cain’s credo

Son of a college dean, newspaperman, novelist,
screenwriter & Shakespeare worshipper.

I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics…. Schools don’t help the novelist but they do the critic; using as mucilage the simplifications that the school hypothesis affords him, he can paste labels wherever convenience is served by pasting labels, and although I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammet in my whole life, Mr. Clifton Fadiman can refer to my hammet-and-tongs style and make things easy for himself.

maurice blanchot on authorial anxiety and the inevitability of writing

Maurice Blanchot conceives of the author’s relation to the book as one of incomprehension, inevitable alienation, and ultimate failure: hence the ongoing need to repeat, to write yet again.  




lt seems we have learned something about art when we experience what the word solitude designates. This word has been tossed around much too freely. Yet what does it mean to “be alone”? When is one alone? As we ask ourselves this question’ we should not simply return to thoughts that we find moving. Solitude on the level of the world is a wound we do not need to comment on here.


Nor do we have in mind the solitude of the artist, the solitude which he is said to need if he is to practice his art. When Rilke writes to the Comtesse de Solms-Laubach (August 3, 1907): “Except for two short interruptions, I have not pronounced a single word for weeks; at last my solitude has closed in and I am in my work like a pit in its fruit,”‘ the solitude he speaks of is not essentially solitude: it is self-communion.


The Solitude of the Work


In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we see a more essential solitude. It excludes the self-satisfied isolation of individualism, it is unacquainted with the search for difference; it is not dissipated by the fact of sustaining a virile relationship in a task that covers the mastered extent of the day. The person who is writing the work is thrust to one side, the person who has written the work is dismissed. What is more, the person who is dismissed does not know it. This ignorance saves him, diverts him and allows him to go on. The writer never knows if the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he begins again or destroys in another. Valéry, who celebrates this privilege of the infinite in the work, still sees only its easiest aspect: the fact that the work is infinite means (to him) that although the artist is not capable of ending it, he is nevertheless capable of turning it into the enclosed space of an endless task whose incompleteness develops mastery of the spirit, expresses that mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power. At a certain point, circumstances — that is, history — in the form of an editor, financial demands, social duties, pronounce the missing end and the artist, freed by a purely compulsory outcome, pursues the incomplete elsewhere.


According to this point of view, the infinity of the work is simply the infinity of the spirit. The spirit tries to accomplish itself in a single work, instead of realizing itself in the infinity of works and the movement of history. But Valéry was in no way a hero. He chose to talk about everything, to write about everything: thus, the scattered whole of the world diverted him from the rigor of the unique whole of the work — he amiably allowed himself to be turned away from it. The etc. was hiding behind the diversity of thoughts, of subjects.


Nevertheless, the work — the work of art, the literary work — is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively that: that it is — and nothing more. Outside of that, it is nothing. Anyone who tries to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. Anyone who lives in dependence on the work, whether because he is writing it or reading it, belongs to the solitude of something that expresses only the word being: a word that the language protects by hiding it or that the language causes to appear by is appearing into the silent void of the work.


The first framework of the solitude of the work is this absence of need which never permits it to be called finished or unfinished. The work can have no proof, just as it can have no use. It cannot be verified — truth can lay hold of it, renown illuminate it: this existence concerns it not at all, this obviousness makes it neither certain nor real, nor does it make it manifest.


The work is solitary in that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of that solitude.


The Work, The Book


If we want to examine more closely what such statements suggest, perhaps we should look for their source. The writer writes a book, but the book is not yet the work, the work is not a work until the word being is pronounced in it, in the violence of a beginning which is its own; this event occurs when the work is the innermost part of someone writing it and of someone reading it. We can therefore ask ourselves this: if solitude is the writer’s risk,  doesn’t it express the fact that he is turned, oriented towards the open violence of the work, never grasping more than its substitute, its approach, and its illusion in the form of the book? The writer belongs to the work, but what belongs to him is only a book, a mute accumulation of sterile words, the most meaningless thing in the world. The writer who  experiences this void simply believes that the work is unfinished, and he believes that with a little more effort and the luck of some favorable moments, he — and only he — will be able to finish it. And so he sets back to work. But what he wants to finish, by himself, remains something interminable, it ties him to an illusory labor. And in the end, the work ignores him, it closes on his absence, in the impersonal, anonymous statement that it is-and nothing more. Which we express by remarking that the artist, who only finishes his work at the moment he dies, never knows his work. And we may have to reverse that remark, because isn’t the writer dead as soon as the work exists, as he himself sometimes foresees, when he experiences a very strange kind of worklessness.*


* This is not the situation of the man who works and accomplishes his task and whose task escapes him by transforming itself in the world. What this man makes is transformed, but in the world, and he recaptures it through the world, at least if he can recapture it, if alienation is not immobilized, if it is not diverted to the advantage of a few, but continues until the completion of the world. On the contrary, what the writer has in view is the work, and what he writes is a book. The book, as such, can become an active event in the world (an action, however, that is always reserved and insufficient), but it is not action the artist has in view, but the work, and what makes the book a substitute for the work is enough to make it a thing that, like the work, does not arise from the truth of the world; and it is an almost frivolous thing, if it has neither the reality of the work nor the seriousness of real labor in the world.



