The newsletter thing

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

Email newsletters like this one are disrupting the magazine business. Well, not like this one, exactly: this one is tiny and free, and so far I still get paid only by traditional media, when I get paid at all. But there are a number of writers, more famous and more prolific than me, who are winning large advances by starting newsletters—and in the process leaving the venerable newspapers, magazines, and websites that fostered them. In some cases, serious money is involved. Houses have been bought, or so I’ve heard. The traditional media are lumbering up a counterattack. Email newsletters written by New York Times staffers used to be free, but a couple of weeks ago, the Times started sending some of the newsletters out with a new preface, announcing that they will soon “be available exclusively to Times subscribers.” There is likely to be much more of this sort of belated attempt to ride the horse that has already bolted out of the not-yet-closed barn door.

I have two questions: What’s going on? And: how did I miss out on profiting from yet another shift in the tectonic plates that lie beneath writing for a living?

I’ll start with question number two, since it may offer clues to answering question number one. I don’t know of any novelists for whom newsletters have lain golden eggs, nor of any book reviewers. Among the writers whose careers I follow, success seems mostly to be visiting pundits and journalists. (Other categories of success, outside the blinkers of my own reading sphere: comedians, and writers who focus on particular lifestyles, identities, and professional communities.) In other words, the new medium seems to be a good substrate for writing that is timely and can be produced in abundance. I find that I personally continue to read a newsletter when it helps me understand what’s going on in my world that day. What I think of as literature tends to be slower and oblique. (Although I see, now that I fact-check myself with a Google search, that Substack, the behemoth of the email newsletter companies and the host of the newsletter you happen to be reading, is now edging into book publishing, too, in serialized form, à la Dickens.) I could see a Calvin Trillin–type poet thriving with a headline-inspired poem once a week, but I can’t imagine a poet who aims for sublimity making the transition. As for reviewing, I have friends who can and do write a review a week, but I don’t know many such athletes, and I don’t know any doing it on Substack yet. (The Substack newsletter Book Post has an editor and a large cast of contributors, like a traditional magazine.)

So maybe the newsletter craze is like Craigslist taking classified ads away from newspapers—another instance of the internet unbundling a traditional publishing form, and picking off a lucrative, low-cost component. One day in therapy, a dozen or so years ago, when I complained that I was spending too long every morning reading the New York Times, my therapist suggested triage: “Why not just read the front page and the op-ed page?” I was unable to take this advice, of course, for any number of reasons, but at the time, I told myself that I was refusing because the op-ed page was the one part of the paper that by intention I didn’t read. It was just opinion, which I could generate myself. What I needed from a newspaper, and couldn’t get elsewhere, was facts. Still, my therapist was on to something. Many readers prefer op-eds, perhaps because they all but invite you to talk back. One way of describing the Substack revolution is that Substack has Craigslisted the op-ed page.

Why didn’t anybody do it sooner? Why didn’t blogs do it, two decades ago? Well, to a great extent, they did. Blogs almost took over the world. Devoted readers followed so many that aggregators like Google Reader were invented, to help people keep up with them. But blogs were never monetized—exceptions like Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish proving the rule—and so being a blogger never became more than either a stepping-stone to a “real” career or a distraction to writers who ostensibly did have careers and were already spending too much time reading the newspaper. Then blogs, like every other kind of website, got disrupted by social media, and eventually fell into such disuse that Google, seeing no revenue stream, shut Google Reader down. Is Substack’s innovation just a delivery system so retro that it’s avant-garde—so dumb that it’s clever? Email is an app that almost everyone has. Almost everyone, for professional reasons, has to look at it every day. It’s a consistent, universal, direct channel. Could it really be that Substack has just reinvented a piecemeal, emailable version of Google Reader? (Once upon a time, before the worldwide web, we used to subscribe to Usenet discussion groups by email, and whenever a Substack newsletter shows up in my inbox, I remember that. And I remember how they used to clog up my inbox, unless I figured out a way to sort them. No one else remembers, of course. I am older than you. My first computer was the TRS-80 Model II in my dad’s lab.) There’s even a Substack Reader site that will aggregate all of your Substack subscriptions. It looks exactly like . . . Google Reader.

