Literary Citizenship Depletes Crystal Count and Other Controversial Claims
On Reading Shane Jones’s Crystal Eaters with Intent to Review.
By Lee Klein.
The online/indie lit world is populated by a supportive and enthusiastic citizenry. An encouraging community helps when starting out. But later on, exposure to this community’s critical emissions might make you feel queasy. Or more so: suspicious. I trust very little of the praise I read online. Everyone’s connected with everyone or trying to connect with everyone. Writers spray positivity in all directions, hoping to receive it in return. Superficial adulation intended to support and promote makes me distrust it all. It corrodes the endeavor of reading and writing. Instead of successfully supporting and promoting, so-called “good literary citizenry” so often repels.
Consider this five-star Goodreads review of Leslie Jamison’s essay collection, The Empathy Exams:
This is a really thought provoking essay collection. I particularly appreciated how each of the essays took up empathy in different ways and articulated the challenges of being human while recognizing the humanity in those around us. The last essay, about women and expressions of pain, is a stunner—uncomfortable in its truths, comforting in its empathy. Whether you agree or not with the ideas expressed across these essays, their intelligence and grace are indisputable.
As of July 18, 2014, this review has been liked 32 times. It offers support but I doubt the writer who wrote it actually read the book. Leading up to the most recent annual Association of American Writers & Writing Programs conference, the writer who wrote the above review contributed a piece to the AWP site called “The Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves.” The first question was “Are you a good literary citizen?” The writer answered like this:
Literary citizenship is certainly not being disingenuous, uncritical, or falsely affirming about everything you read and every writer you encounter. Instead, literary citizenship can involve being a consumer as well as a producer of the written word. Subscribe to a literary magazine or two. Attend readings once in a while. Volunteer at a literary magazine. Do what you want, so long as you are doing something to contribute to the literary community, beyond simply offering your writing. Don’t burn bridges you may want to cross in the future. The writing world is as small as it is big; most everyone is connected in some way. Again, this is not to suggest you should be disingenuous but you never know when seemingly casual connections will end up leading to professional opportunities to participate in a reading series, or read at a university, or teach at a writing workshop.
Literary citizenship is about buying books, subscribing to lit mags, going to readings. It isn’t about offering superficial, promiscuous support. It isn’t about honesty. It’s not about standing on the side of what’s right when it comes to what matters most. Literature is a tiny cocktail umbrella under which we take refuge from the storm of shit. The first question we literary fundamentalists should ask ourselves is something like this: if we don’t reinforce our tiny cocktail umbrella so it’s as sturdy as can be, how will we keep the shit off our shoulders?
Once upon a time on the internet, a writer described a Tao Lin novel as “a work of startling interiority.” This seemed misleading to the point of immorality. Hemingway said writers must have a failsafe bullshit detector. Writers worth their salt who review novels shall not propagate bullshit. Why pull the wool over the eyes of readers, especially when most readers of so-called indie lit are mostly also writers too? Why not respect readers and say exactly what you mean? Why not figure out what amounts to your own personal literary standards and then uphold them? Standards are your understanding, achieved through experience (reading/writing/living), of what’s good, beautiful, true, intriguing, perception enhancing, well done. Standards are based on an experience of art that interpenetrates experience of daily life but also suggests everything unknowable, everything beyond understanding—the omni-directional infinite anthropomorphically reduced at one time into an omnipotent, omniscient, elderly white dude known for His flowing robes, sandals, and enormous snowy beard. For some, standards are a contemporary stand-in for God. What else is there to revere other than an experience of art we’ve deemed great?
Islamic fundamentalists proclaim that God is great. Literary fundamentalists proclaim that great is God.
Proust’s godhead amounts to an accumulation of memorable aesthetic experiences: pink hawthorns in bloom, girls on the beach, a little phrase in a sonata, the paintings of Elstir, the writings of Bergotte, an airplane climbing the sky, Albertine asleep. But Proust’s narrator spends most of his time in fancy society salons, too. The fifth-century Augustine distinction halves the spiritual sense into a mystical, higher realm of ye olde eternal truth (City of God) and an urban agglomeration dedicated to the present, people, pleasure (City of Man—um, let’s update that to City of Citizens). The latter is totally important: some Zen monks sit in meditation for the most part; some monks devote their time to helping others in the community. For some writer/readers, community support may be more important than upholding standards? Maybe some writer/readers haven’t yet begun to identify their standards because they’re too busy maneuvering among the community online, practicing good literary citizenry, doing what they can to support those in need? But I think conflict occurs when those who mostly support make it seem like they’re upholding a standard, especially when praise is exaggeratedly positive, hyperbolically supportive, evangelically ululating that someone’s writing is “great,” thereby equivalent to God in the minds of literary fundamentalists.
