The Abecedarian Diaries of Edward Champion

[PREFACE TO THE DIARIES: Sometime in 2021, I ran into Eric Chinski, who was then the editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I bought Chinski a drink. Chinski then snarled at me and screamed, “Why is this motherfucking mixologist serving bottom-shelf liquor?” I gave Chinski a hug. Because I knew he had fastidious standards: in drinks and in books. Then he condemned my hug as being “not sufficiently supportive.” I flashed a look at the jazz drummer, who was between sets on the small dais, and he shrugged — this after I had tipped him ten bucks while the affluent people around me didn’t even acknowledge him at all. Chinski then mentioned something about Charles Sumner being caned by Preston Brooks and how this was a better way of resolving disputes than the system that we had now. (These are the sorts of subjects that obnoxious literary people tend to bandy about.) And somehow the two of us were kicked out of the bar. Chinski had made the mistake of leaving his coat inside the bar. And the bouncer refused to let either of us in to reclaim said coat. As I observed Chinski’s face turn blue from pneumonia, I gave him my coat. Chinski stopped shivering, but seemed oblivious to my own lack of protection against the elements. (I would spend the next week in bed, holed up with the flu, with only a Costco package of Chunky Soup and a cat I had kidnapped from one of my neighbors for company.) Chinski asked me to call him a Lyft and I did. As we waited for the driver, I told Chinski that I had access to one of my diaries, but that this was a special diary — one that extended into 2029. Chinski was intrigued by the idea and suggested that I put all of the diary entries in order. “We could publish it as a book! The Abecedarian Diaries of Edward Champion! It could be your comeback!” “Who on earth would be interested in anything I had to say?” I asked. “Oh, they wouldn’t,” said Chinski. “But they would be very interested in knowing what awaited them in the future!” Then, as the Lyft sailed up to the curb, Chinski tossed me my coat, offered me a fourteen ingredient recipe for restorative cocoa, and said that the people at FSG would be in touch with me. Well, as you can see from the entries, things went a little sideways. And it was Sheila Heti who used her mercenary business skills and literary connections to claim my idea as her own. And would you believe it? She changed “Abecedarian” to “Alphabetical.” The nerve! These days, I try not to get involved in literary disputes, but I do feel compelled to share you some of the diary entries that I passed on to Chinski. I shall let the reader infer the veracity of my book project. But I still maintain that I was first!]

The Abecedarian Diaries (2019-2029)

Ambulance sirens nonstop. Three people I know are now dead of this COVID thing. How much Minesweeper and Wolfenstein can I play to distract myself from crying? (April 4, 2020)

* * *

Another message from Sheila Heti in the office. Why does she keep calling me? More importantly, how does the receptionist maintain a supply of those pink WHILE YOU WERE OUT slips? I didn’t even know they were manufactured anymore, much less sold in stores. I’m not sure why Heti keeps calling and I have no idea what she wants or how she tracked down where I work. But I am worried. This deal with FSG barely came together and now Chinski is telling me on the q.t. that they can’t publish me because I’ve been canceled multiple times. But you know the literary world. Everything is constructed on a delicate framework. I’m tempted to call Heti back, but the last time I ran into her (at a mellow board games cafe in The Annex, where she was the only one not playing games and complained about agents and publishers asking her to write fiction to her male companion), she was insufferable, as she always is. (July 9, 2022)

* * *

Biden really fumbled the debate tonight. He’s looking older and frailer. And most people I’ve talked with don’t have any confidence in him. But he’s the only candidate we have. Senescence or fascism. These are the choices. Still I can’t help but wonder why these Republican front-runners keep committing suicide. Yeah, I know they keep unsealing these court documents, but surely it’s not that bad, is it? This is the third guy who Biden has had to debate after the first two killed themselves. And I guess we’ll find out what’s in these documents once the historians roll up their sleeves and publish their books in the next ten years! (October 22, 2024)

