Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

An interesting exchange between Vollmann and Kate Braverman: “If freedom means anything, it’s about being repulsive as well as being able to do flower paintings. I believe that we have to focus on the other. I’m not saying pedophilia is right. But I imagined someone who would be, by our culture’s standards, the most vile and repulsive character, worse than Osama bin Laden. But let’s make him wise and a guide or bridge to the Queen. And it’s through somebody like that Tyler gains entrance to the Queen. He endures humiliation and insult from Dan Smooth. That’s the price he pays. In so many ways, this novel is about degradation. One of the questions I’ve often had is, when does self-actualization end and degradation begin? What does it really mean if we’re going to try to be ourselves? We don’t want to be conformists. We don’t want to follow social conventions, but how far do we want to take that?”

(Thanks, D!)

[UPDATE: Mr. Hogan has discovered the complete version of the interview.]

The Red Badge of Experiential Courage

Ocracoke Post compares Vollmann and Stephen Crane, noting that their respective work falls into adventure journalism. J.M. Tyree offers some fascinating comparisons (both authors were attracted to prostitutes in their early fiction), pointing out that the books that critics have singled out “historical fiction” as their greatest accomplishments (Europe Central and The Red Badge of Courage).

I’d venture one further comparison. Both authors plunged themselves hard into exotic settings before writing about them. And yet with these two books, one might argue that they are the most imagined. Vollmann, of course, did not observe World War II, save through the copious books at his disposal. Crane never observed a single battle.

In fact, what makes EC such an interesting departure from previous Vollmann novels is the way that EC‘s “narrator as guide,” a stylistic device found to varying degrees in nearly all of Vollmann’s work, is even more imagined this time around. The “narrator” often serves as a proletariat who seems to know all the inside and intimate dirt about top Party officials and the like, often referring to the reader as “comrade.”

It would seem that the early real-world obsessions that both Vollmann and Crane essentially gave them license to invent the world of danger in their later ficiton.


The word sounds vaguely Orwellian, reminiscent of a major shift in current events. But it is necessary, given that categorizing the content here is the only way that anyone, least of all myself, can make sense of it all.

As of today, I’ve written around 2,600 posts – 1,600 posts which remain uncategorized. For any other blogger, this may seem a ridiculous sum to collate into a taxonomy. But since I’m known to be somewhat zealous and anal about setting my ducks in a row, and since the categories offer a valuable method of tracking the development of my thoughts (such as they are) and associations, it has become essential for me to get them all set up once and for all during the first quarter of 2006. (I should note that this is part of a general self-imposed regimen to get my shit together. I still consider myself to be a very lazy man, but then the indolence standard I apply is comparable to 19th century labor.) It helps immensely that WordPress 2.0, with its DHTML “Add” box, has made it especially easy to categorize things. And 1,600 posts, at 20 posts to recategorize a day, is not as arduous a figure as one might expect.

My goal then is to provide a kind of uber-meta context for everything so that readers can participate more fully in the discussions and call me on my shit if I end up striking the same chord far too many times. A mini-Wikipedia with more ruthless standards, if you will. I’m hoping that some of the topics and obsessions here can flesh out into something more concrete, possibly becoming entirely new entities separate from this blog. And for the extremely bored reader determined to sift through the 2,600 or so posts (at an average of 500 words per post, that adds up to easily over a million words I’ve written here in the past two years, a tally that truly astonishes me), I’ve added little updates and annotations noting changes in information that seem pertinent or slightly entertaining.

All this probably means nothing to 99.99% of you. But I suppose what pushed me over the edge was some email correspondence with a few people about Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper project. Apparently, I’m the only Yank excited about it, much less aware of it, even if I can’t get my hands on any of the films in question. What I admire greatly about Greenaway’s project is the way that he has dared to throw information out there in an uncompromising way and that perhaps only he and a few people will understand it. Much like the novelist William T. Vollmann, Greenaway is one of the few prolific artistic visionaries out there producing a disparate body of work that grad students and artistic appreciators will spend years sifting through long after Greenaway’s death.

While I wouldn’t dare put myself or these efforts in the same pantheon as Vollmann or Greenaway, I am nevertheless hoping that this blog, which I apparently spend more time on than I realize, can serve a similar purpose. For the past two years, I have been working on various projects (limitless false starts and hundreds of pages of dialogue that have been painfully written and painfully thrown away), hoping that I can find a way of applying the brio that seems to come naturally here to that form. If experience serves as a guide, hard diligence and an open mind eventually leads me closer to the direction I need to be wandering in.

