Monday, October 18, 2010

The Fount of Boredom

I'm supposedly writing a paper. But I'm really staring at the computer screen and doing random paper-related things peppered with absolutely paper-unrelated things. Because I feel like this:

Not that I feel like reading this novel right now*; I feel as awkward as its style. Ble.

*It's Henry James's The Sacred Fount, which I must read at some point because it's supposed to be as terrible as this beginning. Pot calling the kettle black, eh...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I'm Back

Don't ask me why. I just love bad writing (reading it, writing it) way too much to stop. If you like it too, please stop by with your cup of tea or coffee and let's procrastinate together.

cookie monster

To clarify the changes in the author blurb: same person, just obsessively changing pseudonyms and email accounts. Please stick with the newest idea.

Much love,


The One in Which I Argue with Henry James*

From Azarian: An Episode (1864), by Harriet Prescott Spofford:

If he massacred your dolls when you were children twice (because he found her new hiding place for her toys), it looks like there's no hope for him. Sadly, the protagonist, Ruth, doesn't give up on Azarian even after his grand speech on how he imagines their marriage:

Henry James hated the novel for its 'unrealistic plot', 'unconvincing characters', and abundance of descriptive passages. Focusing on giving Prescott advice (write like French male writers!), James didn't think that the excess in the descriptions could have an ironic quality, or that boredom experienced by the protagonist was quite poignant, not to mention that the two aspects of the novel related to a distinctly different experience than that of French (or American) men.

Azarian would be À rebours à rebours if not for the fact that it was written earlier than Huysmans's novel. Art is an important theme in the novel, but not the "art for art's sake" of the decadent dandy, but the art of women painters (such as Ruth) or women of theater (such as her friend Charmian), or the work of salon hostesses such the mysterious Mme Saratov; art that does not conceal its relationship to money and does not enshroud itself in a veneer of "isolated genius."

The successful artist Ruth believes she has to get married because 'that's just what women do.' As she explains to a well-meaning friend who's trying to warn her about Azarian: "I see what you mean, yet marriage is the natural condition of maturity. Even a bad and selfish man must therefore be a better one if he has a wife If it were question with me ... of marrying such a man as those you knew, I should feel when the dazzle of his days was off how dull and dreary would they wear away. I would bide my time, I would marry him, serve him cheer him, be his slave" (199).

She's tortured by these ideas, driven mad by them to the point when she doesn't realize she's financially independent (her paintings sell extremely well) and that she was much less lonely before Azarian appeared and chased away her friend and love, the actress Charmian.

Azarian is a novel about death of boredom and the delusion of passivity. It's also a novel about women's talent being reduced to craft and fancy rather than artistry and imagination. That's what Azarian does to Ruth and James to Prescott. James accuses her of writing puppets rather than people, but are these categories necessarily mutually exclusive?

*It's easy to argue with the dead--they don't tend to talk back.


One of my three favorite songs about Ameeeerica. The other ones are "Pretty Good Year" (also by Tori Amos) and Hugh Laurie's moving tribute.

Finally, a Penguin's-Eye View of Antarctica on Google Maps

Take me there.

For a summer at Arctowski. I'm not joking, I'm just getting back in touch with my seven-year-old self.

Polska Ska from 1965

Alibabki, "Echo Ska"
from the album "W rytmach Jamaica ska" - Veriton, 1965

Poverty Porn

Poverty porn is, among other things, a genre of Polish literature. It's a relative of the misery memoir, but if they should meet at family reunions, it would be clear they are not on speaking terms. Because the misery memoir is premised on at least the pretense of its author going through hell, while the author of poverty porn is always looking down on hell from the distance of several storeys, typing away gleefully, while her elbows rest on the cushion of her middle-class status and her higher education.

The poverty porn writer is the smartest person you will ever know: he can break down the walls of epistemological impossibility and inhabit the bodies of the underprivileged better than they can. He will tell you all about the filth, offer graphic and heartbreaking description of incest and sex for food, he will even paint a vivid picture of the thought process of an uneducated person, linguistic lapses and childlike logic included. Thanks to his insight you will see what it's like not to have the will to live, not to have absolutely anything to look forward to, and what it's like to eat rotten leftovers straight from the dumpster.

Most importantly, perhaps, the poverty porn writer will show you what it's like to get aroused by all this. Beatings, garbage, teeth and gum problems, blisters, abuse, family dysfunction--she will show you how it can give you a hard on. It's real life, baby. The life around us that we fail to notice but which, in its rawness, has an authenticity we can only hope to emulate.

The poverty porn author not only notices but drinks from this fount of truth as fast as he can type. There's ardor in this, but also a kind of coolness that comes from calling the shots: you all are spoiled and privileged brats, you readers, but the writer is the one who can reach past his privileges into the dumpster of lifeforce, becoming the blood brother of his characters without even pricking his finger.

He knows. She knows. And you too can know some of this if you're willing to spend 30 PLN for a grain of truth that won't -- and don't even try to delude yourself -- give you any comfort. There's no hope for the sad characters of these tales. They go on to reproduce amidst the debris and then they turn into the debris and all you and the writer can do is watch and nod your heads in appreciation of this inevitability.

