Why Cultural Significance Is The Best Job I Ever Had
"My social status in the last year has gone from zero to hero."
For many years — nearly 20 — I have lived far away from many of the people I love best. But we still feel close, because we write long, private, free-form letters. It's good practice for writing stories and novels, apparently. So when I was hailed as a genius for publishing The Wallcreeper and offered serious money to publish Mislaid, my first thought was, If I can do this, so can all my friends! Immediately, I started enlisting them.
Terror management theory (a psychosocial hypothesis) tells us that culture fills an urgent void in our lives. "Life in itself is nothing," as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, "an empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs." Participation in finer, higher things takes our minds off life's cruelty. Under TMT, writers are people who see a potential match between their abilities and literary culture's intimations that writing is one of those finer, higher things that transcend death — not literally, not as immortality, but as reasons to take courage and feel relatively cheerful. Like beautiful homes, cute babies, or noble careers helping others, books can make us feel like we mean something positive, and in gratitude we truly love them.
Even readers who never aspire to write books can read, write reviews, and participate in literary culture in other ways. Belief makes it all worthwhile, while seeing through to life's empty-cupness brings mourning, depression, and fear. When the lovely home is lost in a divorce, when the aging baby chews pizza with its mouth open, when experts determine that the noble career enabled dependence and learned helplessness — books will still be there for you.
Thus, while my belief that books matter is irrational, it is (with my other beliefs) vital to my survival. It tells me that certain books — like certain people, animals, places, processes, and experiences — are ends in themselves, worth valuing for their own sake, and that while many of these books are hundreds of years old, some are still being written…
…by me! That's what the experts say! ME!!! In literary culture, appointed experts decide which books make the cut, and some of them think my books are really good! In my own belief system, I occupy a position near the top!
And because virtually everyone I know well is a Person of the Book like me — starting with those few devoted letter writers, but with a conspicuous current trend toward exponential increase and a possible snowballing event; a novelist meets a lot of book lovers — they all seem to agree that I matter. My social status in the last year has gone from zero to hero. Where will it all end? Recently, total strangers wanted to have a formal dinner party in my honor, like in the last (?) episode of Sex and the City where Carrie blows off those Parisians because she's too busy following Mikhail Baryshnikov around some art gallery. (I got out of it by dropping in preemptively for teriyaki in the kitchen with the kids.) A stranger offered me a tenure-track job at an Ivy League school! I was invited to the Edinburgh Festival! A photo editor asked me who she should book for makeup and hair! Cultural significance is by far the best job I ever had. In a pinch I can pass the time just sitting there congratulating myself.
My friends who, if they were to write novels as well as letters, could also quit their day jobs in favor of transcendence IMO, in no particular order: Avner (meaning Avner Shats, already a novelist, but I'm convinced he could make a living writing), Johanna, Ben, Chantal…
Yet who among them has what it takes to pull down a seven-figure advance? Who will be flying us all to his 50th birthday party at some huge, tacky spread in Baja?
Not a novelist, but a memoirist: James P. Graham of West Philadelphia.
Yes, Jamie, this means you. For too long I have retailed your anecdotes while misremembering them. e.g., "Crusty Mattress-Back" with its image of your putting on a bathrobe, driven to the semblance of nudity by your lack of a shirt without a leftist or anarchist slogan on it, rushing to explain to the policeman at the door how the dead 14-year-old came to be in your bathtub; the uncritical readiness with which he believed the truth — that she had been revived by EMTs, then wandered off to rejoin the very friends who thought to shock her into life by packing her in ice. Of her friends and the police, whose nihilism was the more obscene, whose ignorance more troubling? I will quote no one (spoilers). All I can say is, my god. Or "Adolf," the shy young Nazi with poor social skills. Why was he always hanging around the anarchist bookstore, of all places, accepted and tolerated even as he entered pro-Axis screeds into its collective diary ("Book of Unlove") in dense black Fraktur script? Granted, even Nazis have their limits, but did his annoying ways constitute sufficient reason for them to abandon him on the porch wrapped in a carpet? Was "mutilation of a corpse" truly the relevant criminal charge?
Many of the most vivid real-life scenes I know are drawn not from my own experience, but from Jamie's. I tend to be slightly fastidious in the company I keep. As a woman, you almost need to be. If a guy tells you his sexuality is "rapist," do you still walk him to an abandoned house to play Call of Cthulhu, as a woman? No. Whereas Jamie knowingly confronts the darkness that will soon envelop us all, because it's that tough to find a quorum for Call of Cthulhu. When iniquity reaches its ironic peak, he falls into wide-eyed giggling. I rip him off endlessly. His tales of Operation Equinox (junior year abroad in federal prison) were my inspiration for a good bit of Mislaid. There's a reason the narrator of The Wallcreeper is named Tiffany.
