where the writers are
Carmichaels Reading (May 21): BSV!

I’ve survived the first media blitz for BIG SID’S VINCATI (BSV for short) and come away the wiser from the experience. Above all, I have gained a new respect for the opportunity to read my work before a live audience.

For years now I have read academic, theoretical papers in front of rows of professors and that experience has left me largely cold.  It is simply the case that the level of abstract thought at which I am operating does not facilitate aural consumption.  Without the words in front of you and some silence in which to allow my voice to get in your head, you are not going to be able to join in the thought exercise I am taking up in whatever essay it is I have written.

It is different though when it comes to reading a book like BSV.  I have now read from it four times live, as well an additional four times on the radio, and each time it has been a blast.  I get something new each time, and I think it comes across differently to the audience as well.

My basic point here is that in reading BSV, I have really gotten much more in touch with my performance side.  I will riff sections, am less concerned about getting every word to match the text I am reading, and go heavily for a string of snippets from the book that resemble a musician’s set list.  At this point I am proud to say that I have read different sections every time out, and have rarely, repeated myself: with two exceptions.  I like to read the high drama moment from the chapter LOCKED UP where I tell my dad he should have gone to college and I like to end on the final snippet from the chapter LAST RIDES, its my envoi.  To put it differently, LOCKED UP is more like when THE WHO would play WONT GET FOOLED AGAIN, or the Stones cue up SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: its both barrels time.  Last Rides is when you come out at the end and play YOU’RE A FOOL TO CRY, BEHIND BLUE EYES, THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE--you know what I mean.

The experience has made it clear to me that it is absolutely critical to sustain the practice of reading live literature.  Stores like BARNES AND NOBLE and BORDERS that abandon their commitment to live readings do not deserve the endorsement of writers, or our money.  I riffed on this more on the radio yesterday with host MARK MAXON in Salt Lake City.  For BOOK STORES not to host WRITERS is to contribute to that insane value system that gives us mortgage backed security derivatives.  You are a book store, for Christ sake, you sell stuff made by human beings who are writers!  I don’t care if it costs money and no one comes but the writer’s best friend.  You are morally bound to continue the practice.  To fail to do this is to insure that a new generation will grow up thinking books magically appear on the shelf like milk and shoes.


The other major insight concerns the vapidness of the literary in our culture now.  It is really stunning to sum up what little qualifies now as high class subject matter. At this juncture in time, I think its fair to say that the literary has gone from writing that is so avant garde that it poses a problem for a system of classification to examples of writing that pose problems for classification because they are no longer about anything of substance.  

I thought about this development a lot when people asked me if I had gotten any reviews of the book. Sure, I responded, from bloggers (all mostly positive) and motorcycle magazines (ditto).  No, they respond, I mean like from book critics.  Here I just laugh.  The idea that NYT, the NYRB, the TIMES Literary Supplement would review BSV is about as likely as this same crew assigning an intelligent writer to do a piece on Derrida.  The Literary today remains most often pitched between two poles: A) the identity politics that comes with thinking about yourself as being ethnic or having a certain sexual orientation (yawn--both prisms of decreasing significance in artistic currency) and B) the “I am more clever than you” games that infect young writers who think postmodernism has something to do with including drawings in your work or writing prose that is self-reflexive (hint: “pomo” has nothing to do with such artistic tics).  You know: this is a book with a book in it!  Um, did you notice Hamlet is a play with a play in it? In short, literary books are mostly beach books today, but for people who like to pack a JANE AUSTEN tote when they head off to the Hamptons. And I guess there is nothing wrong with that, just don’t dress it up as something more than that.

Then again, Jane Austen would agree with me, and so would poor Melville. Boy, do I want to have a drink with him!  I bet when he wrote Moby Dick, he thought he would sell copies of that one like margaritas in hell!  I bet he had no idea he was destroying his formula for a successful boy’s book about adventure on the high seas.  And Shakespeare too, though not the writer he was when he wrote those sonnets: he was chasing approval from the keepers of the literary flame then and that’s why they are not as good as the plays.


WRITTEN FOR BELLE YANG: Who needs to read Henry James’ short story, The Next Time.