(The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])


1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

Is an audience at a reading “just an audience at a reading,” and easier to lie to than a dog? If your true, or larger feelings, infringe on the party atmosphere, on your cheerful gratefulness that you have a book published and an audience to read to, will they also decide your angst is all about them and therefore have no interest in whether the book itself is worthwhile, interesting, important, or even possibly entertaining?

After finishing a series of readings for my 15th book, I received this advice:

Be fun, vivacious, personable and amusing. Be substantial and invested, but leave them smiling. Everyone wants to be where the party is. If folks are kind enough to make a party atmosphere around your book [by attending a reading], then let people have a good fucking time at the party, and be happy and grateful for that.

I responded: “I wonder if being a fun-chameleon is really the way to give a book a better chance at some modicum of success. I mean, why can’t some of us have a different personality? And if I’ve lost some of my burn and zeal, I think I’ve had some of my corners worn down (to the bone, it feels) in an indie-press career spanning 20 years now. Has it come to this: I really need to act like a cheerleader?”

My advisor:

The reason I’ve given you any advice at all about how to “act,” which is presumptuous of anyone to tell someone else, much less a newer writer to tell a more experienced writer, is that a lot of people we know mutually have remarked to me over the past couple of years on how negative, depressed, anxious or bitter you have seemed. Taken individually, this doesn’t mean anything except that the person saying it may be judgmental or just wants to gossip. But taken collectively when I’ve heard it from 5 or 6 people, especially when I know some of these people really like you and aren’t just trying to be assholes, this is why I’ve given you the advice I have about not coming across as negative.

And when a couple of the occasions after which people remarked stuff like this to me were not “private” occasions, but after seeing you at someone else’s reading or sitting with you at a group table or something like that, this is why I thought I should mention it.

This is not surprising—you’ve had a few really hard years. The thing with [your last publisher] was very hurtful. . . albeit if none of the huge unearthing of issues in your life had taken place, it’s possible you would not have taken career things as hard. But, I mean, for a while you were clinically depressed. I know it’s very hard to give a shit about literary stuff, or to have optimism or “illusions,” when one’s personal life and psyche have been in an uproar.

I don’t mean you should act like a bubbly 25 year old. I don’t even mean to act differently than you have for the bulk of your career. I just mean that, whatever you have been willing to “put out there” over the past few years in terms of your mood or personal disillusionments / insecurities, I would recommend that you don’t put that out there anymore when promoting the book. And in case you were not “willing” to put it out there, but rather unaware that you were doing so, I guess I was trying to just give a subtle hint.

The subject here, then, is author as entertainer, as life-of-the-party (or life of the it’s-all-about-me-but-I-care-about-you party); as friendly, funny pal everyone will want to hang with; as popular girl (or guy) in the high-school halls with a peer group that now includes 3 or 4 different generations. Those pensive, faraway, or serious-thinker author photos had better also disclose someone ready with a hilarious quip for any occasion, the teasing nature of a camp counselor, the gracious vivacity of the party’s host, the beguiling animation of a really good tour guide. The subject here is a popularity contest.

The voices here will have to be anonymous.

All of the people I’ve spoken with are writers I admire, and friends, people I care about to one degree or another. If I disagree with anything they’ve said, I’m not here to embarrass or out them. They’ve caused me to think. I like that. If I have to think about my inability to be personally popular … it’s not their fault that’s my reality. Not their fault that I feel like an actor who joined a serious theatre group (even if only cast in bit parts) and over the years the company morphed into a circus without her realizing.


2. #AuthorFail (Davis)

Davis as mime at AWP 2011

If dogs teach us anything, it’s that our trusty domestic companions have come a long way from their wolf-roots. As my oldest daughter Athena says, “I’m evolving now, and it doesn’t hurt a bit.” Sure, even the toy breeds probably have the pack instinct and yearn to howl at the moon. Perhaps miniature pinschers everywhere wait their chance to turn on their benevolent masters and caretakers—us. This is why I’ve always been a cat person, and even though I had to put my long-time super cat, Cassie, to sleep some months ago, filmmaker John Waters reminded me recently that, “your cat hates you!”

Sure, Cris, we’re up against the wall as authors-of-a-certain-generation who can’t live 24-hours-per day on social networking sites and blogs and within the too-incestuous miasma of small-press book promotion that churns and churns and never stops but for the most part has the collective yelp of the chickapoo of whatever else these cross-bred former-wolves might now be called. Can you hear the French onomatopoeia for the dog bark: “jappe jappe”? Esperanto: “boj, boj.”

Sadly, or perhaps not-so-sadly, much small press/indie authorship serves within a matrix of production-for-producers. We write books that other small-word writers read or pretend to read or never read and never pretend to read and we review and cross-promote each other with a vehemence that makes Gregor Mendel seem like a pea-pod dabbler and we conspiratorially make like nothing untoward may be happening or better yet we call it “community building” and we really mean it—we do—this is more than rhetoric—but most of us also really do mean this in the same double breath that we’d like to break through the indie ceiling and cash a big check from a New York publisher even though we realize that path is almost never sustainable and almost never going to happen without a goodly amount of aesthetic give-and-take or take-and-take. Or just take. Let’s look at two types of writers in this matrix:

1) The Modern Romantic (MR): The type of writer who secretly (or not-so-secretly) craves a “wider” audience, and for whom—and this is essential—it is not enough to wish for demonstrable authorial “success.” Rather, the MR sees his or her exile to the small press world as either

a) A temporary state of affairs, or

b) A great indignity foisted upon her by a entropic universe concerned only with the marketability of books, a universe with little room for a new author to break into the pack, an author whose work is undervalued yet “better” that whatsoever appears on the spring list, will toil for an unspecified period below the surface of Manhattan’s wide Sargasso Sea.

