Sunday, 2 September 2012

Lit Biz in Florida

KEY WEST, Florida. The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” has become the national anthem of this 27,000-person principality 126 miles southwest of Miami. Key West is as plausible a utopia (read Capital P Paradise) as any extant—and it’s closer than Tahiti, so close that an astonishing 2.5 million non-Conchs churned through its narrow streets is 1988.

In January, when USA Today’s weather map is jammed with perturbations, it’s a balmy 80 degrees, with gentle breezes making a light sweat a pleasant cool-off.

And keyed up indeed were the 200 participants in the seventh annual Literary Seminar—held, appropriately enough, at the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center (1977) of the Florida Keys Community College.

I came to savor two of my favorite writers—Peter Taylor, the laureate of the Memphis genteel middle class, and Bobbie Ann Mason, an eloquent voice for the heretofore speechless blue collars of Paducah, Kentucky, and thereabouts. I was not disappointed.

Taylor prefaced his reading of “Her Need” (about a middle-aging, by-husband-abandoned bank officer) with a magisterial 20-minute gloss on how he learned from his superiors (Chekhov, Turgeniev and James) how stories gestate out of notebooks.

This half hour in itself was more than worth the eight-day Greyhound journey from San Francisco that led me there. And the septuagenarian teacher talks about his former students with passion and eloquence.

He talked to me at the reception of his junior Virginia colleague John Casey, whose remarkable first novella, An American Romance, was the first post-feminist novel in which an autonomous heroine is the center of the narrative. I was fearful that Casey was having a Ralph Ellison-type block. No way. Taylor reported gleefully that Casey had no fewer than three volumes about to appear.

When I saw Robert Wilson, the very able book critic of the much-maligned new medium USA Today, I assumed he was the seminar’s official rapporteur. Wrong. Wilson, it turns out, was a Taylor student in Charlottesville. What a legacy of writers and critics. More than a literary legacy: a mega-legacy.

Bobbie Ann Mason is too young yet to possess any legacy but her growing oeuvre. But at a reception after her reading, the youngest authors and aspiring ones—like Will Weaver of Bemidji, Minnesota, whose first work comes out in March—basked in the warmth of her outgoing personality.

She read “Wish” from her forthcoming (fourth) volume, Love Life. It is an audit by an 84-year-old man of his long life, which ends with his fond recollection of his first lovemaking, under the stars on a quilt spread over freshly mown grass.

She schmoozed easily and utterly without affectation. I was curious about the precise title of her last book, Spence + Lila—it being my hunch that the “plus” sign signified that their luminous union was much more than simple addition of their separate private lives.

Not only was my intuition correct, but she teetered on the edge of testiness when editors, critics and readers—including the man who introduced her at the seminar—sloppily substituted “and.”

But savoring the reading performances of treasured writers is a long haul from enjoying multi-celeb panels on the renaissance of the American short story, this year’s theme.

They were keynoted by one Frank Conroy, the indefinite article signifying my total ignorance of the man and his work. It turns out he’s a veritable superstar of the subsidized lit subculture.

He ascended this year to the directorship of the premier writing workshop in the country, the U. of Iowa’s, after having been the Maecenas of grants at the National Endowment for the Arts’ literature section for five years. Bureaucratic largesse has its perks.

And Conroy is no shadowy, faceless pol of the Culture Biz. He had sharp and perceptive things to say about the 30-year-old phenomenon of the writing workshop / creative writing adjunct to English departments.

His most acidulous remark was to note that if all the people who tried to get their poems and stories into little mags subscribed to them, the mags wouldn’t need to be subsidized. Hmm. I’d add a corollary to that. If all the writers and critics starring at the seminar were catholic readers, they’d be better informed guides.

I happened to be carrying Daniel Hoffman’s Hang Gliding from Helicon as longueurs insurance in case the panels were boring (none was, itself a miracle). But if I were to finger the poets and critics who had never heard of him, I’d wreck their reputations and careers.

I have a short word for that condition: narcissism. The subsidized writing programs are tax-supporting solipsism. Sadly, they create “a world elsewhere” culture parallel to the Disney-dominated one they never, ever leaven. It’s not exactly what Matthew Arnold and Emerson had in mind, is it?

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 15, 1989

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