Why is the gum I like coming back in style? Maybe the innovation here is just that Substack has made it easer for writers to charge their readers. Easier and much less embarrassing. There was always something awkward about a tip jar on a blog. Substack has renovated the social norm around paying writers. The new understanding is that it’s the reader who ought to feel embarrassed if he isn’t paying.

I fully endorse this, but when it’s suggested that readers have always wanted to be able to support their favorite writers and now, thanks to Substack, they can, I think I can sniff the bubblegum vape of ideology. Still, could it be? I like the idea in more than just principle, because it suggests that traditional media institutions have been keeping for themselves far too much of the money they should have been passing along to us writers. This is probably the case, largely because of the difficulty of unionizing a necessarily freelance workforce. More on this another time, perhaps.

“A community is implied by the magazine, newspaper, or website that publishes a critic,” I wrote in a 2012 essay. In the ink-on-paper days, you pretty much had to subscribe to a magazine to read the articles in it with any regularity. You had to belong, in other words, and you paid for the privilege. The exits were clearly marked—a reader could stop subscribing, and a writer could stop asking for and/or stop getting assignments—and it was an editor’s job to notice when readers left, and in the case of some writers, to make them leave. When magazines started to post their articles online for free, undermining their revenue base was only part of the damage they did. They also demolished the gentle boundaries around their communities. That had an intellectual cost as well as a social one. If you’re a reader of Dissent, maybe it’s productive to have regular arguments with readers of The Nation. But is it productive to have frequent arguments with readers of Breitbart? The premises of the two sets of readers are so far apart that neither you nor they are likely to be arguing in what the other side would consider good faith. Unfortunately, the internet’s tendency to disaggregate and pool makes it hard for writers to have the kind of partly private conversation that used to be easily available throughout the intellectual landscape—to allow for what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “audience segregation,” and to set up what he called “backstage areas,” open for discussion but not to everyone, places to regroup, places to be less than fully armored. “There are no backstage areas online,” as I wrote in a 2008 essay. “One skips through no-man’s-land in one’s pyjamas.” Maybe Substack’s real innovation, then, is to have resurrected semiprivacy. You can peer into the conversation happening inside a Substack, the way you used to be able to pick up a magazine at a newsstand or in a library. But you don’t see every issue unless you subscribe, and on most Substacks, only paying subscribers have the privilege of commenting. In other words, maybe what Substack readers are paying for is not direct connection to a particular writer but the perquisites of belonging to a group smaller than the internet as a whole. Maybe it’s not belonging that they’re paying for so much as exclusion.

What could go wrong? A few possibilities . . .

Maybe it’s all a mirage. Maybe, once Substack has burned through its venture capital, it will evanesce. This seems unlikely. As Ben Smith reported back in April, “many of the writers who took advances [from Substack] now regret doing so: They would have made more money by simply collecting subscription revenue.” The money really seems to be there.

Maybe, absent the guidance of editors and the support of fact-checkers, too many solo writers will crash. Under the old regime, when writers crashed, the debris and the victims were buried quietly. Readers never even heard about articles that editors killed. In the near future, in contrast, no one will be able to stop a writer with a bad idea. Subscribers to Substack are likely to read at least a few stories that should never have seen the light of day. If there are enough of them, they could end up resurrecting readers’ estimation of editors.

What if Substack subscribers wake up to a hangover? Five dollars a month, the usual price of a Substack, is not nothing, as a friend used to say of the price of shirts at J. Crew. At the moment, not including Substacks, my husband and I subscribe to seventeen periodicals. Most are printed, but a few are digital. With all of them, we’re getting far more prose per dollar than I get from any Substack. But since seventeen periodicals is way more than we can read, quantity probably isn’t decisive. In most of the traditional periodicals we subscribe to, the writing is also of a higher caliber. Also, traditional magazines tap many more writers, of a greater diversity of background and outlook, which is only natural; there’s likely to be value in delegating the search for good writers to someone who searches for them for a living. But I admit that right now I probably read a higher proportion of the Substacks I subscribe to than of the traditional magazines, which means that quality isn’t necessarily decisive for me, either. The ideal me would probably hit the unsubscribe button a little more often.