Deep sighing breath. Get centered.


The MR author has also, unsurprisingly, been found guilty of some Kafka-esque sin, which given only the possible zyzzygy of lucky break, talent, and perseverance, might still upend the cruel fates. (There is a bit of good ‘ol Yankee boostrapism at work in this one.)

Of course, a certain version of the MR had some success at first with a book from a major label or a well-regarded minor literary press (Milkweed, Greywolf). Now, books later, this MR toils in the rear of the wolfpack, where her books are poorly copyedited, under-marketed, and forever relegated to the footnotes of a literary topography that has long since shifted its tectonic plates.

Where to spot the MR: You can find the MR in a writer’s colony or garret or subway car or coffee shop writing her way out of the world in the possession of a dog whose been kicked and left for dead and buried and whose book is pulped after a year in a warehouse and who goes back now, tail between legs, to the minor league small press world where she grows increasingly embittered[2] as the newer generation of MFA-bred cross-promoters “like” each others Facebook links until Facebook wets itself into some collective virtual orgasm where even Mark Zuckerberg gets his share of vicarious click-thrills.

2) The Young Turk (YT, and yes, the archaic term is meant ironically): This latter group, while certainly possessing some traits of the MR—and after all, how could any American writer schooled in an MFA or Ph.D. writing program not to some extent internalize the ideas of genius, authenticity, and old-style creationism internally programmed into the system?—also represent a new genus of the literary scene[3].

Defining characteristics: The YT lives online, perhaps not to the extent of the zapped-into-the-screen absurdity of Jeff Bridges in Tron, but the YT sees writing-as-networking, using new-media as an extension of the page, networking to the point where networking disappears and becomes something else: “living.” The YT has at least 1500 Facebook “friends,” can expect “likes” or comments in the dozens for postings on the order of “I’ve just had lunch” or “It’s on” or “Just finished writing a short story” and “The universe,” ad infinitum. The YT probably writes for a collaborative literary site such as BigOther, HTMLgiant, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown (yes, I write for two of these), etc; the YT carries a smart phone and is live tweeting while reading this article; the YT’s website is miminalist and sharp, easy to navigate and positively airy (compared to the accomplishment-thick website of the MR, redolent in garish colors); the YT will respond to emails anytime of the day and generally until 2-3 am; the YT, despite being a publishing writer for less than three years, knows more people than the MR: the YT has published 100 or so creative pieces in journals edited by other YTs (whereas the MR has published 12 stories over her long career, and only in the “best” lit mags); the YT enjoys going to AWP and participates in bar readings that last 7 hours with a cast of thousands (each reader has 38 seconds to perform); the YT would love to teach or get a tenure-track academic job, and some do), while the others look to break into this work, which many MR’s have long-ago conquered only to be then defeated by the byzantine minutiae of administrative politics, committee meetings straight out of Dante, and a loathing of student papers that makes 1984’s Winston’s rat-fear seem like a soft phobia on the order of disliking wax beans.


3. The Ante is What? OK, I’m In (Cris)

Troubled by events where I felt overshadowed by not just humor, but something bigger than humor, I had various email exchanges with other writers. Some noteworthy comments and responses:

#1 But if you’re reading with 4 other people, it helps to stand out.

#2 … if we want to stand out, we have to stand out. Plain and simple. The work itself matters first, of course, but the quality or distinction of the work won’t “sell” the work, necessarily. So maybe just maybe, the …  public perception of a certain image or persona or personality or crazy multipronged marketing party-plan that’s somehow both honest and original could do the job. And that means something about it has to be radically different from the pack. That’s partly why I’m all into the transmedia/freakshow angle for [TITLE OF BOOK].

#3 This is offensive. It means that a group reading isn’t about experiencing different voices, different aesthetics. It means that it’s about competition, of one-upping, of being the “best of the bunch.” Which translates into book sales.

 Me: Like in high school, whether we knew it or not, whether we were aware of it or not, or whether we actually received the advice directly or not, there was an underlying understanding that boys wouldn’t like girls who were pensive and smart or who looked serious and intellectual, or worse yet, somber, gloomy, reclusive, or a snob (i.e. shy). Back then, I got labeled “the sad girl.” Is this like that? The bubbly, effervescent girls will succeed as writers too?

#4 Vivacious for girls, yes; however, for guys one option is the smarty-pantsiosity that becomes the know-betterism—a kind of unequal equal of muscle. I try to be clever and fun and instructive and usually end up also being fairly emotional (two of the poems I’ll read are about suicided friends of mine, and another is for my dead sister—though none is angsty). I have seen you be amused if not amusing at events here, but I want to know your thoughts on giving oneself permission to not be so amusing or clever and smarty-pants-ish.