Recategorization then is partly a personal quest, to see exactly how frequently I am writing about certain topics and to drop kick the diffidence I apply to others and pursue them further. Only an information-obsessed geek will understand this impulse. But hopefully a few readers might find something of interest along the way.

Vollmann’s Favorite Books

Here is a list of the best books that Vollmann has ever read (as reported in “Something to Die For,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993, Vol 13, Issue 2, p. 25):

Tadeusz Konwicki, A Dreambook for Our Time
Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Lautreamont, Maldoror
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
Tolstoy, War and Peace
Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country
Hemingway, Islands in the Stream
The Poetic Edda
The tales of Chekhov
The tales of Hawthorne
Njal’s Saga
Sigrid Unset, Kristin Lavransdatter
Melville, The Piazza Tales
London, Martin Eden
Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch
The poems of Emily Dickinson
Faulkner, Pylon and The Sound and the Fury
Homer, the Odyssey and the Iliad
Nikos Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel
Heidegger, Being and Time
Poe, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym
Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes
Blake, Songs of Experience and Experience
Gyorgi Konrad, The Loser
Issac B. Singer, The Family Moskas
Bruno Schultz, The Street of Crocodiles
Malraux, Anti-Memoirs
The poems of Lorca
The poems of Mandelstam
Ovid’s Metamorphoses
The tales of D.H. Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Ivan Ilich, Tools for Conviviality
Mishima, the Sea of Fertility tetraology
Kimon Nicolaides, The Natural Way to Draw
The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders

Vollmann then writes:

Doubtless some people will want to complain about the women, blacks, reds, whites, blues and greens I left out, but I don’t really give a damn.

The beauty in these books would flourish more widely if the following social changes were made:

1. Abolish television, because it has no reverence for time.

2. Abolish the automobile, because it has no reverence for space.

3. Make citizenship contingent on literacy in every sense. Thus, politicians who do not write every word of their speeches should be thrown out of office in disgrace. Writers who require editors to make their books “good” should be depublished.

4. Teach reverence for all beauty, including that of the word.


William Vollmann won the National Book Award for Europe Central. Way to go, Vollmann. It is about time that Mr. Vollmann’s incredible output be recognized.

Between this and Banville winning the Booker, part of me wonders if there is some karmic conspiracy amongst the West Coast litbloggers and these awards.

When Vollmann accepted the award, he said, “I thought I’d lose, so I didn’t prepare a speech.” Ron has a first-hand account of the many “Oh my Gods” shouted over this unexpected win. But what’s also interesting is that many of the news outlets are putting Didion’s nonfiction victory for The Year of Magical Thinking over Vollmann’s win.

BBC: “Didion and Mailer win book prizes.”

Boston Globe: “Didion wins nonfiction Book Award.”

Reuters: “Top US nonfiction prize goes to Joan Didion.”

If Mary Gaitskill or Christopher Sorrentino had won instead of Vollmann, would they have received such secondary billing? Well, likely, given that Didion is the grand dame of nonfiction. But it’s interesting that the coverage, which has in past years valued the fiction winner over the nonfiction winner, has done just the reverse.

Other winners included poet W.S. Merwin for Migration. Merwin has been nominated for seven other awards, but had not won. Jeanne Birdsall won the young people’s literature award for The Penderwicks.

For more information on Vollmann, check out the Vollmann Club.

[UPDATE: And more here from Sarah, noting that the “minor surprise” or the “unsurprising” reactions that seem to have been reported after the fact (Vollmann won? Oh shit! Get that gun-toting nut off Page E1 because middle America isn’t interested in him. And, for god’s sake, play up Didion! Everyone loves Joan!) were very much not in evidence at the actual awards ceremony.]

[UPDATE 2: With associations of Merwin dancing in his head, Litkicks describes the 1975 dustup between Ginsberg and Merwin.]

[UPDATE 3: A good writeup by the Book Standard folks: “Vollmann began his acceptance speech about ten feet to the right of the microphone, and had to be shepherded over by an attendant. Still, in a tuxedo that looked several sizes too big for him, he came off quite charming, saying that he hadn’t expected to win, and so hadn’t prepared a speech, which, from the confused content of his thanks, appeared, for once, to be true….Vollmann’s win, then, may have been in part a big fat raspberry directed at the people who hoped the award would go to someone who sells.”

