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On the Internet, No One Knows You're an Ex-Abstract-Expressionist

An American 1 grid, two by two, class by medium.

  Eye Word
High Painting Poetry
Low Comics Science Fiction

By "class" I don't mean to imply financial security or inherent merit. It's more an institutional distinction. The lowbrow is subject to cultural and economic pressure en masse; the highbrow is sustained largely by individuals' nostalgia for roles which are (now) free of such pressure. No one talks about a painting or a poem outside the brand of its creator, whereas comics and science fiction packaging may barely register the authors' names. Training in the highbrow tends to be academic; training in the lowbrow tends to be vocational. It's all business, of course, but the rhetoric of the businesses differ.

Although love is blind to such divisions, who we love is at least somewhat influenced by who our neighbors are and which strangers we most resent. And so it seems to happen that painters know poets and science fiction writers know comics artists.

When they start out, that is. While no one has money. Before the business side of the business becomes too apparent. As we've touched on here and there before, if the rows split by rhetoric, the columns split by business relationships.

Notoriously, a great many purchasers and publishers of poetry are or want to be poets to such an extent that contemporary literary journals cynically count on receiving more prize contestants than subscribers. The positions of consumer and producer within science fiction fandom are almost as fluid: critics regularly become authors; authors regularly become editors.

On the other column, in both brow levels of visual arts, the most powerful influence isn't the wannabe but the collector, who's very rarely any sort of producer themselves. And here's where economic class becomes explicit.

High Art, being about individual taste, individual genius, and the glamorized pre-industrial, requires the personal touch. Only the rich can collect art because the valued artist can only hand-craft a limited number of products. Even when the artist's product could be (or clearly is) factory produced, scarcity is enforced. During a painter's lifetime, the dealer may take a sizable cut, but the painter still profits from profitability. Commissioned works are not yet extinct.

Low Art, being the art of our own culture, openly depends on mass reproduction. In the comics world, work tends to be for hire, copyright owned by the syndicate rather than the artists. Creator, customer, and the financial exchange all become abstractions managed by The Company, or a series of companies. Meetings are awkward. Even when brought face to face with collectors, the good cartoonist is liable to stay with communal gift ethics rather than advancing into capitalism. Unsurprisingly, the comic book portrayal of comics collectors is less flattering than the typical patron's portrait in the high arts: grubby, infantile, tasteless.

Artists' personal inclinations and illusions aside, the businesses of visual art pander to the collector and the connoisseur. That's what they were made for. This can lead to a closed-room-where-something-died atmosphere that we outsiders find offputting. You don't get to be (or enjoy) Alan Moore or Grant Morrison unless you're comfortable with Silver Age superheroes, and you don't get to be (or enjoy) a San Francisco Art Institute graduate unless you're comfortable with bullshit "Statement"s. Not that I'm any fan of wall labels, but this attack on gallery pretensions by someone who's done a Spider-Man comic made me feel a bit queasy.

Now, as a thought experiment, drop the economic barriers even lower than pulp. Imagine vastly increased distribution for a vastly lowered cost. Community and collectors would no longer be in conflict except as copyright makes them so. Comics could be sold directly to customers. High art might rub elbows with low. Poets might associate with fanboys. Hell, fangirls might get a chance to be heard.

In some ways it's not so bad to live in interesting times.


American comic books, comic strips, and science fiction are all explicitly (if sometimes misleadingly) rooted in juvenile pulp, whereas European comic books appear to carry more genetic material from middle-class nineteenth century albums of engravings. European science fiction publishing seems to maintain some continuity with furrowed-brow Edwardian futurologists. I don't know from manga.


A concerned reader informs us:

neighbor saw me in my boxers, I FEEL VIOLATED

Atomized junior properly ties class to collection management. The canon and the blockbuster determine what's most likely to be preserved and passed along; as barriers to transmission grow ever higher, less of the "uninteresting" non-canonical non-blockbuster survives to refresh future stagnant water. Again, web publication might work as a counterbalance but only if left to its own indiscriminate and promiscuous devices.

. . .

[OE. framian to be helpful or profitable, to make progress]

Critics and teachers try to explain the frame tale as if it was somehow for the reader's comfort.

In fact, readers are just as happy without it. When they retell, they extract the "real" story's plot and discard the shell their own frame as reteller is sufficient, thanks. All a movie adaptation typically needs, if anything, is a title sequence of flipped creamy heavy-stock pages. On the best seller's enticing cover, "As Told To" is kept in small print if it's in print at all.

No, a frame benefits the builder. Construction starts more smoothly with explicit boundaries set and with the burden of justification deferred.

Experiment yourself. Make up a story aloud. Then try starting it with "The other day this guy at work told me". Or pretend it's a folk tale or a translation. See how much easier that was?

