In my head I have a quote I can’t attribute. I want to say it was Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Maybe Steinbeck. It noted (I’m paraphrasing) that we writers don’t compete with our contemporaries; we compete, rather, with the greats.

It’s possible it was Hemingway. Because there is another quote I can attribute to him, from a New Yorker profile of him:

I started out very quiet and I beat Turgenev. Then I tried hard and I beat de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendahl, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

Even besides that profile, the idea of wrestling with the greats sounds like Hemingway, especially considering his running with bulls and hunting on safari and writing hills like white elephants and shooting himself in the face. Hemingway’s always struck me as though he was born smack-dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis he never actually grew out of, only they didn’t have tiny sports cars back then, so he had to over-compensate in other ways.

I got this idea, of rings and fights and competitions, in my head when I read that The Nervous Breakdown’s founder, Brad Listi, will be having a conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in mid-May at LA’s Largo at the Coronet Theater.

Fight Club the book was published a week and a half before I started college. I don’t remember hearing much about it until Edward Norton and Brad Pitt signed on to do the movie. Now, this doesn’t mean people weren’t talking about it. I could just be forgetting. I could have missed it for one reason or another (who am I kidding? I was probably studying).

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” I’ll not spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (though, really, it’s been ten years. What’s the statute of limitations on spoilers?), but I think pretty much everyone knows Fight Club‘s story is its title. It’s about a guy who meets a guy who wants to be hit as hard as possible, and I guess it becomes about male dissatisfaction and aggression and coming to terms with the fact that we’re not the rockstar gods we assumed we’d grow up to be.

Or something. There’s a lot of punching. Also some fucking Helena Bonham Carter (in the movie). Also some shit blowing up. Also, Meatloaf (again, movie) and his boobs. Also, a penguin.

***

I think one could make the argument Fight Club is about men dealing with emasculation; I’m not sure I would, but Fight Club is the sort of book—along with The Great Gatsby and American Psycho, for two—that makes me consider the idea of feminist literary theory, and seems to corroborate the necessity for a complementary masculinist theory. I’ve heard it argued that such a thing is not necessary because the male viewpoint, in a patriarchal society, is the default; I’m just not sure of that, and I tend to hesitate in making generalizations.

Still, I wonder if there is some connection between the idea of a fight club and masculinity. That single Y chromosome, despite its diminutive stature, is enough to change a lot, physiologically speaking, and the defining characteristic of male gender is a penis and testicles, the latter of which produce testosterone. So do ovaries and, to a lesser extent, certain adrenal glands, but when it comes down to testosterone, an androgen, a hormone that causes the body to exhibit stereotypically male characteristics—deep voice, hair growth in some places and loss in others—the primary source is the testes. Testosterone also increases protein synthesis in muscle cells, contributing to their growth, which is why bodybuilders use steroids, and bodybuilders’ balls shrink because their bodies suddenly think they have enough testosterone that the testes don’t need to produce anymore.

That increase of testosterone causes many other side effects, one of which is increased aggression—roid rage.

Which brings me back to the central question; not whether Fight Club is a male movie, but rather: who would you fight?

One of the movie’s jokes (among other things, it’s a deeply black comedy; is it really about masculinity, or is it satirizing masculinity? Must the two be mutually exclusive?) is when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton discuss which celebrities they would fight. Pitt, if I recall correctly, cites Lincoln, noting he was tall and probably had good reach.

In perfect deadpan, Norton states, simply, “I’d fight Ghandi.”

***

In finishing coursework to earn an MBA in marketing, I’ve had to write several business plans, and others concerning marketing and international strategy. Most of these documents contain a section that requires me to assess my competition.

Now, when it comes to these assignments, the courses always offer the option of using an already established company as model; some students choose companies like Google or Apple or Microsoft.

Me, I choose myself. I’m a bit of a narcissist like that. But seriously, I’m earning the MBA for the same reason I earned an MPW; for writers, I think knowing how to reach readers is as important as being able to produce something valuable to reach them with, so I think—especially nowadays, with Kindles and iPads and nooks—that writers should know business as well as they know craft.

Problem is, every time I choose to do a business plan concerning me, as an author, I have to write another section about my competition. The results always strike me as inherently wrong; am I really competing with Dan Brown or Timeline or The Time-Traveler’s Wife or The Historian or The Raw Shark Texts? I don’t think so (though that may be why I’m having such a difficult time selling the damned thing).

In a superficial way, the comparison makes sense: shelves, whether in book stores or readers’ homes, are finite, and only so many pages will fit on them. Writers vie with each other for precious shelf space.