—from The Gaze of Orpheus and other Literary Essays, ed. P. Adams Sitney. Translated by Lydia Davis (1981). Originally published in Blanchot’s  L’Espace littéraire (1955).


philippe lejeune on diaries and fiction and patricia highsmith

Lejeune is a leading European critic and theorist of diary and autobiography. His landmark essay, “The Autobiographical Pact,” has shaped life writing studies for more than thirty years, and his many books and essays have repeatedly opened up new vistas for scholarship. As Michael Riffaterre notes, “Lejeune’s work on autobiography is the most original, powerful, effective approach to a difficult subject . . . . His style is very personal, lively. It grabs the reader as scholarship rarely does. Lejeune’s erudition and methodology are impeccable. 

—from the jacket copy for Lejeune’s On Diary


I’ve just Googled the word “antifiction” and found that it’s free, at least for literary theory. A hip-hop group has staked a claim, but that’s it. No competition. These days, the minute you invent a word, you have to take out a patent. Serge Doubrovsky thought he had invented the word “autofiction” in 1977, but in 1998 his little cousin Marc Weitzmann claimed that Jerzy Kosinski had already invented the concept in 1965, something that Philippe Vilain has just taken the time to disprove in Défense de Narcisse (2005). I tell this amusing story because I created “antifiction” out of irritation with “autofiction” (both the word and the thing). I love autobiography and I love fiction, but I love them less when they are mixed together. I do not believe that we can really read while sitting between two chairs. Most “autofictions” are read as autobiographies: the reader can hardly do otherwise. These are autobiographies that take twisting paths towards the truth. Sure, why not? But we have virtually no way of knowing where the twists are. So my personal preference is for texts that face up to the impossible truth—sometimes in oblique ways, as wesee in Georges Perec and others, but faithfully and without resorting to invention. Autobiographers are often suspected of having a weakness for invention, something that autofiction writers embrace on purpose but that autobiographers turn to out of naïveté. This is the slippery slope of memory, traditionally seen as a vice. We have Paul Ricoeur to thank for making a virtue of it under the lovely name of “narrative identity.” We are not mendacious beings; we are narrative beings, constantly reconstructing the past in order to fit it into our plans for today’s world. But even when guided by an ethical concern for truthfulness, that kind of reconstruction means flirting with invention. It seems to me that on that count, autobiography and the diary have opposite aims: autobiography lives under the spell of fiction; the diary is hooked on truth. 


Let me be clear: I do not mean that autobiographies are false and diaries are true. I am talking about the dynamics of these two writing postures, both of which are present in varying proportions in all personal texts. In a study on how a diary can “end,” I tried to show that the problem of autobiography is the beginning, the gaping hole of the origin, whereas for the diary it is the ending, the gaping hole of death. Any autobiographer can end his text by taking the narrative up to the point of its writing. His biggest problem is upstream: building something solid behind it. But the past puts up only minor resistance to the powers of the imagination. “Long ways, long lies” goes the proverb. The same cannot be said of the future. Diarists never have control over what comes next in their texts. They write with no way of knowing what will happen next in the plot, much less how it will end. The past is wonderfully malleable. It is relatively easy to ensure that it does not contradict you (although the truth does sometimes come back to bite people!) The future is pitiless and unforeseeable. You do not have any elbow room with the future. And the present—the diarist’s subject matter—immediately objects to anything that smacks of invention.


I found my ideas on the incompatibility of fiction and the present echoed in Roland Barthes’s last lecture course, La Préparation du roman (2003):


Can one make Narrative (a Novel) out of the Present? How does one reconcile—dialecticize—the distance implied by the enunciation of writing and the proximity of the present as we are swept along in it? (The present is what sticks to you, as though you had your nose up against a mirror.)


[Peut-on faire du Récit (du Roman) avec du Présent? Comment concilier—dialectiser—la distance impliquée par l’énonciation d’écriture et la proximité, l’emportement du présent vécu à même l’aventure. (Le présent, c’est ce qui colle, comme si on avait le nez sur le miroir.)]


Since Barthes is after literature at all costs, he solves the problem with the idea that there is an “art of the present” or “art of notation”: the “haiku.” It seems to me that he is only half right. The haiku is an art of the moment, not of the present. The moment is a piece of time wrested out of continuity, out of the constant flow that moves from the past towards the future (or vice versa!): it already has one foot in eternity. The present is that poor thing that runs along, this rocking motion that we each experience all alone. The haiku is rarely dated and is often impersonal. For Barthes, the haiku is a good image of the present, while the diary is a bad one. With its date, its details, its first person, its contingency, its solitude, the journal is something he has tried out and written off (in “Délibération”).


An imaginary reconstruction of the present could only be viewed and experienced as a lie, or insanity, and would be difficult to keep up over time. How could you adjust yesterday’s lies to match today’s realities, every single day? It would be a full-time job just keeping the two in parallel. They would soon diverge infinitely. Naïve fiction, or deliberate autofiction, are easy in a retrospective or summarizing autobiographical narrative. The diary makes it impossible, or at least very difficult: the diary is “antifiction,” in the same way that we say “antilock” or, let’s say, “antipest.” Which brings me back to my neologism. My purpose in cobbling this word together is not to create a new genre by drawing yet another pigeonhole in the current literary scene, but to refer to a constant property of this type of writing.