Try singing straight out:

"A woman's a two-face: a worrisome thing who'll leave me to sing the blues in the night."
Feels kinda stupid, don't it?


Blackface, like any dangerous modality, requires more art than straight delivery. Arlen's ethnic superiority tickling the ivories right alongside his gleaming cuff links. "America The Beautiful" versus "This Land Is Your Land". I heard Janis Joplin sing "Go Down Moses" one time, very early on. It was electrifying precisely to the degree it was untheatric. Cross-modality but genuine grief and hope. Arlen's just cooning around.

Comparisons are odious. But if you gotta assign points, my understanding was that Harold Arlen wrote the tune and Johnny Mercer wrote the words (and sang it with, you're right, not a lot of oomph).

Mercer was a clever guy, but my own favorite mainstream 1940s pop blackface-without-makeup singer-songwriter is Hoagy Carmichael, who at his worst borders Mick Jagger territory. Hard to resist Hoagy, though that affected accent sometimes makes me want to try, and though I guess Fats Waller managed it.

There was an animated cartoon, a buzzard, he was flying along and singing: "Ah'm a bringin home a baby bumble bee, ba doop ba doop, ba doop-a-doop a-doop."
I can't hear "Blues In The Night" without thinking of it.

The "Arkansas Traveller" lyric you're reaching for goes, as I remember:

I'm bringin' home a baby bumblebee.
Won't my mama be so proud of me?

The name of the buzzard was (depending on whether you talk to Mama, Bugs Bunny, or Bob Clampett) Killer, Beaky, or the Snerd Bird. I don't think of him when I hear "Blues in the Night," but I do think of him an awful lot.

UPDATE: My readers are a superior (or at least select) bunch, and the initial anonymous responder tones down with great grace:

My apologies to Howard Arlen and his heirs and afficionados. I saw this thing on PBS? Where Al Jolson was trying to justify his "Mammy" schtick? Then the screen started doing this low-light-level throb, I started getting sleepy...

Well said. Just try to imagine what PBS would make of any of us, and imagine the conclusions viewers would draw.... (N.B.: I am much taller in person.)

. . .

What I Learned from Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager

  1. I knew the fairy tales weren't Andersen's first publication. I'd somehow assumed, not really thinking about it, that he'd bummed along more clearly marked literary routes and got run off each by their rent-a-cops before being forced down this low-prestige path.

    He certainly started with a diet of humiliations. Crow for breakfast, crow for tea, crow for in-betweens. Maybe a few early worms in season, you know, while hunting crow.

    But in fact he didn't take the risk till he had something to lose. He waited till he had an internationally successful inspirational poem anyone can be inspired, the real money's in inspiringand an internationally successful mainstream inspirational novel before he started writing oblique colloquial self-defeating stories whose only excuse were they were for kids.

    And the critics disapproved right off. Waste of talent.

    "It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech."

    It's as if after winning the National Book Critics Circle Award Jonathan Lethem began scripting superhero comics. Or if after attaining some stability in academia, Samuel R. Delany started writing niche-market porn.

    The fucker had guts.

    "Of course I shan't enjoy the experience in this world."
  2. Andersen had to meet Dickens; Dickens had to meet Andersen. In the newspapers, they were twin urchins of different dead mothers. Smile on their lips, tear in their eye, lectures in their circuit, and the kids love 'em.

    The meeting was excruciating. Much worse than Proust meets Joyce. Neither Proust nor Joyce were clingers.

    Andersen was a poet who wanted to be a dancer; Dickens was a pro who wanted to be a pro. Andersen was sentimental; Dickens deployed sentiment. A Dickens reading was scripted; an Andersen reading was the original recreated. Andersen was a drama queeen spaz; Dickens was a charming smoothie. Andersen didn't realize how annoying he'd been till Dickens stopped answering his letters.

    You know who Andersen really should've met in England, though? John Keats. Keats was nine years older, but they were equally enthused by an ideal of aesthetic community, and when they found it gated, they shared public abuse for their pretensions and developed similarly perverse attempts at guardedness.

    The only hitch would be that Keats died age 25, and Andersen hit his stride age 30. But if Keats had lived to hit his own stride, and then lived a decade or two more, I bet they would've gotten along real good.


Kierkegaard got his start jumping on HC Andersen, and I can't find it on the web, but there's a marvellous grovelling letter extant from A to K thanking him for not attacking him as much as he might have or not attacking him in some later publication, I forget which. -- PF

"Grovelling" seems a little strong, if we're thinking about the same thing. Some years after Kierkegaard attacked his novel, when the younger man was a little better established, Andersen sent him a newly published volume of fairy tales with the note:

"Either you like my little ones Or you do not, but they come without Fear and Trembling, and that in itself is something."