But in another way entirely, we don’t. In that entirely other way, we compete not with each other but with ideas, with culture. We compete for attention. The fact that there’s room enough on the Internet for everyone might be both its greatest benefit and disadvantage.

To go back to the idea with which I opened: if we are to compete with anyone, should it not be with the greats?

***

Growing up Catholic, one of the expressions I most commonly heard—besides “You need to put on your God glasses” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—was a question: what would Jesus do? Now, as my last TNB essay quite obviously demonstrated, when it comes right down to that question, I really don’t have a clue: I figure ride a pony, exonerate an unfaithful wife, have a meal with his friends (it’s worth noting I originally wrote “wife” there, then erased it. Freudian what?), die on a cross, that sort of thing. For me, wondering what he would do is fraught with more uncertainty than the situations during which one might actually ask it.

Still, the idea of role models, of mentors, is always useful, especially when facing a difficult choice.

I faced a difficult choice in 2005, when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for writing. Articles about How to Choose the Right Writing Program for You tend to make the cover of magazines only writers read; you know both the articles and magazines I mean without my enumerating them. There’s probably an ampersand in the title, and each one tends to have a monthly quota of one article with a list of Ways to Pump Up Your Novel, one concerning How to Structure Your Memoir, one on a group of Agents’ and Editors’ Inside Secrets to Querying and Publishing, and finally one by a Current Best-Seller Encouraging Writers to Follow Their Dreams. We writers read each of the first three because we hope one day to write the last.

Most of the articles on choosing a writing program mention things like residency and financial considerations. Common advice is to choose a program whose faculty has written books you’ve enjoyed, or in the style or genre in which you hope to write and publish, but that just made me think of the writers I’d read: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Nick Hornby, TNB’s own Richard Cox. I’m fairly sure none of those writers went to grad school for writing—Crichton went for medicine—and only one, Gaiman, taught (at Clarion West).

I always wanted to be a mega-seller, but none of the faculties seemed to include really popular writers. I fear that dichotomy; if you look at the sorts of books millions of readers read nowadays . . . well, how about we note that the books that earn critical acclaim from prestigious institutions are often not the same as the books that dominate the best-sellers lists? That when New York publishing people start talking about the NBA on Twitter, most readers would probably be surprised they’re not talking about the Knicks?

I remember the relief I felt when I saw USC’s website. While there were a few names I didn’t know, I’d heard of Irvin Kershner; he put my first memory ever onto a screen. I’d also heard of Marc Norman; Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies. I’d also heard of Janet Fitch; I’d loved her novel, which had been chosen for Oprah’s bookclub. I wasn’t yet familiar with Sid Stebel, who became a valuable mentor, but Ray Bradbury said he was great, and Bradbury I knew.

Am I right that it’s a maxim that students are supposed to, ultimately, defeat their masters? As a teacher myself, my aim is for my students to master the techniques I’ve demonstrated to them so they can find their own ways, but I keep thinking of martial arts movies in which the students fight the master to achieve enlightenment. I’m thinking of Christian Bale fighting Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, of Neo fighting Morpheus in bullet-time.

I keep thinking of Fight Club and of Hemingway’s ring.

Truthfully, I never had much time for the greats. Fitzgerald could have used a better editor, Faulkner a POV. Hemingway was a pansy who overcompensated via hypermasculinity, Poe a drunk who married his cousin, Cheever a closeted bisexual who seemed to hate himself and his wife. Dickens wrote like he was paid by the word, and Bukowski should’ve flushed his beer-shit prose. O’Connor’s Catholic guilt bored, while Austen’s propriety grated and Bronte’s melodrama depressed.

So none of them.

No, I’d fight Shakespeare.

When I wonder about role models and mentors, I don’t consider the cross. I always ask myself: what would Shakespeare do?

(I mean besides Anne Hathaway.)

This week marked an anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and christening; he died on April 23rd, and was baptized on April 26th. There is no record of his birth, but custom at the time was quick baptism, so he was probably only a few days old; he might well have died on his 52nd birthday. He was called a lot of things in his time, including an upstart crow, but maybe not a genius. Really, he was just a writer who sat down every day to write words for actors that the great masses of audience would love, and they, by most accounts, loved him for it; his work was as popular as Rowling’s or Brown’s, and we’ll see if their stories last as well.

When I wonder what I should do, I always wonder what he would have done. Mainly because I want to do better.

***

Truthfully, of course, this is all flawed. When it comes right down to it, I think we writers know we’re in the ring alone, and we only ever wrestle ourselves.