Superficial adulation obscures the distinction between Cities of God and Citizens. When someone who works among the community (a good literary citizen/networker) emits statements that ring false because they’re not the product of solitary meditation (committed reading), it produces a thunderstorm of lameness, the lighting of which elucidates the good literary citizen’s apathy when it comes to honest criticism, which, ironically, is really terrible citizenry since it intentionally misleads. Such positivity helps writers and publishers yet screws over readers. But when a literary fundamentalist upholds a standard, it’s like spitting in the wind. You must not emit criticism in such a way that the blowback messes your face. It’s tricky, even more so, if you have a novel coming out real soon and want to air ideas important to you (and maybe also to others) in a way that somehow manages to successfully self-promote without making enemies.
About ten years ago Shane Jones submitted between four and seven stories to Eyeshot, the archaically designed, inconsistently updated, consistently declining lit site I edit. I didn’t accept those submissions but they made me familiar with his name, so I was interested when his short inventive novel Light Boxes received considerable praise and support. I came to it late in January 2011, reading the Penguin edition, not the original one released by Publishing Genius in 2009. Once I read the novel, I chalked some of the support up to online literary back-scratching. As I’ve done with every book I’ve read since 2007, I posted my impressions on Goodreads:
Sort of like a surreal textual reinterpretation of the classic 1970s stop-action Xmas kids special The Year Without A Santa Claus (featuring Snow Miser and Heat Miser), formally arranged a la As I Lay Dying? Easy reading, spare (seemed sometimes like notes for what could be an awesome graphic novel). Most of the time I felt confounded, not engaged by the characters (probably because there’s not much characterization—for a while I enjoyed picturing 6’8″ Sixers forward Thaddeus Young as the hero), not really clearly seeing/believing in the fabulist world (probably because it never really stops introducing new oddities throughout). Three quarters into it I sensed some interesting metafictional glimmerings in which the skinny bike-riding writer dude maybe would be revealed as February etc, also the unattributed-to-a-character list of folks who invented fantasy worlds to overcome sadness. Sometimes felt like it force-fed emotionality with “poignancies” like: “The carpenters have boarded up their windows and refuse to leave their rooms. They mumble sadness. Sadness sounds like bubbles blowing slowly in stream water.” Generally, I sort of respect the experiment and love the idea but wish it were fuller, felt “real,” had some more thematic heft and some humor. Loose thematic threads maybe included overcoming what people say, about willpower etc, about reshaping the world through imagination. Lots of people love this book, so maybe my readerly expectations mismatch what this one offers. Typographic invention and surreal turns (opened veins stream with vines instead of blood) got nothing on vivid characterization/description, thematic heft, and a bit of good ol’-fashioned humor.
Note: I haven’t read Daniel Fights A Hurricane (Penguin Books; 2012) or any other of the short inventive novels Shane Jones has published recently.
On May 15, 2014, Shane tweeted this:
That night, I received a request for my postal address from Shane’s former editor at Penguin whose fiction I posted on Eyeshot a long time ago. Shane wanted me to receive a copy of his novel Crystal Eaters. His tweet seemed to acknowledge that he doesn’t trust puffy reviews. He wanted to hear what I really thought. Or maybe he considers me a frenemy, so by saying nice things about me online and sending me a review copy, he’ll keep me close, and possibly even convert me into a supporter? I wrote what I did about Light Boxes because I didn’t really know Shane Jones. If I’m friends with or have some connection to a writer I always acknowledge it upfront in the review or otherwise indicate a “potential conflict of interest.” But I had never met Shane, wasn’t connected with him on social media, had never exchanged e-mails et cetera other than responses to his submissions, and so had no reason not to thumb out on my phone quick impressions as soon as I finished the book.