Maybe existing magazines and websites will find a way to restore boundaries and a sense of belonging, recpaturing readers (and maybe even some of their prodigal writers) in the process? They’re certainly going to try. My best guess is that their mistake to date has been in presenting their paywalls as a necessary evil. What the Substack phenomenon shows, I think, is that that’s all wrong. A boundary, rightly deployed, is part of an institution’s appeal, like the velvet rope outside a New York City nightclub in the 1970s. Draw the circle right, and people will want to be inside.

On Being Insulted by Literature

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

Should you keep reading a book if it insults the kind of person you are? In the old days the answer was: if it’s good, yes, you’re supposed to. Good as in of high literary quality. Nowadays, though, you’re free not to. You’ll still be considered a serious reader even if you put it down. It’s up to you.

A couple of months ago, I started to read Frederick Seidel’s Selected Poems, having liked poems of his that I had run into in magazines over the years, and having long heard him highly praised by friends. I thought I should see what the fuss was about. The persona of every Seidel poem was born into money, is passionate about riding Italian motorcycles, and is a libertine. Knowing this much about him had long put me off. I suspected he was going to be like James Merrill but straight and dickish—a suspicion that wasn’t entirely wrong. He writes lines like “I live a life of laziness and luxury,” and “I want to date-rape life.” A kind of provocativeness that trusts the reader to be in on the joke is part of his act. He’s sort of goofy, though, too, and his style is part Edward Lear (surrealist and singsongy), part Robert Lowell (crystallized and confessional), two poets I’m very fond of. Yes, Seidel brags about his Ducatis, his Huntsman suits, and his women, but he doesn’t come off as trying to make the reader envious. (Or maybe he is trying to make the reader envious and it doesn’t work on me because I don’t happen to covet any of those things? I’m going to try to stay open here to the possibility that my aesthetic reaction is a merely personal one, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.) He seems, rather, to be trying to synthesize and then bottle a sort of perfume, an attar of his pleasures, which is the kind of condensation of lived experience into language that I think of lyric poems as being for. Also, there’s something a little manic and fatal about his effort. There’s an undertone of desperation, a suggestion that his go-for-brokeness is somehow on account of having no choice, of having access to no other, more ordinary means of consolation. (And his poem, “The Blue-Eyed Doe,” about his mother’s lobotomy, is probably where one might start looking for the source of that desperation.)

In short, it turns out I quite like Seidel’s poems. But only a few pages into his Selected, reading a long poem titled “Sunrise,” I was stopped cold by these lines:

A gay couple drags a shivering fist-sized
Dog down Broadway, their parachute brake. “Why
Robert Frost?” the wife one pleads, nearly
In tears; the other sniffs, “Because he
Believed in Nature and I believe in Nature.”

The wife one. Okay. Well, what do I do with that?

It’s worth noting, before going any further, that a Black reader of Seidel will meet a similar challenge. Seidel is famous for having written bluntly, in poems such as “Bologna” and “Boys,” of the way his childhood self perceived the Black men who worked for his family. Indeed, in “Boys,” Seidel doubles down on the problem, and his narrator recalls one of those Black men as “probably a homo,” apostrophizing him thus: “Ronny Banks, faggot prince, where are you now?” There’s arguably a defense in the retrospective aspect of the poems about Black men: the poems are trying to recapture a perception that the poet had as a child, not a perception he necessarily still has today. Because the gay couple and their toy dog are perceived in the present tense, however, no such out is available.

Reader, I had feelings! My first, once I understood what Seidel meant by “the wife one,” was not very sophisticated: What a dick. On second thought, though, I remembered nights I had spent in gay bars in Manhattan, in my twenties, watching endlessly repeated video clips of two straight Black comedians, Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier, doing impressions of sissy film critics. I had had mixed feelings about the skits even at the time, but they were sometimes very funny, and they seemed to be taken to heart by almost everyone around me in the bars, perhaps because we gays back then felt a kind of hunger for representation in the mainstream, even for mocking representation. Maybe, in fact, a mocking representation was something we were especially hungry for, because mockery shone its spotlight on the elements of gay identity that were most stigmatized, elements that then seemed beyond the pale of a tolerant liberal understanding.