How could I hope to express anything about this better than #4? (So … would I want to read with him? Well, I did once. Almost 3 decades ago. I’ll get to that. )


4. Are we even playing cards? Doesn’t matter. (Davis)

Davis, bound and gagged, while discussing copyright

Some of my (recent) shameless reading gimmicks: A 100-foot rope threaded through the audience and clipped to my belt and then you-the-audience pull me pull me pull me and I pull back while I read; forgetting the rope and so asking audience members—six eager writing students—to push me or try to steal my text as I read and they chase me and I run and jump around the room; strobe lights set to the alpha-wave frequency and you listen with eyes closed while I read and, hopefully. you see stuff; shouting; dressing as a mime to read from my novel BLANK, a largely blank novel; pouring water all over Lidia Yuknavitch with you, Cris, as you and Lidia did the same to me; using Google Earth to geo-locate texts during a “Neighborhoods” Chicago Reading at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The last two, Cris, were more or less your ideas.[4] This proves that you are willing to jump into this strange pool of standing-out self promotion even if you want to be the quiet Svengali in the background and let others figure out how to do it, but that’s not exactly true because you even brought the pool to our reading with Lidia and a tarp to protect the floor of the gallery and this was damn thoughtful and then you laughed with everyone and you were in on the joke and you so thoughtfully left the pool at a bus stop in Chicago.

We went out for drinks and dessert afterward with the organizers of the Red Rover series and some of audience members—including the couple who drove over 100 miles to see us dump water on each other—and we basked in the afterglow of the deed itself and sounded pleased when we heard about the photos and the videos and the way this would not be merely an afterglow but have an afterlife beyond this table, this story, these people—and so live on forever and ever amen.

How would the pure MR respond to such tasteless gimmickry? With disdain (perhaps tinged with jealousy.)

How would the YT respond? By exploiting the event online in a much-more-effective manner than either of us are capable of doing.

Let’s take the example of the videos and photos of the Red Rover water-experiment.

Before the event: Jen Karmin and Laura Goldstein, the Red Rover organizers, insert us into the schedule and prepare their email announcement. I don’t know about you or Lidia, but I invite a few Chicago folks.

The event itself: You and Lidia meet at a coffee shop in Bucktown and I’m not sure I can even make the thing because my father, in his firth-year of advanced brain cancer, sits thick with a bacterial infection in the hospital. The day before, he shakes for a four-hour period in an advanced fever state. He tells my mother in a fit of delirium, “It’s because of Kennedy and Castro. That’s why I’m sick…” He takes a turn for the non-feverish and I truck down to Chicago from a northern suburb.

The three of us meet, laugh, and plan out the general water pattern of the event. We are three deeply wounded people. Maybe. Or not. We go out to dinner and talk more about mutual acquaintances in the avant-writing world. We leave for the event, and I arrive five minutes later, since we are only three blocks away. You drive with Lidia and somehow get lost and I panic and call and text both of you over and over while assuring the kind organizers that you are both on your way. I stand outside the venue, a nondescript third-floor walk up gallery space in Wicker Park, and discover you, standing in a trance state, lost, holding the kiddie pool. We move into the space and lose our breath walking up the stairs. We do the water thing.

We submerge ourselves.

After the event: Aside from the aforementioned dinner, there is documentation. A series of photos and a few videos appear on Facebook. People comment and then it all fades away.

What else have we done with this? Nothing. We are failed YTs.

Except in this essay.

We live forever now.


 5. Will You Do It For 10-Cents?

Whadda-ya Think I Am?

We’ve Already Established That, Now We’re Haggling Over a Price[5] (Cris)

Either it started to rub off on me, literary Darwinism took hold, or I’m turning into a conceptual reader (or book-promotion werewolf) and just don’t know it. I had some unfortunate (or advantageous, depending on who you’re asking) big ideas. Honest, I was joking. I was trying to survive.

In one, four writers from the Chicago area were going to stand on various places on a city map, drawn or projected onto the floor, and read pieces depicting some aura of their corner of the city. Whew, good thing no one could figure out how to draw the map. I’m from California and didn’t have anything to read from the exurbs of Chicagoland where I now live, and yet the bright idea was mine.

In another recent event, three of us are supposed to read from books that by some means involve water, while sitting in a filled plastic child’s wading pool. This possibly brings body image into the competitive mix, as in: if you’re not funny, maybe you look good in a speedo. Or maybe we’ll reduce this idea to squirt guns (supplied to the audience). I have to remind myself, stop having these reckless ideas. The water imagery in Waterbaby was never meant to be funny, irreverent or snarky. It was supposed to be Alice Munro’s “gray, deep, baleful, magnificent sea.” (Is this like disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich comparing himself to Gandhi?[6] Dan Quayle comparing himself to JFK?[7] I’ll say it first, Mazza, you’re no Alice Munro.) But is this idea akin to having Rosanne Barr read (perform) Alice Munro?

Lidia Yuknavitch, Cris, and Davis at Red Rover series in Chicago.

No, my fellow readers at these events are not caricatures, not clowns (at least not yet), not avatars. We meet before events to have (usually) sushi or Thai food, laugh over past events where the audience numbered one or two (and one of those had wandered into the wrong room then left after the first reader), then each of us turn our backs halfway to call home and tell someone there we love them. Real people with pathos, needs, fears and hope. Or is it hope and fears. Or is it just plain anxiety?


6.  Will You Do It For Nothing? Then you’ve already won! (Davis)

A farm boy follows a rainbow to its end within a ancient forest, and finds, to his delight, a small leprechaun with red-hair stuffed under his garnet-green hat. The leprechaun guards—no surprises—an overflowing pot of gold, fat with bullion.