The fact that the diary is “antifiction” obviously does not mean that it is “antisubjectivity.” This distinction, which people are at pains to make when discussing an autobiographical narrative, goes without saying for the diary, which could not possibly be more subjective or less fictional. Nor does it mean that the diary is “anti-art”: it is a common error these days to confuse art and fiction. Catherine Rannoux recently published an interesting stylistic study under a strange title, Les Fictions du journal littéraire [The Fictions of the Literary Diary]. She analyzes dialogism and intertextuality in Paul Léautaud, Jean Malaquais, and Renaud Camus, three French diarists among the most intent on the pursuit of truth. But does language contain anything other than “fiction”? All language is shared and every narrative is a construction. What distinguishes fiction from its opposite, and gives the word its meaning, is that someone exercises the liberty of inventing rather than setting out to tell the truth (which may be a naïve project, but then life itself is naïve).


The word “autofiction” has had great success because some contemporary writers have been intent on being seen as artists (“I am a bird, see my wings,” said La Fontaine’s bat), as though the truth did not have wings too, as though trying to tell the truth were not a powerful constraint that could lead to the height of artistry. But with the diary one must seek artistry in something other than fiction, which leads us to the challenging of certain academic canons. The diary is a sort of “installation” that plays on fragmentation and the tangential in an aesthetics of repetition and vertigo that is very different from traditional narrative aesthetics.


So my neologism is a sort of plea. My entire background lies behind this little lexicographical adventure. I love reading fiction, but am incapable of writing it. As an adolescent, I kept a diary that disappointed me: I wrote about my life’s disappointments badly, but accurately. That is why, as an adult, I threw myself into autobiography as a subject of study and a personal practice: constructing a work of art in the field of truthfulness or delineating the truth through the work of writing. Or rather, both at once. That is what lay behind my theory of the “autobiographical pact,” which is clearly an “antifiction” pact. But one of the differences between autobiography and the diary is that in autobiography, antifiction is a commitment that must be made and kept. For the diarist it is a fundamental constraint, like it or not. All you need do is to make a commitment to keep a diary and the rest is decided for you. You’re already on board. It is like the law of gravity: inescapable. If you start inventing things, you are quickly tossed overboard. There is no need to sign a pact with the reader. It is a mystical alliance with Time. I have avoided defining the diary in terms of privacy or secrecy: that is an important dimension, but a secondary one that is optional and recent (dating from the late eighteenth century). The main thing is how the diary relates to time and supports truth-seeking. Since the 1980s, I have gradually disengaged from autobiographical construction. What I liked in Michel Leiris’s poetic writing was that he had stopped writing narrative and was looking for a sort of “perpetual motion” of writing the self that revolved around the present. But this was a vague, undated present. Although I have no intention of imitating it, the model offered by Claude Mauriac in Le Temps immobile has since come to fascinate me: in his diary of an autobiographical reading of his diary, the retrospective reconstructions are no longer destructive and overwhelming because they leave the diary intact while exploring it, and follow along smoothly as the exploration diary unfolds. The real problem is less the danger posed by the gaze of outsiders than that of writing in the face of tomorrow, in the face of emptiness, in the face of no one, in the face of death. Choosing to keep your diary secret is significant because when you do that, the vast emptiness of time opens before you. Stendhal observed that this frees you of the need to please or persuade. You cannot imagine the mentality of the people who will read you a hundred years from now: all you can do to please them is to try to tell the truth.


This little word “antifiction”—not a very attractive one, I must admit—seems to say something different from the English “non-fiction.” It is more combative and less soft. It is also more precise: it does not apply to all texts that contain no fiction (negative definition), but to a specific category of texts that adamantly reject fiction (positive definition). The  diary grows weak and faints or breaks out in a rash when it comes into contact with fiction. Autobiographies, biographies, and history books are contaminated: they have fiction in their blood. Of course I realize that I am exaggerating and over-simplifying.


There are shades of grey and nuances; it’s not always quite so simple. But “antifiction” is like a magnifying glass: the things it magnifies are real. To get back to where I started: look through the current “autofictions” for texts that are an author’s actual, dated diary. There are none. On the other hand, take Le Mausolée des amants, the diary of Hervé Guibert, who is a major autofiction writer in other texts, from Mes parents to Le Protocole compassionnel. His diary, which is a laboratory for his autofictions, unfolds along truthful lines, although Guibert erased the dates when he published it to make it literary.


The argument I have laid out is simple: now I have to back it up with evidence. I will then turn the debate around, because there is a sense of malaise in both directions. The diary repudiates fiction, but isn’t fiction also very uncomfortable when it tries to imitate the diary?


Evidence seems difficult to come by. Since I am stating a negative thesis, it should be up to my adversaries to give examples that disprove it. Michel Braud, a friend of mine who specializes in diaries, went down that road and came back empty-handed: there are a few autofictions that include the diary form, but he had to acknowledge that they were not real diaries. Even when they use the author’s real diary, it is always from a position of hindsight: the diary used is not a fiction, and the fiction is not produced under diary conditions. Gide’s Cahiers d’André Walter attribute an edited text from the actual diary of the (living) author to a (dead) fictional double, but these Cahiers are not the diary. This is an autofiction just like any other, not a fiction-diary. The latter would consist of someone keeping a diary in the real world of a life that he invents for himself. The only example we might find of that would be the product of insanity or lies.