Seidel’s poem was written at least a decade before the “Men on Film” skits. Maybe he wrote the line having in mind a gay reader of an earlier era who would appreciate being sent up, in the way I remember appreciating “Men on Film”? That’s very possible. In his poem “Fucking,” Seidel recalls drinking at “Francis Bacon’s queer after-hours club” and being saluted by one of the regulars, who shouted, “‘Champagne for the Norm’! / Meaning normal, heterosexual.” That suggests a sort of interpellation across the border of stigma: You’re not one of us, but we recognize that you came to our turf. Hi, Norm! I’m convinced, perhaps irrationally, that there really was a gay couple who had an argument as they walked down Broadway with a small dog, and that Seidel noticed them, overheard them, and remembered them. I believe Seidel was paying attention, in other words, and attention is a gift. Mostly.

But but but. The phrase “the wife one” sounds to me like a straight man’s psychic shorthand, not like an attempt to borrow the voices that gay men use to talk about themselves, not even like an attempt to borrow in the parodic way of Wayans and Grier. I just don’t think a gay man would say “the wife one” except in jesting reference to the way the straight world sometimes perceives us. Not because it’s not respectful (gay men of my generation, left to our own devices, do not tend to treat ourselves qua gay with all that much respect), but because it’s not, by and large, the way gay couples work, in my experience. Sometimes it is the case that one partner in a couple is more effeminate than the other, but it seems to happen just as often, and probably more often, that both or neither are effeminate. The interaction and allocation of sex roles, gender roles, economic roles, and other social roles inside a gay relationship is just not as straightforward as a phrase like “the wife one” suggests (any more than the phrase accurately captures such matters inside a straight relationship, I suspect). A phrase like that simply isn’t useful. To cite just one complication: in his book Out of the Shadows, the psychotherapist Walt Odets notes that sometimes, for the sake of keeping a relationship in equilibrium, “a partner who holds the balance of power outside sex may be more sexually passive and receptive.”

So I don’t think this is a case of a straight writer borrowing a gay self-deprecation. I think what we have here is the appearance in a poem of a straight’s deprecation of gays. Which doesn’t mean there’s no ironic distance between Seidel the poet and Seidel the straight man (as it were)—between the Seidel who’s observing himself perceive and the Seidel who’s doing the perceiving. This is a defense that won’t convince some readers, but I think in a poet of Seidel’s sophistication, such an irony is always present, and I think it may be the strongest defense possible: this is who he was, and how he was, at the moment of this perception, and it’s impossible to capture perception fully while filtering it.

How badly is a defense needed? How terrible is it, really, to say “the wife one”? If you’re in a gay marriage, and you’ve never been asked by a straight man which of you is the wife, then you are luckier than me. I survived just fine, but I have to say I didn’t like it much. On the other hand, if you’re in a gay marriage, and you’ve never talked, fought, or joked, inside the safety of it, about which of you is behaving more as the wife, at a given stage of your relationship, then you are farther above the fray than I will ever be. In these jokes, arguments, and negotiations, though, I think what’s being hashed out is how to balance two careers, and how to divide the responsibilities for a shared household. The debates are about whether one person is feeling obliged to more often take the role of homemaker, not about whether one person is more womanly. (Gender isn’t a zero-sum game the way doing the dishes is, and at the end of the day, there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, anything offensive about describing a man as effeminate.) In other words, nothing is at stake that would be legible to someone who saw you and your husband walking down the street.

What were the gays in Seidel’s poem arguing about? Was “the husband one,” to coin a phrase, planning to ask for a Robert Frost poem to be read at his funeral? Was he planning to write a book or an article about Robert Frost? Was he merely claiming Frost as his favorite poet? In any of these cases, why would his partner “plead” for an explanation, “nearly in tears”? I think the reader is meant to find humor in the idea of a gay resident of New York City espousing Frost because of a shared belief in nature. Which I get. The canonical lines about gays and nature are Oscar Wilde complaining that “Nature is so uncomfortable. Grass is hard and lumpy and damp, and full of dreadful black insects,” and Frank O’Hara insisting that “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” But Peter and I had a friend read a Frost poem at our after-wedding get-together, and I defy even Jonathan Franzen to take better bird photos than I do.