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Will Entrekin is a writer, professor, and Eagle Scout from New Jersey living in the New York metropolitan area. A novelist and screenwriter, Entrekin earned an MPW from the University of Southern California and is finishing an MBA from Regis University while pursuing what happens next. He can be found at his web site, willentrekin.com, and he has a self-titled collection available here. He hopes you'll check both out.

58 responses to “In the Ring With the Bard”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    I think your last line said it all, Will.
    Wrestling with ourselves is much more interesting than wrestling with other writers. I think that when we consciously compete, all we do is imitate.
    Now I’m going to go and put my God glasses on (that’s brilliant!) and figure who I’d like to fight.

    • Thanks, Zara. I think I agree with you, especially in that I’ve come to realize there really isn’t any way to compete. Not even in a fight.

      I think you’re right about imitation, but then again, who was it who said that good artists borrow but great ones steal? Eliot, maybe? I wonder if some artists ends up becoming sort of self-parodies because they stopped being hungry and started repeating/imitating themselves. Then again, that may be an entirely different train of thought altogether.

      • Becky says:

        I think it was “Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal.” Or something to that effect, having to do with growth as a individual artist, not necessarily the quality of the work, but it was Eliot. At least most famously.

        Arguably used as a justification for his heavy theft when it came to “The Waste Land,” but he has a point.

        To take something existent and give it fresh meaning, was at the heart of it. Not to say the same thing over and over but to redress and give it new relevance as a testament to the timelessness of art and blah blah blah.

        • It must be a fine thing to say things most famously. I sort of love the idea.

          And I agree he has a point. Don’t a lot of people say that the mark of a great writer is to make something old seem new again?

          King’s Duma Key considered the idea, though it sort started to suck when the ghost ship showed up and it stopped being about art and started being about, well, a fucking ghost ship.

        • Becky says:

          “Make it new” was the motto of the modernists, of which Eliot was one.

          It wasn’t “make something new.” It was “make IT new,” “it,” presumably, being something that already existed. Seems to have been corroborated both in expressed theory and practice by him and his contemporaries.

          There’s nothing new under the sun.

        • One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite songs has always been “Whoever said there’s nothin’ new under the sun never thought much about me!”

          Then again, there’s a Roger Clyne song for every occasion.

        • Becky says:

          I have no idea who Roger Clyne is. I mean, I recognize the name, vaguely, but that’s about it.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Killer! So many great points to discuss.

    First, the Fight Club culture still fascinates me. It’s ironic that so many people seize the dialogue of Fight Club and present it as their own world view. I want to say it’s like quoting Scooby Doo, but more accurately I would equate Tyler Durden to Polonius- alone the character’s statements sound like uber-sexy, punk rock, non-conformist exhortations. But taken in context, they are subject to far deeper interpretation.

    As far as competing with the best, I love your take on it. I think we do ultimately compete against ourselves. But it’s fun to be on the same playing field as the greats. I remember being at the starting line of a marathon some years back, and my buddy turned and said, “Isn’t this great? When else do you get to compete against world class athletes.” And it hit me- even though there were 35,000 runners, we were all running the same course and theoretically, everyone had a chance to win. Sounds a bit like writing.

    Thanks for the read!

    • Dude, I never thought of Tyler Durden as Polonius. I have heard of the entirety of Fight Club being compared to Calvin & Hobbes, which was not only a brilliant argument but also hysterical in its awesomeness.

      Isn’t it funny how all the uber-sexy, punk rock, non-conformist movements get filled up with conformists? People so eager to follow and drone?

      Your marathon epiphany is a powerful one. I love those moments in life when we can pinpoint such a change in thought, attitude, and belief. And aren’t marathons one of those specific sporting events wherein supporters play up the competing-against-yourself thing? That somebody “wins,” sure, but by the middle of the race he’s forgotten everything but himself, his body, and his feet on the ground?

      • Joe Daly says:

        I need to see the Calvin and Hobbes comparison!

        >>Isn’t it funny how all the uber-sexy, punk rock, non-conformist movements get filled up with conformists? <<

        It’s hilarious! Unfortunately, the irony is often lost on the very ones who might enjoy it the most.

        You’re dead on about the marathon analogy- at some point, you just zone in on yourself. It works so well as a life metaphor because all you need to do to have a different race experience is to change your perspective. You still run 26.2 miles at your pace, but if you’re trying to win, you’ve got one unique experience. If you’re just trying to stay in front of other runners, a totally different experience. If you’re proving something to just yourself, something else, and finally there are those who just run the race as an enjoyable reward for all their training. In my mind, they’re the biggest winners.

