hanging out the fifteenth floor
The New York Review of Books examines Hooking Up, the latest from Tom Wolfe. Frankly, the review makes it sound perfectly flatulent. Wolfe is desperately trying to stay contemporary, but he's just gotten weird: trying to reduce all literature to an anatomy of class distinction, attacking Norman Mailer's hips and John Updike's bladder. Not that his rivals are doing much better. I saw Mailer speak a couple years ago and he's gone full-out Luddite. When an earnest young CS student asked him if some technology wasn't somehow useful, Mailer replied that but for the invention of the wheel, humans might have been forced to develop their telepathic abilities instead, thus creating a far happier society. Updike, for his part, is still writing about adultery (e.g., "Free," New Yorker, 8 January 2001), and it's gone so far beyond trite that we need a new lexicon to describe it. Great Novelists of Past Generations, you shame me.
I'm dropping the smartass commentator persona long enough to give some background. This whole site sort of started in medias res. Briefly:
I live in a room. It's not a bad room; it's fairly big, and has little separate kitchen and bath areas and everything. I have a futon and four bookcases and a television that gets three channels. But still, it's just a room. This time of year, the weather in Iowa isn't really conducive to leaving the house, so I stay in a lot. The fact that writing as a vocation involves spending a lot of time alone only compounds the problem. I haven't had a face-to-face conversation with a human being since Friday, and that conversation lasted twenty seconds and involved the price of the orange juice I was buying. This exacerbates other difficulties, like the hereditary anxiety disorder I discovered I had last semester (much better now, thanks), which was one of my main spurs to start this site in the first place.
In feeling isolated, I'm hardly alone in the Workshop. A lot of people, in order to come out here, have committed themselves to long-distance relationships and occasionally marriages. Parties do occur on the weekends, and we all make an effort to go out after the weekly workshop meeting, but there's really no getting around the prodigious amount of free time we all have. In particular, I have the dubious blessing of not having to TA any courses. The idea, of course, is that we have enormous amounts of time to sit and produce deathless poetry or prose; but creative work drains certain crucial batteries, and often it seems the only way to recharge them is human contact. Again, I'm not alone here in thinking this.
"So get out of the house more," the civic-minded among you are saying. It's difficult, somehow. As one would expect, the other writers are all funny, intelligent, articulate people; but we're also all kind of introverted and weird in our own ways. We do get along, but there's always a competitive undercurrent. It's much worse in poetry, as I understand it. Since nobody in this country makes a living solely as a poet (as opposed to fiction, where like twelve people can make a living), everyone hopes for post-graduation fellowships, which are more or less bestowed at the whim of Jorie Graham. Apparently it's gotten so bad that Jorie Graham's favorite students are also the most popular, the reasoning being that if you befriend one of her favorites maybe you can get some sort of second-iteration Jorie Graham grace.
It's not that I'm unhappy to be here; my writing is already orders of magnitude better than it was in August. And the school is of course doing excellent things for my putative career - though that word, for this and other reasons, is starting to acquire the connotations of an obscenity. It can just be a weird insular existence sometimes.