I’m not sure I’ve walked in a wide enough circle around this problem yet. Did I feel insulted? Yes, a little, I guess. Do I care? I put Seidel’s Selected down for a while, but later I went back to it. I’m on my guard a little with Seidel now, but I should probably have learned long ago to be on my guard with every writer. I seem willing to forgive F. Scott Fitzgerald, say, for writing of a “pansy” character in Tender Is the Night that “he was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized.” Being dehumanized is worse, I think, than being called “the wife one.” I’m aware that I could pretend to care more than I do, in order to have an axe to swing. I sometimes wonder if, as a general public appreciation of literary qualities per se has weakened—as a willingness to make distinctions of literary value in public has declined—it has become more and more tempting to take up an axe. There are days when it seems like the only blades that still cut are those with a social or political edge. On the other hand, it would probably be a mistake to pretend I don’t care at all, to fake transcendence. A critic I didn’t agree with about much once warned me against accepting “the phantom bribe of straight culture,” and while I suspected him of issuing the warning in order to try to scare me off the middle ground that I wanted to occupy, I knew exactly what he meant. One aspires to catholicity as a reader—one wants to be broadminded even in the face of narrowmindedness—but one doesn’t want to be a pushover. I think my personal verdict would be to recommend that people read Seidel but not blink the moments like the one I’ve written about here, which are, after all, a deliberate part of his persona, and of the membership he claims through his poetry in a sort of freemasonry of the bad and wild (which more than a few gay men, of my generation anyway, have also felt they belonged to).


[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

“You absolutely mustn’t bring the rigor of your principles of morality and justice with you when you contemplate Italy’s monuments, she told Lord Nelvil; as I’ve told you, they recall, for the most part, the splendor, elegance, and good taste of classic form rather than the glorious epoch of Roman virtue. But don’t you find some traces of the moral grandeur of the first era in the gigantic splendor of the monuments that came after? Even the degradation of the Roman people is still impressive; the mourning weeds they put on for liberty dress the world in marvels; as if the genius of ideas of beauty were striving to console man for the real and true dignity that he has lost.” —Germaine de Staël, Corinne

“We can’t play Covid,” I heard one little girl say to another in the park. “Covid isn’t over yet.” [This was several months ago, for the record.]

“The charm of the prismatic fringe round the edges made juggling with the lens too tempting, and a clear persistent focus was never attained.” —Christopher Morley, “The Autogenesis of a Poet”

Instead of a meerschaum pipe that I have smoked to an amber color, I have a steel teakettle that I have bronzed over the years by putting it on the hob and then forgetting about it for hours.

“For my part I should be as satsified to play tennis with the net down as to write verse with no verse form set to stay me.” —Robert Frost to Lesley Frost, October 1934

“The world is a shambles, but I wasn’t born to set it right.” —W. H. Hudson to a friend, quoted in Jonathan Meiburg, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey

“This is what American history is like, but it is hard for us to accept: that a vigorous and splendid country could have been built by really guilty people.” —George W. S. Trow, The Harvard Black Rock Forest

When I’m reading myself to sleep, I doggedly follow the story of what I’m reading through a thickening and thickening haze until the moment when I can no longer make sense of what my eyes are perceiving and they just halt, and then there are no more words coming into my brain, and the story, which I still have an awareness of as a thing-in-itself, accumulating and assembling itself in my brain, stops moving, too, and stops changing. I wonder if death will be like this.

“But how, after all, can any of us hope to avoid certain late-afternoon moods: those moments in which we gaze out into the gathering dusk, perhaps into a drizzle of rain as well, and are assailed by twinges of foreboding?” —Thomas Mann, “The Joker”

