What a wonderful audience

[This was intended as a podcast, but I’ve been suffering from a headcold all week, and my voice is even worse than usual, so I decided to try to write instead.]

Virtual Memories is not exactly a model of search engine optimization. This is the blog where I spent around two years writing a recurring feature about Montaigne’s essays: not exactly a bikini-babe traffic-generator. (Although I’d say the majority of my google-linked visits seem to come from .edu addresses seeking out particular Montaigne essays; I think it’s awesome that my “insights” may have made their way into college kids’ papers.) I concluded a long time ago that my tastes just don’t jibe with that of a mainstream audience.

But I’ve been thinking a bit about audiences lately. I spent the previous week in NYC for a pharma conference. Several people I met told me that they receive my magazine at work and that my From the Editor column is the first thing they read. I’ve gotten this a bunch over the years, and it always makes me happy; I put some work into writing my editorials, trying my best not to do a “[topictopictopicblather], and on page 44, you’ll find [contributor]’s take on [topic]” recapitulation of the table of contents. So it’s nice to get recognized for that. I’m happy to have an audience. (And I’m happy to have you guys.)

Last Saturday, I had brunch with Samuel R. Delany (Chip), whom I used to publish back in my small-press-night-job days. Chip turned 69 on April Fool’s Day, so I tried to put a group together to celebrate. Various cancellations and illness (my wife) left it at me, Chip, his partner, Dennis, and our pal Vince, who introduced me to Chip almost 15 years ago.

I hadn’t seen any of them in a year, and we had a fun, rambling conversation. At one point, Chip mentioned that he has a new novel coming out next year, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. I asked if it was along the lines of The Mad Man, the book of his I reissued in 2002, which I describe as “a scatological queer porno literary theory murder mystery thriller,” and which an alumni of my grad school once called, “The War & Peace of s***-eating.” (I told him that I consider it “The Anna Karenina of p***-drinking BJ scenes,” and he agreed that was a better comparison.)

The new book, almost 700 pages long, will have plenty of scenes in the same vein, he said.

Sitting across the table from the Creole Santa, I asked, “Chip, who do you consider to be the audience for this book?”

Just so you know, I wasn’t passing a moral judgement on his sexual tastes nor his literary depictions thereof. I was just curious as to why, after writing The Mad Man and scads of other fiction along these lines, he was doing it again, and at such length. (I pre-emptively declared that I was not about to launch into the argument that commercial success is the arbitrator of art.)

He answered that these are the books that he wants to write and, more importantly, to read. He figures that there’s a decent-sized market for these interests of his (as well as people who aren’t as interested in the sex but still love to read work by him), and that it’s simply a matter of reaching them. I admitted that, of the five books I published during my run, The Mad Man was the best seller.

He has the freedom to write what he wants, having built an audience over the decades. And it’s not like he makes a living off his books; the bulk of his income derives from his professorship at Temple.

The other author at the table mentioned that his agent had recently sent out word to the other reps at her agency (and to authors) that editors at the major publishing houses were dismissing repped manuscripts unseen now, unless they were either movie- or TV-sellable, or the author had a sizeable internet following. Navel-gazing “literary fiction” was a non-seller and thus a non-starter.

Inwardly, I cheered.

It’s an audience I once belonged to, but seem to have grown out of. Having fallen out of my literary circles, I don’t know who does read that sorta thing anymore. There are audiences I’m just not a part of, and can’t identify with.

Which just means I live in relative isolation, not that these audiences have or have not withered away. It also doesn’t mean that it’s an either/or. The Venn diagrams can be pretty entertaining. As I wrote in 7 Rooms of Bloom:

I reflected on [Harold] Bloom’s lifelong support of the New York Yankees. I told myself, “When you were drunk on Colt 45 in a Dallas hotel room, jumping up and down and cheering as Charlie Hayes caught the final out of the 1996 World Series, Harold Bloom was also cheering and . . . well, maybe not jumping up and down, drunk on Colt 45, but definitely celebrating.”

After brunch, I took a walk through the city, bought some coffee beans, a bottle of Ethereal Gin, cheap clothes at Uniqlo, and a few remaindered copies of Clive James’ wonderful book, Cultural Amnesia, at St. Mark’s Books. There was a small rack of DVDs by the counter for impulse purchases. There, I noticed my brunch-mate gazing back at me. The Polymath, a 2007 documentary about Chip Delany, was in prominent position at the cashier. I thought, “The guy’s got an audience.”

A few days before brunch with Chip, I took Amy to see the revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia at the Barrymore Theater on Broadway. Arcadia is one of my favorite pieces of writing; I’ve read the play six or seven times since discovering it in 1995, but had never seen it staged. So, yes, this was a bucket-list item for me.

Among the hustle of ticket-holders entering the theater, I was glad that producers (read: people with money) felt that there’d be an audience for a challenging play (comedy? mystery? Stoppard calls it “a tragedy with jokes”) about Romanticism, British landscape gardening, Latin, fractal geometry, literary scholarship, and Byron. And I was even more gratified that the thousand-seat theater was packed. (I splurged on orchestra seats a few rows from the stage; they were almost as good as at the Tom Jones show I attended in Vegas in 2004.)


Watching the play that night (I’d re-read the weekend before, after giving up on Kerouac) I found myself wondering just how many of the references — the poetry and the maths, particularly — were out of the reach of some of the audience members. I’ve grown so accustomed to being around “normal” people that I had no idea how much of the play would zoom by the rest of the audience. Were they devotees like me? Were they there because it was “smart” Broadway? What did it mean to be part of that audience? Who pays Broadway prices to see Arcadia in 2011?

(You want a review? Billy Crudup was great, taking up the role of literary sleuth Bernard 15 years after he played the role of the tutor, Septimus Hodge. (I only wish I could have seen Billy Nighy play Bernard as he did in the first London run.) Lia Williams did a great job as Hannah, but missed the cue where she was supposed to slap Bernard, and tried to make up for it later, confusing Crudup for a moment. Grace Gummer was pretty entertaining and OHMYGODLOOKSEXACTLYLIKEHERMOTHER. Raul Esparza ran through some of his lines too quickly, which maybe he was supposed to do because his character’s a theoretical mathematician, but still. And I wanted to punch out the girl who played Thomasina from the moment she opened her mouth. Seriously, she almost wrecked the whole play for me, with her shrill, impatient delivery and frantic hand-gestures. I know she’s playing a precocious 13-year-old student in 1809, but the role has to be quieter. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve had the script silently playing in my head for 15 years now, and it wasn’t shrill there.)

To get back to my point, I’ve been thinking about audiences. The big news story here has been about Charlie Sheen’s disaster of a theater show, and whether anyone who pays money to see Charlie Sheen’s theater show has a right to expect, um, anything worthwhile.

I have my audience, both here and at my day job, where I’ve got 20,000 subscribers. Chip has his, and some of them stick with him through some unfriendly territory. Arcadia has its audience, and I belong to it. How do we find a voice, in all the cacophony? How do we dare presume that we’re worth listening to? It’s been 8+ years for me & this site, and that question’s arisen again and again.

Which brings me back here. The biggest surge this site ever got was when Instapundit linked to my post about Proust, Love, and That Damned Hegel Quote. (If you’d like a semi-podcast angle to this, here’s an audio recording of it from a few days ago. It’s about 6 minutes long, and 4.8mb.) It was only a few thousand visitors, since he posted the link on a New Year’s day, but I was amazed to see those numbers of people checking out something that’s ultimately a pretty personal post.

So thanks for reading, and thanks for coming back for more.

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