Looking back at what I wrote, a couple of clarifications might be useful:

* * *

A strong misweeding of Negative Capability Brown

Whether meant as brickbat or bouquet, I thank you.

Grovelling may have been strong, or I am misremembering completely - I do have in mind something like dear mr kierk thank you so much that my little thingums are not chewed up by you and spat out again that was so nice. I read it years ago of course and so can't quite remember right.

. . .

Consumer News

A free market is a dumb market. I mean, even aside from its stubborn feuds with education, health, species survival, and so on even on its own terms of delivering quality goods to people who'll pay for them, it's a screw-up. Look at how short-sighted zombie-lived speculative greed over copyright has blocked consumer access to a wealth of wonderful reissues. Look at the Betamax. Or fresh produce.

But in those cases I know what went wrong. A more mysterious failure of American capitalism is the vanishing of orange bitters, key to such classic cocktails as the Manhattan which can bull on through regardless of casualties, like the Dirty Dozen Minus Two and, more tragically, the martini.

A mere mix of gin and dry vermouth is as dull, oily, and incoherent as the defeated executives who classically swill it. But with a brush of this liquid Philosopher's Stone, in a harp-and-bell glissando a bad marriage becomes a Drink an sich and you're transformed from Henry Jones to William Powell.

So why isn't it stocked anywhere? It's not like the bottles are that big.

Anyway, I'm not saying this just to taunt you, unless you don't live in the East Bay. I found a shelf that carries orange bitters at Monterey Liquors, 1590 Hopkins, Berkeley, conveniently near a source of fresh produce. Go thou and do likewise. (As garnish for the complete Cholly Martini, olives stuffed with preserved lemon are available from the Spanish Table on San Pablo Ave.)


Je zia sano!

Off your vole! (A raised glass: the truly universal language.)

By gum, that's an inestimable public service you just performed. Come over some time for a martini or three. -paul

It'll take a while to work out just which Paul this is. Happily, I have almost a pint of orange bitters.

I've been reminded that some connoisseurs "suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin." And it's true that the most sophisticated solution to bad marriages is to spend days at the office and nights at the Club. Hélas! I am a sentimental shopkeeper at heart.

Jordan turns out to be a child of privilege. Huh.

Under the provocatively proper subject line "I like 2:1 myself", brilliant Richard Butner pours:

Agree on free market = dumb market. Oh so many examples.

[...] But, re: the cinepad link in your recent post. Ahem. Bunuel (sorry, no tilde in this mail program) was right about a lot of things, but probably not the proper role of vermouth in martini construction. (At least he got the brand right.) See LCRW #12! A martini without vermouth is just a punchline to a bad joke.

I'm with you and we are right. I tried to let the spirit of Buñuel down soft and easy with some self-deprecation, but the sincerity of my self-deprecation wasn't meant to negate the sincerity of myself. I like the idea of a saved marriage.

A martini without vermouth is just a reference. Not even a joke. And I know the difference, 'cause I can't tell jokes.

. . .

The Launderer's Hand

Continuing the discussion:

As has been pointed out many times before, "genre" is not a simple compound, or even a clear formula, and its assorted aspects of publishing, writing, and reading are only loosely interdependent. Some writing, it's true, affirms generic coherency, snug and compact in a neatly labeled bundle. But much of what I'm drawn to seems badly wrapped, corners rubbing against frays and duct tape.

It always comes marked, however. No matter how much writer or reader idealizes invention from whole cloth, there'll be some natural discoloring, someone to see a pattern, and someone to apply a dye. Even the launderer's hand grows red with wringing.

To drop the metaphors:

  1. My favorite writing is sui generis.
  2. It was (and is) all published (more or less antagonistically) within a generic context.
  3. Assuming that one particular genre has special access to the sui generis greatly reduces the chance of actually finding it.

Which is why, as I wrote earlier, plowing cover-to-cover through some 19th century volumes of Blackwood's or Harper's, or High-Modernist-era New York Times book reviews or High-Hollywood-era movie reviews, would be salutary for most English and creative writing majors. Someone who refused to look at smut would have missed Lolita (fittingly, Nabokov himself first received Ulysses as an exemplar of smuttiness); someone who refused to look at sea stories (or flop gothics) would have missed Melville; someone who refused to look at cornpone humor would have missed Twain; and so on. And someone who refused to read academically canonized writing would miss all the same books now. For we who love to be astonished, it's worth attempting to read Hammett's and Thompson's (or Fitzgerald's and Faulkner's) prose the same way whether behind pulp covers or a Library of America dustjacket.

To take a limit case, there are (and have been) an astonishing number of readers who treat everything written by women as its own genre, resulting in a comedy of re-interpretation when misattributions are corrected and as the purported "genre" is denigrated or celebrated.