“Even when he wasn’t thinking about the little phrase, it existed latent in his mind like certain other concepts that have no equivalent, such as the concept of light, of sound, of depth, of sensual pleasure, the rich possessions with which we vary and decorate our interior world. Maybe we’ll lose them one day, maybe they’ll be wiped out, if we’re going to return to nothingness. But as long as we’re still alive, we can’t make it that we haven’t known them, any more than we can for some physical object, any more than we’re able to, for example, have doubts about the light of the lamp that is lit in front of the metamorphosed objects in our bedroom, from which even the memory of darkness has vanished. Which is to say that Vinteuil’s phrase, like that theme from Tristan, to take another example, which also represents for us a certain gain in emotional apprehension, had wed our mortal condition, had taken on something of human nature that was actually fairly touching. Its fate had become bound, for the future, to the reality of our soul, of which it had become one of the most personal, the most distinctive ornaments. Maybe nothingness is what’s true, and our whole dream has no existence, but in that case we feel that these musical phrases, these concepts that have their existence in relation to our dream, must be nothing as well. We’re going to perish, but when we do, we’ll be holding these captive divinities hostage, and they’ll share our luck. And there’s something about death in their company that seems less bitter, less inglorious, and maybe a little less probable.” —Marcel Proust, By Way of Swann’s

Throughlines and deadlines

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

Still from "A Quiet Place Part II"

I have lost the throughline. Drastic measures are called for. I therefore hereby undertake to send you a newsletter every Monday morning at 10:30am. This undertaking is inspired in part by a Michael Pollan-esque recommendation in my friend Chris Cox’s new book, The Deadline Effect: “Set a deadline. The earlier the better.” Apparently having no structure in one’s life is bad, and leads to a gelatinous, inchoate diffuseness, and like everyone else, but more so, I have had no structure in mine for the last year and a half. Everything, as I and everyone else discovered, can be postponed: dentist’s appointments, haircuts, third novels, driver’s license renewals, birthday parties, going to the gym, agonizing about whether this will be the year when I finally try a teaching job. At the outset of the pandemic, I told myself, explicitly, that my only objective during the pandemic was to survive, and as long as I met that goal, I wasn’t going to mind not meeting any others.

I didn’t, and I didn’t mind. It was so nice! Every morning I went on a leisurely walk in the park and photographed birds, having bought a telephoto lens just as the coronavirus was encircling, boa constrictor–like, the globe, and then when I came home, while my husband put a pot of oatmeal on the stove, and while it cooked, I did a set of exercises that for about six months perpetuated, if not worsened, my lower back pain, while listening to classical music, which I hadn’t really listened to since childhood, and was slowly becoming reindoctrinated into, and then, for the the next six months, another set of exercises, which, as a pleasant surprise, very gradually abated my lower back pain, still listening to timeless music mostly by performers who were long dead, first a lot of Bach, and then a lot of Beethoven. Briefly I jumped ahead in the alphabet to Rachmaninoff, but found this confusing, if not alarming, and returned to Beethoven. I didn’t want adventure. I wanted steadiness. Sameness. I listened to Emil Gilels’s recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas, and then to Wilhelm Kempff’s recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas, and then to Igor Levit’s recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas. After the oatmeal, and after a considered, unhurried curation of my bird photos, which I then posted online, where the same twenty or so people liked them, and they never went viral, I sat at my desk and either crossed out a few pages of fiction or composed a few, always careful never to let the net number of pages produced by me rise above four or five. It never did.

New York Times At Home section hat

All is changed now, except my productivity. While the pandemic may not quite be over, the psychosocial moratorium allowed by it now is, at least here in America. At the end of May, the New York Times stopped running its At Home section, which had taught adults how to fold their morning newspaper into a hat, or a piñata, and had spoken in the first person plural (“We’re trying so hard to be good,” “We’re searching for the best path”), as blandly and as reassuringly as Mister Rogers. Which means that we aren’t trying to be good any more, and that we have gone back to just taking the first path we see that might get us there. Probably not a moment too soon. By the time Charles Dickens died at age fifty-eight, he had written so many novels that the internet isn’t sure how many, but at least fifteen by my count.

Googling how many novels Charles Dickens wrote

I will be fifty-four this week, and have written only two.