* * *

That's how I see this genre's modus operandi. I find it difficult to point to a specific "originary work," but the inception of poverty porn is connected to the growing wealth gap in Poland. Perhaps I should say, to the growing visibility of the wealth gap, because, obviously, there has always been a wealth gap, though before 1989 that fact was being covered up quite well by communist ideology and by the absence of celebrity journalism.

The work that stands out to me as the high point (maybe it is the "originary work," I'm not sure) of poverty porn is Dorota Masłowska's debut novel, Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną [Snow White and Russian Red] from 2002; though her column in Przekrój took the pornographic aspect to the next level. I can still recall one of her descriptions, which is in itself a condensation of what all the texts from the column were about. It's a description of Masłowska looking at an old homeless man digging in a dumpster, which takes the form of an ode to the homeless man--it's Masłowska's Petrarch pining away for the forlorn and unapproachable male and homeless Laura, who obviously only seeks some edible leftovers and maybe clothes. The description is quite openly erotic, and all of writing about poverty I have encountered after Wojna polsko-ruska shares that prurient fascination, even if it covers it up with moralizing about the duty of describing "the true Poland that goes unnoticed."

How does it go unnoticed if you all are gawking at it?

Yes, some of the poverty porn novels are pretty good. Masłowska has an ear for language, she is witty, and imaginative. Sylwia Chutnik's debut, Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet, exhibits a great sense of humor and a feminist sensibility (not to mention the author's love of Warsaw, which translates into a gripping portrait of the city). And yet--it's still poverty porn. And it is that because the vantage point of the author, regardless of assurances to the contrary, is high, high above their characters'. It's speculation about poverty, it's like trying on a coat in a second hand shop to feel it, smell it, and leave it there, walking out enriched with a whiff of a different person and of a different life.

However, in imagining a life without the perks of education and an (at least somewhat) well-to-do family, the writers are taking more away even from their subjects--the truth about their existence and about their thoughts. The writers have them pinned down like specimens in glass cases. You can't argue with me, I have whole internal monologues written down in your voice.

And nobody will argue, because how could they? Without the time, and often the ability to write books, and have those be publishable books, on top of everything. And to be able to find a publisher.

Putting all that aside--the position of the impoverished is not a position of authority, not a preferred speaking position, if it really is your lot, and not a literary mask.

So, we could ask, if "they" don't write their stories, what's the harm in someone else doing that? Well, it's not "their" stories then. It's looking down on "them," ascribing traits and thoughts to "them," and getting off on that.

* * *

There have been many similarly problematic cases in literary history: the as-told-to biographies of American Indians where biographers would intervene and have their subject oddly accuse herself of "savagery" against all logic, or The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which Thomas Gray would have you believe that Turner thought of himself as an insane monster.

Editing has its pitfalls too: Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted to take Harriet Jacobs' story and use it in her own novel, and Lydia Maria Child who did act as an editor for Jacobs, toned her story down, sentimentalized it, and gave it a preface that today we would find condescending.

But editing at least doesn't take the subject's voice away from her. And it makes the roles clear: you are the one who owns the story, and I am here to help you tell it.

My largest issue with the texts I accuse of making poverty pornographic is the authors' assumption of a position that is very distant from their actual perspective on the issues they describe and belongs to a weaker party, a party that lacks the intellectual capital to compete with them.

Of course, fiction is not bound to be autobiographical or faithful to any rules but those that it sets out for itself. But when the authors put forward arguments about society and social functions of literature, then it's clear that it's not just fiction and literariness that are at stake here.

If what you want to do is make a statement about society with your work, say who you are and where you're coming from. Say what it's like to look at and not share, what it's like not to be able to completely understand, while wanting to understand.

I'm waiting for works that instead of offering disability fantasies or fantasies about Polish-speaking Roma from Romania, speak about distance, desire, and anger of those who want to understand more. If you're really after important things that go unnoticed, you will have hit the jackpot with this, dear writer.

More Love for Poznań

Because they made another video.

The Strange Case of the Americano

[Image from the facebook fanpage of Café Kawka, Poznań]

Kawa szatan is, of course, very strong coffee, not necessarily espresso. It's the kind you have only now and then, in cases of intellectual emergency. It's best, of course, to have these emergencies in good company, either at home or in a reliable café, where you know you won't get a paper cup with a plastic lid. Kawa szatan needs a comfortable vessel in which to flaunt its aroma and taste.

Kawa szatan is best not had on an empty stomach. It's black and bitter and, thus, breaks very nicely the sweetness of sernik or szarlotka.

How to determine whether your coffee is a szatan or not?

If you're European, the question isn't very pertinent, unless you're a gastric sufferer, in which case the first sip will tell you. For Americans, regular coffee in Europe is bound to have hellish force - but it's not satan if a local person doesn't understand your surprise at its strength.

If the regular coffee is too much for you, order an Americano. It's the opposite of what you think it is: in most places I know in Europe Americano is NOT a coffee with a shot of espresso (like it is in the US), but regular coffee diluted to 'standard American coffee strength.'