Leaflet #3: Undoing

Leaflet #3: To do or not to do: that isn’t necessarily the question.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that this was leaflet #4. Not sure whether to correct it or to give all future issues of the newsletter the same number.


This morning, while walking the dog, I looked down to see two earthworms, whom the dog and I had startled, suddenly abandoning their copulation—like two shoelaces untying themselves—and retracting into the earth.

I logged out of Twitter last week, hopefully for a while. The trigger was punditry about Pete Buttigieg, the gay nerd candidate for President. He recently had a surge in polls and fundraising. Pundits were using his successes against him in a way that reminded me of old-school attacks on gays: he was being cast as a narcissist, seducer, and chameleon—as someone who could render his sexuality visible or invisible at will, on the one hand, and as someone whose accomplishments could be dismissed by exposing them as compensations of some kind, on the other. His public gayness was being discredited by revelation of his secret gayness. If he was so comfortable with being openly gay, one of the lines against him ran, why did he keep saying that his being gay needn’t affect how voters see him?

The pundits did not invent the double bind they were leveraging. It was described by the sociologist Erving Goffman in his monograph Stigma (1963):

Thus, even while the stigmatized individual is told that he is a human being like everyone else, he is being told that it would be unwise to pass or to let down “his” group. In brief, he is told he is like anyone else and that he isn’t—although there is little agreement among spokesmen as to how much of each he should claim to be. This contradiction and joke is his fate and his destiny.

“The stigmatized are tactfully expected to be gentlemanly and not to press their luck,” Goffman further explains; “they should not test the limits of the acceptance shown them, nor make it the basis for still further demands.” I rage-tweeted; I deleted my rage-tweets. No response brings liberation from a double bind, perhaps the most ancient form of trolling. Not responding doesn’t bring liberation from it, either.

“Mrs. Kemble has no organized surface at all; she is like a straight deep cistern without a cover, or even, sometimes, a bucket, into which, as a mode of intercourse, one must tumble with a splash. You mustn’t judge her by her indifferent book, which is no more a part of her than a pudding she might make.” —Henry James describing Fanny Kemble to his mother, 18 January 1879

I’ve been enjoying our friend Gabe’s new podcast, Faking It, which is about getting busted for not having read, watched, or listened to works of art that one has claimed to. In the latest episode, hilariously, Gabe’s wife, Christine, is interviewed about Gabe’s having convinced himself he had seen Finding Nemo; her extenuation is that if he had seen it, by now he would have forgotten it, so he might as well have seen it. Lately I’ve had the middle-aged complement to this problem. It wasn’t until halfway through last week’s viewing of Smiles of a Summer Night, when all the characters are invited to a country house, that I was sure I had seen it before. And it’s only now in act five of Troilus and Cressida that I realize I’ve read it already. I must have forgot Troilus because it’s the worst Shakespeare play; one wants to forget even in the middle of reading it. Is it so bad because Shakespeare got spooked by the possiblity of Patroclus as Achilles’s “male varlet,” which he introduces and then writes out? Because he wasn’t getting enough sleep or eating enough vegetables?

Over the weekend, Peter and I visited the AIPAD photo show, and I took photos of some of the photos and posted them on my blog. I hadn’t put it together that decades before Joel Meyerowitz photographed Giorgio Morandi’s painting studio, it had been photographed by Luigi Ghirri. To photograph objects that Morandi spent many years painting, to attempt to capture the reality that his art made mythic: it’s eerie that in the photos Morandi’s as-it-were-votive objects somehow remain mythic, even under Ghirri’s light, ironizing eye.

Luigi Ghirri, Atelier Morandi, Bologna vie Fondazze, 1989–90 (1992), Polka Galerie

Leaflet #3: Temporary

Newsletter #3: Time lags, deadline philosophy, childish scribbles.


Once, when I was little, my family went on a drive-through safari, the kind where humans stay safely in a car while lions and giraffes roam freely. I remember that I objected angrily when my father paused the audio tour, which was on a cassette player. We were going to miss what the park ranger was saying! In those days, radios and televisions couldn’t be paused, and I didn’t see how a cassette player could work any differently. To hear the whole tour, surely we had to keep the device always on, no matter how far ahead of us the taped narrator got.

It isn’t obvious that writing takes place in time, maybe because reading doesn’t take place simultaneously or even necessarily at the same tempo. My childhood confusion is the writer’s secret weapon. But while there may be enough time, thanks to this décalage, to hide some of a writer’s flaws, there’s never enough to hide all of them.

Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea. The years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on and on trying to do it better. And an aspect of this is that any artist has to decide how fast to work.

That’s from Iris Murdoch’s highly entertaining novel The Black Prince; a genre writer is justifying his mediocrity, and Murdoch is making a joke about her own prolificacy. But it happens to be true! Every piece of writing has a deadline—a moment past which it will no longer be possible to slot it into the context for which it was conceived. “Don’t take too long,” the editor of my first book, which was scholarly, said to me when I was dilly-dallying on a revision. “I don’t want those endnotes to get stale.”