A week or so ago, Peter and I went to see a movie in a movie theater. It was A Quiet Place Part II. It was pretty good? Terrible monsters from outer space are trying to eat a nice American family, which used to be everything I wanted in a movie. The hook is that the monsters zero in on you whenever you make the slightest bit of noise. We ate mediocre veggie burgers with fries while watching, so frightened that we couldn’t really taste what we were eating. I jumped in my seat so violently that I bruised a hand. After it was over, however, we found ourselves wondering: Why did we use to do this? Sit in a dark room silently with strangers and be terrified out of our wits by invented demons? Dystopian fiction can seem a little supererogatory in a world that is just coming out of a plague, if not on the brink of subsiding back into it because half the population has been brainwashed into fearing vaccines, a world where Oregon faces temperatures of 115° F and California the worst drought and possibly the worst fire season ever. The movie’s lesson, Peter pointed out, was that we must all fight ever harder and ever more brutally, that even children must learn to overcome their natural squeamishness and passivity and stab monsters in the head until they die die die, the unspoken lemma of the argument being that we live under capitalism and it’s a dog-eat-dog world and this is what it takes to survive. All of which we learned during the pandemic wasn’t so. During the pandemic, we all realized that it’s fine if we’re just okay at monster-slaying. Just do the best you can, because everything is harder than it used to be. If the monsters eat you, well, okay! On the other hand, during the pandemic, in the absence of external stimulation, I never managed to get off of Twitter, which is very much like living in a world where monsters converge on you ravenously as soon as you make a peep.

So what lesson is to be learned from mortality—Kill more sooner, or We can make our newspaper into a hat?

The Translation Game: Thomas Mann and Du Fu

[An issue of my newsletter Leaflet]

In The Three-Cornered World, a novel by Sōseki, the Japanese novelist I wrote about last week, a painter aims to “separate and discard the scratchy sand of human emotion to discover the pure gold that lies beneath it.” In an endnote, Sōseki’s biographer relates this principled aesthetic detachment to a similar idea put forward by the hero of Thomas Mann’s story “Tonio Kröger”:

For the fact is: all healthy emotion, all strong emotion, lacks taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. David Luke

The observation has some truth in it, and I like the astringency, even if it’s also true that no great art can be made without strong emotion. It’s the sort of insight it makes sense to put in the mouth of a fictional character. I think what I like in novels is strong emotion that’s resisted, frustrated, constrained, or otherwise dragged against. In any case, the quote prompted me to think that I should really read “Tonio Kröger” one of these days, and I took down off the shelf the copy we have in the house, which turns out to give a different translation of the passage:

For a strong and sound feeling has no taste—and that's that.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Joachim Neugroschel

This didn’t quite land, to my ear. It almost sounded as if the person sampling strong feeling had come down with COVID-19 and lost the use of his taste buds. “And that’s that” seemed a little flip, too. I was wandering into what my husband and I call the Translation Game, which is when you become obsessed with which version of a classic text is the one to read. Ideally, one player tracks down parallel passages and reads them aloud while player two, eyes closed or averted, renders a verdict. (On my ancient blog, I once played multiple solo rounds on the various translations of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.)

I was able to find two more renderings of the sentence:

For every healthy and strong emotion, that is beyond doubt, is tasteless.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Bayard Quincy Morgan

Slightly awkward. “That is beyond doubt” is supposed to be an interjection, judging by the way it’s rendered in the rival translations, but where it’s placed here, it could easily be mistaken for a clause qualifying “strong emotion,” that is, as saying that strong feelings that are beyond doubt are tasteless. Another problem: “is tasteless,” in English, approaches in meaning “is offensive,” and saying that emotion gives offense seems to me a less subtle argument than saying it lacks taste.

For sound natural feeling, say what you like, has no taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Helen Lowe-Porter

This doesn’t quite work, either, because it seems possible that what’s being argued is that strong emotion is flavorless, which hardly seems likely to be what Mann (or Kröger) meant. I award this round to David Luke (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Neugroschel, Morgan, or Lowe-Porter wouldn’t win on another passage).

A couple of months ago, a review in the New York Review of Books by Madelein Thien led me to David Hinton’s translations of the classic Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu). As Thien explains, translating Chinese poetry into English is more or less impossible because of “the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems.” Between the ideograms that make up a verse of written Chinese poetry, visual resonances are possible that just can’t occur in English. “The dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface,” Thien writes. Chinese verbs don’t have tenses, and Hinton claims that the pronoun “I,” in an English translation of a classic Chinese poem, is almost always a translator’s interpolation. It seems that translators have to prune away some of a classical Chinese poem’s ambiguity to have any hope of making English out of it—which means there can be radical disparities, from translation to translation, in what the same poem seems to mean on a literal level.

To suggest the polysemy that can’t be translated, Hinton deploys an elliptical, compressed English that sometimes left my prosaic mind stuck on the problem of what exactly was happening. Here, for example, are the closing lines of his version of a poem by Du Fu that he titles “New Year’s Eve”:

Dawn, the fortieth year of my flight 
into dusk light's over. Who changes,
who even slows this dead dazzling
drunk in the wings of life we live?
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. David Hinton

Hinton explains in an endnote that in China, a person’s age ticks up at New Year’s rather than on his birthday. So the feeling of renewal that people around the world associate with the New Year may be combined in China with the regret about lost youth and the pride in survival that an American usually associates with birthdays. That clarifies the mood, a little. But is the “drunk” in the last line a drunk person or an episode of drunkenness? What are the “wings of life we live”? Why is someone thinking about changing or slowing down a drunk (or an episode of drunkenness)?

In my puzzlement, I put down the book and went online, where I found an essay about Kenneth Rexroth’s reworkings of Chinese poetry that printed both a 1945 Rexroth version of the same poem and Rexroth’s probable source (he didn’t know much Chinese), a more literal translation by Florence Ayscough in 1929. Here’s Ayscough’s rendering of the lines:

At bright dawn my years will bridge four tens; 
I fly, I gallop towards the slanting shadows of sunset.  
Who can alter this, who can bridle, who restrain the moments? 
Fiery intoxication is a life’s career. 
     —Tu Fu, "A New Year Vigil at Tu Wei’s House," tr. Florence Ayscough

Though “my years will bridge four tens” seems pointlessly quirky, the line “Fiery intoxication is a life’s career” is heady and absolute. And Ayscough conveys the emotional logic of the closing lines more clearly than Hinton does: in her version, the poem’s speaker sees himself as in decline, as falling—the setting sun has put him in mind of this—and there’s a parallel between his wish to halt the setting of the sun, which will mark him as a year older and that much more of a lost cause, and his wish to halt his own decline. Thus the exhilaration of the last line, which damns the torpedoes.

Here’s Rexroth, meanwhile:

                                   Soon now 
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. and adapted by Kenneth Rexroth

I like this a little less than Ayscough, actually. Her bridge of “four tens” is more sensibly rendered as “my fortieth year,” but the whole question of whether to halt, or try to halt, the sunset and/or one’s own decline has been lost in translation. Rexroth’s version of the poet has made up his mind to a future of ecstasy and decay. He’s almost looking forward to it.

The most scholarly translation I could find is by Stephen Owen:

Tomorrow I pass my fortieth year, 
evening light slants too low for a meteoric rise. 
Who can continue to stay so constrained?— 
utter drunkenness will be the rest of my life. 
     —Tu Fu, "New Years Eve at Du Wei’s Home," tr. Stephen Owen (poem 2.11)

In his notes, Owen argues that Du Fu’s reference to his fortieth year “echoes Confucius’s dictum that one should get established in one’s thirties,” and that the opposition between the slanting evening light and a now-impossible meteoric rise in the second line here is a symbolic way for the poet to convey that “it is too late in my life to rise swiftly.” I didn’t get any of this career anxiety from Hinton, Ayscough, or Rexroth. All versions, however, seem to oppose the sun’s downward setting to an upward motion that the poet has been attempting. Tomorrow morning the sun sets on forty years of my upward striving, is maybe the paradoxical idea.

It’s striking how completely Owen’s understanding of the rhetorical question in the penultimate line reverses that of the other translators. Their versions ask who wants to (or can) halt the decline of the sun and the poet; Owen’s asks who can bear to be held back from decline. There must be an ambiguity about subject and object in the original. Or maybe a touch of humor? Something like, Drink up, fall down—who will stop, or could even stand to stop, the career of a lifetime?

Owen is also chaster with imagery than the other translators. There’s a sunset in his version, as there is in everyone’s, but there’s a bird in Hinton, and there’s fire in Ayscough and Rexroth. Are they reading the Chinese characters differently, or emphasizing different resonances in the same characters? The answer is probably yes, and my final verdict on this round of the Translation Game is that the best translation of Du Fu is two or three of them.