I grew up in the U. S. Army. I learned early that we, the entire family, were “in the Army.” Only we didn’t call it the Army. We called it the Service. We were “in the Service,” and I grew up in the Service. There is a difference. David Petraeus was in the Army, but George Marshall was in the Service.
I never finished college because of alcoholism, which came close to killing me. I had my last drink on 2 November 1977. It was some time before I could write again, and even longer before I could write the kind of thing – fiction – that I wanted to write. Fiction is among the writings that universities label “creative.”
But this label is a misnomer.
All writing is creative. Most writing creates money, but not much of it on a per-writer basis. Enough to live on, if you live fairly simply. MFA programs create certified writers who have a steady income, usually from teaching, and whose writing is judged to be “literature” before it is even published. And some writing – very little, in comparison to the total produced by what the University of the South calls “the writing industry” – creates the kind of writing you will grab and take with you as you flee for your life from the burning building we term, with unconscious sarcasm, Western civilization.
The first pieces of writing that I was paid for were articles for a trade paper that covered the independent grocery business. I wrote a story about Bertolli olive oil, which was just entering the U. S. market at that time, and the Bertolli guy in New York actually sent me a letter of thanks. He did not know that the original ending of my piece about his olive oil had been suppressed. I had concluded on what I thought was an upbeat note by saying something to the effect that Bertolli was going to make olive oil “bigger than Popeye’s girlfriend.”
The owner of the paper thought this might offend the company. The owner of the paper, like the owners of most papers, was a candy-ass and a coward.
I am a coward, too, but I do the scary stuff anyway, because fear is not a valid motive for anything, and also because I’ve learned that if something scares me, it usually will interest the reader, who may or may not be interested in what merely interests me.
I spent a long time – or what seemed like a long time – in what they call “trade press,” writing about things like soft drinks, corporate real estate management and facilities planning, computers and programming, and the airline business. I then wrote my first novel, which effort I supported by writing corporate communications, user manuals, various technical pieces, and by learning data-base programming. No longer a part of the Service in the military sense, I was now in the Service as a writer.
In 1991 I went to work for a publisher of medical newsletters, and I wrote about HIV/AIDS, cancer, and MDR-TB. I also wrote my second novel, Safe Sex, which was published in England in 1997 by Fourth Estate Limited.
Writing explicitly about human beings being sexual is very good for your sex life. It is surprisingly liberating. It really frees you up, as they say. When Safe Sex was published, I discovered that most, if not all, of the sexually liberated (aka mature) reviewers were gay. The straight people uniformly pooh-poohed the book, like sex was something beneath them – no big deal to these experienced and world-weary heteros, see?
Don’t let these critics kid you. Sex is a big deal to every last one of them. That’s why explicit writing about sex baffled them to the degree that they could not see notice the influence of Oedipus Rex in the storyline of Safe Sex.
But nobody reads the classics anymore. That was my mistake.
Everybody did notice the word cunt, which I used in that novel because it is the actual English word for the female sexual organ. This upset some bourgeois Southern liberals.
Liberals don’t have cunts. They have “pussies” and other similarly childish code words for cunt. The childishness of such verbiage is precisely why I used the word cunt in Safe Sex. Kung Fu-tzu called this practice “the rectification of names” and called it, as well, the first step in the saving of society. That is, saying what you really mean is the beginning of sanity, salvation, and, yes, good government. What I really meant was – cunt. I did not mean “pussy,” or any other baby-talk. I meant cunt. (I still do. If you’re interested, check out The Analects or read Eros Denied: Sex in Western Society by Wayland Young, which may be purchased used here and here
My thinking is simple: if you can’t say it, you don’t really get to do it, and if you can’t call it by its real name, you haven’t really got one. Not really.
Safe Sex was what an agent in Atlanta termed “a hard sell to a small audience.” This, I think, is because “Americans” – defined as North American white people, with tacit honorary membership extended to a few European whites – don’t really like reading about sex because they (still) think it’s dirty and all that stuff, that is, unspeakable. And they think only kids – specifically, adolescent boys – would even care to read about sex. Mature people don’t read such stuff, mature being defined as having and keeping a job, owning and paying off a car, raising well-behaved children, voting, supporting the United Way, having a checking account and a portfolio, owning a home, paying the bills, taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, washing the car, doing the laundry, etc. This defines the maturity of a people who believe Ronald Reagan was a “great” president – they know this must be true, because they saw it on television.
These people are rationalizing their fear of their own genitals, which is terrifyingly real to them. When they fuck, they are liable to turn off the lights. One of these bourgeois liberal women said to me: “Women don’t masturbate.” This particular lady probably doesn’t have a cunt, either.
If you think cunt is dirty, look it up in the dictionary. Check out that old etymology. Read Chaucer, who uses the Middle-English form of the word in The Canterbury Tales. Cunt wasn’t dirty in English until that band, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, took over England. They declared it a dirty word, because they thought it was a dirty thing.
What’s your opinion?
The publication of Safe Sex was followed by a long period of writing feverishly that took real years to result in anything. When it finally resulted in something, a novel about biological warfare in the Second World War called The Wonders of the Invisible World, it couldn’t be published in the United States either. Wonders is a fairly realistic historical novel about the Pacific War and its aftermath – i.e., the early days of the Cold War – and that kind of narrative can’t be published for North American white people, with tacit honorary membership extended to a few Europeans.
