Friday, November 11, 2011

How culture moves

Full disclosure: I can't really explain how culture moves. Whatever alchemy turns an individual act of creative exploration into a permanent cultural force is mysterious, even to its creator, and a subject of wild speculation even on the part of scholars generations after the fact, speaking with the benefit of hindsight.

Having spent my entire adult life working in the arts, surrounded by accomplished writers, poets, painters, musicians, and other extraordinary creators, I can say with some authority how it doesn't work. Within the arts community, and outside of it, I have encountered many strange ideas about how culture moves, expressed with great confidence, but amounting to a glorified form of magical thinking, which I will try to use this space to dispel.

(1) Culture does not move like products in the free market. That is, unlike the best brand of peanut butter, the market does not decide which works are the most important, the most vital, or those that contain the potential to transform the culture itself. The historical correlation, in literature, between book sales and depth of cultural impact is so slight, for example, that you would do just as well correlating its influence with the book's other properties, such as color, weight, or texture. Or, perhaps more to the point, if you were to take two books out of the library at random that were dated from the 19th century, it is quite likely that the less popular book has had the more lasting cultural impact.

(2) Culture does not move like canons perpetuated by academic institutions. That is, if the free market does not get to decide, neither does the intelligentsia. Harold Bloom tries but fails to unseat Edgar Alan Poe; the Nobel Prize committee ignores Philip Roth and hopes he'll go away; a small cadre of true believers prematurely elect Infinite Jest a 20th century classic. Strategems to engineer influence of this kind can be temporarily successful, but in the long term, despite our attempts to subvert or replace them, certain works still gain traction and stick in our collective hair like... well, like peanut butter, I suppose.

(3) Culture does not move like internet memes, rapidly replicated and quickly forgotten. Richard Dawkins brilliantly devised the term "meme" to describe the cultural gene-- the melody that gets stuck in your head and plays on a loop, the unusual flourish of paint on a piece of pottery that gets imitated and copied by other ceramicists, the strange phrase that spreads and spreads until everyone begins using because it sounds right-- but no where does he suggest that the same principal operates on the level of art. Rightly so, because while you can certainly credit foundational works of literature like the King James Bible, Dante's Inferno, and Shakespeare's Hamlet for becoming meme-farms, they do not compel us merely due to the addictive, skinner-box-like attraction to the noise they make. They contain a wholeness, an integrity of creation, that is greater than the sum of their parts, and which the "meme" explanation does not account for. Look, for example, at Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary for an example of a meme breeding ground that, for all its brilliance as a compilation of cynical wit and wisdom, contains none of the coherence of a work that will penetrate the culture to the degree that his less meme-worthy story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," has.

As far as I can discern, certain cultural manifestations take hold and stick because of either their absolute mastery of a particular form, genre, or style; or because of their revolutionary potential-- their power to change the nature of their medium by their evident originality. That is, they are the most representative or the newest. But here's the catch: few artists of any stripe can achieve work that is relevant or new by striving to be relevant or new. In other words, deep cultural influence is unpredictable, and art can never be manufactured with the intent to change the culture. Which is bad news for propagandists, but good news for writers and artists. You can stop trying to position yourself at the center of things. Instead, you can follow your own imperatives.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Family Drives

I confess to taking a sudden and unexpected interest in the BBC show "Top Gear" over the summer. And it isn't just the British humor and the inherent boyishness of car-obsession, but I am actually becoming fascinated by the cars themselves. This is troubling because (a) I am no where near affluent enough to collect cars, (b) as an English professor, thinking about cars is a huge distraction, and (c) the hosts of the show are virulently anti-environmentalist and hostile towards the very idea of public transportation. I've always liked trains, personally, and I'm pretty keen on the planet too, but for the first time in my life I find myself staring at nice cars out in public, like a perverted Transformer.