* * *

Big news from my agent! Chinski is all in with the alphabetical diaries book! He says that people will at long last understand me! FSG can’t pay me much, but it is a solid boost to one’s confidence to have some publisher interested. Granted, I don’t think that anything I have to say in my diaries is especially important. And I think rearranging my diary entries into alphabetical order isn’t going to reveal anything especially interesting about me. (November 4, 2021)

* * *

Can you believe it? They finally got Gaetz. Again! Took ’em long enough. Now if only the people of Florida would stop electing convicted felons to office. (March 4, 2028)

* * *

Carl Wilson was kind enough to return my call this morning. He says my best bet as a writer is to write a nice little book for 33+1⁄3 on Taylor Swift. If I have the Swifties in my corner, maybe I have a shot at salvaging the FSG deal. Although it looks like Johnson is sticking with Heti and claiming that Chinski was drunk and out of his fucking mind when he first agreed to publish The Alphabetical Diaries of Edward Champion as a book. (April 14, 2023)

* * *

Didn’t hear back from Chinski. That’s two weeks. I’m getting a little worried. My agent is also making calls. I haven’t called back Heti, although a contact I have who is close to Margaux Williamson suggest she’s behind this. As is that litblogger who she used to hook up with. I’m lying low for now and hoping for the best. JL and SR tell me that this is the kind of nonsense one should expect before publication. But this very much feels like an American Dirt-style inside job. And the hell of it is that this was just me rearranging a few of my diary entries in alphabetical order. (November 9, 2022)

* * *

Heti’s voicemails are growing increasingly deranged. Constant shouts. And is she playing mariachi music very loud in the back? Anyways, she’s claiming that she would ensure that I would never get published again if I didn’t abdicate the Alphabetical Diaries rights back to her. (Uh, like I was getting published before?) My agent said that Heti has us over a barrel. He also told me that he could no longer represent me as a client. So it looks like my book proposal is about to be plundered by that 46-year-old literary tyrant in Toronto. And it looks like the pub date is February 2024. Just as I thought I was getting a fucking break. Oh well. I still have my audio drama to record. (January 15, 2023)

* * *

I dropped down on my knee and she said yes! After four decades of being single, I’m finally going to get hitched! Never thought I was the marrying type, but she’s the right one and I can’t believe my luck! (July 3, 2025)

* * *

I’m now down twenty pounds ever since I stopped smoking. No desire for a cigarette anymore, but the endorphin rush of exercise has become all-consuming. What kind of man am I turning into? My younger self wouldn’t recognize this man. (March 24, 2025)

* * *

Met a fellow on the subway who had no teeth. I asked him to recite the Gettysburg Address and he took a swing at me. I can’t say I blame him. I’ve sometimes been tempted to growl at anyone who asks me to perform the “And I will go on hurting you” speech from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but it’s so much better to just get it over with. Do the goddamned monologue and remain congenial. Know what I mean? If they want my Khan Noonien Singh rather than my King Lear, it’s not my fault that they can’t appreciate my storm speech! (February 4, 2023)

* * *

Sony said yes! I can’t believe it. They are releasing my debut album, Dirges, Ballads, Ditties Goddammit from a Bald Man!, in the fall of 2026! And I’m getting a ten city tour! I asked my agent — the new one who actually knows how to tie a double Windsor knot — if he was sure that I could pack mid-sized venues like this. I’m a middle-aged man, for fuck’s sake. And he said that the publicity machine believes me to the second coming of Kris Kristofferson with this new material. He also told me that I’ll need to grow a beard and be “more sensitive” in interviews — whatever the hell that means! Man, if I knew it would have gone down like this, I never would have attempted to be part of the literary racket! (August 18, 2025)

* * *

The former literary biographer so bereft of purpose that he shoots up the Mall of America, killing 45 people before turning the gun on himself. A tragic day. I remember a happy day years ago in which [REDACTED] took me to the Mall and I ended up buying a goofy Zygons shirt. Making calls to peeps in the Twin Cities this morning to make sure they’re okay. (May 19, 2026)

* * *

Went home last night with a cute woman who locked eyes with me last night at the Cobra Club. Woke up this morning and learned that she had herpes. After cooking her breakfast and being forced to give her $200 (she apparently took compromising photos of me as I slept), I called Planned Parenthood to schedule an appointment to test and remove any potential genital warts. But apparently there’s a lot of this thing going around and the first available appointment is three months from now. (November 21, 2019)

How Should an Essayist Write?