  3. D.R. Haney says:

    I have way more thoughts than time to post them all. In any case:

    Hemingway’s thing about taking on writers was always, to me, irritating, and while he certainly exaggerated his masculinity, I don’t see it turning up much in his stories. On the contrary, I note considerable delicacy in Hemingway. I think people confuse his public persona with his writing.

    Meanwhile, I wish there were contemporary novelists of a literary, not genre-fiction, sort who wrote, for want of a better expression, guy stuff — authentically. The literary fiction I see in bookstores (on the rare occasions that I these days visit them, as opposed to the frequency of my bookstore visits when I lived in NYC) is either written by women or men who, from the look of them, would pass out after drinking a single beer.

    This is, I suppose, a strange way of agreeing with you on the “masculinist” front. And I do read women, by the way, in case the above comment reads as if I don’t. In fact, the two books I most recently finished were by Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf — writers, I have a feeling, you wouldn’t or don’t like.

    Did you also study film at USC?

    There’s more I’d like to say, but I must now run, as I warned at the beginning — or maybe “promised” is the word I should choose.

    • Lots of good points, Duke.

      So far as Hemingway, I would definitely agree on, I think, all counts, especially that his public persona/perception differs greatly from his writing. I think he’s a writer, right now, more in a context of pop culture than of actual reading; in other words, I think a lot of today’s readers have opinions and attitudes they’ve formed of him more from his presence in culture than from actually picking up any of his books. I am, in fact, guilty of this; I’m not sure I’ve read any of his novels, just a bunch of his short stories. But one can’t be an American writer without sensing the shadow of his cultural presence.

      So far as guy writers . . . I start to break down when it comes to literary versus genre. I sort of understand the distinction, but it’s a difficult one for me to make, especially when it comes to classifying any particular writer as one or the other. For a while, I went through a period during which I sought out male writers who were writing specifically non-fantastic fiction (which was a departure for a guy who grew up reading the sorts of writers I mentioned)–Nick Earls, Edward Docx (I think? The Calligrapher), Kyle Smith (again, I think; Love Monkey).

      Some might call them the male analogue of “chick lit”–perhaps dick lit, if we don’t mind the possibility of offending a handful of people, but also if we don’t mind reducing guys to their penises, which I fear is a little misandrist.

      I guess Chabon and Lethem might fulfill what you’re talking about? I think Gaiman writes very well. Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs was, I thought, truly extraordinary, but maybe Lecter makes it more psychological suspense?

      I haven’t read enough of either Mansfield or Woolf to know, I sheepishly admit.

      I studied screenwriting at USC, and writing for film. So maybe only sort of? But I also helped produce commercials many moons ago, and when I did, people said that their production was more akin to that of film than of television.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Duke! Jim Harrison!

      Enough said.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        I’ve met Jim Harrison, in fact. I had the good fortune to see him read, and I exchanged a few words with him. I was referring more to younger writers, though it’s always good to hear Harrison’s name raised.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Will: I hear you on the Hemingway front. He cast a long shadow. I also understand that the categories of “literary” and “genre” can be specious, but not always. There are times when the difference between the two is as clear as new factory glass.

          I think “dick lit” is a very funny term. I read it first on a woman’s blog last year. I’m glad women seem to have fought the “chick lit” label with one better.

          I don’t think I’m capable of reading Lethem. Someone gave me a copy of one of his novels, and I was put off by it right way. I’ve only read maybe a page of Chabon, but the page I read was a good one, so maybe one day I’ll get around to him. I’m sort of the opposite of you, in that I prefer twentieth-century writers (up until, say, the seventies) to my contemporaries.

          I couldn’t have imagine how you could have lived in LA and not had some sort of dealings with the entertainment business. I mean, some never do, but for some reason I could imagine you on a set. And then, when you mentioned Irvin Kershner…

          Like you, by the way, I love Shakespeare in Love.

        • The first I read of Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and I really didn’t see what everyone loved about it, and there’s a sixty-page, totally random digression to friggin’ Antarctica of all places at one point, and it’s a solid two hundred pages longer than it has any right to be.

          I did like Wonder Boys, though. That’s the only thing of his besides I’ve read. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union doesn’t interest me.

          I so tried reading Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. Got about sixty pages in. Only got twenty or thirty into Motherless Brooklyn, but that was only because Norton bought the option rights and I thought he probably knew what he was talking about. This was back when he nailed Primal Fear and Keeping the Faith, though (not to mention Fight Club). I haven’t trusted him lately.

