Pulling Out the Savoy Truffle

Reflections on music, literature, politics, and pop culture from retired rock musician, writer, and college professor Jim Booth. Email comments to Jim at jim@jimbooth.org.

Location: Advance, North Carolina, United States

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Literary Minutiae at the Present Time

"I won't quote you no Dickens, Shelley, or Keats/Cos it's all been said before...."
Rod Stewart

Maybe it goes back to Mozart.

There’s a famous anecdote about Mozart and a musical patron. Mozart was working on, I think, an opera, and the patron, who’d come in to listen to rehearsals, made a comment to the effect that he thought one musical passage had “too many notes.” Mozart, not one to suffer fools or critics easily, replied tartly, “It has exactly as many notes as it needs.”

Of course he lost the patron and continued his descent into poverty, despair, and early death. All we got in return was the Requiem.

The image of the tortured artist coughing life away while writing (or composing or painting or whatever) is one we cherish. It comes to us directly from the Romantic period and it certainly is romantic both in style and substance. A good number of relatively sane people (one must qualify when talking about artists, mustn’t one?) have destroyed themselves (and often their talent) trying to live up to that image. In our post-postmodern world rock stars have appropriated it successfully. The reverence shown to Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain shows that the model still works.

Suffering produces great art, right?

Yeah…. Well….

Support and encouragement do their share, too. Some of our great artists worked under patronage and lived to ripe old ages and produced their own pretty well esteemed stuff. To return to music examples, one can easily point to Haydn or Bach, both of whom enjoyed long, comfortable patronage relationships and gave us stuff like, well, The Brandenburg Concertos or The “Surprise” symphony. And I seem to remember that Shakespeare turned out a few decent lines while enjoying the patronage of the Earl of Southampton or King James I.

But we’re a long way from the world of noble patrons, and besides, our democratic impulses wouldn’t allow us to consider having a wealthy patron to support our writing (or composing or painting). We’re free, independent artists acting out that Shelley-an Romantic ideal of writers as “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” We answer to no one but our muses.

Yeah…. Right….

Most of the writers who pop up in literary magazines come out of university based creative writing programs. Not only do such writers receive training and advice from those programs, often they are sheltered and nurtured by them and allowed to “work” through fellowships and assistantships that leave ample time for writing – if the writers are disciplined enough to write. The fellowships and assistantships also often provide MFA (or doctoral students) with valuable teaching or research experience that helps them find other posts in the academy where they continue to enjoy the patronage of the university system.

I came out of one of these programs myself. And I wonder what good it’s done me.

Jason Sanford’s essay on minutiae in literature in a recent issue of storySouth pushed some buttons for me. It was a wide-ranging essay, one that covered everything from major scientific discoveries to workshop admonitions for budding writers. In good postmodern fashion it mimicked hyper-mediated discourse in that it leapt from topic to topic, everything connected by a Shandy-esque thread related to that idea of the misheard remark that triggered the essay in the first place, the notion that libraries were being filled by minutiae. Jason even went so far as to suggest that perhaps, like Shandy, it was all just a “cock and a bull.”

Not quite.

Minutiae pervade the literary world. They grow out of two sources. One source is creative writing programs. The other is the university environment itself - particularly English departments.

Creative writing programs are dominated, despite some attempts at reform at the undergraduate level, by the workshop format. The idea is to create a community of writers, a support group that will foster good writing and offer technical, professional, and emotional support.

That’s not necessarily what writers get.

Almost anyone who’s been through a CW program will tell war stories about workshops that became like shark tanks at feeding time. When it is one’s turn to present a piece to the group, one sits horrified waiting for one of the workshop members to lead the attack, to get the blood into the water so that the group rending to pieces of one’s work can begin. Usually comments fall into one of three categories: useful, not useful, and patently destructive. What can happen with too many workshops is that the third category of comment becomes dominant. With writers gifted enough to get admitted to MFA or doctoral CW programs, often the writing problems are minor, more related to taste than technique. And workshop sharks attack these taste differences viciously. Instead of writers supporting each other, the focus seems to be on succeeding by shredding the work of colleagues.

One result of this? Students tend to write pieces that “please the workshop.”

Stuff that pleases the workshop tends to be about as minutely focused as writing can get.

I got your minutiae right here, pal.

The other result of all this - lots of promising writers quit writing fiction or poetry because they buy into the idea that if the workshop doesn’t like it, it must not be any good. Other writers continue, but do so trying to write within the narrow parameters of workshop expectations. If the workshop favors “Iowa” form short stories, they try to write those. If the workshop favors “language” poetry, they try to write that. Later they write strangled work.