I’m taking the gold, says the boy, because I found you here, at the end of everything.

Right is right. Take whatever you can carry, me boyo.

The boy stuffs his pockets with bullion, tucks in his shirt and proceeds to dump coins down his collar. He’s lousy with the stuff. And the gold weighs him down with an absurd flourish. Jupiter gravity. Pancake flat.

Too greedy, me boyo. Leave some gold here. Yer’ sure to be rich still with just a few pieces of me coin.

Your whole pot-o-gold is mine by rights, and I’ll get a wheelbarrow to take all the gold.

Listen to me, boyo, take what you can now, and you’ll be happy fat rich.

The boy wants it all, though, and convinces the magic leprechaun to tie a green ribbon around the tree so he can find the gold and the leprechaun again.

There, around an ancient oak, the leprechaun stands, misty eyed, as the boy tromps out the gate of the forest toward his small farm, away from the faded rainbow.

The stakes are so low in the world of the small press that they are at the same time absurdly high. In the same way that one can be so far to the left that she can come out on the right. In the way that the singer can be so avant, so non-authoritative, so Duchamp-like in her contortions and arabesques and willful un-marketability, that she comes out with the scarlet A: Author.




7. Not funny or all that clever, but maybe the original smarty-pantsiosity: a brief history of my readings (Cris)

So, that reading I referred to, almost 30 years ago. It was my first reading, paired with two poets, two of us graduate students, one a talented undergrad (now a published avant-garde poet). I chose a story where a forestry worker, sexually abused by a dirt-biker who’s ripping up the wilderness serenity, responds with frenzied superhuman anger, dams up the river and watches as the stranded fish “waited for someone to put them back into the water.” I chose to supplement my reading with a simultaneous slide show of tranquil home photographs of my siblings, as children, fishing in our beloved Sierras. My two peers simply read their work. What did they think of my show-offy special effects? Perhaps they were secretly glad that the slide projector jammed and several of the pictures only showed up halfway on the screen.

Six years later I was writer-in-residence at a public university in Tennessee, and began my reading there with a story about a dog-trainer’s obsessive interest in a Marine taking dog-obedience classes from her, and I read dressed in a student’s cammo Army fatigues. For the story that followed, I shed the uniform right there on stage, down to the black leggings and T-shirt I’d worn underneath. Amusing or clever—that can be debated—but smarty-pants-ish in a very literal way. At least I was reading alone, but still two decades ago, I had the notion that the event should be something beyond the words I had written read aloud.

After that I became more of a “straight reader,” (as well as the straight man for whomever was reading with me) except when I toured for my 1998 novel, Dog People, and perched my obedience-trial champion Shetland sheepdog on a director’s chair beside me. No tricks: all she did was sit there without attempting to leave. This encouraged many questions from the audience: mostly about how to get dogs to behave better at home. If I’d been touring with a dog-training manual, I might have become the dog-whisperer before Cesar Millan got there first. (Make no mistake, he deserves his title, a superior trainer, and never lies to his dogs, although he hides the electric collar and transmitter from the TV camera).

Cris with dog

In the late ‘90s a group of writers associated with independent, innovative presses planned to read together to celebrate Banned Books Week. I thought we discussed what we would read: material that might have been banned in previous eras. So the reading happened, and I read a very short story titled “Hesitation,” from my collection Former Virgin. I vaguely noticed that other pieces being read didn’t seem to fit the “would have been banned in previous eras” theme. After the reading, the authors sat in the reading space, in chairs around the perimeter, and the audience circulated, bringing books to be signed, asking questions, expressing their pleasure or appreciation for the piece an author had read. Not one soul talked to me or brought a book to be signed. When anyone came to talk to the writer I was sitting beside, they did not look at me. To this day I don’t understand what happened or what code I broke.


8. The Code (or Writing as Data) (Davis)

Winded, the boy returns to his farm and keeps away from the questioning looks of his older brother whipping a scythe through a handful of wheat. The boy makes for the barn. In his eye, the barn may be already on fire; he must be of fleet-foot.

Pulling the wheelbarrow from the corner and dumping its load of fresh, steaming cow dung onto a pile of ragged hey, the boy runs back across the field and past his brother whose eye tears in the wind. The boy streams past the farmhouse and back into the entrance to the woods and through the path he just came pushing the wheelbarrow over knotted roots. He becomes a mouse returning through a lab maze to exactly, precisely, the spot where the leprechaun should be. There, as planned, hangs the green ribbon around the oak.

A fat, emerald bow.

Come out, leprechaun, I’m back with the wheelbarrow and aim to take your entire pot-of-gold.

The boy searches around the tree. No leprechaun.

He falls to knees, crying, traces of shit steaming from the wheelbarrow.

Every tree in the forest, were he to look up from his sorrow, stands marked with a garnet knot.

The pot-of-gold is not so much the book or the book deal, of course, as the sustainable “career” within the industry, also called the book business. Authors who operate in even a vaguely innovative or indie forest become conditioned to desire the pot of gold, but the trouble is their inability to locate or agree upon the nature of the “rainbow” the “ribbon” the “leprechaun” or the “gold.”

For the Modern Romantic, the rainbow spectrum meanders circuitously through thickets and brambles and glens and patches of poison sumac and the tortuous ambiguities of the writing life—the isolation, the static of non-writing life always threatening to interfere with and perhaps inflect or overwhelm the act of artistic creation—this leads toward not so much wealth as the frustration of losing the impossible to pinpoint pot-of-gold.