The other day, though, the family had just finished dinner, the kids had already done their homework, and we didn't want to miss the last daylight of another autumn day. So we piled into our minivan and took a family drive, exploring roads in our tiny rural town that I had never even noticed before, and finding ourselves on country roads that seemed to go on forever, without any GPS noise to distract us from the experience of noticing. It was quite clear to me then that my fascination with the car-show had little to do with the cars themselves-- my Dodge Caravan is a boring metal color, bruised in places, and for chrissakes it's a minivan-- but had to do instead with the mundane joys of "driving about," something I had known as an 18-year old maybe, but quickly forgot in the rush of getting-there, as un-missed and un-thought-of as a lost tooth. But because of the show, I kept feeling about in my mouth for the gap, and was surprised to find that particular missing tooth growing back.

I have never paid more than $3000 for a car. And soon, given the state of the van and the needs of the family, I almost certainly will have to. But I'm fortunate to have escaped the narrow obsessions of speed and power that appear to be the perennial fixations of car-culture. For I could have easily confused my love of travel with the love of traveling fast. I could have easily mistaken my family for extra weight, burdening a perfect machine that might otherwise have accelerated forever.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


October is full of wonderful things. While that's true in general, it is true in particular of this October because I will be doing readings in two of my favorite places: Providence, where my book takes place; and Boston, city of my birth.

I will read at my alma mater, Providence College, on October 6th at 7pm. This event will be funded by several departments and the alumni association. It has been coordinated by poet Jane Lunin Perel, and I feel so welcomed by them, I might write another book about it.

Then, on October 7th at 9pm, I read at the Out of the Blue Art Gallery, for their Dire Literary Series, located at 106 Prospect Street in Cambridge, Mass. (Okay, so not Boston-Boston, but still Boston.

What I'm really excited about in October, though, is hosting Zachary Mason for our Pleiades Visiting Writers series here in Warrensburg, Missouri. Mason's book The Lost Books of the Odyssey is among the best books to come out in the last ten years, and it has been deservedly acclaimed by the NY Times and named a notable book. He'll be out here for a reading on October 13th. It will be epic-- a word that I don't use lightly, but in this case, since it concerns Odysseus...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Predictable hypocrisies

Proselytizers of "inner peace" who, in person, demonstrate a fundamentally aggressive nature.
Psychologists who suffer from severe mental illness.
Gay-bashing politicians who turn out to be gay.
Too-permissive parents who raise stressed-out kids.
Advocates of a healthy lifestyle sneaking a cigarette.
Petty intellectuals.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Things that ought not to be surprising, but are:

Birthdays, and other occasional reminders of one's mortality.
Discovering a new interest or activity that doesn't fit who you think you are, like sailing or golf.
A breakfast joint with real maple syrup on all the tables.
The salesman who leans in and whispers, "You can get this stuff much cheaper elsewhere."
The film breaks in the middle of the movie, and the theater is dark and silent.
The lightning sounds like it is much, much closer than it is.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Dilemmas" with surprisingly simple solutions

This morning I'm thinking of the famous Linda Pastan poem that begins, "In ethics class so many years ago / our teacher asked this question every fall: / if there were a fire in a museum / which would you save, a Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?" This is a common question in the study of ethics, in one form or another, although I never for a moment doubted my own conclusion. For me the answer is as simple as it is selfish. Save the old woman. Save the old woman every time. If I failed to save a classic painting that would give pleasure and artistic insight to generations of humanity, I could still live with myself, I could still sleep at night, I could still say to the old woman next to me outside of the museum, "Isn't that a beautiful bonfire?"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

On praise

I've begun to realize, as I start to encounter reviews of Memory Sickness, that I appreciate reader analysis much more than praise. Complimentary adjectives make for good newspaper copy ("Powerful..."; "Extraordinary..."), but they leave one wondering whether the reader has paid close enough attention. It is when I see a reader really wrestle with the content of a story that I feel most gratified. It is validating when, for example, one reviewer notices that "The Ballad of John Gray," the final story in the collection, "thematically and even plotwise manages to unite the disparate threads of this collection," or when another reviewer notices that the book is fundamentally about the "brittle connections" between people who live in the same city, who sometimes even inhabit the same homes.

If there is one thing that Facebook proves, it's that "liking" anything is cheap and easy. What a shamefully dull response to all the phenomena of the world! Thumbs up, high-five, affirmation, affirmation! One of my friends who is a hold-out from Facebook said that he would join us in the social networking scene when they introduce a "need" button.