Or maybe it could be published, but no one could figure out how to market it, which is what the publishing industry is really about. You can’t say, for instance, that it’s a book about World War II that fans of warfare like Tom Brokaw will rush out to buy. The U. S. publishing industry, like every other industry, is soulless. Clever, but soulless.
(That paragraph is an example of the rectification of names. Compare the etymologies of industry and profession, and see if it isn’t.)
What can be marketed about war and warfare in the United States is Saving Private Ryan, which is a twenty-minute extravaganza of special effects “realism,” followed by two hours of what Edmund Wilson termed patriotic gore – two hours of war movie that was, in its heart of hearts, no different in spirit from the Hollywood propaganda movies of the period, just more “graphic.” At the end of Saving, though, we’re treated to a full-screen shot of the U. S. flag, aka “Old Glory,” flying high with the sun shining through it – the U. S. as light-bringer, so to speak.
(But remember, the original light-bringer wound up chained to a rock having his liver eaten out of his body by an eagle every day, over and over, forever. That should have given Robert Rodat pause, but he probably didn’t read the classics either.)
To be fair, there is one scene in Saving that gets at the real effect of violence. That occurs at the Ryan home, in what looks like Kansas or Indiana or some other image that brings to mind, in the movies, “the heartland.” The sequence shows Mother Ryan at the kitchen sink, looking out the window and seeing a big black car pull up out front. She goes to the door and, by the time she gets it open, she sees two men in uniform emerging from the vehicle. Knowing what this visit means, she cannot remain standing and collapses in the doorway.
If you want to reveal the horror of violence, this is the kind of thing that can do it, because it shows that violence is pointless and meaningless human suffering. Human suffering happens to your mother. Everybody else as well, but having it happen to Mother will sell the concept of nonviolence a lot better than any other scenario. Killing, as George Orwell once observed, is screaming children and hysterical women and weeping men. Let’s show that to our adolescent boys and girls.
So, as I said at the beginning, I grew up in the U. S. Army, the Service, which is why I don’t romanticize war or take Tom Brokaw seriously. I’m a big fan of Graham Greene, though, who wrote the following passage in The Ministry of Fear:
Rowe thought, as he often did, that you couldn’t take such an odd world seriously, and yet all the time, in fact, he took it with a mortal seriousness. The grand names stood permanently like statues in his mind: names like Justice and Retribution, though what they both boiled down to was simply Mr Rennit, hundreds and hundreds of Mr Rennits. But of course if you believed in God – and the Devil – the thing wasn’t quite so comic. Because the Devil – and God too – had always used comic people, futile people, little suburban natures and the maimed and warped to serve his purposes. When God used them you talked emptily of Nobility and when the devil used them of Wickedness, but the material was only dull shabby human mediocrity in either case.
Let’s repeat that phrase: “dull shabby human mediocrity.” When it’s all said and done and they lower us into the ground, that’s me and you and, I’ll bet, Steven Spielberg too. And owning up to it is both the meaning of humility and the beginning of being able to laugh at yourself. No one who can laugh at himself (or herself) ever starts a war. No, wars, the most gloriously useless and wasteful of all human endeavors, are always started by serious people, adult people, people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a sexually explicit book or watching raw news footage of actual combat, people who don’t know there is a difference between graphic realism and truth, between truth and propaganda, and who find the propaganda a whole lot easier to do – and, especially, to sell. Growing up, I got to see what all the greatest killing actually did to the men who were present and on the scene at the time of the carnage, before it became a movie, and I concluded early on that it wasn’t worth it.
I was right. I still am.
I have concluded that we, Americans, are as phony about war as we are about sex. And it’s not just us. If you read the letters and diaries written by the troops who fought the battle of Stalingrad, you find, again and again, soldiers on all sides claiming to be “fighting for freedom.”
Dig it: the Nazis and the Communists fought for freedom – according to themselves. Actually, the Nazis and the Communists fought for real estate and money, which is what we fought for too, because those are always the goals and the purpose and the cause of war. The army of Spartacus actually did fight for its freedom, but it lost to an army that fought for its property. This, and this alone, is what nations kill for.
I’ve written an awful lot for property, and the idea behind websites like this one is mainly about property as well: selling books is a part of property. But I don’t believe I can really sell you on my books, my writing, by “creating content” or expertly applying search-engine optimization techniques or any means other than by being the same guy here that I am when I write the books. That’s a guy who is writing because he has to if he is ever going to be free.
Right now I’m working on a crime story – what the college professors call noir – and next year I will be writing another war novel, one about the Great War, aka “World War I.” I have hopes for the commercial potential of the crime story, tentatively entitled Blackout, and, who knows about the Great War? Next August marks the centennial of its beginning, and I assume, along with all the other industrial-strength writers, that it will be and will remain “commercially viable” for the duration of the festivities, that is, till 11 November 2018 – the History-As-Spectacle Book Sale to end all History-As-Spectacle Book Sales, or: Back to the Future with the First Greatest Generation.
But that is only what I hope for, and Emily Dickinson called hope “the thing with feathers.” That’s me. Dull, shabby, human, mediocre, with feathers. And that’s what I write about (also me). I drink (soda water) to the dull, the shabby, the mediocre, and, above all, to a thing with feathers.
Writing about so-called “limited nuclear war” in The Challenge of Peace in 1983, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said this about hope:
Hope sustains one’s capacity to live with danger without being overwhelmed by it; hope is the will to struggle against obstacles even when they appear insuperable. Ultimately our hope rests in the God who gave us life, sustains the world by his power, and has called us to revere the lives of every person and all peoples.
Amen, brother. Now, where art thou?