Why we write
Fellow fiction-writers in Zoetrope.com have been batting this question around -- why write at all, given the remoteness of chances for fame and fortune, especially in relation to the enormous amounts of energy and fretting we put into our work? I think for me the answer is simply this: I have something I want to say. It is only one thing, and it may be a simple thing, but it is too elusive to be trapped in a single essay or book, or a single short story or novel. It has something to do with human nature and frailty, and how we band together and why sometimes, out of fear, we destroy our own dreams. Something like that. Anyway, I'm still trying to catch it, in many different ways: a novel about city vs. anti-city (see Chapter 1 at The Copperfield Review), essays and books on ethnic relations, and so on.

I really think that's all there is to it. One idea, one thing to say, incessant writing in order to say it. I think Philip Roth, or Thomas Pynchon, or Robert Graves or any number of other writers could describe their work the same way -- though the idea each was/is pursuing may be a little different. Fame and fortune, while welcome if they come, are almost irrelevant.


How the slush gets sloshed (literary slush pile, that is)
Last night I attended One Story's first One Author, One Drink Selected by that One Author reading -- Darin Strauss at Arlene's Grocery, which is not a grocery but a funky Lower East Side bar where the crowd is so young some of them still smoke (you have to stand outside to do it, which makes you more conspicuously, rebelliously young). Anyway, Darin was great -- touching story ("Good Health on Your Head"), good dramatic reading -- and the mojitos (Darin's choice) were pretty good, too. But the big thing is, I learned how the slush gets sloshed. I inserted myself into a conversation among three awkward young writers-to-be who turned out to all be MFA students and interns at One Story, the people who decide what's worthy to be passed on up to the editors. And in the case of the contest I just entered, to the final judge, who happens to be Darin Strauss. One of these kids said, "I give up on a story really quickly. If the first couple of sentences don't grab me..." (gesture). "Yeah, me too." "I always skip to the end, though. Sometimes the end is so weird, it makes you want to see how the writer got there." "Yeah."

So that's what we're up against, comrades. Got to grab the interest of the young, unpaid MFA interns, or the veteran literati will never see it.
What do the Saudi suicide attacks mean for Bush's war on terrorism? That so far, it's a great success
The Bushies have decided that the War on Terrorism is to be the organization principle of their reign, their "vision thing," the propaganda gimmick that makes it seem as though they're trying to do more than just enrich themselves. Carter tried using "International human rights" (intermittently) this way, LBJ had his "War on Poverty" (to keep our minds off that other war he was waging with bombs), JFK a whole cluster of slogans ("Alliance for Progress," "Peace Corps," "Ask not what your country can do for you...") on the theme of America's mission of international enlightenment, and FDR had the most succinct, and therefore most malleable and by far the most successful, propaganda gimmick of all: "The New Deal." (I don't recall that either HST or his succesor, DDE, even tried to find a label for themselves.)

To make such a gimmick work, you have to keep it going. "New Deal" was tremendous -- it was completely open-ended, the way "the Revolution" is for Fidel, justifying any new policy and making it seem that it's working toward some undefineable but far better future. "War on Poverty" was pretty good, because it was sure to take a long time and, if the Vietnam war hadn't been such a disastrous failure, might have kept LBJ going another four years. It too promised a better future. "War on Terrorism" is different in this way: instead of a better future, it promises perpetual fear. And, so far, it's working.

The Saudi suicide bomb attacks yesterday must have come as a great relief to the deep thinkers in Washington, those who do the thinking that Bush is too busy to bother about. Colin Powell may have been genuinely distressed, but he's just the courtly face for a savage policy, the way the courtly and presumably honest Adlai Stevenson was used by Kennedy to tell lies to the UN to justify an attack on Cuba. But Wolfowitz and his pals must certainly be rejoicing that their plan is working: real terrorists are blowing up things. They had got so worried that the terror index might fall, and with it their Imbecile-in-Chief's chances of remaining in power, that they had orchestrated this week's huge mock terrorist attacks in two entire cities, Seattle and Chicago.

When a reporter asked Colin Powell, in Saudi Arabia when they occurred, what the suicide attacks said about Bush's "War on Terrorism," he muttered something about how it shows that Al Qaeda is so sinister it will kill innocent people to advance its cause -- a sort of unconvincing remark after the US bombing of Baghdad and Afghanistan, but, well, this is politics. Their terror is evil, ours is democratic. But what's this about "Al Qaeda"? Does it even exist? And why do people keep pronouncing it like the Arab word for "thong"? Maybe the Republicans want to remind the Wahabis about Monica Lewinsky? No, that can't be it. Probably, they just haven't read a good explanation like that offered by Australian P. D. Jack, or listened to a sound file like this one on Voice of America (couldn't link directly to the file, but type in Al Qaeda and you'll find it).

If people really want to understand why Muslims are driven to desperate acts, they ought to stop listening to US news blather and read Zadie Smith's White Teeth, or watch the brilliant version now on the telly. Here, if you're interested, you can read my review of the book.


Cuba, sí y no

I thought I was going to have to keep this private, just between you and me. I know that posting it in a blog, i.e. on the internet, makes it available to practically the whole world, but that's just a theoretical possibility. In fact, only a few people drop by, and fewer of those linger long enough to read, so since you've got this far, I'm confident that I'm talking to somebody serious. Here's the story: I'm fed up with Fidel, but I don't want to come anywhere close to the crowds who are usually calling for his downfall.