Sarah wrote a paper over the summer that deals with the confusing nomenclature of contemporary fine art, specifically when it deals with beauty. "Beautiful" is a sort of insult in the fine arts, as it implies that what one is aspiring to is the merely ornamental, and that it strives for nothing but to pleasantly adorn the wall of a museum. As she points out, though, any serious artist always attends to the harmonies of form, color, and composition that exemplify beauty, even when the subject is meant to evoke an intellectual response (or a disturbing one).

I wouldn't go so far as to call it an insult, but I must admit that "beautiful" to me does fit into a category of thing that I will call "praise that is not really praise." Especially as I find myself writing more and more about things that are painful to contemplate, such as the Cambodian holocaust, to hear my work described as "beautiful" fills me with the anxiety of an artist who could be accused of beautifying the misery of others. I have to admit that I do not think of Memory Sickness as beautiful. I think of it as painful but necessary, the itch and tingle that comes from a healing wound. Strange pleasure from an unpredictable place, but welcome.

Praise that is not really praise:

(1) "I usually hate short stories... but I really liked your collection."
Translation: "I was so surprised to actually enjoy this book that you spent three years crafting, despite the fact that I have no love or respect for the art-form to which you've dedicated your whole creative life."

(2) "This character was so believable. Was it based upon a real person?"
Translation: "I don't believe you are capable of writing convincing characters unless you just wrote down what you saw and heard others do and say."

(3) "I really like how it isn't all plot-driven, that these are just glimpses into the everyday lives of these characters."
Translation: "I entirely missed how the internal conflict of the character manifested in an action within the story, but I convinced myself that I understood it anyway."

(4) "As I was reading, I kept thinking what a good writer you are!"
Translation: "I was not paying attention to the story, because I was continually distracted by my own unfamiliarity with literary fiction."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Phong Blog idea.

So I've decided to keep self-promotion out of the blog. Somewhere on the right-hand column I will throw up a link to my book and website, but I don't want book-selling to be its raison d'etre. If I felt the burden of advertising my work every time I posted here, I would quickly lose interest.

Indulge me, then, and let us get the self-promotion over with now: buy MEMORY SICKNESS. I really like it, the reviewers have liked it, and if you enjoy literary fiction that explores complex emotional states, then I think you will too.

In the meantime I'd like to talk about peaches.

For my entire life, I always thought that a good peach was a random occurrence. The peach, in fact, has always served for me as a functional metaphor for the unpredictable. But our local farmer's market-- where I am headed after I finish this post-- has totally ruined the metaphor. Every peach is ambrosia. I won't describe it in detail, because there is nothing worse than reading about a blissful sensation that you will never have the chance to partake in (unless you visit Warrensburg, Missouri). But it was good to discover that I am still capable of surprise.

Unlike Proust's "petite madeleine" dipped in honeyed tea, this humble peach did not evoke the ineffable sensations and memories of things past; but rather, it throttled me forward into the promise of further discovery of the sensual world. It was a future-peach. So now I think I've buried the lede: at the Warrensburg farmer's market, you will find future-peaches.

Friday, August 19, 2011

This is a blog.

This is the blog that Phong wrote. Now that blogging is no longer new-fangled and fashionable, I am permitted as a luddite to take part in it.

As a short-story writer, I must confess that I am seduced by the brevity of the blog post as a genre. As a lover of language, I have to admit that the haste with which most blog posts are written is distressing to me.

What you will find on this blog:
Things that are not so private that they belong in a diary.
Things that are not so topical that they lose interest within hours.
Things that are mysterious.
Concise things that seem to distill compound-ideas into clear alcohol.
Raw materials, before I even realize that they will become the stuff of fiction.

What you will not find on this blog:
Things that stoke your self-righteous rage.
Things that are so complex that they must necessarily be treated too casually.
Things that are impossible to verbalize.
A nagging sense that, by virtue of holding the microphone, the speaker possesses a superior nature.
Advice on your health.

(Apologies to Sei Sh┼Źnagon)