On the insanity side, Patricia Highsmith’s wonderful novel Edith’s Diary (1977) springs to mind. It is not in diary form. In third-person narration with internal focalization, the novel follows the life of the heroine, a young woman who faces a series of misfortunes: a good-for-nothing son and a husband who cheats on her and then abandons her to start a new life, leaving her burdened with an ailing elderly uncle. We see her gradually change course and begin to “remake her life” as well, but we see it through her diary, bits of which are occasionally quoted. It has two registers: realism for certain aspects of life and fantasy for others, especially the son’s “success story.” This story starts out as a game, but she gets caught up in it and it begins to develop independently of reality, soon leading to the exact opposite and to the final catastrophe. This psychopathological study is of course a novelist’s invention, not a real document. But I have come across something similar: three datebooks from 1989 to 1990 that were purchased in a second-hand shop and deposited with the Association pour l’Autobiographie. The diarist, a woman of about fifty, sometimes had two sons and was going to a notary to divide an estate worth billions, and at other times lived alone and tried to get work as a cleaning lady.

* “La journal comme antifiction.” Poétique 149 (Feb. 2007): 3–14. Originally presented as the opening address for the “Diaris I Dietaris” colloquium, Department of Catalan Philology, University of Alicante, 10 Nov. 2005.




—from Philippe Lejeune, On Diary (selections); edited by Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak, Katherine Durnin, translator (2009).

gertrude stein on the aesthetic dynamics of the familiar, the accepted and the beautiful

Gertrude Stein’s essay “Composition as Explanation” describes the nature of collective influences upon aesthetic judgment, in specific the temporal and social factors which create the perception of beauty in a text as that text reenacts those processes in the reader’s mind. She analyzes the effect of familiarity on the perceived beauty of a work of art and the resulting process of acceptance or even canonization: “for a very long time almost everybody refuses and then almost without a pause everybody accepts.”  Stein demonstrates for the reader how this acceptance occurs by employing formal devices which initially seem to obstruct meaning but soon enough become comprehensible and finally artistic, as the reader works her way through the text.  


Composition as Explanation

Gertrude Stein 

First delivered by the author as a lecture at Cambridge and Oxford, this essay was first published by the Hogarth Press in London in 1926 and revived in the volume called What Are Masterpieces.

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

It is very likely that nearly every one has been very nearly certain that something that is interesting is interesting them. Can they and do they. It is very interesting that nothing inside in them, that is when you consider the very long history of how every one ever acted or has felt, it is very interesting that nothing inside in them in all of them makes it connectedly different. By this I mean this. The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition. Lord Grey remarked that when the generals before the war talked about the war they talked about it as a nineteenth century war although to be fought with twentieth century weapons. That is because war is a thing that decides how it is to be when it is to be done. It is prepared and to that degree it is like all academies it is not a thing made by being made it is a thing prepared. Writing and painting and all that, is like that, for those who occupy themselves with it and don’t make it as it is made. Now the few who make it as it is made, and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them usually are prepared just as the world around them is preparing, do it in this way and so I if you do not mind I will tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.

To come back to the part that the only thing that is different is what is seen when it seems to be being seen, in other words, composition and time-sense.

No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that  is contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason. They themselves that is everybody in their entering the modern composition and they do enter it, if they do not enter it they are not so to speak in it they are out of it and so they do enter it; but in as you may say the non-competitive efforts where if you are not in it nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had, there are naturally all the refusals, and the things refused are only  important if unexpectedly somebody happens to need them. In the case of the arts it is very definite. Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer, they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made than when it is already a classic, but it is perfectly simple that there is no reason why the contemporaries should see, because it would not make any difference as they lead their lives in the new composition anyway, and as every one is naturally indolent why naturally they don’t see. For this reason as in quoting Lord Grey it is quite certain that nations not actively threatened are at least several generations behind themselves militarily so aesthetically they are more than several generations behind themselves and it is very much too bad, it is so very much more exciting and satisfactory for everybody if one can have contemporaries, if all one’s contemporaries could be one’s contemporaries.

There is almost not an interval.

For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling. Now the only difficulty with the volte-face concerning the arts is this. When the acceptance comes, by that acceptance the thing created becomes a classic. It is a natural phenomena a rather extraordinary natural phenomena that a thing accepted becomes a classic. And what is the characteristic quality of a classic. The characteristic quality of a classic is that it is beautiful. Now of course it is perfectly true that a more or less first rate work of art is beautiful but the trouble is that when that first rate work of art becomes a classic because it is accepted the only thing that is important from then on to the majority of the acceptors the enormous majority, the most intelligent majority of the acceptors is that it is so wonderfully beautiful. Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.

Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful. This makes it so much more difficult to realise its beauty when the work is being refused and prevents every one from realising that they were convinced that beauty was denied, once the work is accepted. Automatically with the acceptance of the time-sense comes the recognition of the beauty and once the beauty is accepted the beauty never fails any one.

Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series.

Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing.

It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition.

Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time in the composition is different. The composition is different, that is certain.

The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition and of that perhaps every one can be certain.

No one thinks these things when they are making when they are creating what is the composition, naturally no one thinks, that is no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made.

Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here. This is some time ago for us naturally.

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.

Now the few who make writing as it is made and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them are those that are prepared by preparing, are prepared just as the world around them is prepared and is preparing to do it in this way and so if you do not mind I will again tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.

Each period of living differs from any other period of living not in the way life is but in the way life is conducted and that authentically speaking is composition. After life has been conducted in a certain way everybody knows it but nobody knows it, little by little, nobody knows it as long as nobody knows it. Any one creating the composition in the arts does not know it either, they are conducting life and that makes their composition what it is, it makes their work compose as it does.