I love the Cuban revolution, or at least, what I understand it to be, and its potential. A commitment to universal health care and education, narrowing income disparities, standing up to the US and those institutions -- IMF and World Bank, especially -- that have ruined other economies in the continent, those are really good things. But 44 years exceeds anybody's notion of term limits, don't you agree? And there are serious failures in the system, materially (the housing crisis, for example) as well as politically. Maybe socialism is possible on one island, but it is not possible without free speech and press. That's not a moral position, but a pragmatic one. To survive, a socialist country in a capitalist world must find the best choices of people and policies, with scarce resources, and that can only happen through lively debate. Good people, people who can and are trying to contribute to that revolution, are being excluded from such debate, silenced or driven into exile. I know these things, and I know some of those people -- friends of mine still on the island -- but with the reckless missile-throwers in Washington, encouraging even an opening in free discourse on the island gets seized upon as a license for war, and such a war will destroy all the good things and a lot of good people in Cuba.

But I see this as a sign of hope: a project called Memory, Truth and Justice. Especially, I wish Osvaldo Payá success, because if peaceful reform fails, the rigid system in Cuba will become so rigid and so fragile that it will simply crack, and all the good things will be lost.
In the May 12 New Yorker: two beautiful poems on friendship. The one by Kirmen Uribe (translated from Basque), "May," touched me especially -- it's not really so much about springtime as about memories of springtimes past that the poet wants to share with one special, dear old friend. The other is Carl Phillips' "The Messenger," about trying to recover a connection to a friend that, perhaps through some careless word, has been sundered. "What happens, I think, is we betray / ourselves first -- our better selves, I'd have said once -- and the others after..."

The short story by E. L. Doctorow, however, was a disappointment. "Walter John Harmon" is the kind of exaggerated satire that Kurt Vonnegut does much more economically, to greater comic effect. Here, the naive narrator goes on defending his folly for so long I ceased to care. I don't feel great affection for some of Vonnegut's outlandish characters, either, but that's not what they're there for. They are comic figures, doing vaudeville, and after the joke is sprung, they exit the stage. E. L., if you're planning to include this in a future collection, please cut, much. We got the joke by page 3.


Fictional journalism
The big story in The NYT today is all about itself. Specifically, its a front-page story that spills over to fill four -- yes, four -- full pages about the paper's embarrassment over printing phony journalism by young Jayson Blair. For four years! So maybe that was necessary -- one full page per year of embarrassment, not counting some 10 column inches on the front page.

Blair's stuff wasn't entirely invented. He's obviously a very clever guy and a talented writer. He just didn't trouble to go to the places he filed from (the Times takes its dateline policy religiously, as they tell you here) -- filing from Palestine, West Virginia, for example, when he was really in a pizza parlor in Brooklyn, and reporting verbatim interviews he never conducted at all, or reporting as f2f interviews he had done by phone, and filling in what he hadn't gone to observe by lifting info from photos on the 'net and from other reporters' stories in less famous newspapers. What next for Jayson, now that he's been outed and barred from his beloved Times newsroom? Well, maybe he'll go the way of Stephen Glass, who was fired five years ago from The New Republic for doing the same kind of thing. (This too is from today's NYT, in the Week In Review section.) He "fabricated" (love that word) "at least part of 27 articles." And now? He's disguised the story of this adventure as a novel and sold it to Simon & Schuster for $100,000 advance. Still, the New Republic is not the hallowed New York Times, and a mere 27 fibs is small potatoes next to Blair's career. You got to admire the guy, Blair, I mean, not Glass. Even my sometime collaborator Mr. Glib could have done what Glass did; in fact, I suspect Hyacinth Glib did do it, just using Glass as a front. (For more on HG, click here.) What Blair did was much more complex, involving cellphone and laptop manipulations as well as a lot of hard work looking up stuff to back up stories when he was challenged. He must have put as much energy into it as if he actually had made those trips and interviewed those people.

I don't think even Edgar Allen Poe himself could have pulled off a more complete and sustained hoax. Mainly because Poe didn't have the patience. That he had the talent is clear from one of my favorite newspaper hoaxes of all time, headlined Astounding News by Express, via Norfolk! - The Atlantic crossed in Three Days!, published in the New York Sun in 1835. But Poe wasn't trying to make his career this way -- he was having a great joke (filled with clues to the alert reader, including that the balloon is said to have lifted off from Rotterdam on April 1) and exploring what he thought were real scientific possibilities. Poor Poe, wasting his talents on poetry, mysteries and booze. He could have made a great charlatan.

Cities again
Well, just what is a city? And was Tenochtitlan, with its 200,000 inhabitants, one? There are lists of criteria drawn up by various urbanologists, all based on European models. But all such lists are arbitrary. Is a place still a "city" if almost everybody is occupied, either directly or indirectly, in agricultural production? And I don't mean just by going to the supermarket. In Tenochtitlan even the tlatoani ("he who speaks," same original meaning as the latin "dictator") had his lands producing food. Right now I'm inclined to think of Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City is today) as both and simultaneously one of the world's largest cities of its time (possibly the very largest) and the largest agricultural village. This rumination has led me to explore the etymology of these terms, and I recommend to you a wonderful site for word-lovers, the Online Etymology Dictionary, created and maintained lovingly by Douglas Harper -- for free. City, urbs, civil, town, village and so on. Of course, what is more relevant in my work is what such concepts meant to Spaniards in 1519 and the following years. I'll get back to you on that. I'm getting closer to understanding something I think is important.