As the essayist’s hairline receded, expanding a pale crescent patch where no follicle would sprout for the remainder of the essayist’s natural life, the critic Adam Kirsch had already killed the essayist’s jocular efforts to confront this biological aspect of getting older. The essayist had deigned to entertain himself, with the idea that others might share his laughter, and was therefore a raging egomaniac. The essayist had squandered his potential. He could write a funny or even vaguely literary sentence — indeed, he was tittering over the idea of his head as a gardening region for hair when he wrote that first sentence — but that joy which the essayist wished to impart to his reading audience, whoever they were, would involve the audience “knowing the rules of the game.”

The essayist, not knowing which game was being played, consulted the instructions for Trivial Pursuit, the board game closest to his reach in the closet and discovered this paragraph under the heading Winning the Game:

Once you’ve collected one scoring wedge in each color, make your way to the hub and try to answer the game-winning question. You must land in the hub by exact count; if you overshoot the hub, pick the spoke you want to move down and answer the question in the category you land on; then, on your next move, try again to hit the hub by exact count.

The essayist had never intended to make his way to the hub. But instructed by Kirsch, he knew that even if he did collect all six scoring wedges, he would never be “truly confessional” or “never intentionally reveal anything that might jeopardize the reader’s esteem.” The essayist (hereinafter referred to as “the Playah”) never realized that he was actively engaged in confessing anything while writing an essay, much less living up Kirsch’s snobbish and antidemocratic ideal. And the Playah has never known any other Playah who has, during the act of baring her soul, looked upon the contents of her emotional cupboard and measured the very difficult ingredients in some analytical Pyrex measuring cup to be held up in relation to the audience. If “Love me” is the “all-but-explicit plea” that any Playah adopts in writing an essay, is this so bad? Doesn’t contending with feeling, especially difficult feeling, involve establishing some minimum camaraderie? Even if you don’t quite know who you’re connecting to during that exciting moment where you’re sifting through experience and trying to make sense of it and not really knowing how it’s all supposed to measure up?

Not if you’re an analytical and fairly humorless* critic who wishes to uphold measures (Philip Larkin from a 1984 book of leftovers, natch) that haven’t applied to essays for more than a hundred years. For according to Adam Kirsch, the Playah (hereinafter referred to as “the essayist”) is a narcissistic phony primarily concerned with what the reader will think! The present-day essayist was now “performing” and applying “motives of amour-propre.” And it was important to use amour-propre because it was fancy and French and was better than typing out “self-respect.”

Unfortunately for Kirsch, the Internet presents us with a method of ascribing author intention, that cheap harlot often plucked from the rabu hoteru of the contemporary critic’s lonely mind, that is more accurate than vulgar speculation:

Sloane Crosley, The Days of Yore, November 12, 2012 interview: “But that’s the answer for essays and reviews and journalism. A goal the larger sense? God, do I have to have one? I just wanted to write as well as possible as often as possible. That last sentence would not be an example of either. But it is, simply, what I want and have always wanted. ”

Davy Rothbart, The Rumpus, September 4, 2012 interview: “I try to find the notes that make me laugh the most or make me tear up. So I just try to find the moments with the most intense emotions or, you know, where the funniest and weirdest and saddest shit happened.”

John Jeremiah Sullivan, The Rumpus, April 4, 2012 interview: “I am trying to charm the reader because I want him and her to come with me deeper into the piece. If you can bring them with you there, things get more interesting.” (Emphasis in original.)