Their influence and their influences are the same as that of all of their contemporaries only it must always be remembered that the analogy is not obvious until as I say the composition of a time has become so pronounced that it is past and the artistic composition of it is a classic.

And now to begin as if to begin. Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here. This is some time ago for us naturally. There is something to be added afterwards.

Just how much my work is known to you I do not know. I feel that perhaps it would be just as well to tell the whole of it.

In beginning writing I wrote a book called Three Lives this was written in 1905. I wrote a negro story called Melanctha. In that there was a constant recurring and beginning there was a marked direction in the direction of being in the present although naturally I had been accustomed to past present and future, and why, because the composition forming around me was a prolonged present. A composition of a prolonged present is a natural composition in the world as it has been these thirty years it was more and more a prolonged present. I created then a prolonged present naturally I knew nothing of a continuous present but it came naturally to me to make one, it was simple it was clear to me and nobody knew why it was done like that I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural.

After that I did a book called The Making of Americans it is a long book about a thousand pages. 

read the rest of the essay…

writers on writing: paul fussell


If you want to be remembered as a clever person and even as a benefactor of humanity, don’t write a novel, or even talk about it: instead, compile tables of compound interest, assemble weather data running back seventy-five years, or develop in tabular form improved actuarial information. All more useful than anything "creative" most people could come up with, and less likely to subject the author to neglect, if not ridicule and contempt. In addition, it will be found that most people who seek attention and regard by announcing that they’re writing a novel are actually so devoid of narrative talent that they can’t hold the attention of a dinner table for thirty seconds, even with a dirty joke.


—from Paul Fussell, Bad, or, the Dumbing of America

the greatest opening line in modern english literature? . . .

. . . according to many, it is.

L. P. Hartley (1895-1972) is today best known for the first 11 words of his 1953 novel, The Go-Between, which in turn is best known through Harold Pinter’s brilliant screenplay for Joseph Losey’s film, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Hartley’s dystopian fable, Facial Justice, was chosen by Anthony Burgess for his 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939.




The famous opening:


THE PAST is a foreign country: they do things differently there. 

When I came upon the diary, it was lying at the bottom of a rather battered red cardboard collar-box, in which as a small boy I kept my Eton collars. Someone, probably my mother, had filled it with treasures dating from those days. There were two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to. The relics were not exactly dirty nor were they quite clean, they had the patina of age; and as I handled them, for the first time for over fifty years, a recollection of what each had meant to me came back, faint as the magnets’ power to draw, but as perceptible. Something came and went between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition, the almost mystical thrill of early ownership—feelings of which, at sixty-odd, I felt ashamed. 

It was a roll-call in reverse; the children of the past announced their names, and I said “Here.” Only the diary refused to disclose its identity. 

My first impression was that it was a present someone had brought me from abroad. The shape, the lettering, the purple limp leather curling upwards at the corners, gave it a foreign look; and it had, I could see, gold edges. Of all the exhibits it was the only one that might have been expensive. I must have treasured it; why, then, could I not give it a context? 

I did not want to touch it and told myself that this was because it challenged my memory; I was proud of my memory and disliked having it prompted. So I sat staring at the diary, as at a blank space in a crossword puzzle. Still no light came, and suddenly I took the combination lock and began to finger it, for I remembered how, at school, I could always open it by the sense of touch when someone else had set the combination. It was one of my show-pieces and, when I first mastered it, drew some applause, for I declared that to do it I had to put myself into a trance; and this was not quite a lie, for I did deliberately empty my mind and let my fingers work without direction. To heighten the effect, however, I would close my eyes and sway gently to and fro, until the effort of keeping my consciousness at a low ebb almost exhausted me; and this I found myself instinctively doing now, as to an audience. After a timeless interval I heard the tiny click and felt the sides of the lock relax and draw apart; and at the same moment, as if by some sympathetic loosening in my mind, the secret of the diary flashed upon me. 

Yet even then I did not want to touch it; indeed my unwillingness increased, for now I knew why I distrusted it. I looked away and it seemed to me that every object in the room exhaled the diary’s enervating power and spoke its message of disappointment and defeat. And as if that was not enough, the voices reproached me with not having had the grit to overcome them. Under this twofold assault I sat staring at the bulging envelopes around me, the stacks of papers tied up with red tape—the task of sorting which I had set myself for winter evenings, and of which the red collar-box had been almost the first item; and I felt, with a bitter blend of self-pity and self-reproach, that had it not been for the diary, or what the diary stood for, everything would be different. I should not be sitting in this drab, flowerless room, where the curtains were not even drawn to hide the cold rain beating on the windows, or contemplating the accumulation of the past and the duty it imposed on me to sort it out. I should be sitting in another room, rainbow-hued, looking not into the past but into the future; and I should not be sitting alone. 

So I told myself, and with a gesture born of will, as most of my acts were, not inclination, I took the diary out of the box and opened it. 




it said in a copperplate script unlike the lettering of today; and round the year thus confidently heralded, the first year of the century, winged with hope, clustered the signs of the zodiac, each somehow contriving to suggest a plenitude of life and power, each glorious, though differing from the others in glory. How well I remembered them, their shapes and attitudes! And I remembered too, though it was no longer potent for me, the magic with which they were then invested, and the tingling sense of coming fruition they conveyed—the lowly creatures no less than the exalted ones. 