          I didn’t get along with the Hollywood system so much. I loved USC, though. I think the clincher was a class I took with Syd Field. I realized I could write screenplays but didn’t love the form like I love novels, and to a lesser extent short fiction. I met a lot of people and even got a script read by a big-shot producer, but never pursued it like I probably should have. But like I said, didn’t love it.

        • Jude says:

          Agree wholeheartedly with you Will about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Not my cup of tea and certainly not on my ‘recommended must read’ list.

  4. Simone says:

    I think it was John Arbuthnot Fisher who said “I have had to fight like hell and fighting like hell has made me what I am.”

    In picking fights with yourself and wrestling your own demons it’s hard to decided which side of yourself to support, but in the end no matter what side you choose you’ll be who you are because of it. There’s always a lesson in the fight.

    Couldn’t help but think of this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7sGp7Glxis

    ***

    Loved this Will, among everything else I read of yours.

    • Nice video. Got totally sidetracked just then, clicking around others.

      And I like that quote. Sometimes we are whom we love or what we eat or whom we fight. Also, maybe, defined by what we choose to fight.

      And thanks, Simone.

  5. Great post Will! I love that “Put on your God glasses,” was something you heard over and over again as a child. I’ve never that before in my life! Who’s the oddball here: me or you? Probably me.

    • Thanks, Jessica! I’m pretty sure I’m the oddball, actually; I think that phrase may have originated from one of the students in my grade school and then been appropriated by one of the teachers, because, of course, mature artist steal.

      Ha!

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Will,
    No one ever told me to “Put on my God glasses,” and I really wish they had. It’s a great memory that I would have liked to carry with me. Just thinking about it is mind-boggling.

    Hemingway in competition with great authors is just like fight club. Silly.

    I think that you are right when you say that writers only wrestle with themselves.
    That is the truth, right there.

    I like how you write.

    • Thanks Irene. I’m not sure what sort of memory I have of that phrase, but I know it came near the end of my period identifying as a Catholic and acknowledging those beliefs.

      And you’re right about Hemingway. Which I think is one of the things that makes Fight Club great satire. I think (I’m pretty sure) I was aiming at satire here. I’m not sure I quite got there, but, well, a lot of Hemingway was silly. Like his safaris, and running with bulls.

      • Irene Zion says:

        The phrases I remember are:

        “Damn your eyes.” and “I’m going to tan your hide.” Stuff like that. Putting on God’s glasses is a much friendlier memory.

        • A couple of girls have said “Damn your eyes,” to me. Apparently that’s what they’ve fallen in love with, despite themselves.

          This is probable neither here nor there, but it’s a story I enjoy.

        • Irene Zion says:

          Well, of course you enjoy it, you are doing a Svengali to them with your bewitching eyes!
          That would be a good memory.
          Unfortunately for me, the context was quite the opposite.
          Those would be bad memories.

  7. Becky says:

    Take it easy on Bukowski, brother.

    Not too many people can write poetry that is genuinely funny, depressing, poignant, and appealing to the masses all at once.

    And similar prose on top of it.

    Bukowski would kick the living shit out of most of us.

    Drunken master style.

    I get almost as bored talking about it as people must get with listening about it, but when it comes to a writer’s relationship with his predecessors (and, technically, Gaiman, King, et al are all your predecessors, even if they are also your contemporaries), I side with T.S. Eliot.

    It’s foolish to try to shun them. It’s foolish to pretend to write with no consideration for them. Because the “you” you compete with is a product of a tradition and a creative consciousness that includes them. They ARE you, to an extent. They are the pylons underlying your creative brain.

    It’s no use to fight them. I mean, how can you possibly? In most cases, they are the indifferent dead. In cases like Gaiman, King, they are the indifferent insanely-wealthy-and-successful-no-matter-what-you-do-or-say.

    It’s not even a matter of accepting or rejecting them. That’s sort of like saying you accept or reject gravity. I mean, okay. Say it if you like, if it makes you feel something important on a figurative leve, but it remains that they are a matter of fact, in many cases, even if you have never read them. Because someone else has. And they toss their two cents into the cultural consciousness and affect us that way.

    T.S. Eliot would kick my ass.

    • Good points, Becky. When I mentioned Bukowski, I was thinking of two things. The first was this video:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1e5Jeh2Fk0

      The second was the poem Carver wrote about him.

      I’ve never found him funny, but then, humor, like taste, is subjective.