All this from publishers and readers. For a writer, genre may considered a conversational context, with one's social circle not necessarily restricted to one's neighbors, or even to the living. Since the literary mainstream's "discovery" of Patricia Highsmith began, I've seen a number of bemused references to the influence of Henry James, but this isn't an unusual phenomenon. The work itself is always more (or less, if truly "generic" work) than whatever genre it's in.

Carol Emshwiller, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Jack Womack, and Kelly Link write the sui generis they write and publish in whatever genre welcomes (or allows) them. But a contemporary may find it useful to learn that they all began publishing within the context of the science fiction genre, whether they themselves started as genre readers or not. And although I seek out Dalkey Archive and Sun & Moon Press spines in the bookstores, I enjoy knowing that the past decade of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has shown more lively variety than any university-sponsored or trust-funded fiction journal.


Lucius Shephard also

God, yes. There are, oh, let's not start feeling guilty about not mentioning M. John Harrison, there are lots more. And then all the great writers who are publishing mysteries, thrillers, romances, Y/As, and including, sure, the literary mainstream and the poetry presses, but all of them, now ignored or long forgotten or even deservedly noticed, should get more than just a for instance, and I just meant for instance.

A welcome update, fourteen years later, from Josh Lukin:

Well you know my fave bemused reference to the influence of Henry James . . . although I'm sure Baldwin's Jamesianity too incurred some bemusement (to say the least) in his day, of the "'Notes of a Native Son'? What does this guy think he is?" sort (I don't at the moment have the wherewithal to turn to my Marcus Klein and Maxwell Geismar and Irving Howe and see if that was among their beefs).

I've been reading some James stories and am struck by their reliance on Ideas (pace T.S. Eliot). And I mean Ideas in the way SF writers mean Ideas: premises that one can quickly pitch to an editor (or to a writer, if one is that kind of editor I did have a pair of cats named Horace* and Campbell). It's an unoriginal insight that post-Chekhovian litfic doesn't make for good log lines the way that older stuff does; but I wonder whether pitchability has an economic origin or not: did Maupassant**, whom James might have gotten it from, write for magazine editors?

*Horace is still with us, but he doesn't like me to read the New York Edition. He will plop himself on it or gently close it or try to eat "Daisy Miller." I had to get hold of the first book editions of the stories so he'd leave me alone.

**Did anybody else pan their influences as interestingly as James? Not Wilde, not Nabokov, not Alan Moore . . . the list isn't as long as Harold Bloom led me to believe . . .

. . .

Software Pirate Eggcarrrhn

for Doug Asherman
"By scope creep I mean that the feature enhancements reach a critical point at which they threaten changing the project's core mission. Your word processor is boarding on an office suite. Your text editor is boarding on an operating system."

Note how neatly this extracts the connotation of "encroachment" from the more ambiguous "bordering". It's got my vote in the Accepted Usage 2024 primaries.

. . .

Pull in Your Head - We're Coming to a Transvaluation

It's a foundational narrative fallacy: If I know only a few things about a situation, and those imperfectly, I'll assume they're essential and sufficient. We know that Sappho was a woman, and so a few pullquotes from an unknowable context epitomize the feminine voice. We know that Shakespeare's sonnets mention a dark lady and a sexy young man, and so this tragic triangle molded his (or the Earl of Oxford's) career. We know a monster and we know the name Frankenstein, and so the monster's named Frankenstein.

You rigored turd, you has been to a orgy wifout me!
Critic prepares a psychoanalytic reading for the MLA

We know the following about Lewis Carroll:

From this, we realized he was an emotionally arrested pedophile whose heart snapped after his obsession with Alice Liddel was discovered by her appalled parents.

However, from this we were supposed to have realized that Lewis Carroll was a very nice man who would never think about anything as scandalous as sex.

What we didn't know (via The Little Professor) is that he also liked spending time with, writing flirtatious letters to, and photographing teenage girls, young women, and mature women, and that he was as likely to worry husbands, brothers, and employers as parents. The reputation-driven repression of his executors was taken for Lewis Carroll's own perversity-driven repression.

Lewis Carroll's "little girls" might then be along the blurry lines of Henry Adams's "nieces," a social category encompassing non-relatives, adult women, and even some men. And his biographies would then be along the lines of a reticence farce like Charley's Aunt or La Cage aux Folles or, with corpse as lead dummy, maybe more like The Wrong Box or The Trouble with Harry.


In a recent issue of the TLS there's a decent article that excoriates those (and another TLS writer in particular) who would claim that Dodgson was only tangentially interested in young women. Somewhat orthogonal to your argument (more a question of degree than one of polar opposites), but worth a look.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .