A Busy Year

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A lot of new writing to report.

The biggest news is that The Last Samurai Reread was finally released for Columbia University Press’s Rereadings Series. It’s a study of Helen DeWitt’s great 2000 novel. Bits of it were published in Bookforum (😢) and Public Books. I’ve been very grateful for the review attention the book has already received. I also did a Book Launch event with my UMD colleague Orrin Wang where I explain the origin of the project.

My edited collection, Artful Breakdowns: The Comics of Art Spiegelman, which I’ve been working on with my co-editor Georgiana Banita since 2015, finally came out from the University Press of Mississippi’s Tom Inge Series on Comics Artists. Here’s another Book Launch event, this time with another of my UMD colleagues, Christina Walter. The collection includes my own contribution, “Art Spiegelman’s Faustian Bargain: TOON Books and the Invention of Comics for Kids,” which is as far as I know the first scholarly article on Spiegelman’s children’s comics. I also co-wrote the introduction (with Geogiana), “Up from the Underground: Art Spiegelman and the Elevation of Comics.” It’s long but tries to give a comprehensive overview of Spiegelman’s whole career.

I’ve done a bunch of editing, too. In 2021, a special issue of American Literary History I co-edited with Dan Sinykin came out. It’s a special issue about the role of the publishing industry and recent American literary history. Dan and I wrote the introduction.

More recently, I published an essay called “Post-American Speculations” with ALH, for a special issue on “Democracy and the Novel in the US,” edited by Rachel Greenwald Smith and Gordon Hutner. This month, I have an essay called “Love What You Do: Neoliberalism, Emotional Labor, and the Short Story as a Service” coming out in The Cambridge Companion to the American Short Story, which was edited by Gavin Jones and Michael Collins.

The Single-Author Study (still not prestigious)

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The Most Bizarre Simpsons Cameos In History

This is the script of the talk I gave at MLA in January 2020 for a panel called “The State of the Single-Author Study,” organized by Sheila Liming, and featuring great talks by E. L. McCallum, Mike Miley, Matthew Luter, and Robert Ryan. I’ve made a few modifications to the text. It’s a highly stylized and kind of evidence-free argument, meant to provoke conversation. 

(Crossposted at Substack)

When I was in grad school, in the mid-2000s, it was a piece of professional common sense that you shouldn’t write a dissertation on a single author. It just wasn’t done. Or rather, when it was done it was somewhat frowned upon. When someone asked you “What’s your Archive?” — and they did ask you that question — early Pynchon was not a good answer, at least if you were a grad student.

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Looking back now, I’d say the taboo extended beyond the single-author study as such. It extended also to the notion of organizing dissertation projects around authors at all. To be sure, you were expected to write about specific authors. We were still in an English department, and some habits die hard. But the prospect of writing about authors at all was vaguely disreputable. The rationale for writing about this or that author needed to be more wide-ranging. Authors might illustrate a larger claim, but they weren’t in themselves the main event.

The projects that were most celebrated were those that found a way to fuse a range of heterogenous materials, theories, and histories. The prestige of these wide-ranging projects — projects that incorporated many texts or media objects, archival research, theoretical discussions, and so on — had something, perhaps, to do with the lingering prestige of New Historicism and Theory in the first decade of this century.

In the Theory Era, the figure of the author occupied a paradoxical position. It was the author, after all, who ostensibly wrote the textual traces that were being strip-mined for insight, but when Theory becomes your vocation, those texts and authors and traces dissolved into a larger field of textuality — and into questions whose stakes seem more profound than the fate of the individual text or the individual literary career. If any author came to prominence in this era, it was the Theorist themselves, who as Rita Felski has recently noted might themselves become an object of cathexis or identification.

The low prestige of the single-author study also had something to do with the job market crisis. It was understood that writing a single-author project would damange your prospects of finding employment. You had to show the range of your knowledge, the heterogeneity of the classes you could teach, and so on. This market demand for wide-ranging candidates has become, if anything, increasingly powerful in the post-financial crisis era. If two tenure-line colleagues retire and your Dean only gives you one back, your new hire might be expected to cover both fields. In this way, the shape of our disciplines, our intellectual practices, our epistemological habits, our methods, and so on, reflects everyday staffing considerations and the grinding economic machinery of Austerity.

Our story so far: as the Theory Era gives way to the Austerity Era, the low status of the single-author study persists. But the reason for its persistence has changed, shifting emphasis from putatively intellectual considerations having to do with textuality, the death of the author, and the political ambitions of advanced criticism to more nakedly economicones having to do with staffing, precarity, and field coverage. Of course, the Theory Era had an economic dimension: it was a sort of exfoliation of the midcentury boom in higher education and the rise of the academic star system. And the academic practices of the Austerity Era are not without intellectual justification. Indeed, I would argue that if the taboo against single-author study has in any way persisted today, the intellectual content for this taboo, and not just its economic determinants, has changed. 

I’ll offer as an illustration of how the taboo has changed a project that I’m working on. I have been writing a book for a new series by Columbia University Press called Rereadings. The editors of Rereadings, Nicholas Dames and Jenny Davidson, have asked contributors to write a sustained book-length essay on a single work of contemporary fiction. When asked to pitch a project, I proposed to write about Helen DeWitt’s novel, The Last Samurai. It was published in 2000 by Talk Miramax Books, and tells the story of a single-mother who is trying to raise her precocious and intellectually gifted son. It’s a great novel, and perhaps an appropriate novel for me to be discussing today, since it’s ultimately a book about a precariously employed former doctoral student whose intellectual potential is thwarted by the brutal and remorseless logic of global capital. It’s a novel precociously about precarity and the economic threshing machine that has fucked up the lives of so many intellectuals. But I won’t actually give my reading of DeWitt’s novel right now. What I want to do instead is ask what the existence of this series tells us about the status of the single-author study today.

On the one hand, it tells us what we already know: that the single-author study is in many ways doing just fine. Whatever strange taboos circulate in the halls of the English department, prestigious scholarly publishers still want to publish single-author studies. And this is, of course, not some surprising new phenomenon. As I confirmed when I asked Twitter for recommendations, there is a vast universe of remarkable single-author studies, widely read, widely praised, foundational to so much of the work we do. The Rereadings series, like many other University press series, gives evidence that publishers are interested in these kinds of studies. So perhaps there’s no need to defend or advocate for them. Our job’s finished. We can go home. Or to the hotel bar at the Sheraton, such as it is.

On the other hand, the Rereadings series is also explicitly conceived of as “writerly.” What the editors want isn’t a standard academic monograph on a single book. You’re not getting the reader’s guide to Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses. Such books still frequently get written, to be sure — but what Rereadings is asking for, by contrast, is an affectively charged, even personal reading of a book.

So — maybe I’m wrong about this claim — my sense is that though university presses often publish single-author scholarship, there’s still a felt sense that one’s focus on the single author, or on the single text for that matter, is something that stands outside the normal protocols of scholarly communication. Maybe you have a side project collecting the interviews of an author you like, or doing an edited collection on a specific popular author (I’ve done two of these). But writing about an author as your main line of scholarly research is somewhat unusual. To do so, what is required is a writerly bonus, what I would describe as the idiom the New Public Intellectual that so many graduate students, postdocs, adjunct faculty, and younger tenure line faculty have pursued.

Newly professionalizing academics are supposed to apply for that job that asks for a very broad area of disciplinary competence. But they’re also asked to show their worth by writing in and for the public, explaining the value of what they do in various para-academic settings, including Twitter. If once upon a time, before the Theory era, we studied Authors, and in the Theory era we studied Theorists as if they were Authors, today it’s Aspiring Academics themselveswho are often being asked to shape themselves into Authors.      

In this context, the single-author study offers another opportunity to add to that portfolio, but only if such a study breaks out of the traditional bounds of specialization. The hypothetical general reader still “connects with” single authors, we’re told, and in an era of Austerity the great ambition of the single-author study is, often, to get out of the library annex and into the hands of those who may not be academics, or at least those who do not have any prospects of finding stable or permanent employment in the academy.

In conclusion I’ll say, I don’t offer this highly stylized description of the status of the single-author study as an endorsement or condemnation of the genre — I obviously like the genre and have enthusiastically pursued it, and the Rereadings series is awesome (buy my book!) — but rather I offer my description as diagnosis of the conditions under which many of us write today, ultimately offering what I hope is a very conventional claim, that the economic and institutional conditions of academic labor have intellectual and aesthetic effects.

Yet More Zombies

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(Crossposted on Substack)

This is a short story I published with the anthology Flight #008 way back in 2017. The site with the stories seems to be down, so I thought I’d republish my contribution here.

The Girl Who Almost Became a Zombie

I pushed through the crowd of dancing protesters and came to the glass and steel entrance of the Story Building. I stopped dead. A river of drones flowed over my head, appearing from, and disappearing into, San Francisco fog, mini-props humming, too close for comfort. Self-driving cars glided along Market, algorithms avoiding as best they could the dangerous humans who shared the road with them. Colorful AR tracers hung over everyone’s heads, hundreds of Stories intersecting. I still found the social metadata people wore super-confusing. One protester, a heavily tattooed teenager bundled up against the July chill—holding a sign that read “Seize the Story!”—glared at me.

He turned to a girl with bright pink hair. “That’s totes the girl from the time plane!”


“Thar she blows, matey.”

“That’s so Prada!”

“Raz-ma-tazzle!” he said, his eyes wide with excitement.


Crap. My dark glasses and hoodie didn’t fool anyone. My heart raced. I had had a couple of panic attacks since the time glitch; I wasn’t used to all this attention.

Ginsberg’s comforting voice whispered through my hoodie speakers. “You should say ‘Boy-oy-oy-oy-oing.’”

“Why?” I subvocalized.

“It’s hard to explain. I’d recommend you just do it.”

“Boy-oy-oy-oy-oing,” I said, impersonating Ginsberg’s smooth cadence.

The protesters smiled hugely and gave each other a high five. Whatever I had just said, they suddenly loved me. I relaxed. I stepped up to the automatic doors, which opened and closed with a comforting rhythm. Getting through the protesters had been the easy part. Now I had to go inside. He was supposed to meet me in the lobby. I was shaking; my mouth was a desert. I had known seeing Taylor would be hard, but I didn’t realize just how hard until that moment.

“My mouth is so dry,” I said.

“I noticed,” Ginsberg said.

A drone dropped down from the stream above; it had a coffee cup in its tray with my name, Michiko, written in script on the side. Ginsberg had predicted I would want one. My hand unsteady, I took the cup, grateful that my Assistant was so good at anticipating my needs. I couldn’t have made it this far without him. I removed the cap and licked the delicious milky foam.

“Pumpkin spice,” I said. “How did you know?”

“I was reviewing your old Twitter feed. You can get them year-round now.”

I tried to enjoy the drink, my favorite, but it wouldn’t go down. “I can’t do this.”

Seeing my parents hadn’t been nearly this rough. It helped that I was still confused when I met them. Getting out of the airport had been a pain; the FBI guys explained as best they could what had happened, how our plane had gone through what the media was calling a time wrinkle. How the wrinkle had propelled us twenty years into the future—from 2017 to 2037.

After debriefing us, and making sure we weren’t alien pod people, they brought us out to reunite with our loved ones. My parents cried like crazy when they saw me, but I was numb. From my perspective, I had seen them only a week before. Sure, I had missed them when I was visiting my cousins in Tokyo, but mom and dad looked more or less the same as they had before I left. They had a few more gray hairs, a few more wrinkles. No big deal. For them, though, I had been gone twenty years. I had disappeared. They thought I was dead. CNN hadn’t stopped covering the disappearance of ANA Flight 008 for years.

Now, my older brother, Eric, he did look different. He had lost weight. Distinguished gray streaks crossed his temples. He had a husband and two kids and a whole lifetime of stories to tell me. He cried and hugged me tight, and—yeah—I cried too, but we quickly reverted to old routines. He joked I would probably have to reapply to UCLA; but he suspected my personal essay would be way more interesting this time around. I was lucky, I guess. Reuniting with my family had been easier than for other Flight 008 passengers.

But seeing Taylor again, that was another story. Two week ago—twenty years ago—we had been in the basement of his mother’s Victorian in the Mission. We were both seventeen. Had been flirting all senior year before that crazy New Year’s party at Leonard’s stepdad’s in Oakland, the party where I guess we officially started dating. We had been going out six months, and those months had been wonderful, but we had a problem. After the summer, Taylor was going to MIT, and I was heading to UCLA. He had grand ideas about starting his own tech company. I knew I had a different destiny. I was going to major in English and computer science, and would become the greatest playwright-programmer of the twenty-first century. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was sure it would be awesome once I figured it out.

And (I told Taylor) I just didn’t want to do a long-distance relationship. That’s what I was doing in his mother’s basement that day. Breaking up with him. Period. Nonnegotiable. “Sorry, bro,” I said, trying to be lighthearted (he hated when I called him “bro”). And then, I’m not sure how it happened, we were making out on his smelly old couch.

“I love you,” he blurted out, his face a mask of embarrassment and lust.

Taylor had never been very good at talking about his feelings. He was genius-level smart and super-witty one-on-one, but he suffered from crippling social anxiety. He was always planning things out, creating elaborate scripts for himself to help him get through ordinary human interactions. He hadn’t said he loved me in all the months we’d been together. And this is how he breaks from the script? He confesses his feelings now, the night before my flight to Tokyo? I was furious. Between sobs, I said we’d figure it all out when I got back. I took a Lyft home, packed my bags, and lay in bed all night, staring at the glowing dial of my alarm clock.

Fast forward one week (aka, twenty years): When a woman named Neela called me and said Taylor wanted to meet, I wasn’t sure what to say. On the flight, I had decided that I did, after all, want to give a long-distance relationship a try. What was I supposed to tell him now? I agreed to see him before I could stop myself. Neela clapped three times and said “Yippee!” She said she’d send me “a little something special.” I got a beta invite for the newest version of Story’s Assistant app; I got Ginsberg. Over the last week, Ginsberg had been giving me very helpful recaps of the last twenty years of world history using a spaced repetition review system. But what I really needed, what Ginsberg couldn’t give me, was courage to see this through.

“Do you want me to call you a car?” my Assistant asked, sensing my mood. “I can reschedule or cancel your meeting with Taylor.”

I swallowed another sip of pumpkin spice latte. “No,” I said. “I’m ready.”

I pulled off my hoodie, took off my glasses, and stepped into the Story Building. The lobby was huge, its marble floors shiny. Story employees were young, in their twenties and thirties, fit, good looking. Their clothes were informal but obviously expensive, high-end casual. I was way underdressed in my ratty Berkeley Rep hoodie. I scanned the lobby. Ultramodern chairs were everywhere, circling glass tables with magazines and general-purpose tablets. I hadn’t gotten used to the idea that people didn’t really use mobile devices anymore. Or not, at least, in the same way. The cloud just followed you around, and gave you what you needed when you needed it, including—thanks to Story—suggestions for how to interact with other people.

“Sooo, that just happened!” a man with a goatee said to a woman in an A-line knee-length skirt.

The woman laughed derisively. “I just threw up a little in my mouth.”

“‘Threw up in my mouth’? More like, “I just shat myself a little.’ That man is muy scary.”

“I give Zippo fucks!” the woman said. “He’s an asshat Dumpster person.”

“Snickity-snap-nap!” The man snapped his fingers dramatically, and then made his hand into a little gun. “Shots fired. Pew, pew, pew; pew, pew!”

“I’m just saying, I can’t unsee that!”

“It’s ree-donkey-lus.”

“That’s why we can’t have nice things.”

The man laughed a little too loudly, as if the woman had alluded to some shared knowledge. “Well played.”

They spoke with an odd, too-regular rhythm. I recognized the cadences of their speech; they were called Story Zombies, people who took Story’s real-time conversational recs—its machine-learning orchestrated social cues—a little too literally. I guess it makes sense that Story employees would use their own product. That’s what you’d call “eating your own dog food,” if you were a ridiculous—sorry, I mean a ree-donkey-lus—meme spouting robot.

I giggled. Of course this was the company Taylor would create! He probably wrote the first version of the Story app to get through college without breaking out into uncontrollable sweats every five minutes. It was funny. The socially anxious boy had become a mega-rich CEO; while I, former president of my drama club, was the one now constantly on the verge of a panic attack. The shoe was on the other foot… That’s how nervous I was: My mind was crowded with clichés.

“I so totally thought that was you, Michiko!”

I turned and saw a familiar face. In her heels, she was almost the same height as me. A snug tan dress hugged her slim frame. Her hair was molded into a stylish pixie cut. The lenses of her pseudo-vintage cat-eye glasses were throwing off all sorts of light. Warmth, optimism, and positivity erupted from every gesture she made. She leaned in and air-kissed my cheek. I loved her perfume. She was hot.

“Hi Neela,” I said.

“How’s our lil’ Assist-a-roon-y working out for you?”

“Ginsberg is great,” I said.

“You named it Ginsberg! That’s a-dork-able!”

Ginsberg said, via directional mic, “You should respond, ‘Ginsberg thinks he’s pretty a-dork-able, too.’”

“Ginsberg thinks—” I started automatically, but then stopped myself, “He’s working out fine.”

Neela seemed not to hear what I had said. She turned and half-ran on heels across the lobby, and found a man who was lurking uncomfortably near the reception desk; she dragged him, it seemed against his will, toward me. We met half-way, near the indoor palm tree.

“Oh,” the man said. “You already have a coffee? I’d planned to take you to the café upstairs.”

“No problem-o,” Neela said, and began scanning something in her glasses. “We’ll figure out a Plan B.”

Ginsberg whispered: “You should say, in a playful tone, ‘I’m just pre-gaming with a Pre-Coffee Latte.’”

“That’ll be enough, Ginsberg,” I subvocalized.

“I’ll be here if you need me,” he said.

“It’s you,” I said.

The shy man, Taylor, swallowed. “Who were you expecting, Spartacus?”

“What? I don’t don’t understand.”

“Hashtag meme fail,” he said.

“Would you mind talking like a human being?”

“Sorry, bad habit.”

This cliché-spouting man couldn’t be my Taylor. My Taylor was whip-thin; this man was heavy around the middle. My Taylor had a full head of blond hair; this man had very little. My Taylor was a boy, full of life, in love with me; this man wore a wedding ring. But it was true: Taylor was thirty-seven. He was married. He had a five-year-old daughter. He had founded the Story Corporation in his dorm room at MIT, had dropped out, and now, twenty years later, was worth half a trillion dollars. Taylor, my introverted Taylor, a half-trillionaire! He was wearing a black button down shirt and dress pants made out of some fabric I’d never seen before; three thin activity trackers, each a different color, circled his left wrist; and a pair of wireframe glasses sat atop his big nose.

I stepped up to him and hugged him. I was still taller than thirty-seven-year-old Taylor. He still slouched. And as I pressed my head against his, I discovered that he smelled the same, used the same brand of soap as in high school. As he hugged me back, I convinced myself for a moment that no time had passed. That I had come back from Tokyo as scheduled. That we were giving our relationship a second chance.

I convinced myself for a moment that no time had passed

“You know, we should probably…” he said.

His voice pulled me out of my reverie. No, it wasn’t 2017. There was no going back. When I released him, I spilled my latte onto his pants.

“I’m so sorry.”

His pants repelled the coffee; the liquid slipped to the floor.

“No worry-O’s,” Neela said, taking my empty cup. “We’ll get a lil’ bot on that right away.”

A crowd had gathered around us. I guess it’s not every day that you see the CEO of your trillion-dollar company reuniting with his clumsy, time-traveling ex-girlfriend. They stood there until Taylor got annoyed. “What are you staring at?” He momentarily seemed like his old irritable self; then his voice reverted to a Story-assisted cadence. “Back to the salt mines, guys!”

Everyone laughed and dispersed on cue. A boxy robot sucked up my spill.

“Let’s take you somewhere a little more private,” Neela said, gently pushing us forward.

Neela led me and Taylor up an escalator to a mezzanine with potted plants, hammocks, bean bag chairs, and café tables. A dozen baristas manned pour-over stations.

“Ritual Coffee?” I said. “They’re still around?”

“Not only around,” he said. “I own them now.”

Neela brought us to a table under a huge skylight. We had a great view of the front entrance; every time the doors slid opened, I could see protesters outside. “You guys catch up, and I’ll get you your drinks. I know what you like,” she said to Taylor, and then turned to me. “Ginsberg tells me you like pumpkin-spice lattes. That’s not on the menu here, but I’ll get you something fun.”

“He told you that?”

“Uh huh,” she said.

Her big, friendly smile prevented me from asking the obvious follow-up question. Paranoia seized me. Had Ginsberg been spying on me? What else was he sharing with Neela? Had Taylor grown into a bad guy? Why were all those kids protesting him? We sat, and Taylor made a gesture. The table’s noise cancelling system turned on, and the hum of the mezzanine faded, like he had turned down the volume knob on reality.

“Who knew you’d become one of those tech bros we always complained about,” I said before I could censor myself.

“What are you talking about?” He chewed on his cuticle. “I don’t know what Stories you’ve been reading about me.”

“Are there any you’d recommend I avoid?”

“You can read any Story you want. It’s just, the moment you become successful, people come after you.”

“The protesters are all just jealous, I guess?”

“Look,” Taylor said, as if reading from a press release. “Story is not just a fun way to bring sick memes to your next party. Our Adult Literacy and Global Education Projects are huge. Ten million people are participating in those Stories. And those are just the two biggest successes. There are thousands of user-generated Stories that have done a lot of good, too. Almost a billion people have joined at least one Story.”

“Taylor Reynolds, Robber Baron Hero.”

“What I’m saying is, the anti-Story groups are so hypocritical. The two big anti-Story movements—‘The Presentists’ and ‘Looking Forward’—they couldn’t even exist without Story. They freaking used Story to infiltrate our Board! It’s outrageous. And they call us Story Zombies? The younger generation just has no sense of responsibility. Now you might be thinking, why not just kick them off Story?”

“Definitely not what I’m thinking.”

“But we can’t do that. Either we subvert our own platform’s integrity, and everyone abandons us; or we let people use Story however they want, and some use it to dismantle us. ‘The Presentists’ want the government to break us up; they call us a monopoly. ‘Looking Forward’ calls us that, too, but they want the government to make us into a so-called public utility. Whichever side wins, we’re hosed. It’s like I sold a noose to my own executioners.”

“I guess that’s why we can’t have nice things?” I said.

“Exactly,” Taylor said, his eyes wide with frenzy. “Exactly.”

And then he actually heard what I had said—he realized how he was acting—and he laughed anxiously, and I laughed, and we were laughing together.

“Why are you giving me shit, Michiko?”

I felt embarrassed. “I don’t know. This is so weird.”

“You know we can’t…” he said. “You know I’m married now, right?”

“How could you even think that? Don’t be gross!”

“I just thought… I resolved my feelings for you a long time ago. You were gone. Everyone thought you were dead. But for you… It just must be hard reintegrating.”

“You’re so concerned for my well-being.”

“Of course I’m concerned. You were my first—my first serious girlfriend. When you disappeared, it was horrible. The worst thing that ever happened to me.”

“It didn’t ‘happen to you.’ It happened to me.”

I was tearing up. I hated being such a cliché. But what can you do? Sometimes, the clichés are true. Sometimes, your life is the cliché.

“If you didn’t… Why did you want to see me?” he asked.

“Me? I didn’t want to see you. Your hot assistant said you wanted to see me?”

“Who? Wait, you think Neela is my assistant?”

“She’s not?”

“She’s my head of global marketing.”

Taylor’s face became grim. When Neela returned with our coffees, she saw that she had been found out.

“What did you do, Neela?” Taylor said in a cadence that reminded me of Ricky Ricardo.

She batted her long eyelashes innocently; a grin unfolded on her face.

“Is Ginsberg spying on me?” I said before she could respond.

“I wasn’t spying on you,” Ginsberg whispered to me. “I was just following your privacy settings. I’ll fix that now.”

Neela raised her hands. “When I read about Flight 008, and found out about Michiko, I thought you two just had to reunite.”

I said, “You mean you asked me here because you wanted us to get back together?”

It seemed like some zany setup from a bad romantic comedy.

“No, she didn’t,” Taylor said. “What’s your angle here, Neela?”

Neela sighed. “Story users are getting restless. They participate in Stories every day, but they’re also uber-uncomfortable with how big we’ve become. And after we bought the publishing industry, all the newspapers, and all the magazines, we’ve been struggling with the challenge of content creation. Michiko comes at the perfect moment; she’s a godsend. How better to show how Story brings people together than to tell the story of someone connected to the founder of Story? What we want to do, what I want to do, is buy your life rights, Michiko. You don’t have to do anything. Just keep talking to Ginsberg. Answer whatever questions you feel comfortable answering. And then, when Ginsberg collects enough info, he’ll whip up a draft of your life story in your voice. We publish your story on Story, and voila! you’re gonna make a bundle on residuals. Now, you shouldn’t just accept our offer. Get an agent and make sure you like our terms. But I think you’ll see this is totes win-win.”

Taylor was red with anger. “You should not have asked her here without telling me.”

Neela looked confused. “Are you mad? Did I do something wrong? I thought—”

“That is e-nough, Neela. We’ll discuss this later. I want to talk to Michiko alone.”

After Neela left, Taylor had trouble talking through his rage. “You think you think your life is going to turn out a certain way. But then you make some… You tell a certain story about yourself. And you become a fucking prisoner of that story.”

I was flat-out crying now. “I wish I had never gotten on that stupid plane. I want to go back to 2017. My whole life is over.”

Taylor looked at me for a long time. “You’re wrong. Your whole life is ahead of you. This might sound weird, but I envy you. You’re still at the start of your story. You still have a chance to do things right.”

“I hate this future. I hate all the attention I’m getting.”



“You love the attention. And you’re so going to accept Neela’s offer.”

“How can you say that?”

“You may’ve been gone twenty years, but you can’t bullshit me. What you’re really mad about is, you want to deserve the attention. Any loser can fly through a wrinkle in time; you want to be recognized for your unique awesomeness. You still want to be a kickass playwright-programmer, though I have to admit I never understood what that meant.”

“You remembered!”

“I know you. And I know coming into this future must have sucked.”

“Ya think?”

“It may be a cliché to say it, but you’re going to be OK. You’ll succeed at whatever you choose to do.”

I squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For still being you.” I released him. “I needed that.”

“I don’t know how to be anyone else.”

Down the escalator, through the sliding doors, I saw anti-Story protesters, waving signs, dancing. As they chanted slogans, I saw in outline the story that would become mine. And I couldn’t help but smile. He might be twenty years older, but I knew Taylor, too. And I knew he didn’t stand a chance. Not against me.

“Let’s be clear,” I said. “If I accept Neela’s offer—if—I’ll write my own story. Myself.”

In the glow of fog-muted San Francisco sun, under the skylight of the Story Building, I saw the remainders of Taylor’s seventeen-year-old smile emerge from behind the jowly mask of disappointed adulthood.