I don’t tend to read novels like Light Boxes or Crystal Eaters these days. I’ve read my share of fabulist stuff, sure. I cut my extracurricular reading teeth on Kafka as a teenager. Post-college, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum set me off on a reading frenzy. Pynchon, Barthelme, Saunders, Pullman, all have been important. Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and the Bible, too. Ben Marcus, Donald Atrium, Jesse Ball, Salvador Plascenia I’ve read with admiration, without freaking out about them. These days, I usually read forty or fifty books a year unless I read a lot of long ones. I try to read towering literary artistry, the canonical biggies, the gods of literary Olympus, as often as I can. Before opening Crystal Eaters, I read Proust’s The Captive and the Fugitive. After it, I read A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke—a “life story” about the author’s mother’s suicide that Karl Ove Knausgaard recently acknowledged as a major influence. I read mostly translations. I read novels by dead white men who will never read what I write about them online. They will never retweet to their hundred thousand followers the automated tweet Goodreads emits that links to my evangelical impressions of their novels. They will never message me with gratitude. They will never invite me to a reading or party or solicit me to submit to a publication for which they’re serving as guest editor. It’s possible that in the Goodreads era, I mostly read books by dead and/or inaccessible European authors in part because I can write about them without worrying about their reaction should my impressions go south.
A few years ago, I bought a book by a local acquaintance. I read it between volumes one and two of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, the first volume of which blew me away. I raved about it on Goodreads: “Unfakeable insight, wisdom, striking images. Exactly the sort of thing I want and rail about when I don’t get, especially in books considered excellent.” I then read this acquaintance’s publication from an indie press and thought it not bad. I gave it four stars, said a few lightly critical things but the tone of the review, I thought, was generally kind. One night when we ran into each other at a reading weeks later the local author flipped on me. I flipped on the local author in return. We both had skipped dinner and drank too much. But we also flipped on each other because I had failed to hype the local author’s book, which really didn’t live up to the standards of towering literary artistry that had been set for me by the great lit I’ve read. Musil’s masterpiece blows local author’s book away—I’ll stand by that impression and uphold it as immutable truth forever and ever. But I learned a lesson that day about the conflict between support and standards. Friends coached me to forget about the local author’s reaction and leave my little review as is but I wanted to take the high road and support the local author, especially after such an intense reaction to my four-star review. The local author cared for support more than knowing what I really thought. So I edited the review. But if the local author were dead, I could have written whatever I wanted to write without worrying about the reaction.
No one wants to be a dick or a wuss—that’s the dilemma. If I don’t support Shane Jones, I’m a dick. If I don’t uphold my standards, I’m a wuss. What’s in my best interest after all? If I wuss out and write a generous review, maybe the author will write a generous review of the novel I have coming out in August. Maybe some of his fans will check out my book, too. The publisher of Crystal Eaters produces beautiful paperbacks. If I rave about Crystal Eaters, or even write something thoughtful, encouraging, and strong, maybe down the line Two Dollar Radio will remember me and enthusiastically consider one of my novel manuscripts. But I doubt they’ll publish anything I write since I’m pretty sure what I write isn’t right for them.
Look: it’s not that I’m a dick when it comes to this stuff. It’s that I like to think that I have standards based on exposure to the interdependent duo of lit and life. But if I decide not to wuss out and instead uphold my particular notion of standards, I’m a dick, and being a dick could lead to dickish reviews of my own stuff from Shane Jones, his friends, and friends of the publisher. George Saunders told us all to “err in the direction of kindness.” But is this essay/review I’m writing unkind? Is it selfish? Is it generous? Is a kindness policy maybe too simple? Is it hostile to the id? Is it unnatural? Does it simplify the meaning of life defined as the search, the struggle, reinforcement of the paper and sticks that comprise our eternally endangered little cocktail umbrella?
The worst reaction is no reaction. Silence. No one wants nothing written about what they’ve written. We write in solitary silence and hope for noise—positive, negative, mixed—from multitudinous millions. So it sucks when reactions don’t come. A few months ago in March, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck—a book of rejection letters I wrote over the past dozen years as editor of my ancient pissant lit site—was published. At the time of this writing, reviews have been posted at three spots online, and 15 reviews have also appeared on Goodreads, mostly by people I know. Compared to silence, it seems to me like dickness or wussness is akin to kindness.