The Fishes sported deliciously, as though there were no such things as nets and hooks; the Crab had a twinkle in its eye, as though it was well aware of its odd appearance and thoroughly enjoyed the joke; and even the Scorpion carried its terrible pincers with a gay, heraldic air, as though its deadly intentions existed only in legend. The Ram, the Bull, and the Lion epitomized imperious manhood; they were what we all thought we had it in us to be; careless, noble, self-sufficient, they ruled their months with sovereign sway. As for the Virgin, the one distinctively female figure in the galaxy, I can scarcely say what she meant to me. She was dressed adequately, but only in the coils and sweeps of her long hair; and I doubt whether the school authorities, had they known about her, would have approved the hours of dalliance my thoughts spent with her, though these, I think, were innocent enough. She was, to me, the key to the whole pattern, the climax, the coping-stone, the goddess—for my imagination was then, though it is no longer, passionately hierarchical; it envisaged things in an ascending scale, circle on circle, tier on tier, and the annual, mechanical revolution of the months did not disturb this notion. I knew that the year must return to winter and begin again; but to my apprehensions the zodiacal company were subject to no such limitations: they soared in an ascending spiral towards infinity. 

From Colm Tôibin’s introduction to the New York Review Books edition of The Go-Between:


L. P. HARTLEY put everything he knew, and everything he was, into The Go-Between, which he published in 1953 when he was fifty-eight. He managed to dramatize his own watchful and uneasy presence in the world, his abiding concern with class and caste, and his very personal mixture of alarm and fascination at the body and the body’s sexual needs and urges. It allowed him to evoke a past, a time half a century earlier, a golden age, as he saw it, of Victorian morals and manners, an age of innocence in the short time before its shattering. In The Go-Between he found the perfect way of making sense of his own complex relationship to class and sexuality and memory, but the novel’s intensity also suggests that, working in a time when he alone seemed to possess rigid feelings about these matters, he was writing to save his life. 

Leo [Colston], the narrator of The Go-Between, arrives at Brandham Hall in the hot summer of 1900 to stay with his school friend Marcus. A cautious boy being brought up frugally by his widowed mother, he enters the brave new world of the English aristocracy as Marian, the daughter of the big house, is having a love affair with Ted Burgess, a farmer at the other end of the class system. Leo, the outsider, becomes the bearer of messages between the two lovers… 

A novel is a thousand details, and any novelist will raid the past for moments that have resonance or ring true or may be useful, or simply come to mind easily and quickly. In his book The Novelist’s Responsibility (1967), Hartley mused on the relationship between fiction and autobiography. He wrote that the novelist’s world “must, in some degree, be an extension of his own life; its fundamental problems must be his problems, its preoccupations his preoccupations—or something allied to them.” He also warned that while it is “unsafe to assume that a novelist’s work is autobiographical in any direct sense,” it is nonetheless “plausible to assume that his work is a transcription, an anagram of his own experience, reflecting its shape and tone and tempo.” 

His experience when he began The Go-Between in Venice in May 1952 was that of a man who remained uncomfortable in his chosen milieu, who had learned a set of rules to help him belong. Nothing was taken for granted. He had studiously avoided intimacy. Thus he would have no difficulty describing a middle-class boy’s visit to a grand house, a boy with a brittle consciousness who was wearing unsuitable clothes, open to ridicule, watching everything so he could learn and not be laughed at, a boywho would be mortally wounded by a display of intimacy. Hartley was ready to explore what he described in The Novelist’s Responsibility as “this idea or situation” that goes on in a writer “like a kind of murmur; it is what their thoughts turn to when they are by themselves.”…  

It is, in any case, written between the lines of the book, which turns out not to be a drama about class or about England, or a lost world mourned by Hartley; instead it is a drama about Leo’s deeply sensuous nature moving blindly, in a world of rich detail and beautiful sentences, toward a destruction that is impelled by his own intensity of feeling and, despite everything, his own innocence.


mickey spillane on writing: “your first line sells the book. your last line sells the next book.”




















The closing lines of Spillane’s I, The Jury:

“No, Charlotte, I’m the jury now, and the judge, and I have a promise to keep. Beautiful as you are, as much as I almost loved you, I sentence you to death.”

(Her thumbs hooked in the fragile silk of the panties and pulled them down. She stepped out of them as delicately as one coming from a bathtub. She was completely naked now. A suntanned goddess giving herself to her lover. With arms outstretched she walked toward me. Lightly, her tongue ran over her lips, making them glisten with passion. The smell of her was like an exhilarating perfume. Slowly, a sigh escaped her, making the hemispheres of her breasts quiver. She leaned forward to kiss me, her arms going out to encircle my neck.)

The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte staggered back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in. A thin trickle of blood welled out.

I stood up in front of her and shoved the gun into my pocket. I turned and looked at the rubber plant behind me. There on the table was the gun, with the safety catch off and the silencer still attached. Those loving arms would have reached it nicely. A face that was waiting to be kissed was really waiting to be splattered with blood when she blew my head off. My blood. When I heard her fall I turned around. Her eyes had pain in them now, the pain preceding death. Pain and unbelief.

“How c-could you?” she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.

“It was easy,” I said.




“fear was the price for living”—glimpses of the life and work of chester himes


the life of chester himes


Chester Himes, (1909–1984), novelist. A prolific writer whose career spans fifty years, Chester Himes is best known for his naturalist and detective fiction. A gambler, hustler, burglar, ex-convict, and expatriate, Himes’s Catholic experiences and peripatetic life provided him abundant material for fiction that portrays the near existential “absurdity” of blackness in America. Focusing on violence—physical, political, and psychic—as a ubiquitous dynamic in American culture, Himes’s fiction ponders the often futile struggle to resist a relentlessly hostile environment.



Himes grew up in a middle-class home in Missouri and in Ohio. While a freshman at Ohio State University, Himes was expelled for a prank, and in late 1928 he was arrested and sentenced to jail and hard labor for 20 to 25 years for armed robbery. Imprisoned in Ohio Penitentiary, he began writing short stories which were published in national magazines. For Himes, writing and publishing was a way to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates, as well as avoid violence.

In 1934 Himes was transferred to LondonPrison Farm and in April 1936 he was released on parole into his mother’s custody. Following his release he did part time jobs and at the same time continued to write. During this period he came in touch with Langston Hughes who facilitated Himes contacts with the world of literature and publishing.

In the 1940s Himes spent time in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter but also producing two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade that charted the experiences of the wave of black in-migrants, drawn by the city’s defense industries, and their dealings with the established black community, fellow workers, unions and management. 

In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Mike Davis cites Himes’ brief career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers as an example of the ongoing racism of Hollywood: he was terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said “I don’t want no goddamned niggers on this lot.” (p 43). Himes later wrote in his autobiography:

Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate. 

By the 1950s Himes had decided to settle in France permanently, a country he liked in part due to his critical popularity there.

Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 and died in Spain in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease.

—from wikipedia, at 


some quotations from himes’ work



on violence as the singular American narrative

There is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed in the American scene through violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, the gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamned thing after another; they grew up in violence …. The only people that the American community has tried to teach that it is Christian to turn the other check and live peacefully are the black people. . .   

My French editor says, the Americans have a style of writing detective stories that no one has been able to imitate …. There’s no reason why the black American, like all other Americans, and brought up in this sphere of violence which is the main sphere of American detective stories, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t write them. It’s just plain and simple violence in narrative form …. American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life; it became a form, a detective story form. 

Chester Himes, “My Man Himes” (1976)

 If I had wanted to express my revulsion for violence then I would have made the violence even more repellent, really repellent. I am simply creating stories that have a setting I know very well. 

—Nova (January 1971), 52 


on race 

 The American black is a new race of man; the only new race of man to come into being in modern time. And for those hackneyed, diehard, outdated, slavery-time racists to keep thinking of him as a primitive is an insult to the intelligence. In fact, intelligence isn’t required to know the black is a new man, complex, intriguing, and not particularly likeable. I find it very difficult to like American blacks myself; but I know there’s nothing primitive about us, as there is about the most sophisticated African. 

—Himes, The Quality of Hurt (1972)  


on writing (and race) 

 No matter what I did, or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer since I’d published my first story in Esquire when I was still in prison in 1934. Foremost a writer. Above all a writer. It was my salvation and is. The world can deny me all other employment, and stone me as an ex-convict, as a nigger, as a disagreeable and unpleasant person. But as long as I can write, whether it is published or not, I’m a writer, and no one can take that away. “A fighter fights, a writer writes”, so I must have done my writing . . .  

Himes, The Quality of Hurt 

I had the creative urge, but the old, used forms of the black American writer did not fit my creations. I wanted to break through the barrier that labeled me as a “protest writer.” I knew the life of an American black needed another image than just the victim of racism. We were more than just victims. We did not suffer, we were extroverts. We were unique individuals, funny not clowns, solemn but not serious, hurt but not suffering, sexualists but not whores in the usual sense of the word; we had tremendous love of life, a love of sex, a love of ourselves. We were absurd.

 —Himes, My Life of Absurdity


from his novels

 In Lonely Crusade (1947), the protagonist Lee Gordon is a man pushed to the edge. At the start of the novel the omniscient narrator observes that “Fear was the price for living”; nevertheless, after a run of unemployment, Gordon manages to become a union organizer. However, his happiness soon turns to a kind of self-fuelling fear:

… when he boarded the streetcar with white Southern war-workers that war spring of 1943, being a Negro imposed a sense of handicap that Lee Gordon could not overcome. He lost his brief happiness in the seas of white faces … he had once again crossed into the competitive white world where he would be subjected to every abuse concocted in the minds of white people to harass and intimidate Negroes ….  and to be afraid, and hate his fear himself for fearing it, and hate himself for feeling it. The fear in him was something a dog could smell … he could see the hostile faces of the white workers, their hot, hating stares; he could feel their antagonisms hard as a physical blow; hear their vile asides and abusive epithets with a reality that cut like a knife.

Of his novel The End of the Primitive (1955), Himes stated that “I put a sexually frustrated American woman and a racially-frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment, and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy.” the doomed Jesse’s dream life is conveyed with an hallucinatory absurdity worthy of De Quincey:

He dreamed he was in a house with a thousand rooms of different sizes made entirely of distorted mirrors. There were others besides himself but he could not tell how many because their reflections went on into an infinity in the distorted mirrors. Nor could he see their true shape because in one mirror they all appeared to be obese dwarfs and in another tall, thin, cadaverous skeletons. He ran panic-stricken from room to room trying to find a familiar human shape, but he saw only the grotesque reflections, the brutal faces that leered from some distortions, the sweet smiles from others, the sad eyes, the gentle mouths, the sinister stares, the  treacherous grins, the threatening scowls, hating and bestial, suffering and saintly, gracious and kind, and he knew that none of them was the true face and he continued to run in frantic terror until he found a door and escaped.

Thus America as a deranged fun-house. When Jesse kills the white girl Kriss, he believes, paradoxically, that he has now joined the ranks of humanity:

You finally did it …. End product of Americanism on one Jesse Robinson – black man. Your answer, son. You’ve been searching for it. BLACK MAN KILLS WHITE WOMAN …. Human beings only species of animal life where males are known to kill their females. Proof beyond all doubt. Jesse Robinson joins the human race. “I’m a nigger and I’ve just killed a white woman,” Jesse said, giving the address on 21st Street and hung up. “That’ll get the lead out of his ass,” he thought half-amused.


the detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed

 An inconspicuous black sedan pulled out from the kerb and parked at the end of the block unnoticed, and the two tall, lanky colored men dressed in black mohair suits that looked as though they’d been slept in got out and walked towards the scene. Their wrinkled coals bulged beneath their left shoulders. The shiny straps of shoulder holsters showed across the fronts of their blue cotton shirts. The one with the burnt face went to the far side of the crowd; the other remained on the near side. Suddenly a loud voice shouted, “Straighten up!” An equally loud voice echoes, “Count off!”

The Crazy Kill (1959)


their code 

 As set out in A Rage in Harlem (1965):

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Gravedigger’s would bury it. They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering for the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody but themselves. “Keep it cool,” they warned, “Don’t make graves.”


Harlem, their patrol grounds:

 Unwed young mothers, suckling their infants, living on a prayer; fat black racketeers coasting past in big bright-colored convertibles with their solid gold babes, carrying huge sums of money on their person; hardworking men, holding up buildings with their shoulders, talking in loud voices up there in Harlem where the white bosses couldn’t hear them; teen-age gangsters grouping for a gang-fight, smoking marijuana weed to get up their courage; everybody escaping the hot-box rooms they lived in, seeking respite in a street made hotter by the automobile exhaust and the heat released by the concrete walls and walks.

The Crazy Kill


on violence as the singular American narrative

barthes & burroughs on writing and the demonic

How to repulse a demon (an old problem)? The demons, especially if they are demons of language (and what else could they be?) are fought by language. Hence I can hope to exorcise the demonic word which is breathed into my ears (by myself) if I substitute for it (if I have the gifts of language for doing so) another, calmer word (I yield to euphemism). Thus: I imagined I had escaped from the crisis at last, when behold — favored by a long car trip — a flood of language sweeps me away, I keep tormenting myself with the thought, desire, regret, and rage of the other; and I add to these wounds the discouragement of having to acknowledge that I am falling back, relapsing; but the French vocabulary is a veritable pharmacopoeia (poison on one side, antidote on the other): no, this is not a relapse, only a last soubresaut, a final convulsion of the previous demon. 

—from Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments


Dear Allen,

Here is my latest attempt to write something saleable. All day I had been finding pretexts to avoid work, reading magazines, making fudge, cleaning my shot-gun, washing the dishes, going to bed with Kiki, tying the garbage up in neat parcels and putting it out for the collector (if you put it out in a waste basket or any container, they will steal the container every time. I was going to chain a bucket to my doorstep but it’s like too much trouble. So I put it out in packages), buying food for dinner, picking up a junk script. So finally I say: “Now you must work,” and smoke some tea and sit down and out it comes all in one piece like a glob of spit [. . .]

This is my saleable product. Do you dig what happens? It’s almost like automatic writing produced by a hostile, independent entity who is saying in effect, “I will write what I please.” At the same time when I try to pressure myself into organizing production, to impose some form on material, or even to follow a line (like continuation of novel), the effort catapults me into a sort of madness, where only the most extreme material is available to me. What a disaster to lose my typewriter, and no possibility of buying one this month. My financial position slides inexorably.

—from The Letters of William S. Burroughs, 1945–1959



thoughts on writing from will ashon, who should be much better known than he is…

Like Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, Will Ashon believes most writers are closet exhibitionists – the exhibitionism lying solely in their writing. “I hate doing readings,” he says with feeling. When promoting his first novel, Clear Water, he shared the stage with a Canadian slam poet. “I did my bit and people just looked horrified. Then he came on and recited all these poems about love and sex from memory.” He recalls much bellowing and arm-waving. “At the end of his first set people were practically in tears and cheering. I was standing there with my wife going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to go on again after him. I think I’ll have another drink.’ I think I sold one book”, he says, bursting into laughter…

Ashon picked an unexpected location to write: the Tube. Living at one end of the Victoria Line and working at the other, the only available time in his day was the 45-minute journey between home and office. “Bizarrely, I found it a really good place to bash out a first draft.” Using a Palm Pilot (“you can get 72 words on the screen”), he established a modus operandi. “It’s all about the right seat. I’m left-handed and so sit on the left-hand side of the train.” Suffering from motion sickness, he always positioned himself facing forward. There were none of the usual distractions. No one ever bothered him. “I find the Tube the opposite of a social experience. I like the way you roll along in a trance-like state.” It worked so well for him that Ashon chose to write The Heritage on the underground, even though he didn’t need to.

—from Marianne Brace, “Will Ashon: A Thoroughly Modern Novelist” The Independent, Friday, 15 February 2008