So with Crosley and Rothbart, we see the essayists in question rely upon an entirely subjective notion of why they write and select material. With Sullivan, attracting the reader is an attempt to bring her “deeper” into the piece. Now it’s possible that all three of the essayists who Kirsch diminishes are adhering to some subconscious method of being “accessible” to readers. And if that was Kirsch’s real beef, he may very well have thrown a legitimate yellow card on the field. But that’s not what Kirsch is condemning. This is a question of labels, of whether an “essay” published in the last few decades has the right to be called an “essay”:

What is gained by calling these yarns essays, and insisting that they all really happened to Davy Rothbart?…These essays are born of just the same impulse, to seduce the reader with a display of ostentatious soul-baring. Davy Rothbart may be pathetic, he seems to say, but he really, really feels. Even the nickname “Davy” contributes to the man-child impression.

But can’t one make the same case against Montaigne’s “Of Experience”? ““I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.” As a college freshman has argued and as should be evident to anyone who has read the essay, Montaigne is clearly using himself as a way to come to terms with the world. Yet in establishing the connection between Montaigne and the writers that Kirsch deems “new essayists,” Kirsch recognizes that the self “has always been at the heart of the essay,” even though he diminishes “new essays’ for being “exclusively about the self” (even though Sullivan’s “At a Shelter (After Katrina),” “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” “American Grotesque,” and “La Hwi Ne Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist” — which can all be found in Pulphead — are largely removed from the very solipsism that Kirsch sullies Sullivan for and are not especially driven by the “prose equivalent of reality TV” — but, hey, fill in that sudoku puzzle however you please).

The rules of the game here are really the rules set by Kirsch through the paleolithic prism of Larkin. And according to this hoary code, an essayist can write exclusively about the self only if it can be sufficiently demonstrated that she is writing about the self and the world at large. What Kirsch is really complaining about is that the essay (hereinafter referred to as “Eh-Saaaaaaaay,” which is ideally pronounced with an upper crust nsal inflection) is no longer a medium exclusive to the educated class. He sees an antidote to this in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, but is unwilling to entertain the possibility that Heti’s very representation of “Sheila Heti” is charmless in its “inventiveness” because Heti would prefer to bullshit like a superannuated bright young thing rather than confront the horrors of the “true” self in Eh-Saaaaaaaay form. Which I suppose puts Kirsch and me on the same team which desires writing that reveals genuine character. But why not more? And why confine the Eh-Saaaaaaaay to such stringent labels? Kirsch is apparently immune to the ironic charms that James Wood detected in Sullivan’s “Getting Down to What is Really Real.” Where Wood smartly identifies how “one can’t be entirely sure whether Sullivan is excitedly expressing his love for the show or is amusedly mocking his own fandom,” Kirsch is inflexible because the Eh-Saaaaaaaay, by way of not being fiction, is somehow forbidden from pursuing the same truth. Which is a doughty and needlessly conservative way of looking at literature.

It’s possible that Kirsch simply lives too sheltered or incurious a life to consider the distinct possibility that a person could legally change her last name to “Universe” (when, in fact, people have petitioned courts to change their names to to worse appellations). Maybe he doesn’t want to believe in Rothbart’s stories because he’s never met a hoodlum or a Mexican prostitute and has no sense of adventure. Maybe he lacks the imagination or the patience to entertain a liar in Eh-Saaaaaaaay form. He writes, “Story is what happens when the antithesis of truth and lie is reconciled in a higher artistic synthesis,” but isn’t willing to concede that readers who believed in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” don’t feel especially deceived after they have learned that the details aren’t entirely airtight.

When Orwell identified the reasons why he wrote, he was savvy enough to impart to the reader “how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.” He saw the act of writing as reconciling his likes and his dislikes “with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.” What is gained in condemning this natural process? What is achieved in dictating the manner in which an essayist writes when the critic in question lacks the capacity to consider a broader world and have a good time? Why confine the essay to the whims of an impetuous and imperious elite averse to the eclectic possibilities of the human condition?

In short, Adam Kirsch is living in the wrong century.

* — “There is a particular kind of humor,” writes Kirsch in sullying the “new essay,” as if any drift from serious and high-minded writing must be stubbed out with the ardor of Sen. Joseph McCarthy singling out anyone remotely “Communist” and destroying careers.