Maybe women writers, historically more subject to interruption, have more often been thoughtful about the way writing is vulnerable to time. Here’s the novelist-heroine of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A View of the Harbour:

“But it was through no fault of my own,” she thought, her mind reverting to those cracked and riven chapters of hers; all of her books the same, none sound as a bell, but giving off little jarring reverberations now here, now there, so that she herself could say, as she turned the pages (knowing as surely as if the type had slipped and spilt): “Here I nursed Prudence with bronchitis; here Stevie was ill for a month; here I put down my pen to bottle fruit (which fermented); there Mrs Flitcroft forsook me.”

The time of reading leaves marks, too. A couple of weeks ago, at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, a bookseller let me page through a first edition of Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clout’s Come Home Again(1595). About halfway through the book, on a mostly blank verso, a child had scrawled in pencil, in large, loopy characters,




11 66 55 33




The bookseller seemed a little startled. I said I thought the scribbles were charming, but I don’t think I looked enough like the sort of person who would actually be able to afford to purchase the volume to reassure him. “I don’t know,” he said. “It comes off a little strong, don’t you think?” When I got home, I asked Google but was unable to find a John or Thomas Cotton who was seven or eight years old in 1653. It also wasn’t until I got home that I wrote down the child’s inscription, from memory, which tends to be fallible. I see that the bookseller’s catalog entry does now mention it—I don’t know if it was added after the fair, or if it was there all along and I just now noticed it—and it records the inscription a little differently: “Thomas Cotton / 1653 / 165 / John / Cotton.”

The problem is more general, of course. Marcus Aurelius:

Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?

Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.

A person is more or less a firecracker, in other words, and one’s sparkle, as a writer or in any other capacity, comes from the process of one’s self being used up.

Leaflet #2: Missions

What was Melville’s mission statement? Issue #2 of my newsletter.


A few days ago a friend sent me a link to “Sea Scrivener,” a 1944 comic-book biography of Herman Melville:

A little Billy Budd seems to have gotten mixed into the life (which starts on page 63, on the website linked to). While in grad school, I made a pilgrimage to Melville’s grave in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx, where a blank scroll decorates his headstone. My recollection is that on my way to the grave, I walked past an obelisk commemorating a family named Budd. Had it been put there before or after Melville? The New York Times reports that “plots are still available in the vicinity of Herman Melville, with prices starting at $20,000.” I’ve been getting a fair amount of junk mail from cemeteries lately, which causes one to wonder what the algorithms know about one. If any were to advertise such a propinquity, the solicitation would be a little more tempting.

At a recent dinner party, a friend who works in branding explained the importance of mission statements. Nike, for example, aims “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” whereas its rivals just hope to make running shoes. The ad executive who came up with Nike’s tagline “Just do it,” by the way, was inspired by the end of murderer Gary Gilmore’s life. As Norman Mailer recounts, in The Executioner’s Song:

Then the Warden said, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, “Let’s do it.”

At first, wondering whether writers have, or should have, mission statements struck me as just intellectual recreation, and maybe a little bit philistine in an amiable way. But as it happens, I worry constantly that my career is a magpie’s nest—I’ve written about antebellum legal flotsam, pirates, gay history, voting ethics, plus a couple of novels, and some commentary on sci-fi movies—and what if, all along, without my knowing it, I’ve been coherent? What a consolation that would be. All I need to do is discover the secret unity beneath my motley. The night after the dinner party, therefore, I couldn’t sleep for trying to deduce the missions of writers, retrospectively. Plato: to write down a conversation with someone who loves wisdom for its own sake. Melville: to penetrate the mystery of being incarnated as a man in a capitalist world. Orwell: to try to tell the truth about people even in the face of their dislike of hearing it. Margaret Fuller: to further the progress of liberty through intellectual service, while a woman in the 19th century. Emerson: to dramatize the way spirit escapes from and is betrayed by the forms that aim to represent it.

I couldn’t figure out my own. Something to do with the connection and conflict between life and art, between attachment and detachment? Which doesn’t explain why last year I wrote an essay about finance capitalism. Maybe the common element is my interest in stories that depose the individual they purport to serve? It would be pleasant to have some reason to think that it wasn’t just out of distractibility that I was a critic and journalist before I got around to becoming a novelist, and to know whether my fiction has to be about gay people or just happens to be about them.

“Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible.” —Stig Dagerman, quoted in Johannes Lichtman’s new novel Such Good Work. I like Lichtman’s gentle sense of humor. He’s very good at, for example, suggesting how bad Germans are at explaining card games: “When you put down a queen and then he puts down a queen, then two are down, so it’s until the next turn, unless it is broken.” Such Good Work is about a recent MFA grad who tries to distract himself from relapsing into opiate addiction by moving to Sweden, where he further distracts himself by volunteering to teach refugee children. It turns into a meditation on distraction and ambition, and whether feeling good undermines attempts at doing good, and ends up suggesting, without getting too heavy-handed, that there may not be a higher purpose than helping other people and oneself pass the time not unhappily.

By a stroke of luck, Peter and I were recently able to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers, a one-night-only presentation at BAM by Film Forum programming director Bruce Goldstein of dance numbers by, home movies of, and interviews with Fayard and Harold Nicholas, debonair black dancers in American movies of the 1930s and 1940s. (An earlier version of Goldstein’s presentation seems to be available here. We were clued in about the Nicholas Brothers because, a couple of months ago, while Peter was reading Zadie Smith, he was so struck by her praise of their dance number in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather that we watched it online.) By the end of Goldstein’s presentation, during a video he and a collaborator had shot of the brothers reprising, in their seventies, a dance number that they had first recorded for Vitaphone in their teens, I was in tears—at their elegance, at their good nature, at the longevity of hard work and talent. In Goldstein’s telling, they took every opportunity that was consonant with dignity, with a cheerfulness that seems to have been a force of nature. If there were frustrations and disagreements, they seem not to have dwelt on them, and if there were romantic troubles or personality clashes, they did as well as they could and moved on. Nothing became a tragedy; no setback was allowed to become as meaningful as the work. There’s something beautiful about that, and about their gameness—their willingness always to do their best. Were they lucky? Yes, probably, Goldstein’s documentary work suggests: in having been loved since childhood, in having been gifted, in having boundless enthusiasm. But because they were black they weren’t as famous or as successful as they should have been, and they seem neither to have pretended not to see this nor to have let it eat away at their love for their art. A model.

This is issue #2 of Leaflet, a newsletter by Caleb Crain. My next novel comes out in August, and you can buy an early copy now from your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.


I started a newsletter. A week after saying on Twitter that I would never do this. (Sorry.) First issue: peeing in snow, seven centuries of music history.


I seem to be writing a newsletter. No idea what I’m doing here.

Until yesterday, when they melted, there were these enormous shunting-togethers of discarded snow in the park—large coagulations smeared with mud, studded with decayed leaves, and riddled with holes where dogs had peed into them. Our dog, of course, was fascinated; he could not get enough of sniffing them and peeing into them himself. Stuck waiting for his attention to weaken, I found myself thinking of the new philosophical concept of “the hyperobject”: a thing so distendedly significant that it exceeds any perceptual category through which one tries to apprehend it. Climate change, for example: too big for meteorology, too big for history, too big for political science. One can do nothing but loiter—mesmerized, compelled—and contribute to the aggregation.

“A man I know who should be well informed about this tells me that when the angels play music before God they play Bach, but when they play by themselves for their own amusement they play Mozart.” —Iris Murdoch to Brigid Brophy, 31 March 1964, Living on Paper. The internet seems to believe that the originator of this witticism was the theologian Karl Barth; I’m guessing he wasn’t Iris Murdoch’s well informed man.

Our friend Peter Mendelsund (author of the new novel Same Same) recently tipped us off to the new album c. 1300–c. 2000, in which pianist Jeremy Denk plays his way through seven centuries. It’s kind of like reading through all five volumes of Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music but in under two hours and you’re just listening. Or rather, I imagine it would be like reading all of Taruskin, since I haven’t actually read Taruskin. Since pianos didn’t exist in the 14th century, Denk has made his own arrangements of early chansons and madrigals, which is of course musicologically impure but has the effect of abstracting away the early-period-instrumentness of those compositions as one usually hears them and one has the impression of listening instead to the evolution of mere music.

Tween boy, talking to peers, overheard on the sidewalk last week: “It’s true. They rub their cloacas together. That’s how they do it. A cloaca is literally a birdhole.”

New: Last week, on Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, I wrote an accordionable line-by-line commentary about “The Palinode,” a double-sonnet from 1600 about the transience of pleasure, beauty, soap bubbles, and praise. (I did this kind of commentary once before, years ago, with Thomas Wyatt.) I also wrote a post suggesting that brick-and-mortar bookstores might thrive if publishers were to set books’ retail prices. In theory yes, the economist Mathieu Perona wrote in to tell me, but in practice, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. When Perona wrote his doctorate on the policy of fixed book prices in France and elsewhere, he discovered that in the real world, fixed book prices don’t always correlate with the flourishing of bookstores; he found that in France, that’s partly because French publishers have used their price-setting power to deny sufficient profit margins to French retailers.

The future: My novel Overthrow will be published by Viking in August. If you buy a copy now, ahead of time—either from your local independent bookstore, or from Barnes & Noble or Amazon—it will give the book a boost. Cover art and description here.