The Golden Boys of Literature

The inestimable Tito Perez sends along this Sam Sacks item concerning Dave Eggers’ Best American Nonrequired Reading Series, largely because of the Vollmann shoutout. Sacks decries the “wriggling spinelessness of [Eggers’] reviewers” just before going nuclear on the Eggman. The review is interesting for a few reasons: (1) I had thought that the New York Press was catering to centrist suburbanites under the new regime. Apparently, this isn’t the case with the literary section. (Will we see more Mark Ames-style takedowns?) (2) Sacks is quite right to point out that Eggers’ position as promoter and writer has gone largely uncriticized. I’m not sure if declaring Eggers “the Don King of literature” is the most effective way to draw a complete portrait. But if the New York snarkmeisters are going to hire doofuses like Steve Almond to savage indie media, they may as well be consistent in their targets. Certainly, they don’t pull punches like this on Fleet Street.

More Fun with Amazon

Amazon has recently instituted “text stats,” which measures a book by Fleish-Kincaid index (the higher you go, the more difficult it is to read), percentage of complex words and words per dollar. Now if this is the basis for why one should read, let’s see how the thickass literary heavy-hitters stand up:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.3
Complex Words: 11%
Words Per Dollar: 25,287

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 7.3
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 24,553

The Recognitions by William Gaddis
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.4
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 25,458

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 9.5
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 24,086

The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.6
Complex Words: 9%
Words Per Dollar: 31,532

Ulysses by James Joyce
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 6.8
Complex Words: 10%
Words Per Dollar: 16,777

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
Fleisch-Kincaid Index: 8.5
Complex Words: 14%
Words Per Dollar: 20,944

And here are the winners.

Best Words Per Dollar Value: William T. Vollmann
Author You’ll Need Your Dictionary For: Richard Powers
Most Difficult to Read: Thomas Pynchon (w/ David Foster Wallace a close second)
Easiest to Read: William T. Vollmann (w/ James Joyce a close second)

Who is Brian Leiter (And Who Really Cares) and Why Did He Invite Himself to Write a Bitter Blog Post?

Brian Leiter quibbles over the New York Times‘ decision to run a lengthy review by William T. Vollmann on the new Curtis Cate biography of Frederich Nietzsche. Mr. Leiter, who apparently is a professor of philosophy, suggests that Vollmann has no expertise in the subject and displays none in his review.

I think Leiter is confusing the act of reviewing a biography (which does, after all, concern itself with a subject and his personal details first) with the act of summing up a man’s philosophy. Aside from Leiter subscribing to the traditional “credentialed” nonsense that often comes from bitter academics (perhaps because, while Leiter remains institutionalized and apparently quite miserable — in Texas, no less — Vollmann is busy turning out endless volumes of books, including a seven-volume treatise on violence), he concerns himself with Vollmann’s alleged failure to discuss Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas.

Leiter suggests that Vollmann “bizarrely ascribes” a “realism” to Nietzsche and suggests that Nietzsche does not hold the view that “cruelty is innate,” complaining that Vollmann fails to cite a specific passage. I’m fairly certain that Vollmann was suggesting one of Nietzsche’s most infamous statements from Thus Spake Zarathrusta, something that a certain Austrian perhaps took too much to heart: “Man is the cruelest animal. Whatever is most evil in his best power and the hardest stone for the highest creator.” Far from a “People magazine speculation,” Vollmann is willing to give the NYTBR readership the benefit of the doubt, presuming that they are familiar with Nietzsche’s basics. Further, Vollmann framed the “realism” within quotes, leaving little question to the reader that this was a speculation on Nietzsche’s capacity to tell the truth about the human race. This commonality, of course, what separates Vollmann’s work from many of his contemporaries on both the fiction and the nonfiction fronts.

Leiter suggests that Aristotle’s influence was “notable for his almost total absence from the corpus” and then deflates his argument by pointing to a few examples. I would argue that to dwell into the exact nature and percentage of Aristotle’s influence upon Nietzsche is to not only quibble over pedantics (something that more properly serves the purpose of academic journals, with their reams of paper quibbling over singular passages), but to ignore the realities of editing and publishing a major newspaper that is designed, after all, for mass consumption.

Leiter then offers a cheap shot, suggesting that Vollmann’s stroke has impaired his abilities to think. He then continues on this Aristotle tangent. However, I will agree with Leiter about his nitpicking concerning “individual Jews,” even though his own observation is largely a red herring.