For the Young Turk, the path is to forget the forest and the leprechaun and the pot-of-gold and simply recreate new versions of these things, each moment, on Facebook and Twitter and in the data-sphere where it’s not so much about the object itself as it is about the discussion surrounding the object. For many YTs, there is no object at all in the sense that the MR supposes.

The pot-of-gold is simply the story’s method of recreating itself.


9. The literalized metaphor (Cris)

I once gave an unremarkable reading at a small conference for experimental fiction. I believe it had a fancier name than that. I sat in attendance for some of the “papers” also being presented. One was in the form of critifiction,[8] which at the time I understood to be literary criticism written in the form of narrative using familiar techniques of fiction (dialogue, character, conflict) etc. The same presenter would, in the next year or so, do a critifictional piece on one of my novels, with a literary critic narrator who has just been diagnosed with cancer while teaching this novel, so the critifictional narrative parallels his personal conflicts with class discussions on the novel. (The same critic died from cancer about 6 years later). The other presentation I remember was called “Writing on the Body,” and while I realized the meaning of the word “on” would be tooled, I was amusedly surprised (not aghast) that the mode of presentation included posing an undergraduate female on a dais, undressing her, and writing on her body. Another literalized metaphor in action. As is frequently my experience, I didn’t understand the philosophy or theory being illustrated with the literalized metaphor, but I do, these many years later, still remember the presentation. So perhaps this is the allegory for some of the “readings” I have helped plan and am still am facing pending participation. I remember she had a dog there, but don’t remember which novel she was reading from. I remember she was sitting in a pool of water but don’t remember the title of the novel.


10. The de-literalized metaphor/ the end of the book (Davis)

We don’t remember much of the past, really, and even less details from a reading we might attend. Ten years out from the best reading we’ve ever experienced—the most effective literary tour-de-force, gimmick free—will we recall the name of the book, the name of the author, a line that turned us on and for a moment cut into the stream of our wandering mind? On some level, the act of reading functions within the same paradox: reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is no different than reading a well-crafted summary of Fear and Trembling once the endless march of time has steamrolled over the old-growth forest.

Certainly, the best books that stay with us—for me, recently, Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland, or Proust’s A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, which I recently finished for the second time—being two of the most memorable—becomes books that become experiences. Books that interface with our lives and our obsessions in some way that moves beyond the books themselves.

Tomasula’s, the more recent, epitomizes a move toward the non-book. VAS gestures to the network rather than the stream. This is a roman-glitch rather than roman-fleuve. To enter into discussion with VAS is to let go of your notions of the book almost completely.

Proust, the elder, by sheer virtue of its length and the time-commitment it takes to finish the damn thing, stands out in the way that we encounter a Modernist idea of mastery. We read such texts from start to finish and invest ourselves in their procession because we have no choice but to on some level internalize their aspects in order to finish. If you’ve just moved through Heidegger’s Being and Time or Joyce’s Ulysses or insert-title-of-massive-tome here…well, if you can’t get with the thing on some level then it’s been a colossal waste of your life. Sucker. It doesn’t matter if you’ve understood Heidegger or Joyce or read very word or skimmed or let your mind wander or whatever. You’ve finished. You mastered in. You’ve found a leprechaun. Congratulations!

Just try to find him again.


10. What If I Was Sitting in a Pool of Metaphoric Quicksand? (Cris)

This whole contemplation began when I was given the semi-solicited advice[9] I quoted at the start, including: “I know it’s very hard to give a shit about literary stuff, or to have optimism or ‘illusions,’ when one’s personal life and psyche have been in an uproar.

Part of my “failure” to properly pursue promotion for my 2009 collection of fictions was a personal crisis and the darkness that lingered. I had a new book, yet I spent an inordinate amount of time lying on the floor of my study, not caring about anything.[10] I knew I had to do better in 2011. But among other personal dilemmas the literary world doesn’t care about, it seems my own life also caused me to not properly pay sufficient attention to others’ private lives. If this seems paradoxical, it’s because it is.

Author book-promotion includes (but is not limited to), readings—of course—but also class visits, interviews, blog appearances, book blurbs, writing reviews, etc., which we (most of us) earnestly try to keep from seeming to be quid-pro-quo[11].

We all know we’re supposed to contribute, heavily, to the publicity of our books. But the word self-promotion is still nasty. Some group blog sites have rules for posts: no self-promotion. We filter the most egregious self-promoters off our Facebook feeds. We don’t admit this. We’re caught in the middle, pretending not to be talking about our books while we’re talking about them. We don’t admit this. Whereas it used to be a book itself might create an “industry buzz” (often with the help of an agent or publisher), now instead the key is to “build a platform,” and spend time networking. We don’t admit this. And we’re all networking among other people networking for the same purpose—and, if lucky (no, it’s not luck, but we don’t admit what it really is), will become an internet or blogosphere darling, or will say or do something that goes viral. The marriage of these euphemisms would be: book publicity now requires that one become an internet virus. [12]

… or a trained bear.

San Diego Zoo, circa 1970: Chester is an Alaskan brown bear. He lives in a formerly progressive enclosure (without bars), with a pool for cooling off, a tree trunk (chained to the ground) for scratching or rolling around, and a cave if he absolutely positively had to go hide somewhere. But Chester didn’t hide because the tour buses came around every 20 minutes or so. The bus stops alongside Chester’s enclosure, and Chester is already ambling toward center stage, while the straight-man bus-driver begins the shtick.

Driver: Here we have our Alaskan brown bear, also known as a Kodiak brown bear or grizzly bear. Hello there Chester, can you show your guests how big an Alaskan brown bear is?

Chester stands on his hind feet, just on the other side of his moat.

Driver: The largest subspecies of the brown bear, Alaskan brown bears grow up to 1700 pounds, due to their rich diet of salmon. Give a San Diego Zoo greeting to these fine guests.

Chester raises his paw.

Driver: Brown bears also live inland, mostly in the Rocky Mountains, where their habitat has shrunk due to pressure from vacationeers and huntering. Chester, show us where you put the hunter.

Chester pats his stomach.

Now, the driver, at the same time he revs the engine to move on, frisbees a slice of wonderbread into the enclosure. Chester returns to all four feet, ambles to the bread and eats it. If the spectators are lucky, the bread may have landed in the middle of the pool, so Chester would slide in, suck the soggy dough into his mouth, then leave the water.

I remember Chester, that he was a Kodiak brown bear, a different, larger species than black bears. I remember that the San Diego Zoo pioneered cageless enclosures and Chester’s was one of the originals. I live in a society and culture where I remember these things because Chester put the hunter in his tummy then went to eat a slice of wonder bread.


11. Sounds Bytes that Speak to and Around the Key Questions of This Reading Experience. (Davis)

  1. William S. Burroughs: Language is a virus.
  2. Davis Schneiderman: Language is a virus.
  3. The author-as-quipper must speak in the form of gregariousness that takes content to be a secondary function.
  4. Content only works in so much as it serves the larger form of the communicative function.
  5. Here. At a reading. Online…The message remains the same: look at the clever way in which I am participating in this game of authorship.
  6. It’s not so much notice me, notice me, notice me, as look how competently I speak within the rules of the available speech act.
  7. The source of the agon is that the rules are changing: time was, pre-internet, when the sole publicity duties of the author consisted of personal appearances at readings—and, thus, the events became one-of-a-kind moments, with little cyber-baggage to inflect the performance space.
  8. Now, the event itself is secondary to its continued contextualization in the cyber-realm, and so, since everyone and anyone can comment and participate in these streams, each author who participates, even at the entry level in the game, begins to bark and bark and bark.
  9. Put another way, it’s not the bark-as-message but bark-as-bark.
  10. Bow wow.

 12. Of Course Eventually, Davis, You Quote Burroughs and I Don’t Understand (Cris)

 Instead I’ll quote Laura Miller of Salon.com:

People become writers because they’re introverted or awkward in personal encounters and have poured everything they want to say to the world into their work. What usually gets lost in the perpetual refrain about authors becoming their own marketers is that there’s no particular connection between writing talent and a gift for self-promotion.

I majored in journalism and never spent a day as a journalist because I didn’t want to go out and talk to people. I have spent more than a few days in a row, on more than a few occasions, without getting dressed and leaving the house—because I didn’t “have to,” so why would I want to? I decided to live almost 50 miles away from the campus in downtown Chicago where I teach. I have started four sentences in a row with “I” because I am sitting alone in my study and have not talked to another soul in-person today. I want to hug Laura Miller for understanding.

And yet, it won’t bail a teacup of the tide of change that occurred (and continues) my first book appeared in 1989 and People magazine called me to ask for a photo for a review (which never ran).

Despite my apparently hypocritical history in this matrix of production-for-producers, where the emphasis is “on being a writer, not the writing itself,”[13] I am sad … and tired.

Chester the Bear


Chester RIP

May your species live in natural dignity.  It’s too late for mine.




Photo of Davis bound and gagged courtesy of Andi Olsen.

Photo of the “water reading” by Melanie Page

Photo of Cris Mazza reading with her dog by James Comunale

Photo of Chester by Cris Mazza


Cris Mazza has authored sixteen books, most recently Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, a novel.  Her other fiction titles include Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?  In 1995 & 1996, Mazza was co-editor for the original Chick-Lit anthologies: Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, and Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics.  In 2006, her essay “Who’s Laughing Now: Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre,” explaining the co-opting and corrosion of the title, appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine.  In addition to fiction, Mazza also has published a memoir, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian, and has another hybrid memoir, Something Wrong With Her, forthcoming from Jadid Ibis Press.  A native of Southern California, Mazza grew up in San Diego County.  She currently lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She can be found online at www.cris-mazza.com.


Davis Schneiderman‘s bio is below.


[1] I wanted the clown to be constantly clever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?

I wanted my friends to be thrilling and witty

I wanted somebody to care.
The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
—”Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” by Billy Barnes

[2] Are you talking about me, Davis?

[3] Someone else has said this of the YT: “… they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller—and did.” [Dani Shapiro, L.A. Times, 2/7/2010]

[4] Yes, true. Someone asked for a “theme” to unit 3 or 4 seemingly disparate writers, and these popped into my head and out of my mouth. I actually thought my ideas would be relegated to the smartass bin.

[5] The joke goes: After a first date, a man asks the woman, “will you sleep with me for a million dollars?” She says yes. So he says, “Will you sleep with me for a dime?” Her: “Whadda-ya think I am?” etc.

[6] http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2009/01/blagojevich_in_nbc_interview_c.html

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senator,_you’re_no_Jack_Kennedy

[8] “[Raymond] Federman only really coins the word critifiction in passing … and never defines it beyond saying, … “the discourse that follows is critical as well as fictitious.” —Lance Olsen, in FlashPoint. http://www.flashpointmag.com/hbeauty.htm

[9] I asked my compatriot, “What have we learned?” after a series of readings we did together in summer 2010.

[10] As irony would have it, a character in the title story of that book: “ that same someone might … be curled up in a fetal ball by the time anyone else came home, and not be able to afford Prozac without health insurance.”

[11] When I offered to come read, for free, at a university where an acquaintance taught, he informed me he couldn’t help someone who had taken no interest in his life or career. His example: In my letter, I hadn’t mentioned the fact that he’d converted to Baha’i Faith. If I’d been supportive, you see, I would have mentioned that when I offered to travel 2000 miles to read for free.

[12] Self-interview by Cris Mazza on The Nervous Breakdown http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/cmazza/2011/01/cris-mazza-the-tnb-self-interview/

[13] Dani Shapiro, “A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale,” L.A. Times, February 7, 2010.

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CRIS MAZZA has authored sixteen books, most recently Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, a novel. Her other fiction titles include Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and the critically notable Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? In 1995 & 1996, Mazza was co-editor for the original Chick-Lit anthologies: Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, and Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics. In 2006, her essay, "Who‚s Laughing Now: Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre," explaining the co-opting and corrosion of the title, appeared in Poets & Writers magazine and Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction (Routledge). In addition to fiction, Mazza also has published a memoir, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. A native of Southern California, Mazza grew up in San Diego County. She currently lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be found online at www.cris-mazza.com.

DAVIS SCHNEIDERMAN is a multimedia artist and writer and the author or editor of eight print and audio works, including the novels Drain (TriQuarterly/Northwestern), Abecedarium (Chiasmus) and the forthcoming blank novel, Blank: a novel (Jaded Ibis); the co-edited collections Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization (Pluto) and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game (Nebraska); as well as the audiocollage Memorials to Future Catastrophes (Jaded Ibis).

His creative work has appeared in numerous publications including Fiction International, The Chicago Tribune, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, and Exquisite Corpse. His Busted Books YouTube channel takes deconstruction seriously.

He is Chair of the English Department at Lake Forest College, and also Director of Lake Forest College Press/&NOW Books. He edits The &NOW AWARDS: The Best Innovative Writing . He can be found, virtually, at davisschneiderman.com

7 responses to “The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me: An Exchange Between Cris Mazza and Davis Schneiderman”

  1. This is an AWESOME conversation, guys! (It might just go viral–yikes!)

    As one of the four readers who could not figure out how to draw a map of Chicago and instead ended up as part of a Google Earth reading, yeah, this stuff resonates with me a lot. As a publisher, I’m all for planning a theatrical sort of reading if the writers are into it, and would probably delight in the (even temporary, non-YT-level) attention sucha reading might attract. But as a writer myself, I am not about to get water poured on me in a pool, and I tend to resist the concept of myself as a “performer,” usually going for a straight, traditional reading even at events where others are being far more avant-garde and theatrical. Why do I do that? I’m not sure. I have no “beef” with performative readings. I don’t, even, really resent or object to the ideology behind this kind of self-promotion to anywhere near the degree you do, Cris. I’m fine with it, if it’s what others want to do. I like being in the audience, and I will snap photos on my iPhone and think all those wet writers in their fishnets were fab. But I don’t personally want to do it. It’s just not “me.”

    Is the trick, then, to simply draw some kind of line in the sand, accept what is and isn’t in our own nature, and do what we can within those limits, but refuse to go outside those limits for fear that we’ll end up feeling like a whore? Maybe. Although trying new things can also be fun, and being rigid can be self-limiting, not just in promotional terms but personal ones. So probably there is no “answer” per se.

    A lot of successful writers have been malcontented introverts. Though I would venture that the MOST successful malcontented introvert writers have also had an aura of propaganda-promotion fueled “mystique” around their antisocial behavior that was to some extent a marketing angle in and of itself. That’s a hard trick to pull off, in Pynchon or Salinger’s time just as in ours. But yeah, the rules have changed in terms of what writers are expected to do now. It can seem crazy. Mostly, to me (since I am a friendly, manic kind of girl, so I don’t resent the friendliness or vivaciousness aspect), it can seem crazy because if you really do everything you are “supposed” to (blog, FB, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, online communities like TNB, SheWrites, Vida, etc.) you would never have time to WRITE, much less earn a living or raise a family. It is a perpetual vortex into which our lives can be sucked, and if you delve too far into the vortex, you actually end up promoting YOURSELF as the product instead of even promoting a book, because you have no time to write an actual book. You become your own product, and are promoting your “personality.”

    I love getting to know other writers online–the widening of community that this networking era has spawned–and I like the dialogue, the fun, the big-virtual-party (and actual in-person, events-based parties) of our lit world. But I don’t want to just go to a party and make friends. I can do that with the many non-writers in my life. This community is–has to be–about BOOKS, or otherwise we are all just back in high school and hanging out in the McDonald’s parking lot with our warm beer, talking about who’s cute, and who’s dealing out of the back seat of their cars.