      Your point about the cultural consciousness is terrific. And of course, that’s why I took those potshots; the writers I aimed at are guys (and gals) we’ve generally accepted as the great ones but also whom we’ve generally liked. Somebody loves Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Somebody loves Poe and Cheever and Dickens. Also, they’re writers who’ve provoked a response on both individual and cultural levels. Even if I hate Bukowski . . . I mean, hate is an intense emotional response, and any writer should be a bit proud of provoking it. Do I really mean those things? Partly, maybe, but mostly not so much. Even if they’re not untrue, that doesn’t really diminish any of their abilities as writers. Not just the indifferent dead, as you say; the untouchable. That position you mention, of Gaiman and King . . . I mean, when we’re alone, we writers are all in that position. People can say what they like, but as long as one doesn’t stop creating, what people say has little bearing on output, or even strength of output. Reception of output, perhaps. Legacy of output, even. But the best writers tend to be the ones who realize they have no control over either.

      Say what one will, but you know, even just talking about anyone, in any way, has power greater than indifference, right?

      • Becky says:

        I hated Bukowski for a long time, beginning early in high school.

        Fucking foul-mouthed, indelicate, pornographic, drunken old asshole. Goddamned low life.

        “Goddamned Shakespeare of low-lifes. SHIT. FUCK.”

        That was basically how my epiphany went.

        I hated him because he was offending something on the order of the romantic ideas I had about writing and romantic ideas about how I would change and what I would become as a human if I became a writer. The way “proper” writers are and are received and behave. He fucked my tidy paradigm.

        Of course, Bukowski was foul-mouthed, pornographic, and a drunken asshole low life.

        But he had a mind like a razor blade. That’s one thing people seem to miss. He was so smart. Some people laugh at the notion. But as I came to terms with my feelings for him, I swiftly recognized them to be feelings if ugly, terrible jealousy. And I embraced him from there out.

        That’s not to say that everyone who dislikes Bukowski is jealous of him. But keep in mind he was wildly prolific and dear to readers young and old a like, wrote work that straddled the line between popular and literary, was incredibly intelligent and lived that lifestyle–full of hookers and booze and reckless behavior–to the relatively ripe old age of 74 only to succumb to Leukemia, of all things…

        I mean, there’s a lot to be jealous of. I was jealous of it. I resented him.

        That was a tough pill to swallow, coming to terms with him. I say I hate writers less and less these days. It’s sort of…I don’t know. It’s sort of an admission of being uncomfortable with one’s self. Trying to define oneself as an artist in terms of all the things and people one isn’t or doesn’t want to be as opposed to actually making an identity to claim in the affirmative as one’s own.

        • It’s true. The authors I’m most critical of–Sarah Palin, Sarah Silverman, Stephenie Meyer, the cast of the Jersey Shore, etc.–are the ones I’m jealous of.

          So far as Bukowski . . . I honestly haven’t read enough of him to actually dislike him.

          I’ve seen you say you hate writers. I keep waiting for the moment you accept you’re one and let ‘er rip.

        • Becky says:

          No need to get defensive.

          You misunderstood. Or I wasn’t clear. I DO hate writers, in general, as a group. They tend to be self-centered, pretentious, petty, and obnoxious.

          What I meant was that I say I hate individual writers less and less.

          The notion being that when you’re slaving away to get even the tiniest piece published in even the shittiest magazine, calling Stephanie Meyer or Stephen King or Earnest Hemingway a hack is laughable.

        • Becky says:

          I know I’m a writer, by the way.

          I call myself that.

          A poet, even.

          But my dormancy has a lot to do with my reluctance to affiliate with writers. A stupid thing to say, maybe, in present company, but until I sort out how to be a writer without being like a writer, I can’t do it.

        • I hadn’t meant for that to be defensive. I hadn’t felt defensive, but one would never know, would one?

          No, but seriously, I don’t know if I’ve ever called anyone a hack, but then again, I’m not sure I know what a hack is, and I’m not sure I don’t want to be one.

          I try not to be pretentious, but self-centered, petty, and obnoxious?

          Well, yeah.

          I will, say, however, King is awesome, Meyer is a misogynist, and I’ve never seen the big deal about Hemingway.

          Also? You’re a good poet.

          Wanna fight?

        • Becky says:

          Well, yeah. Always.

          STOP TRYING TO UNFIGHT ME. WE’RE FIGHTING, WILL. I’M SUPER ANGRY.

          I’ve never seen the big deal about Hemingway, either. At least not beyond the academic sense. I had to have the big deal explained to me.