Mr. Leiter’s post is more blustery than helpful and is about as uninviting as it gets. Personally I’m just a guy who knows a little more than the basics about Frederich N. and I’m sure Leiter certainly knows much more than I do about philosophy. But if Leiter seriously believes that the New York Times Book Review is intended to be serious and intellectual, then he clearly hasn’t followed its decline since the Bill Keller pledge to go more commercial from early 2004 and is similarly “uncredentialed” to weigh in. I also sincerely doubt nepotism factored into Sam Tanenhaus’s decision to hire Vollmann. Vollmann has always existed on an uncompromising edge, daring to write about issues that most novelists and journalists keep their heads in the sand about, and has faced a certain stigma enforced by folks too flustered to hear the truth.

While I agree to some extent with Leiter’s cri de coeur for intellectualism, his arrows here are misplaced. A biography is not a philosophical text, nor necessarily a response to philosophy. It tells us about a man and his details, yes. But it is not necessarily concerned with philosphy — although, it is helpful to the scholar wanting to find additional (if tertiary) context.

Where She Stops, Nobody Knows!

  • Video game developer Vivendi Universal, in search of a Tom Clancy-style name, has signed a deal to develop games based on Ludlum’s thrillers. Ludlum’s death in 2001 will no doubt ensure creative flexibility (or what’s known in the field as “pillaging in front of a gravestone”).
  • When you run out of television remakes to film, there’s always cheesy 1970s science fiction. The Cell director Tarsem Singh is on tap to remake Westworld. The Governator was originally on board to play the android played by Yul Brynner, but he’s a bit busy. A pity, given that he seems to play machines, whether cinematic or political, quite well.
  • Jim Crace’s The Devil’s Larder has been turned into theatre. Dominic Cavendish says there’s not much to chew on.
  • Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance gets a review in the Mercury News. Sorrentino is accused of being “more impressed with his own voice than the humanity of his characters.”
  • I report this only because Mr. Esposito tortured me by showing me his seven volume Rising Up set the other night. As noted last week by Bookdwarf, this weekend’s NYTBR featured an appearance by the Vollster. He takes on the new Nietzsche bio at length.
  • Newsday chronicles some of the ways that publishers are trying to generate new interest in titles. Many publishers are distributing the first two chapters of a novel. But one teacher by the name of Jackie Spitz remarks, “I only took it because I felt sorry for the people handing it out.” Our heart is all a-trembling over Ms. Spitz’s noble munificence. In fact, as I write these words, I am sobbing into an issue of FHM that I found in my next door neighbor’s trash, watching my tears stream down some beautiful lady bent into an unfortunate position that resembles modular furniture. But I’m also wondering why niche markets and such projects as Vidlit and the LBC aren’t mentioned in the article. When will publishers realize that randomly giving chapters away to ad hoc educators isn’t nearly as effective as targeting people who actually read?
  • Time asks Bret Easton Ellis how “true” Lunar Park is. Apparently, Jay McInerery wasn’t thrilled by his “cameo appearance” as a cokehead buddy.
  • A new book of criticism studying Irvine Welsh’s work is out. But the International Herald Tribune asks if Welsh deserves to be compared with other authors.
  • Is the great rock’n’roll novel at death’s door?
  • The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana: an anti-Proust novel?
  • The Boston Globe examines literary hoaxing.
  • Riverhead editor Sean McDonald talks with Mr. Sarvas.
  • And E.L. Doctorow takes Bush to task, suggesting that Bush does not know what grieving is.


Primer: Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize. The film was made for $7,000, doesn’t appear to have a distribution deal yet, but somehow manages to involve time travel and ethics in its plot. The intricate story has also caused a lot of people to scratch their heads, which has resulted in several unclaimed ski caps left at theatres.

As if the Whitbread isn’t enough, Mark Haddon has walked away with another award — this time, from the South Bank Show. The British literary community is up in arms about this, trying to convince committees that “enough is enough.” An anonymous Important Literary Person has made calls, noting that, while The Curious Dog is a great book, Haddon has simply won too much praise and that there won’t be enough praise for the rest of the books.

Alexandra Ripley, author of Scarlett, has died. Several publishers, upon hearing the news, have been trying to determine which great Ripley book they can pilfer a sequel out of. Unfortunately, Ripley was no Margaret Mitchell. And no publisher wants to be reminded of how much they backed Ripley’s attempt to cash in, let alone the other stuff she wrote.

