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, odd contraceptive devices (diaphragms!), New York upper-class Jews, flirting, hot tubs. What here was not shocking? All the revelations occurred to me on the exact same level, Jong lining them up for my young darkling consciousness as little comestibles of knowledge. Perhaps I had never had the walls of my existence blown so far apart by a book.

       At the same time, or a little while later, in the Oakland and Berkeley public schools I attended, I sat in home room with my head bent over yet another black power book: Claude Brown’s MANCHILD IN TE PROMISED LAND. Maya Angelou’s I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. Ntozake Shange’s FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF. Unusually, Maxine Hong Kingston’s THE WOMAN WARRIOR, which I believe might have influenced Amy Tan as well.

            From this mix I got a sense of the tribal nature of memory and legend, of urban hardship and systemic injustice. I saw that only those voices that dare all the critical, tasteful voices that could have silenced them manage to endure as art.

     The writer who has stayed with me for the greatest number of rounds is one who emits words with a kind of bitter acridity: JM Coetzee, an author motivated long ago by the incongruities of his native South Africa, a writer incapable of putting down a word without a parallel shadow teasing its meaning out into great irony.

           And yet right before I wrote my most recent book, LOLA,CALIFORNIA, the writer who at that juncture probably offered up the greatest permission was one of our most misanthropic contemporary writers: Michel Houellebecq, whose ELEMENTARY PARTICLES blew away the fiction of the writer who attempts to preserve the illusion of a kind of moral decency. In his great transgression, great winds of freedom blew (and I’m sure not just for me). I do not mean in any way to declare him the pinnacle of contemporary literature; he continues to plagiarize himself, as it were, in his subsequent work. And yet the singularity of his ethical stance and subjectivity do indeed make him a kind of cheese standing alone, fetid and French, useful in the stench.


            When we start to catalogue those who gave us permission, granting us secret powers of boldness, activating dormant parts, other voices rise up in revolt: but what about her? What about him?

            In truth, if it is true that our cells renew in their entirety every seven years, we are a bunch of fluctuating landmasses with different volitions: is our canon of permission-givers now the same as what it once was? Will they forever be the same?

            Probably not. Yet at certain moments of life, whether or not we call ourselves creative artists, we all need a crucial person to hand us the key, to identify a door we had taken to be nothing. Each of us has a tribe of such people, singers, writers, colleagues, friends, a person who lets us know that in the chorus of angels it would be fine if we entered a new realm and added our note to some celestial or infernal din. So get ready. Maybe the next bold soul you meet will give you the exact permission you need, the one you weren’t seeking.