Jamie has some solid writing experience, if only for World War Three Illustrated, Lap Dance, and Modern Drunkard. (Modern Drunkard was a one-off gig, because they beat him up with chairs at the launch party.) Plus, he writes reports on his cases for work. He would never rat out a fictive underclass like some social workers I've read about! He's simply leading a good life in a world ruled by evil fates and/or laws too invidious to be written down. Of every boyfriend or husband I ever had, he was the one my shy, defeated physicist dad could really talk to — because nerdiness transcends all subcultural divides. Nerds can be raging anarchist ex-cons! Nerds can be beaten and cheated and lose! It happens so easily. Jamie's term for it: "Charlie Brown karma." Death by sincerity.
Which reminds me of another soon-to-be-famous fan of Charles M. Schulz: erstwhile "bird lover" Jonathan Franzen.
I have a good friend in Philadelphia who's a journalist and a very serious writer — a poet, not a novelist, so she first heard of Franzen when googling my name for the first time, in my presence, two months ago. There she saw a photo of us together, launching The Wallcreeper at McNally Jackson in New York. She said, "This guy looks exactly like Jamie! Even the admiring way he's looking at you! He's Jamie!"
That evening (I was visiting Philly for the weekend), I got together with Jamie, not having seen him in several years, and I saw that she was right.
Back in New York, a few days later, I met up with Franzen again. I was able to reconfirm: Jonathan Franzen is Jamie Graham. Same featureless face. Same hair (Jamie's is grayer, though he's 10 years younger). Same wide-eyed giggle of recognition. Same earnest search for lasting meaning in a world of steep stone stairs carpeted with blood.
What does this tell us?
I don't know, I really don't. Obviously something transcendent.
What are the commonalities?
Both are suburbanites. Both like the Grateful Dead. One is a literary gold mine; the other — a rich deposit of literary gold still slumbering beneath its protective oil field.
Of course I've spoken with Jamie about this issue at length. He needs to draft a memoir, get a fucking huge advance, and move to Santa Cruz. He has a working title: Anger, Acid, and Anarchy. Agents of the world, the ball is in your court. Contact Jamie now before somebody else snaps him up! He's modest and may need professional help assuming the protagonist role. Right now, for instance, instead of working on his memoirs, he's helping craft a nonfiction play (this project will never net anyone a dime, much less mainstream cultural consecration) about three tag-teaming anarchist men, working title: The Trifucta. Someone needs to wave some money around and get his attention!
THE END — yet I feel I should not close without mentioning one more person, a gifted writer who is not my friend at all. I don't know him, and he's not consistently pleasant toward me, as befits a writer who secretly cares more about writing than anything else, even getting laid. (He tries to preserve his dignity by claiming his interest in me is sexual, I think because failing — however miserably — to seduce me wouldn't have nearly the embarrassment potential of succeeding at what he really wants, which is to publish a first book of fiction at age 60-plus.) He's a real estate developer and lawyer with his own bookstore and art gallery and llamas roaming his vast estate, and he interviewed me on the phone for nearly an hour. That's his way of participating in literary culture: He talks to writers for the bookstore's podcast.
So I was like, whatever, let me know when you get to 60,000 words in a row, and we'll get coffee. One (1) cup.
I think his response was something like "Only 59,991 more words until your lips meet mine." That was in October.
But recently he wrote to me, inviting me to a literary benefit in the Hamptons — an annual party at which, he claims, he has seen Franzen in the past, along with Gwyneth Paltrow and Alec Baldwin, and where I will be put up at some famous person's house and expected to do little more than sign books and scamper on the beach. It's plain as day he hopes to participate in literary culture by scoring a night of passion and/or being seen with literary "It girl" Nell Zink.
Some assistant editor somewhere should tell him what it's like to sleep with an author. It's not literary. You can even marry one. It won't rub off. It won't ward off the terror. You have to do the work.
I repeat: 60,000 words, and the coffee's on me.
Nell Zink grew up in rural Virginia. She has worked at a variety of trades, including masonry and technical writing. In the early 1990s, she edited an indie rock fanzine. Her writing has also appeared in n+1. Her debut novel The Wallcreeper was published in 2014. Her second novel Mislaid was published in May 2015 by Ecco. She lives near Berlin, Germany.
To learn more about Mislaid, click here.