Those writers who quit often stay in the academy and become English professors. They focus on writing criticism that, these days especially, has little or nothing to do with literature - and less to do with readers. They write articles read by few and books read by fewer. And occasionally they long for the days when they wrote for the joy of discovering life through language.

They become slaves to a different sort of minutiae.

And when one asks them why they’ve quit writing in the right circumstance (over a glass of wine at an academic conference, say), one almost always gets the same answer: “What’s the difference? So few read the stuff….”

And because these talented people have given up, the world of literature is smaller.

And that’s the worst minutiae in literature of all.

Stuck Inside a Cloud
George Harrison

"You say it's your birthday?"

I don't feel like writing this.

I don't feel like doing a lot of stuff these days.

It's not a good time in America.

We have a cocky, spoiled, Napoleonic President who cares about war more than people, about money more than people, about some narrowly defined racist, sexist, Puritanical version of God more than people.

We have corporate bastards who rob their companies blind and leave the people who helped make those companies successful holding worthless stock that they were counting on to help educate kids, live in dignity in retirement, care for aging parents. And these crooks seem to get little or no punishment for their behavior.

We have a culture that elevates image over substance, personal ambition over statesmanship, cliques over communities, posturing over art, and celebrity over every damned thing.

It's hard to believe in anything or anyone.

I have things I believe in. Here are a few of the most important in no particular order:

1.I believe that love can save the world.

2.I believe that the Beatles were the band – no use trying to argue with me over whether they were the best band, or the greatest band, or any other bullshit. I believe they were the band. If you don't see it that way, go your way in peace and love.

3.I believe that fly fishing is a balm to the human soul and proof that God wants me to be happy.

This piece is not supposed to be about any of this. It's about a birthday. It's about
George's birthday.

Yeah, it's February. And George's birthday is this month.

I'm thinking of February 25.

Wait a minute, you're saying. Washington's birthday is February 22. Or was until Federal bureaucrats conned us into thinking that some indeterminate date between the 12th (Lincoln's b'day) and the 22nd would serve us all better. President's Day, my ass.

President's Day only serves all the jerks who ski. Yes, I ski.

The 25th of February 2004 would be George Harrison's birthday.

He'd be 61 years old.

George Harrison was a man of peace. George believed love could save the world.

George is gone. He's been gone since November 2001. I miss him.

No, I don't know if the better half of the Beatles is gone. I go back and forth on that kind of
stuff. It's past arguing, really.

And in these times, these bad, confused, angry, sad times, George's messages of love, hope, solace, courage, tolerance, and acceptance offer a comfort and reassurance that I, for one, sorely need.

I Dig Love.

Isn't it a Pity?

What is Life?

Beware of Darkness.

Hear Me, Lord.

Awaiting on You All.

All Things Must Pass.

Within You, Without You

Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)

Those are song titles, boys and girls. Song titles as messages. Song titles as truth.

You know, I was wrong earlier.

George isn't gone

And you know this, if you know his work.

"Life goes on within you and without you...."

Let's celebrate George.

(revised post from lullabypit.com's Rocklog - thanks, Sam)

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

"Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town..."
Paul Simon

Here's an important article my good buddy Steve, who's from my home town, sent me.

I look at what's happened to my home town of Eden, NC, and I want to cry. Sure, it was a hick town when I grew up there, but it was a nice place with local businesses run by people your parents knew and in whom you could trust. You could go to Eggleston Tires to retread your car, to the Town Squire if you needed a nice suit, to Chandler's Drugs to get your prescription filled, to Edwards' Grocery Store for food...and the folks there knew you - and your parents - and your grandparents....

It was, for all intents and purposes, a kind of Mayberry.

Now it's owned by Wal-Mart and whatever other chains choose to stick up cookie cutter boxes on Hwy. 14, the main road OUT of town. Downtown's dead, the textile manufacturing that supported the town has all fled offshore for $1 a week labor.

The only kids who stuck around after high school graduation (or returned after college) have a look of either resignation or desperation in their eyes that makes one back away from them during the occasional chat one has at the "mall" (I use the term advisedly - as I'm not sure where the demarcation line between 'mall' and 'failed business venture' lies - but I'm pretty sure that when as many stores stand empty as occupied that the endeavor stands at the brink of the latter) during visits home....

What bothers me most is that in buying into the nonsense our federal government broadcasts about "dangers" to us that the citizenry of Eden, NC, and the rest of our country's declining small towns worry about terrorists bombing them/gassing them /flying planes into local landmarks (what, they're gonna attack the DeMoLay building or St. Luke's church?) they're allowing themselves to be connived about their real enemies.

Corporate interests catered to by politicians they keep in their pockets through lobbyists and contributions effectively impoverish them and will eventually kill them (and their home towns) for the enrichment of - the Waltons of Bentonville AR? So I go home to Eden and watch McDonald's employees serve meals to Wal-Mart employees who sell groceries and clothes to McDonald's employees...and I grieve for a town where people had dignity and jobs they took some pride in and stability and a sense of purpose beyond surviving week to week.

This isn't just happening in Eden, of course, though like any good Southern boy from a small town in crisis I feel the most pain for those folks. This is happening all over America, as the writer of the article I suggested above points out.

Too bad I'm not a real religious guy. Maybe I could find some comfort in that. Or in the irony a writer like Tolstoy proffers in "How Much Land Does a Man Need?". Those who grab for too much will suffer the wages of their sin of greed....

But it doesn't seem to be playing out that way. The rich get richer and poor get - Wal-Mart....

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

"Gimme Some Truth...."
- John Lennon

See the following article from yesterday's Washington Post.

If Bush were honest enough to admit that he joined the Guard to avoid the Vietnam war, as the Post writer did, I'd be willing to let it go. If he were brave enough to admit he hated the Vietnam War as most of our generation did, I'd let it go. But he claims to have been then and to be now a hawk. And if I hear one more neocon apologist say "9/11 changed everything" to excuse Bush and all the other chicken hawks who dodged Vietnam through one means or another and now feel smug and self-righteous about sending poor kids off to die for "democracy" (read world's second largest supply of oil reserves), I'm gonna spew chunks in his general direction.

9/11 made the US part of the global debate on what kind of world we want - one run by fanatics driven by religious mania and closed minded, murderous hatred of anyone unlike them or one of rational, thoughtful acceptance or rejection of differences in others based on principles like fairness and freedom to pursue personal happiness if not at the expense of others. It should not be an excuse to pursue personal or financial interests as the Iraq war seems to be.

I protested the bogus Vietnam war and avoided the draft. I have encouraged my college aged sons to do the same with this bogus war. If they need help to get to Canada, I'll help. I'm damned if I'll let them be sent to war by a liar who used the Guard to avoid military duty in Vietnam but wants every mother's son to go die for him in Iraq to enrich Halliburton and other energy companies. See the above "not at the expense of others" thing....

Not everything should be about money.

Most especially war....

Okay, you can stop laughing now....

If politicians want to tell the truth, I'll listen to them. If they lie, as Bush has about his real reasons for joining the Guard then and for invading Iraq now, they can kiss my liberal, latte drinking, Utne Reader subscribing, XM radio listening ass if they think I'll excuse their duplicity....

Monday, February 09, 2004

"I Can't Explain..."
- Pete Townshend

It's February 9, 2004.

Everyone from Rolling Stone Magazine (excuse me while I spit on the ground) to NPR (God save us all from intellectuals) has proclaimed this a sacred day.

On this date in 1964, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. And changed the world, etc.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

I can't explain what that night, and the subsequent appearances the Fabs made the next two weeks, and listening to "I Want to Hold Your Hand/I Saw Her Standing There" 37 times in a row (each side of the 45, my children, each side) and then getting "She Loves You/I'll Get You" on the Swan label and doing what I did with the first record, then getting "Twist and Shout/There's a Place" on Tollie and hearing the lads soar off into the infinite at the end of the "There's a Place" EVERY SINGLE TIME mean to me....

I just can't.

As Sebastian said, "It's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock & roll...."

But I want to thank them.

And what I want to know is, how do you like your moptops, Mr. History...?

Friday, February 06, 2004

"Oh Captain, My Captain..."

Captain Kangaroo was everybody's favorite show.

Mostly True Story:

The Captain used to have characters on his show including one called the
Watermelon Man. This character came out in a big coat and began by
taking out of his coat and handing Mr Green Jeans and whomever else was
a guest apples, peaches, pears, etc. This led to other, larger fruit
and ultimately to watermelons being pulled out of his coat. Eventually
all the fruit was loaded into a wagon that also came out of his coat.
All this was accompanied by the WM calling out "Woooooow" in a kind of
yodel/ hog call.

Back in the misty days of middle earth rock, our rhythm guitarist,
Mike, used to occasionally wear onstage one of those infantry trenchcoats. One night as we started onto the stage for a show he loaded it with beer and stuff and, when he got out on stage, began handing out the beer and goodies to audience members, all the time imitating the WM's "woooow" as he did so.

It got to be such a part of the act at one point that people would yell for the Watermelon Man. We kept talking about writing to the Captain to tell him about Mike, but we never did.

I haven't felt sorry that we didn't for a long time, but I do today.

We loved you, Captain.