Prima facie that the New Yorker is overinfluenced by vapid McSweeney’s-like pop cultural riffs: “Boswell’s Life of Jackson”. (And Menudo is referenced in the first sentence. Oh no.)

James Fallows annotates the State of the Union address.

The Boston Globe interviews Tibor Fischer and Fischer comes across, no surprise, as a smug son of a bitch. Not only does he compare himself to Shakespeare, but he lauds cheapshots: “I’m with Amis, and so although in ‘Voyage’ I do have laughs at the expense of foreigners — so did Shakespeare — I also allow characters for whom English is not their first language to express dismay when someone British doesn’t know an arcane piece of English vocabulary: ‘It’s your language,’ they say.”

And to hell with the Golden Globes. How about a real award? Best Lead In A Rising Up and Rising Down Review: “For the past decade, it seemed Sacramento-based novelist William T. Vollmann was neck and neck in a war of prolificacy with Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and anyone else who would take him on. With ‘Rising Up and Rising Down,’ he has put the issue to rest.” And I truly feel sorry for John Freeman, who, like all reviewers, read all 3,500 pages from a CD-ROM.

Lizzie Grubman (not to be confused with this Lizzie) is returning to the social scene. This may be the first time in New York history that first-hand accounts of road rage are discussed over caviar.

At long last, a New York Times I want to see. (via Old Hag, courtesy of Pullquote)

Pynchon’s voice on The Simpsons. He sounds like an angrier Harvey Pekar. (via Chica)

Francis Ford Coppola quotes Wodehouse! (via At Large)

[1/24/06 UPDATE: Primer, as nearly all film geeks know by now, did manage to nab a DVD distribution deal, leading to enthusiasts working out the multiple timelines. As for the McSweeney’s influence upon the New Yorker (and other places), I should note that litblogs, as much as they claim to be anti-Eggers, are guilty practitioners (including this one).]


Stephen Hawking is under round-the-clock suveillance. Apparently, his family fears that someone is planning to sabotage the stuff that keeps Hawking alive.

John Barth writes about university readings. (via Maud)

Just after Fahrenheit 451 was selected for an “Everyone Reads” library program, Ray Bradbury says that “the people have lost control” and that “bigger and stupider” entertainment has deadened intellectual curiosity.

The National Book Critics Circle Awards have been announced. The big surprises: Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing and William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down. Both are very long books (and in Vollman’s case, we’re talking seven volumes). How many critics honestly read all of the nominees?

And Jack Kerouac’s On the Road manuscript, composed on an endless sheet of paper, is touring the States for the next three years. (via Moorish Girl)

Because Every Review Needs an Attention-Grabbing Sentence to Quote in Later Reviews

Looks like Sterling Clover’s going for a Tibor Fischer (for anyone with the time to read, or skip through, 3,200 pages): “But Rising Up is maddeningly real, at its worst the world’s most erudite dorm-room bullshit session given the Cicero treatment and weighed down by numbing cynicism toward belief and hope of all sorts, naive tossing-about of the ‘social contract,’ irritating misuse of the concept of reification, and an epistemological nightmare of means and ends.” (via Low Culture)

Reading Long and Reading Hard

vollmann.jpegSan Francisco Chronicle: “It’s impossible to do justice in this space to the 3,299 pages of philosophic declaration, autobiography, journalism and intellectual exhibitionism in machete-sharp prose and photography.”

The new Vollmann set, Rising Up and Rising Down is $120, seven volumes, 3,299 pages, and 20 pounds. It took a year for the McSweeney’s people to fact check. Frankly, it’s astonishing that any newspaper bothered to review it.

But despite Vollmann’s prolificity, Zoetrope can’t get a new story out of him. “I love literary magazines, but they don’t pay what the big ones do.”

Vollmann on fact checking: “I told them I wanted a fact checker since some of the things that I say may be controversial and I’m not a scholar. Or not an academic, and I’m talking about so many different things. At the very least I want to make sure that I’m not making errors in my sources. And so they’ve given me four or five of them. They’re great people to work with. They’ve been looking up every single book that I cite. I don’t know how many I cite, but the bibliography is probably like 100 pages long.”

[3/22/04 UPDATE: Months later, the Vollman set received a cover story on the NYTBR. Of course, who’d expect anyone to read all those pages so quickly? I should also note that publishing such an ambitious work was one of the coolest things that the Eggers clan did.]