    In most ways, I think the online community has been amazing for indie press writers. Book reviews, word of mouth buzz, all of those things that used to seem almost entirely out of grasp for a micropress writer are now available to everyone, and certain indie-press-friendly online venues are more widely read than the biggest traditional book review publications. The online explosion has been, I think, amazing and catastrophic for the entire book industry in almost equal measures. Economically, it’s been the kiss of death. But it’s also been a great equalizer (not entirely by any means, but by leaps and bounds), permitting hundreds/thousands of writers who have not gotten New York’s seal of approval to develop audience and careers. This was always possible to a small extent (i.e. inner FC2 circles, etc.), but has certainly become more possible now.

    Anyway, your conversation is so rich and nuanced and, at times, of course contradictory. I guess one really vital question we all have to ask ourselves is what we want. And I think that in and of itself can be contradictory. We all want to write the best books we can (at least I hope we want that–I think most people we know do). But what else? In terms of audience, in terms of “platform” or whatever and how that helps a writer reach his/her goals. If our desires truly stop at the creation of the piece of art, then interestingly, this conversation becomes totally moot. I know good writers–most not wildly successful, but a few who really are pretty damn successful–who are never online, who don’t even have a FB page. We don’t HAVE to play the game. No one is forcing us. We can always walk away from it and let those chips fall where they may, and focus only on the writing, period.

    Maybe then nobody would publish us. I’m not sure I believe that, though. I think good work–especially by writers who have previous books out–still finds some home somewhere, eventually, in this diverse publishing landscape. It’s what kind of home, and what kind of reception–those are the tricky questions. If we have no concern about those questions, then we have nothing to worry about.

    It’s “desire” that makes this complicated. What do we want that such a solely-art-based stance would not enable us to achieve, etc.?

    I try to stick to, If it’s not fun then don’t do it. That’s not entirely easy either. Sometimes things ARE fun, a lot of fun, but I can still do too many of them, and that compromises my writing time, my family time. Setting limits–something the YTs sometimes don’t seem to have, but that we in our 40s and beyond certainly do–is something I struggle with. I get excited about shit, want to do it, and later feel like maybe I’ve been too distracted by amusing noisemakers and am not focusing enough on what’s under the noise.

    But okay, I see Davis, who is an awesome noisemaker, and I don’t think Davis does the stuff he does because he wants a huge audience or wants to be “famous” or wants a big advance or the approval of some outside force. He does it because he’s a trickster and a provocateur and a performer and is having an awesome time. I’m not Davis, and some of what Davis does would make me want to hide under a chair. But I think he does it for reasons consistent with his own personality and integrity, and that he will continue to do these things no matter what the “results” in terms of platform, economics, publicity, range of audience. At least I believe that. So I think it all comes full circle to what I was saying earlier: if it’s not “you,” then you can’t do it. No matter who advises you to. (Uh, even if sometimes it was me.)

    And then the real goal is to find a way to feel totally peaceful and happy with the results of that choice, and detach from the noise, right? Though anyone who can figure out a way to fully achieve that could probably write a self-help book, make a bundle and end up on the morning talk-show circuit, so that might defeat the purpose of all that Zen . . .

  2. zoe zolbrod says:

    I just have to say, that water-pouring reading was one of the best literary or theatrical events I attended all year.

  3. jonathan evison says:

    yowza! so much to digest here! . . . i just look at the whole ball of wax–whether it’s the writing or the promoting,–as one job . . . yes, a job that involves two very different skill sets, but so do a lot of jobs . . . although most of them pay better . . . i’ve got two choices: fight it, or learn to love it . . . if i fight it, i feel bitter an exhausted, if i love it, it energizes me . . .

  4. Gina, Zoe, and Johnathan,

    Good comments. The many writers who ‘love it’ often don’t have much of a choice, if they wants to work within a certain segment of the small press scene. I agree with Gina that there are those who achieve a type of success without any expenditure of networking energies, yet this has to be a very small segment of the population.

    I wonder to what extent big new york houses want to ensure the enthusiastic marketability of the author before among on a book? In some ways, this all brings back a reification of the author function, but for many, perhaps me, the performances are deliberately meant to contradict conventional ideas of persona. My act is clearly an act, and that’s the fun of it.

    Cris has fun, I suspect, when she wants to.

  5. Art Edwards says:

    What a great post, Davis. You delve into many things I’ve thought about, and took most of them further.

    I feel I learn a great deal about how an author reads at readings, and often very little about the book being promoted. I’m game for anything at a reading, as long as it comes back to the book, exhibiting its strengths or accenting its themes. Beyond that, surprise me.

    I also don’t mind a straight-up reading if the author remembers to slow down.

  6. Art–

    Thanks for commenting, and my question is this: if the reading should come back to the book, why have the readings at all?
    Would a purer form of all of this be a model where the reader cuts outs the author completely, or, do these readings provide a necessary marketing function that allows for readers to connect with a subset of authors–in the small press scene–that would otherwise remain unknown?

  7. Rae Bryant says:

    Really enjoyed this essay and exchange, Cris and Davis. I wonder about the position of reading as craft, though. I’ve often found reading a work to a small or larger crowd offers new insight into the work. The act of reading in an unfamiliar space to an unfamiliar or mostly unfamiliar crowd forces the words out of my head and into some sort of new perspective. Can’t fully explain it. Maybe that is why I enjoy reading for reading’s sake, minus the theatrics, or rather, theatrics inherent to voice. Hmm. Though I have often enjoyed dramatic readings. Case by case basis, I guess. Thanks for sharing this essay.

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