  8. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    I would never fight myself. I am far too sneaky and have likely either paid off the officials or, if this is strictly “nighttime behind the warehouse” stuff, I’m at the very least wearing sap gloves if not packing. I’m willing to fight Poe and Bierce, mostly so I can drink with them afterward and compare notes on what assholes people are and, once Ambrose staggers off to take a leak on someone’s shoes, privately discuss the burden of having a cousin that makes you want to stand up and salute, even when you’re sitting down.

  9. Greg Olear says:

    I really enjoyed this, Will. I’ve long held that Shakespeare was a showman, and as talented as he is, if he has a modern-day equivalent, it’s Steven Spielberg.

    I’m fighting Milton, though. He’ll never see me coming…

    • Thanks, Greg. And totally. I think too many literature professors forget Shakespeare was all about sword fights and fantasy and the awesome. I’ll go with Spielberg, too. Maaaaaayyyybe Scorsese.

      But not Stone.

      Nice choice, sir.

      Also? Nobody expects Greg Olear.

  10. Matt says:

    Dude, I’ve been in enough fights to know I shouldn’t take me on. I’d kick my ass.

    Somewhere in 2001 or 2002 I read a critical essay of Fight Club (using both the film and novel as the source material) wherein the author gives a “gay” read of it: namely, that the book can be read from the perspective of the “Jack” narrator being a deeply closeted gay man, with Tyler Durden being the hypermascline hetero persona he both wishes to hide behind and is in love with. The fighting is a substitute for sex. It was a persuasive argument at the time, and it started to carry a lot more water with me after Pahlaniuk outed himself a few years later.

    Several of my friends/classmates were really competetive during my undergrad years, but I never got caught up with all of that…and I’m the only one them that contintues to write on any sort of regular basis.

    I WOULD, however, fight Nicholas Sparks. To be fair, I’ll let him choose whether or not I fight without use of my hands or my feet–but either way, I’m headbutting the shit out of that motherfucker.

    • Dude, I didn’t have the space to address the homo-eroticism in Fight Club, but I’d argue enough people have sensed it and argued for it that the idea is persuasive. “I want you to fuck me as hard as you can”?

      One of the things I’ve discussed with my students this semester has been insecurity, and I tend to wonder, lately, if the inclination toward competition is due to that insecurity. We’ve brought it up specifically with The Great Gatsby, and wondered in class if, at some point, Fitzgerald realized he was addressing themes beyond his ability, and so he started to compensate by inflating his style and prose.

      I mean, I’m not advocating either way. But we’ve discussed it.

      Sparks made me smile. Tell you what, if I really had to go contemporary, it would probably be either a Sarah or Stephenie Meyer. Probably Silverman, though, if only because I think she’s the only one of the three who would both acknowledge and embrace the spectacle of it.

  11. Alegra says:

    Loved some of the points you made – particularly about the ‘greats’ of the past.
    Shakespeare’s position in the collective consciousness is well-earned.

  12. Jordan Ancel says:

    I really enjoyed this. I love the idea that you’ve taken a quote about “beating” a master literary figure and turned into actually beating him!

    I think I would fight Chekhov, even though I love his irony.

    Why? Just for the fact that every one of his characters in every play has three names. And I’d make the act a comedy.

  13. I am reading this because I am listening to two really great writers say what a great piece this is.
    Just thought you should know, blue eyes.

    I actually had a dream the other night that I was in line to be baptized.
    And then I remembered that I had already been baptized, as a baby.
    So I told the priest, who was a woman, that I had already been baptized.
    So, she pulled me aside and said, “Well, what have you done with it?”
    I left the religion long ago, but, I keep wondering what this means.
    Your piece here made me think of this dream. And my fight.
    I guess one of the worst things is when your influences are influenced by someone greater.
    So, fight the good fight, brother!

    • You totally just made me smile, Stephanie. And blush. I know of few higher compliments.

      I don’t know if I’m a fighter. I might be more a lover. I’ve been called worse.

      I don’t know what your dream meant, but it sounded neat, and I hope you liked the post.

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    Man. What a piece, Will! There’s so much to chew on, here.

    Re: Fight Club. One line sums it up for me – made all the more clear by the visual presentation of the film – and I don’t think I would have gotten it if a friend hadn’t completely missed the irony. I was going to the gym a bit (he is anti-gym), and he shook his head and said ‘Is that what a real man looks like?’

    Pitt and Norton were ripped in that film. Bravo, David Fincher. Two ripped characters in a film talking about how it wasn’t ‘real’ for a man to be ripped in the public arena.

    Heh.

    Well-played.