“I bet you will,” he said.

Interview: The Future of the Political Novel

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(Originally published on Substack.)

In 2014, I published a chapter on contemporary muckraking fiction in the edited collection, Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature. The chapter is on fiction by Chris Bachelder and Robert Newman.

The essay’s driving question: in an era that has spawned numerous dystopian novels—an era apparently so in need of dystopian critique—why haven’t more straightforwardly realist or muckraking novels seen daylight? After all, there’s a rich tradition of political writing in this genre in the United States and elsewhere.

As part of my research, I emailed Chris to ask him about his second novel, U.S.! Songs and Stories (2006), and about the plight of the contemporary political novel. U.S.! is about Upton Sinclair, resurrected by an ailing left to write new up-to-the-minute muckraking novels. 

It’s hilarious—but, I think, still sadly out of print.

Image result for chris bachelder u.s

Chris is the author three other books, including Bear vs. Shark, Abbot Awaits, and The Throwback Special.

The interview is great. After I saw how good it turned out, I intended to pitch this interview to the Los Angeles Review of Books, but through some accident of history the interview was never published.

Still, I think it’s as relevant as ever, so I present it here, lightly edited, with Chris’s permission.

LK: How did you think about the metafictional or postmodern (or whatever) form of your book in relationship to the kind of writing that Upton Sinclair was doing. It seems notable that your book isn’t a 600 page muckraking novel. Why not?

CB: The answer to a question like this is in part always, “Because this is what I do.” In other words, a writer’s formal choices have a lot to do with the writer’s personal and idiosyncratic tendencies, preferences, skills, and shortcomings. I’m drawn to collage, I’m excited by formal invention, and I tend to lose conviction when I go into a more traditional realist mode. That said, however, I think there are good conceptual/political/literary reasons to approach this particular book this way, and if there weren’t, I wouldn’t have gotten very far with it.

I wanted, quite explicitly, to update the political novel. If I wrote an earnest 600-page muckraking novel, I would be, literarily speaking, facing backward. U.S.! is not just a political novel, but a novel about the very possibility of political novels in our age, and it seems to me that the form should be hyper-contemporary, that the form should take into account the conditions of our time. One way to demonstrate how absurdly out of step Sinclair seems a century after The Jungle is to set him down in our time, and to set him down in a wild scrapbook of a novel. The form creates a lot of noise, a lot of strange cuts and transitions. This creates nice friction with Sinclair’s earnest and righteous crusading. The book admits that his kind of muckraking isn’t valid anymore—you can’t write that book. But if the book says you can’t write a political novel, it also seems to say, you can’t not write a political novel. The world, after all, is crumbling. Novelists must have something to say about this. But a novel that is straightforwardly about the crumbling world is no longer considered art. What are you supposed to do? How to proceed? The engine of the novel is, in a sense, profound ambivalence. The book did not take on life until I found a way to write from a kind of anguish or questioning. To me the tone is different, more complex, than in Bear v. Shark.

Another point, very pragmatic, is that the form allowed me to resurrect Sinclair off stage. I could just assume his many lives. The gaps between chapters in a sense do this work. I would not have to dramatize multiple deaths and resurrections. I did not want to have to address this question of resurrection directly. I wanted readers to just take it as a basic rule of this world. We don’t ask why Gregor has turned into a cockroach. Kafka doesn’t want us asking that question.

Not until I finished the book did I start to see the ways in which the form is itself political. I wanted the opening section of the book, the scrapbook, to feel proliferative, energetic, and, well, revolutionary. Each new chapter is a resurrection, a new start. I wanted a sense of wild possibility, not limited by conventions of plot. Even when the subject matter of these sections is dark, the feel of the book is, I hope, is expansive, invigorating. I wanted a kind of revolutionary spirit here. Then we come to the novella, the bookburning section. Here I used very conventional plotting. It’s a convergence narrative, all the characters coming together, with tragic results. I see a kind of funneling toward Greenville. So if the early section opened up, this later plot-driven section closes down. Mark Edmundson in a book called Why Read? says that form is feeling, form is the way authors infuse their work with emotion. This opening and shutting is my sense of the feeling of U.S.! And when I finished, I saw that there is a way in which the novel implicates realism, that it associates realist form and plot convention with the (near) eradication of the revolutionary spirit. Realism in a sense shuts the book down, narrows its possibilities. I don’t offer that as a generalized theory or critique, and I certainly wasn’t working with that idea, but I’m interested in how it worked out in this particular book.

And I say all this while realizing that this novella is perhaps more satisfying and substantial than collage, that it gives readers something they crave, and that it almost certainly generates stronger feelings than my earlier bag of tricks. There’s also the very practical point that the early stunts provide the reader with the necessary background for the novella.

LK: I am framing the chapter I’m writing on contemporary muckraking fiction with a Jonathan Franzen interview, where he says the following:

JF: Well, I’m a fiction writer. I’m political only as a citizen, not as a novelist. I do what I can as a citizen, and also, in a small way, as a published writer helping to raise money. But once you start asking your question as a novelist, your art’s in danger of becoming illustrative or didactic—in some sense, an act of bad faith. The contract with the reader is that you’re both in the adventure together, that there’s no bait and switch going on, no instruction masquerading as entertainment.

“Not that there can’t be legitimate political and social by-products to good fiction. It’s hard not to read Lolita and have a little sympathy for child molesters. If you like that book, you might rethink the most draconian criminal punishments for child molesters. You might have a little more compassion in general. That’s the way fiction is supposed to work. It’s a liberal project. When Jane Smiley uses the phrase “the liberal novel,” she basically means “the novel, period.” The form is well suited to expanding sympathy, to seeing both sides. Good novels have a lot of the same attributes as good liberal politics. But I’m not sure it goes much further than liberalism. Once you go over into the radical, a line has been crossed, and the writer begins to serve a different master.”

How do you respond to Franzen’s description of the novel’s politics? U.S.! would seem to deny the claim that radical novels “cross a line” that shouldn’t be crossed. You seem to have rejected your postmodern early fiction in precisely the opposite way that Franzen does—by hoping to find a way to insert more politics into the tradition, not to remove politics from it.

CB: Franzen’s view is the orthodox view at this cultural moment, but we should remember that The Jungle was regarded as a literarily successful novel upon its publication—I wrote about its publishing history, and the shifting notions of the novel, in an essay for Mother Jones a few years ago. My point was that a good novel had somehow become bad. The words on the page are of course the same, but what has shifted is our notion of what a novel is and what it does. Now, Franzen’s position is regarded as non-controversial, hardly worth saying because it is assumed to be true.

The blind spot of classical liberalism is that it does not see itself as a position. It sees itself as a procedural mechanism, not a substantive agenda. It’s a marketplace, a clearinghouse, a space where competing ideas can gather, and the idea is that the best position, whatever that might mean, will win out. Liberalism wants to be a container for all positions, not a position itself. When it gets challenged from the right (fundamentalism) or the left (so-called radicalism), it is revealed as a position. It becomes visible. You might say it is actually a form of fundamentalism because its procedure cannot be challenged. When other systems cannot fit into its procedural space, it draws the line and says they are out of bounds.

(Franzen’s example of Lolita is strange and perhaps revealing. A book like Lolita could actually be used against Franzen’s argument. It seems to me that the power of the novel is not that you read it and say, “Oh, I see now that pedophiles are people too. I’m enlarged by this viewpoint.” That book might exist, but it’s not Lolita. The power of the novel is a kind of second-order shock that you’re being charmed by an unrepentant and shrewd sexual predator who happens to be a brilliant and charismatic prose stylist. So there’s a way in which the book is assuming and exploiting liberalism for its effect. It’s a case study in the limits of liberalism. It’s what happens when you extol the virtues of the procedural (let’s hear from all the voices) over the substantive (sexual predation of young girls). So the book makes you say, Wow, I am really charmed by this Humbert Humbert, and I’m beginning to root for him, and there is a whiplash effect when you must say, “WAIT, what is happening? I’m rooting for a pedophile!” That can’t be right, and it’s not right, so to the extent to which it’s happening has to do with the seductive powers of the novel, its ability to arouse sympathy. I would say it’s precisely wrong to finish Lolita and claim that it complicates our ideas of pedophilia, that it complicates our notion of the criminal and the crime. The novel, it seems to me, is working cleverly against the liberal paradigm. If you let go of the substantive notion that pedophilia is a vile act, and you blandly celebrate the liberal novel’s ability to welcome all viewpoints, you’ve missed the point exactly. So you could see the book as a critique of liberalism’s blind spots. Humber Humbert has a point of view. That point of view is terrifyingly wrong and bad. If we read the book to honor his point of view, we may be getting it wrong. The novel is interesting because it creates discomfort—we know Humbert’s point of view is vile and yet he is charismatic and his obsession is compelling. If you choose to celebrate the nuanced voice of a sexual predator in terms of empathy or openness or tolerance, then you’ve fallen into the book’s trap. The only way to step out of the trap is to step out of liberalism, which is extraordinarily difficult.)

I go into all of this only to draw an analogy between classical liberalism and contemporary views of the novel. There are interesting parallels. People talk about these things in the same way. The novel fits well into the liberal ideology—it’s a space where competing views can be dramatized. The author does not (should not—this is ethical) have an agenda. She does not advance a position. Pedophilia is not so much wrong as it is complicated! Let’s see this from all the angles. I’m interested in Chekhov with regard to our contemporary notions of art. He was among the first to say that the author should not have a point of view. He valued ambiguity, complexity, mystery. This is our notion of high literary art, while Sinclair’s notion has declined. It’s barely art.

But of course not having an agenda is an agenda. Not having a point of view is a point of view. This is the parallel to liberalism. I’m trying to write about this now in some essays. Chekhov, widely celebrated for not having a program, advances his non-program with the fervor of a crusader. He’s a strangely programmatic writer, that is. He devastates his characters, strips them of faith and resources, reduces them time and again to anguish and bewilderment.

Franzen et al obviously value empathy, sympathy, compassion. What else? Complexity, mystery, wonder, ambiguity and so on. These are programmatic, self-evident goods. They are not up for negotiation within the liberal marketplace. Liberalism has its values, and just assumes them, instead of arguing for them, instead of making them part of a substantive case of goods. And so what would a liberal novelist say about a novel that seems to be cruel, avaricious, selfish, and certain? That poses a challenge to core values, and so it’s not allowed. They say it’s not allowed on procedural grounds—that is, it doesn’t dramatize competing points of view in a complex way—but it’s just as true to say that it’s not allowed on substantive grounds (i.e. its values are bad, they don’t contribute to human flourishing).

This is a very, very tricky topic. (This is the liberal in me talking!) The truth is, Franzen et al are no doubt correct that advocacy can destroy art. When I feel that the author is trying to persuade me, when I feel that the drama is predetermined, that the characters exist only to advance some political point, I of course am turned off. When I read Franzen’s comments, I don’t recoil violently; I’m just made slightly uncomfortable. I love Chekhov. I liked The Corrections. I no doubt celebrate, in my writing and teaching, mystery, wonder, complexity, etc. But I do have a sense is that the novel can and should do more, that it can be more engaged.

For me it’s a question of foreground and background concerns. The novelist doesn’t have to throw up his hands and say, “Who’s to say whether global capitalism is bad?” The novelist doesn’t have to make every issue complicated. The novel has values, and it can have strong values. Its background can be composed of strongly held beliefs. U.S.!, I think, takes for granted some basic positions and values about economic fairness. But the novel was flat and dead until I found a way to complicate matters in the foreground. I just had this infirm martyr figure, limping around, acting righteously, and getting killed. He was merely a victim, and the book was going nowhere. Then I started reading more on Sinclair, and what happened is that my views on him as a person got way more complicated. I admired him and I found him terribly annoying. And that’s when the book took off, that’s when it had life. I was able to write from a position of ambivalence. I was able to write from a question (as Chekhov instructs). The question is, How in the world are you supposed to create political art? Maybe I succumbed to my own profound liberalism, but that was the way for me to get the book written. I wanted desperately to write a political novel, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. But the important thing is that the book is not ambivalent about inequality, not ambivalent about our economic system. Those are firmly held and substantive background values.

George Saunders is interesting in regard to this topic. This is from a recent interview:

Q: The story seems to come down quite strongly against the notion of suicide in terminal patients. Is that your own view?

A: Oh no, not at all. Or—I’m not really sure how I feel about that issue, honestly. I think the story comes down strongly against Eber’s suicide, on this particular day, by this particular method, if you see what I mean. I think fiction isn’t so good at being for or against things in general—the rhetorical argument a short story can make is only actualized by the accretion of particular details, and the specificity of these details renders whatever conclusions the story reaches invalid for wider application.

I think this is beautifully articulated. I find myself nodding when I read it. And yet in the background of Saunders’s fiction we see many clearly held values, if not positions. What he does is extends out to the edge of something where, perhaps, he’s unsure. And that’s where his fiction can operate. But if you look at the unquestioned, unmysterious base of the fiction, you see strong political sentiment.

I don’t know….I’ll be thinking about this my whole career. But at this point I’m not ready to say, “OK, there’s me as a writer, and then there’s me as a citizen, and these two have to be kept distinct.” It doesn’t make sense to me that a novelist would say that he can’t extend his deeply held personal values into his art. Certainly there must be ways of extending our rich tradition of so-called political fiction. Ways that take into account our contemporary notions of art. This is a thorny issue—but the answer, it seems to me, is not to give up on deeply engaged fiction, but to find ways to do it in a nuanced and sophisticated way.

LK: What challenges, if any, did you face in getting U.S.! published? The book is currently out of print. Are there any plans to reissue it?

CB: I had much more trouble publishing my new domestic novel than U.S.! I had a relationship with an editor at Bloomsbury, and she took it. We didn’t send it around, so I didn’t get a sense of its reception in NY publishing. There are no plans to reissue that I know of.

LK: What is the relationship between your most recent novel, Abbot Awaits, and U.S.!? It seems quite different—and leads me to wonder how you regard U.S.! today, five years after its publication?

CB: Abbott Awaits is a very quiet domestic novel about marriage and fatherhood. It grows directly out of a specific time in my life. It’s much different in many ways from my previous satires, but if you’re looking for continuity and similarity, you can certainly find them. In some ways all of my work has been about trying to find a place to stand, a way to be in the world. The new novel is not apolitical, but it’s certainly not overtly political. The book doesn’t signal a shift in my thinking, or some kind of retreat—it just comes out of my life. I got married and had two kids, and for a time there I simply couldn’t invent worlds, couldn’t work with a big canvas.

I’m proud of U.S.! and of Abbott Awaits. There are some gags in U.S.! that I might regret, but in general I have a great fondness for the book, its premise, its form, and especially its tone. I emptied my cup on that one. I wrote the political book I felt I needed to write, and I found a way to make my satire more emotionally rich. The cup has to fill back up, and it will. And hopefully I’ll discover (or steal) some new ways to do what I want to do.

LK: I disdain the recent tendency to see the contemporary literary world in terms of the Franzen-DFW friendship/psychodrama, but let me hypocritically do just that for a moment. It seems as if your writing is very much in Wallace’s corner, so to speak. Your Believer essay on Upton Sinclair seems to me to be similar to Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” in as much as your essay announces a kind of break in your writing. You seem to think that Bear vs. Shark fails, whether aesthetically or politically, it’s not clear to me, and that you wanted to move beyond irony and satire with your post-B vs. S work. Is that a fair characterization? And yet one of the ways you differ from Wallace is in imagining that the move away from irony must, to some degree, be a move toward politics or (here you quote E. L. Doctorow) a “poetics of engagement.” How do you feel about these arguments today? Are there other writers out there who are involved in imagining such a poetics?

CB: A move away from the prevailing and totalizing irony of the day is a move toward engagement. It’s a necessary first step. I don’t see a lot of writers working toward politically engaged fiction, but I see a lot of writers wrestling with issues of irony and authenticity. I just read and enjoyed Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving Atocha Station, which is a book about trying to be a real person, trying to find a place to stand. I think these are the books that younger writers have to write as we try to come to terms with a thoroughly ironic worldview that turned out to be an aesthetic cul de sac. So what I see are books that are turning around, trying to head back. And tone is the new plot. Tone is the engine and the challenge, the issue that writers must solve. What is my emotional stance toward other people and toward the world?

You characterized my previous position fairly. I felt stuck in the cul de sac. What’s changed for me perhaps is my notion of engagement. Lydia Davis has a chapbook called Cows. The whole thing is composed of observations and speculations about three cows that live across the street. This project is not overtly political, but it is deeply, deeply engaged. And to the extent that it is truly attentive—and that its attentiveness implicitly confers value on the object of observation—then maybe the work is political. That argument—that everything is political—used to drive me nuts because it ignores important distinctions and it halts discussion, but there is a way in which just closely paying attention (to anything) has become a kind of radical methodology.

Wallace was in some respects driven by tonal tensions. He was phobic about, on one hand, sentimentality and moralism, but on the other hand, glibness and detachment, and his extraordinary style is the product of those fears. Or to put it more positively, his style was his quest for engagement, wakefulness. I’m sure he would have shuddered at the term “political novel,” but it seems to me he was driven by the urge to engage meaningfully and authentically. Which is not to say directly, of course, as is clear from the shapes of his fiction and the shapes of his sentences. It wasn’t easy to avoid everything he wanted to avoid. As Donald Barthelme wrote, “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him.” In one respect, Wallace proved a great model for many of us as we tried to become more engaged and to break out of habits of irony, but on the other hand, because he is such an attractive stylist many of us ended up imitating him, which of course reflects an engagement with Wallace, not with the world.

LK: Occupy Wall Street has recently drawn critical attention to income inequality, student debt, and the pernicious effects of capitalism. I wonder if you see the need for an artistic dimension to these political and organizational efforts. One of the things that motivated me to write about your novel in the first place was the relative paucity of political novels in an era that seems aching for more political art and culture. We are living through what many commentators, economists, and political scientists describe as a New Gilded Age. Is there any hope for a New Progressive Era among artists, journalists, and creative professionals? How might a poetics of engagement work in the present? Are partisanship and artistic integrity irreconcilable?

CB: Like you, I would expect that we would see a resurgence of political art. A hundred years ago there were many novels that clearly grew out of authors’ basic sense of unfairness. (Many of these writers started out as journalists.) That voice in the back of my head says I must find ways to address inequality, greed, stupidity. Let’s face it, things are very, very bad, and it seems to me that art has to respond in some way. But Roosevelt read The Jungle and invited Sinclair to the White House. They corresponded by letter and telegram. That’s nearly impossible to imagine today. The novel is not culturally important, and almost nobody is naïve enough to think it can change the world. So if you’re terrified and angry and sad about the state of the world, it’s a strange thing to go sit in your room for a few years and write a novel about it. The Occupy era already has some great art. The posters, for example, are amazing. And there is music and good journalism and video. This will all continue, with or without the novel. Partisan art is not a contradiction in terms. I just think the artist must find a way to surprise herself, to wade off into uncertainty and ambivalence, where the art can be angular and alive.     

Autofiction and Autoreification

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(First published on Substack.)

These are my notes for the MLA roundtable I participated in this year, “Contemporary Autofiction,” organized by Ralph Clare and featuring great talks by Timothy Bewes, Annabel Kim, and E. L. McCallum.


In my remarks today, I want to propose that autofiction, or at least its contemporary variation, is not a genre. It is, instead, an aesthetic gesture or practice or mode (or whatever you want to call it) that takes place at the intersection of genre and marketing. 

Specifically, I will suggest that the distinctive feature of this aesthetic gesture is the internalization of marketing into literary form, and the identification of self-promotion with the author function. 

In making this claim, I’m not trying to condemn contemporary autofiction or dismiss those who write it as “selling out.” 

Rather, I want to argue that this mode or gesture or practice is a way of grappling formally with a larger ongoing historical condition or crisis.

I would further argue, as a corollary to my initial claim, that autofiction has been too easily collapsed into a couple other literary-historical tendencies: 

First, the larger history of modernist life writing 

And second, the history of metafiction. 

In the first case, we find claims that autofiction is little more than a continuation of what many modernist artists were doing all along. 

In the Program Era, for example, Mark McGurl suggests that one of the main jobs of the modernist artist was to reflexively produce a portrait of the modernist artist. 

And this tradition, he suggests, has continued in the second half of the twentieth century in a writing practice that he calls autopoesis and that he associates with University creative writing programs.

That’s the modernist artist version of autofiction. 

In the second case, there’s scholarship like Marjorie Worthington’s important book on American autofiction, which positions more recent writers into a genealogy that responds to and grows from the writing of John Barth, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and other postmodernists.

What these perspectives have in common in the claim that writers of autofiction are newly reflexive about their embeddedness in institutions.

whether that institution is language (and linguistically constituted reality) 

or the creative writing program (with its paradoxical systematized creativity).

So, you know, there’s a lot of truth in these perspectives, but I would still claim that contemporary autofiction is something rather different. It’s a literature that addresses the becoming institutional of the individual. 

It has more in common with Reality Television than metafiction. 

Contemporary autofiction is a literature that confronts the reality that under neoliberalism, the individual is increasingly charged with the job of managing his own portfolio of human capital. 

The individual becomes something like a firm, who must:

on the one hand, manage his own inner resources, his drives, his talents, and so on, and then, 

on the other hand, must, like any independent firm, hire and fire agents, editors, and publishers and must navigate personal and professional relationships that will, in time, get absorbed back into the maw of his writing.

And this explains why contemporary autofiction, from Dave Eggers to Ben Lerner to Sheila Heti to Rachel Cusk, is so obsessed with the process of publishing and the mechanics of the writer’s life. 

It’s not just that they’re writing what they know. It’s that managing their career is central to the content of their being as writers.


There are many relevant examples I could cite of this dynamic in action, but by way of evidence I’ll ask you to consider—with my apologies—these two magazine covers (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Great American Novelist vs. Great American Novelist

The first—the August 23, 2010 cover of Time magazine—depicts the author Jonathan Franzen. You may have heard of him. Many commentators made a point of noting that Franzen was the first writer to appear on the cover of Time in more than a decade.  

And in the accompanying feature article, penned by the novelist and critic Lev Grossman, Franzen is described as a member of a “perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist.” Look! the cover screams. We still have at least one great novelist in America: and here he goes.

The Stranger cover, also from 2010, features the prominent Alt-Lit novelist Tao Lin. 

The cover self-evidently mocks the pretentions of its Time counterpart.

And there is an obvious homology between Lin’s relationship to Franzen and The Stranger’srelationship to Time

Lin and The Stranger represent the parody-friendly, irony-loving alternative or indie versions of Franzen and Time respectively.

I think we need to understand the Stranger cover as more than a satire. 

We should read Lin’s self-description here—his claim to “show us the way we live now,” which is language that is directly drawn from the Time cover—as in a complicated sense sincere. 

And the contrast with Franzen, I think, showcases what is uniquely at stake in the aesthetics of contemporary autofiction.


The nature of this claim’s sincerity becomes evident when we examine the occasion for this release of this article: namely, the publication of Lin’s 2010 novel Richard Yates.

Lin’s slim novel—which has been largely forgotten and certainly hasn’t been written about by scholars—is an autofictional rendition of a troubled, abusive relationship Lin had with the poet E. R. Kennedy. 

In the novel, Lin and Kennedy are renamed Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning, but other than Lin’s odd choice of character names, the novel is starkly literal minded in its autobiographical depiction of the unfolding relationship between them. 

Lin documents the initial contact between Haley and Dakota over Gmail chat. 

He describes how the relationship between them slowly degenerates into emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, and, for Dakota, bulimia.

And as is the case with other recent autofictions—such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be—Lin incorporates real primary sources—in this case actual email exchanges between him and Kennedy—into the body of the novel. 

There’s much one could say about the book as well as the Alt-Lit scene of which it was a part. A decade on, in the wake of various #MeToo scandals associated with this community of young writers, the Alt-Lit scene has dissolved, but at the time, Alt-Lit—which was, almost definitionally, autofictional—seemed ascendent.  

But what I want to mention today is that Lin was able to write this novel partly because he sold six shares of the future proceeds of the novel—each costing $2,000—to investors. Richard Yates is therefore a novel that is also a financial instrument, a promise of future return on the book’s royalties for Lin’s backers.

Lin claimed he was able to raise $12,000, and his stunt received press coverage from major news sources, including the New York Times

We might read this self-capitalization as a gimmick on Lin’s part, another sign of his fundamental unseriousness. But—though I don’t have time to do a full reading of the book—I would suggest that Lin’s efforts at self-promotion are internal to his art. 

There would, in short, not be much left of his art without this persistent foregrounding of his struggle to capitalize on his own name.

Much the same could be said for contemporary autofiction as such; this struggle is what distinguishes the contemporary mode of autofiction from prior modes sometimes conflated with it.

So, love him or hate him, I think it’s fair to say that Tao Lin internalized, and was arguably unusually successful at internalizing, if only for a moment, the functions of writer, publisher, and marketer within his own corporate person. 

This process of internalization was the condition of possibility for his becoming a writer in the first place. And it is such a condition of possibility that, through his intense reflexivity, necessarily becomes the content of his art. 

And so, his career and art teaches us something important—perhaps something we would rather prefer not to learn—about “the way we live now” or, more accurately, the way contemporary autofiction emerges from the unique collision of art and commerce under neoliberalism.

“Dune,” Reaction

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(Originally published on Substack.)

Last year, I joined a group-read of scholars who were reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune, and discussing it on Twitter, in anticipation of the new Denis Villeneuve movie.

The movie got delayed till 2021, but the discussion we had, under the hashtag #DuneBookClub, was a lot of fun, and it culminated in a Zoom conversation hosted by ASAP/J. I’ve decided to post my notes for that meeting here.

You can watch the video version of my remarks (and the whole conversation, which is great) below.

This is my second time reading Dune. I think I read it for the first time when I was in high school, though I don’t remember exactly when.

What struck me this time about the book was its contradictory political vision, and how that contradiction shapes the way Herbert tells his story.

Dune marries a critique of Image culture—and what Daniel J. Boorstin called the pseudo-Event—with a self-conscious exploration of the use of myth in science fiction. Herbert is, in this way, a proto-structuralist. We see in Herbert’s writings about religion ideas that historically rhyme with the Myth and Symbol School of American Studies—and the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The culturalist revision of Carl Jung on offer here has a notably cynical side. The claim that we need our myths to maintain social order would seem to be a criticism of the mechanisms by which social order is maintained, but in the hands of neoreactionaries, who basically hold a Straussian view of cultural life, there is a need to maintain social order, and religion’s role is to prop up that social order. These neoreactionaries invert the structuralist view: fictions are required to prop up the social order, but that’s a good thing, a reason for maintaining and expanding the reach of those fictions. In Dune, archetypes aren’t actually expressions of a collective unconscious but the necessary means of controlling superstitious indigenous populations (e.g., the Freman, who have been seeded with “implant-legends” by the Bene Gesserit).

I think Herbert thinks he is offering a critique of power, and I don’t think he thinks of himself as on the right. Still, the phrase that emerges from the Butlerian Jihad, “Man may not be replaced” very much resonates with the white nationalist slogan “You will not replace us.” The politics of this book are, in short, weird: Herbert is critiquing the neo-feudal world these characters live in, but the hero’s journey form of the book affirms the values of this world. You can enjoy the book as a (Jungian) power fantasy, with Paul as our typical Golden Age boy messiah, but the book also inserts various critical comments on the boy Messiah narrative.

Whatever Herbert thinks he’s doing, there is no avoiding the book’s Orientalism. What makes the “Jihad” inevitable is Fremen religious fanaticism. And what makes Paul’s story supposedly tragic is that, for all his prescience, he is a tool of that larger fanatical force. He can, at best, guide or mitigate it. Paul goes out of his way to tell himself, or others, that after a certain point the “Jihad” will move with a life of its own, because of some inherent or BG-conditioned Fremen propensity to fanatical religious violence.

Such moments have a double character. On the one hand, they speak to his prescience and real BG-honed powers. On the other hand he is skillfully reading from a script that has been laid out for him in advance. The real drama of the novel is therefore not found in sandworms and hand-to-hand combat but Paul’s ability to walk a certain prescripted path and successfully stage a set of pseudo-events on cue for the indigenous population. Paul and Jessica manipulate the Fremen only because the BG have pre-seeded their religious beliefs. So Paul and Jessica’s outsiderness is predicated on a prior Bene Gesserit getting-inside Fremen religious ideology. But then they become trapped by the non-cynicism of the Fremen. These indigenous people take this myth-and-legend stuff seriously.

From this vantage point, Dune might be a good book with which to think about the implicit logic of populism, the notion of out-of-control coalitions, the theory of media effects undergirding critiques of the Image. It seems as if popular passions must be cooled, and that Paul’s job is to act as such a cooling saucer. But he’s not very good at his job.

Dune thus represents a work of science fiction where the critique of the Image comes face to face with a new awareness of genre as a powerful social and political technology. Irulan suggests that the Great Man should have a “sardonic” relation to the myth he finds himself in. Which contrasts with a later description of Paul as “sincere.” It is no surprise then that there are moments in Dune when Paul gets “caught up in his own myth.” Paul’s prescience is one of the most obscure (yet important) parts of the book. It seems at the same time to make him nearly omnipotent and utterly helpless. It leads, in the later books, to bizarre contradictions in the narrative, especially in Dune Messiah, where he compares himself to Genghis Kahn and Hitler, and is fully aware of his own monstrousness.

Herbert comes close to recognizing the reactionary element of certain strands of Golden Age science fictional myth-making, stories of whiny boy Messiahs who rise from obscurity to save the world. The danger is that Dune—like Paul—might become “caught up in [its] own myth.” It must find a way to retain a “sardonic” relation to itself. Yet its paradoxical success is a sign of its own failure.

Dune‘s fans, not infrequently, have taken seriously its boy-Messiah narrative. Even as Herbert tries to untangle the legend of Paul Atreides, even as Paul himself in sequels tries to destroy what he has built, the genocidal ambition of Herbert’s story expands outward. This is what most fascinates me most about the book: the way it loses control of its own materials, and must try, again and again, to contain the reactionary narrative energies it has unleashed. I suspect, based on the trailer, that the Villeneuve film will not handle these aspects of the novel well—but we’ll see.


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(This was originally posted on Substack.)

On November 16th, I had the good fortune to be a respondent at a Columbia University Seminar in Literary Theory meeting on Sianne Ngai’s new book Theory of the Gimmick. (Sianne was the main speaker.) Below you’ll find the script I used as the basis of my opening remarks. These thoughts are fairly preliminary, and focused on the introduction of Theory of the Gimmick. I make them public in case anyone finds value in them. Some of this language is going to be incorporated into the introduction of an ALH special issue I’m co-editing with Dan Sinykin, so please forgive the repetition.

I am pleased to be responding to Sianne’s Theory of the Gimmick today. I worked with Sianne almost 15 years ago when I was a graduate student at Stanford, and I have been following with great interest the development of her career.

Sianne has what, to my mind, is an unusually coherent intellectual trajectory. I think of Theory of the Gimmick as something like the culmination of her thinking, the third book in a trilogy that begins with Ugly Feelings and continues with Our Aesthetic Categories. The project, as I understand it, is committed to remapping aesthetic theory in light of, on the one hand, the resources of ordinary language philosophy, and on the other, Marxist feminism.

We see both influences in the introduction to Theory of the Gimmick. This theory of the gimmick brings Cavell and Marx into productive dialogue. For Sianne, aesthetic judgment is ordinary, in the sense used in ordinary language philosophy, and it’s everywhere, from reality television to the avant-garde. And in its ordinariness we are given a way into some of the most vexing and complex problems of social coordination.

I find this populist or demotic approach to thinking about aesthetic judgment much more appealing than the alternate, let us say more backward-looking, approach to aesthetics that is resurgent today. By contrast with these other recent thinkers, what Sianne shows us the scene of aesthetic judgment. This scene is what I think unites here work on affect in Ugly Feelings and her work on aesthetic categories in later work.

Aesthetic judgment is a speech act, whether or not specific acts of justification and aesthetic analysis are verbalized. The speech act is immanent to the very possibility of aesthetic judgment, which is not to say that acts of judgment aren’t also verbalized, but their structure, when they are verbalized, makes explicit what is already latent within them.

Sianne follows Cavell in specifically seeing aesthetic judgment as an example of what Cavell calls passionate utterances. Passionate utterances are a category of speech act Cavell puts forward as an addendum or reworking of J. L. Austin’s speech-act theory. Specifically, Cavell thinks that Austin doesn’t give sufficient attention to the passions, and that his category of perlocutionary utterances—utterances that are meant to have an effect on a listener—invites the same kind of enumeration of verbs and systematic analysis as the more prestigious category of illocutionary utterances.

There are technical things to say about this, but the point as I understand it is that acts of aesthetic judgment are versions of passionate utterance for Sianne, and they raise all the thorny questions such perlocutionary speech acts always raise. Aesthetic judgments open up a scene of conversation and debate. And it is this scene that, I think, has been the object of Sianne’s inquiry.

Then there is the feminist-Marxist side of Sianne’s work. This is, for me, the most fascinating dimension, and it raises again what to my mind is the most pressing question for Marxist literary criticism, one broached in the famous introduction to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, but still to my mind unsettled. This is the problem of mediation.

By way of outlining this question, let me draw attention to verbs and adjectives of mediation in this introduction. So we read, for example, that the gimmick “indexes” unease about capitalism. The crises of capitalism are “coiled in” the gimmick. The gimmick is our “distinctively aesthetic way of processing” the truth of capitalist accumulation. At other times, we learn that the gimmick is a “survival strategy” within a capitalist labor market. The gimmick and capitalist form are “isomorphic.” These are all ways of mapping a relation between what an earlier era would still call base and superstructure, but the senses of these verbs and adjectives are not exactly identical. The gimmick seems to skirt the line between symptom and agent within advanced capitalism. In that sense, there is a gimmick-like ambiguity in this introduction’s way of describing the power of the gimmick. Is it productive? Is it useful? Or is it unusually passive and reactive?

Studying the gimmick is really the perfect way of asking the question of how capitalism get into, is part of, thwarts or colonizes, the aesthetic category? A less productive approach to the gimmick might follow Michael Clune, who argues that capitalism prevents aesthetic judgment from happening. Instead of aesthetic judgment, you get market determination. Will this sell, or won’t this sell? A better approach to the gimmick, which I take Sianne’s work to exemplify, is to say that capitalism produces a set of unique aesthetic effects.

So when we start thinking that a work of art behaves in a way that resembles an exploitative product, we call it a gimmick. We are accusing this gimmicky object of not being aesthetic at all, but as Sianne shows again and again the gimmick is itself a kind of aesthetic. Various levels of judgment emerge. We think there is another person who is being duped by the gimmick. They fail to recognize that the gimmick is gimmicky. For the dupe of the gimmick, the gimmick is just a successful aesthetic effect. There is the astute judge who understands that the gimmick is merely or only a gimmick and who think he isn’t suckered by the gimmick. But the paradox is that we recognize the gimmick aesthetically but as a failure to be aesthetic.

If I, in my own work, part ways with Sianne’s approach, it might be with its emphasis on this scene of everydayness, and her emphasis on the hidden springs and motors of social life. Marxism, after all, tells us that social life is coordinated “behind our backs.” That is, there is coordination through processes of abstraction that no agent or person in the system opts into or elects.

I guess what I am interested in, in contrast, are the explicit institutions that, often in explicit and mappable ways, coordinate social life. So my recent work, for example, is very concerned with the publishing industry. I am working with Dan Sinykin on a special issue of ALH on this institution. There is, for me, an unsettled question of what mode of sociality or relation defines the interplay of aesthetic judgment. 

If I cannot make an aesthetic judgment without becoming involved in a scene, we might—as good materialists—wonder whether and to what degree the reaction of the person in the relation might emerge differently in the face of different power relations. So the literary agent’s passionate avowal of the brilliance of a book might find its counterpart in the editor willing to buy that book at auction, and the editor must find a counterpart in her publisher or in the book buyer. What those who focus on institutions might study is how the dynamics of the sociality produce successful and unsuccessful acts of (always already) performative judgment.

The 7 Neoliberal Arts

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1920px Hortus Deliciarum Die Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten

Over at Post45: Contemporaries, I’ve organized a cluster of essays called “The 7 Neoliberal Arts.” It started life as a riff on Gilbert Seldes’s classic book The 7 Lively Arts (1924), but grew into a serious investigation of the way that new and formerly marginalized cultural practices have been elevated to—or sought the status of—“art.”

I wrote the intro and have a piece on Rob Liefeld (which will, I hope, become part of a longer chapter on Image Comics in my book-in-progress on comics [more on that in future posts]).

There is a great essay on Hill Street Blues and the concept of Quality Television by Madeline Ullrich. Sheri-Marie Harrison wrote movingly about the rise of the audiobook and listening to Toni Morrison’s oeuvre in her own voice. Robin James wrote about two fascinating tendencies in recent Electronic Dance Music that critics have called Business Techno and conceptronica.

There is an essay by Patrick Jagoda on neoliberalism and video games, with a super-interesting discussion of Death Stranding, an art-game I haven’t played but which has received a lot of buzz and media attention. Michelle Chihara has an epic essay on the podcast company Gimlet Media, and its self-referential form of (what she calls) neoliberal gaslighting.

And Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado has a mouth-watering essay on the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera that’ll make you want to buy a ticket to Mexico City. 

Anyway, this cluster turned into much more than I initially hoped for. I really love it and am very proud of how it came together. It’s evidence that if you pair the right writer with the right object, the product is amazing writing.

Check it out.       

New Writing, 2017-2018 Edition

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It’s been a minute. 

I’ve published loads of writing since I last posted. Most of this writing is available for free online, or can be found on my Academia.edu account. If you want a copy, don’t hesitate to email me.


Last year, I had a short story called “The Girl Who Almost Became a Zombie” included in an online anthology of science fiction published by the XPRIZE foundation. The premise of the anthology is that a plane flying from Tokyo to San Francisco goes through a time distortion sending it twenty years into the future. Our job was to imagine what that future might look like. We were asked to imagine positive or optimistic near futures, a task I find a little difficult. For some reason, I was inspired by this awesome whiteboard of awful jokes (put together by the writers on Workaholics) to imagine a future in which we all become mindless meme-spouting robots.

Another short story, “Burned-Over Territory,” was published as part of the Future Tense Fiction series at Slate, with a thoughtful response essay by Sebastian Johnson. I originally wrote a version of the story for the Into the Black short story contest, which asked for science fiction imagining futures in which some version of a Universal Basic Income was enacted. The story I ended up writing was not in any straightforward way “in favor” of UBI, and might be read as highly critical of the whole notion. A few radical revisions later, I was fortunate to be able to place the story with Future Tense.

Public Writing and Reviews

Over the last two years, I’ve been working more on fiction and academic writing, so my public writing has slowed, but I’m still putting out occasional pieces.

Early in 2017, I had a review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo published in Public Books. “The Yurt of Fiction” explores Saunders’s portrait of Lincoln, and argues that the novel confronts—perhaps unwillingly—the limits of an empathy-based model of liberal politics.

I also wrote a book review of Helen DeWitt’s new short story collection Some Trick for Public Books. Titled “Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth,” the review is framed around the only slightly disingenuous question of whether or not Helen DeWitt is a “genius,” and the stakes of asking that question about her in the first place. Whether or not she’s a genius, the story collection is awesome. You should read it.

Against my better judgment, I decided to offer an opinion on the shit storm around the Avital Ronell-Nimrod Reitman scandal. My editorial, “Avital Ronell and the End of the Academic Star,” was published at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it argues that the scandal is symptomatic of the end of the academic star system (at least as it established itself in the 1970s). It goes without saying I don’t offer enough evidence to back up my claim, but I’m still convinced academic stardom doesn’t mean much if you can’t assure your graduate students they’ll get a job.

I wrote a review of David Alworth’s Site Reading for the ALH Online Review (Series XIV). Overall, I liked the book, but also felt it ought to be read against its own stated intentions of offering a Latour-inspired model of reading postwar literature. What’s best about Alworth’s book is what he most hopes to escape: his historicism. His New Materialist claims about the agency of objects, meanwhile, I found unpersuasive.

I have a review of three books in American Literature. The books are American PulpIllegal Literature, and The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction. They’re quite different from each other, but I argue that each tries to reimagine the modernism/mass culture relationship for an era that has lost faith in postmodernism. Some version of this argument will find its way into The Cartoon Art.

Academic Writing

I do (ha ha) occasionally publish academic writing, too.

An essay called “Four Faces of Postirony” came out in the anthology Metamodernism: History, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism (edited by Robin van den Akker, Alison Gibbons, and Timotheus Vermeulen). The essay is a postscript to Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, offering a different approach to question of how contemporary artists have sought to move beyond postmodernism. I offer a typology of four kinds of postirony: motivated postmodernism, credulous metafiction, the postironic Bildungsroman, and relational art. I wrote the first draft of this in 2011. I can never quite get over how slow academic publishing can sometimes be.

A related piece, called “Neorealist Fiction,” came out in the collection, American Literature in Transition, 2000-2010, edited by Rachel Greenwald Smith. This essay thinks about the status of realism in the twenty-first century. I argue that there are two big strands of “neorealism” after postmodernism, one which thinks of realism as a genre and the other which thinks of it as an epistemic project. The first, “storytelling neorealism,” I associate with Jonathan Franzen. The second, “affective neorealism,” I associate with Sheila Heti (and autofiction more generally).

In a special issue of American Book Review, edited by Matt Mullins, I have a short position paper on postcritique and Colson Whitehead. It’s called “Critique has its Uses,” and claims Colson Whitehead’s early fiction was in sympathy with the project of postcritique, but that his more recent fiction, especially The Underground Railroad, has sought to move beyond the limitations of postcritique as a theoretical and aesthetic project. Implicit in what I write is the notion that creative writers are vastly outpacing critics in exploring what it means to leave postmodernism behind. (I make a similar point in a previous piece in LARB).

In July, I delivered a talk in honor of my undergraduate advisor Daniel Schwarz at Cornell, who’s been teaching there for fifty years. The event was lovely, and the talk I delivered was in part drawn from my ongoing project on comics and the graphic novel. It’s called “Modernist Funnies, or, Comics in the Age of Mass High Culture,” and you can view it below.

My essay, “Wallace’s ‘Bad’ Influence,” was published in The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace (edited by Ralph Clare). The essay is a review of the different ways writers and artists have responded to David Foster Wallace’s polarizing legacy. After offering a survey of different approaches, I try to deflate the whole debate, asking instead what it might mean to take Wallace seriously as an exceptional artist but also not to fall into the traps he lays for us in his fiction and essays.

Finally, I have an essay in the massive Cambridge History of Science Fiction that Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link edited. The essay is called “Better Living Through Chemistry: Science Fiction and Consumerism in the Early Cold War,” and it’s a survey of anti-consumerist science fiction during the early cold war, ranging from The Space Merchants to The Jetsons. I discuss the relationship between anti-consumerist science fiction and the Keynesian struggle to manage aggregate demand. This one was a lot of fun to write, and—along with my review of Site Reading—left me wanting to write a book on the art and literature of High Keynesianism. Someday.

The (Dusty) Paradigm of Postmodernism

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It has been a nontrivial amount of time since I blogged in any way about anything, let alone about my ongoing project on comics and the graphic novel. I won’t write extensively here, but I have made a few breakthroughs—after a frankly rough 2016—and thought I’d jot some notes down. I did publish “Comics Studies Comes of Age” (not my preferred title, tbh), a short piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which does some ground clearing for what I want to do.

I have a new title for my project. I’m now thinking of calling it “The Cartoon Art: Comics in the Age of Mass High Culture.” I hope this new title registers as something of a contradiction, in the way that the term “Culture Industry” was meant to for Adorno and Horkheimer. “Cartoon” is meant to be in tension, if not contradiction, with “art,” and mapping that contemporary contradiction is increasingly what the book seems to be about.

The term “Mass High Culture” is another clue about where I’m heading. At first, I used the term ironically, almost as a joke, but I’ve decided to keep it and make an argument about the remarkable way in which loads of formerly low cultural practices — comics, science fiction, video games — are now feted as art. My hope is that the story of comics can be a vital case study that lets us revisit — and reconfigure — (a somewhat dusty) mass culture debate after the end of postmodernism.

You may like or hate the works celebrated in this way — loads of people, for example, hate highbrow science fiction, or any discourse that tries to elevate SF — but the very fact that we’re elevating so many practices, not to mention debating the meaning of these elevations, seems distinctly important in the history of culture. We’ve witnessed, I think, the failure of many of the foundational cultural theses we’ve inherited from the (now itself dusty) paradigm of postmodernism.

I’ve said more than I intended to, so I’ll stop here, and promise more to come.