Which is why I decided to write what follows: Shane Jones seems like a nice guy. He has a kid. He tweeted some sad-seeming tweets recently about his novel’s reception. I would like to support him. I have a kid. I like Shane’s tweets. I like the page-numbering conceit in Crystal Eaters (the book starts on page 183 and the numbering descends to page 1). In general, crystal count is a damn good idea for a novel. I love the Breaking Bad-esque (black instead of blue crystal), psychedelic, existential, environmental, videogame, and incarceration-related thematic overtones. But I probably would’ve preferred if it seemed executed with more patience? I probably would’ve preferred if, as in fable or myth, the sentences were cleaner? I probably would’ve preferred if I didn’t often catch myself zoning out and then backtracking to identify the sentence or passage that triggered the zone out? The language often seemed rushed and like it strived for a style that required rereading and translation. This striving/translation dynamic created attention sinkholes. Stylistic irregularity/adornment obscured instead of clarified images and ideas. Layering-up of weirdnesses in the language overburdened a wonderfully weird story. Although I had wished Light Boxes were “fuller,” the author may do better with spare sentences and a spare narrative approach. If I had read this in manuscript I may have abstractly suggested that it seems like there’s still some rock encrusting the novel’s crystals that could be chipped off.
If literary fiction has any functional merit, it might be to complexify dualities—the conflict between the villagers and the city was one of those loggerheaded binaries that good fiction generally complicates. In Crystal Eaters, the duality of village versus city (like City of God vs. City of Citizens, support vs. standards, literary citizenship vs. literary fundamentalism; dick vs. wuss) was reinforced without seeming sufficiently critiqued. The characters never effectively lived in my imagination because they were limited by the language. So I didn’t care about the threat of the mother’s death. She was never in danger of dying because none of the characters lived for me. Mortality-related thematic heft seemed alleviated by playfulness. Dying dogs are emotionally manipulative. In general, as a reader, my eyes crossed the text but I couldn’t co-create the novel. Like a magic-eye poster, I saw the surface patterns but never really managed to see the 3D dromedary (or glorious black crystal, in the novel’s case). I therefore had trouble sticking with it, I put it down a lot, I wanted to read it but often found myself reading something on my phone when reading in bed, and about halfway through I found myself fighting off an impulse to skim.
I went into Crystal Eaters hoping to write something kind. I wanted to make up for what I had written about Light Boxes on Goodreads, but I also wanted to support the writer, support Two Dollar Radio, do what I could to fight the good fight. But as I read I couldn’t help noting my honest impressions as they formed. And I couldn’t help deciding at first that I would not write a review of the book. But then I read the author’s recent tweets sort of despairing about the book’s reception:
So I thought I’d write about his novel but not write a traditional review reliant on plot summary and quotation. I’d dramatize one man’s experience of reading this novel with intent to review it. I’d acknowledge the complexity of my reaction. Maybe if I wrote something that reflected my honest/real experience of reading the book and everything else articulated above, this essay/review/post would get some attention that would “get some book buzz going” and be good for Shane Jones, his novel, and his small-press publisher (and in turn maybe even good for my rejection letter book that came out in March, my novel coming out in August, and both of the small-press publishers I’ve worked with, too).
Shane Jones has a legion—or at least a couple—of fans, he’s published a few odd, individuated novels, and I’m sure he’ll continue to produce inventive and audacious writing that astounds some and irritates others. I’ll continue to read whatever he writes since he’s on an odd, interesting path that very well may lead to unseen territories described in crystalline clarity. I support him generally but I don’t think he would want me to fold my tiny cocktail umbrella and turn my back on literary standards as idiosyncratic and individuated as anything he might write. It’s clear that upholding standards increases crystal count whereas shallow, promiscuous support depletes it for everyone.
Literary fundamentalism forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Klein is the author of Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox (Barrelhouse Books, March 2014), The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel (Atticus Books, August 2014), and Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World (Better Non Sequitur, 2004), a mix of travelogues, dialogues, and narrative essays. His writing has also appeared in Agni, The Barcelona Review, The Black Warrior Review, Canteen, Full Stop, Ghost Town, Hobart, The Normal School, Swink, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies including The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 21st, 2014.