    In terms of masculine readings, all I can say is that perhaps in this sense, being the default works against masculine readings. The default is, all too often, unquestioned. It’s easy to just go with the flow – it’s the same reason why, I think, people who suffer through adversity can end up with such strong and well-defined senses of self. They’ve been forced to do that work – which, in the end, is worth so much more (sweeping generalisations? Must be a Saturday).

    In terms of the ring itself… it’s the strength of our enemies that lifts us, and not their weaknesses.

    I’d fight Jim fucking Thompson. I’m sure he’d have moves.

    • Thanks, Simon.

      I think you and I should fight when you come to the states. Zomg ha!

      No, but seriously, while there may be such a thing as a real man, every man is one, right?

      Wasn’t the next line after the one you mentioned “Self improvement is masturbation”?

      It was close, I think, and I’ve heard a bunch of people cite it, and every time they do I think, well, what’s wrong with masturbation? Masturbation is fun.

      And dude? I personally wouldn’t take on anyone whose middle name was “fucking,” but if you decided to, I’ll have your back. Because that’s what TNB is all about, right?

      • Simon Smithson says:

        Yeah, my friend used to crack out the ‘Self-improvement is masturbation’ line too… as we were on the bus to university.

        Ugh.

        Dude.

        Think for a second, you know?

        Heh.

        Thanks man. I’m pretty sure JFT would carry a switchblade, but if you’re in my corner, it evens out.

  15. I first saw Fight Club maybe two years ago. I wanted to shoot myself in the head (pun most definitely intended) for having not seen it sooner. But seriously, from the way it was marketed, didn’t most of us just think it was more violent version of Old School? I watched it at my sister’s house. On my way home, I stopped at Wal-Mart (the only place to stop for a DVD at 2AM) and bought it. I basically watch it every six months, sometimes with commentary sometimes without, because it’s too much to take more often than that. The layers of that story, and those characters, still make my head spin in delicious ways.

    And I don’t think that misogyny needs a platform in fiction so much to counter feminism, as to deal with the fact that gender roles are completely out the window right now. People thought things were bad in the 80’s. That was a cake walk compared to today. Men and women alike are completely jammed up on how to deal with one another, each side afraid to concede any ground at the risk of taking (or retaking as the case may be) the title of ‘the weaker sex’. We’re all afraid now, to be too sensitive, to be too aggressive, to be too open or too closed-off. We’re terrified of saying what we want, for fear we’ll be labeled either high maintenance or uncompromising. And we’re afraid not to say what we want, because we don’t want to be seen as submissive and lacking our own identity. It’s a shit-storm we’re not getting out of any time soon. But movies like Fight Club (which I truly believe could’ve been gender-swapped and still made valid points) help us cope with our frustration.

    As for who I’d fight, Bill would be my guy too. I pick up my collected works at least once a year (even if it’s just to reread Much Ado for the trillionth time). Him or Jane Austen (who I think would’ve loved Fight Club). If I ever write a character as much as I love Beatrice or any of the three Ms. Dashwood, I’d consider myself having achieved the ultimate merit badge.

    • Would it be terribly chauvinistic of me to yell ‘cat fight!’ at the thought of you taking on Ms. Austen?

      I love your point about gender-swapping. I knew a gal in class who was working on a Fight Club-esque script for women. But you’re definitely right about how roles are changing, as well as how attitudes toward those roles have become so different, as well.

      I haven’t seen Old School yet.

      • Given I had the same thought when I first mentioned her name, I don’t think so. But then again, on a ‘girlie scale’, my humor runs toward Lily and Robin of HIMYM.

        I’ve only seen parts of Old School, it just fit the analogy well. It was just a little too Step-Brothers and not enough Anchorman/Talladega Nights.

  16. Will, not sure if you’re aware of this t-shirt but reading this, I thought you may want to hunt down the fabric. Back in my college days, I had a roomie who found the shirt “Prose before Hoes” online. Underneath was a picture of Wm. Shakespeare. A great shirt I must say.

  17. Love this piece- I think Shakespeare would have called Marlowe and had him fight for him!

    Also — all this talk of the Fight Club reminds me of my old days as an assistant book scout to a VP at Fox 2000 in New York named Raymond Bongiovanni. I remember the day that manuscript was slipped to him from the editor at Norton — we sat next to one another at his desk reading it in tandem. He read slower (more carefully) than I did, so we ended up switching places because I was so impatient. We didn’t move until we had finished it. I was first, jumping around the office yelling WE NEED TO BUY THIS!!! he finished a little later and just smiled. I think the offer went out about thirty minutes later. Unfortunately, Raymond died before the movie was finished – but the excitement of that first read is something I’ll never forget.

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