Stop The presses
Richard Alleva

Start your own

A few centuries ago, most important writers were strictly local heroes. The future pillars of Western art and sensibility were guys (occasionally gals) from the neighborhood who stayed put, at least when they were allowed to. The ultimate ambition of an Aeschylus or a Euripides was to win first prize at the annual theater festival in hometown Athens. Though Dante didn't have to leave Italy during his political exile, this held no comfort for him because the Florence that drove him away was his real homeland, his political base, his world. Francois Villon didn't identify with his city, Paris, as much as with the neighborhood (Notre Dame and its environs), from which the poet-gallows bird drew his lice-ridden inspirations. The creator of the most wonderful of all British narrative poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, doomed himself to anonymity and a readership of scholars by never leaving his country estate in northwest England and by writing in a dialect that didn't become standard English. When Chaucer, the father of English poetry, was praised by a cultured foreigner, the historian Froisart, it was for his diplomacy, not The Canterbury Tales. And, of course, Shakespeare's idea of success was good box office in strictly one city, London.

Now let's fast-forward to America between the world wars, the era that exalted the idea of The Great American Novel, and that invested the successful young novelist with the glamour that only movie and pop music stars have nowadays.

From his home in the Midwest or his boarding house in Paris, the young genius has been summoned to New York and a booth in Sardi's by his publisher who is aglow at the first novel's critical reception and initial sales and is bursting to regale the young man with visions of the near future: foreign rights about to be sold, translations to be commissioned, a Broadway adaptation slated for next fall, the Pulitzer committee taking notice, Hollywood studio representatives preparing a generous contract, and ...oh, by the way, can you make it to the Algonquin for lunch tomorrow? Dorothy and Bob Benchley are dying to meet you, and I understand GBS is in town...

Accepted. Published. Praised. Prized. And, most of all, removed. Physically removed by his improved finances, certainly, but also removed psychologically by his new celebrity. A cynosure cannot enjoy the sort of anonymity that once allowed him to dwell in a neighborhood and observe others surreptitiously while going unobserved himself. A true local hero-the high school football star, the prize-winning economics professor newly come onto campus for a guest lectureship, the mayor who's lured big business to town-gets friendly greetings from passing cars and pats on the back from pedestrians. But the world-famous writer, like the world-famous anyone, is in danger of being mobbed or stalked or killed if he tries to become part of a neighborhood. He or she must dwell apart in the semimythical land of Celebrityhood. And that is a place that knows no real locality at all.

There may always be writers who enjoy that sort of celebrity (J. K. Rowling is the latest) but their numbers will almost certainly decrease as time goes on and the reading of novels is enjoyed by a constantly shrinking audience. But since there will also always be writers who simply need to write out of the sheer hunger to arrange words, explore ideas, and create characters, and since computers now allow such would-be authors the small, neat pleasures of desktop publishing with its clean, professional looking scripts ready for handsome binding, a new, more modest image of the budding writer may someday emerge: not the brash tyro aiming to have Manhattan and, soon, the rest of the world at his feet, but someone who comes close to resembling the writer-as-local-hero of the distant past. Let me give an example of one such author whom I've observed in the flesh and up close.

I enter the Russell Public Library of Middletown, Connecticut, just around the corner from Wesleyan University. Walking past the circulation desk, I turn left and enter a publisher's office.

No, wait, it's not a publisher's office but the library's reference department. But, behold, in one corner, publishing is indeed in progress. Crouched over a computer keyboard is a middle-aged man with a pate appropriately monkish and a face appropriately gnomic, for like any good writer he coaxes his thoughts onto the page with the humble intensity of a monk decorating a manuscript or the greedy intensity of a gnome counting his gold. He has slipped his complete works onto some disks which he carries to and from the library. With the aid of a benevolent library computer technician, he has installed a wide variety of typefonts on the hard drive which not only he but any other library patron can employ (thereby making our writer not only the beneficiary but the benefactor of the library), and once he has written at least a couple of drafts in longhand, he chooses the most appropriate font for the story or essay in progress, types it, revises again and again until satisfied, prints, photocopies, turns the results over to a bindery, and winds up with the latest of several handsome booklets with blue or purple or red covers, puckishly decorated by their author. Presto, a twenty-first-century descendant of the Elizabethan chapbook.

The contents? Modern variations of Greek and Indian myths, "cynical" (but actually quite poignant) Christmas stories, short fiction about Americans in Paris in the 1960s, factual reports on scientific conferences, ruminations on the state of current academia, horror stories of the homeless, book reviews, farces, musings on the latest developments in physics, and one of the most unsparing and tacitly poignant autobiographies I have ever read.

Whose autobiography? That of Roy Lisker, one-time math prodigy, ex-wandering musician, contributor to Jean Paul Sartre's Les Temps Modernes, and local character in a succession of places (mostly university communities), political protestor and prankster, and indefatigable self-publisher.

Unless you are Noam Chomsky or historian Howard Zinn or composers Milton Babbitt and John Harbison or one of the other subscribers to Lisker's monthly publication, Ferment, you will have to take my word for it that Roy is worth reading for the way hecan make a fictional character as rooted in the real world as the subject of a New Yorker profile, while endowing a real-life academic with the fabulousness of a character in Dickens. If there were any literary justice in the world, Lisker's story, Sam The Messiah Man about a violinist who devotes his entire career to perfecting the violin passages of a Handel oratorio, would be as renowned as Borges's fable about another artistic specialist, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." But what really concerns me here is to point out how tenaciously Lisker reverts to the seemingly outmoded notion of the writer as local character and streetcorner vendor of news, satire, and fantasy. To be sure, Lisker has been conventionally published (his academic satire, Getting That Meal Ticket, was published in Paris by Rend Juliard in 1972), but he now confines his energies to using his private printing press in the Russell Library, hawking his wares on the Wesleyan campus, giving readings at local bookstores, and mailing his publications to subscribers who are all over the country because Roy, in his youth, had been all over the country befriending and bugging people while enacting his role of academic-mathematician-wandering minstrel. It's as if Lisker had spent his youth creating a corridor of readership for himself and now spends his maturity feeding that readership while never budging from his tightly confined purlieus. The neighborhood of Notre Dame had its Villon; the neighborhood of Wesleyan has its Lisker.

Is he satisfied? Of course not. All writers want the world at their feet. But at least he is scrupulously working and reworking his own oeuvre, regardless of what posterity will make of it. And, whereas a shrewd publisher would try to get an "angle" on Lisker, try to zero in on that aspect of his work that could be commodified and slickly publicized (Kerouac without a car? Travels with Charley without the dog?), Lisker is free on his own to mine the multifariousness of his life to produce the multifariousness of his work: science vs. humanities, performing art vs. creative art, political activism vs. the life of study. Right now he's studying the works of Quintilian, the great first-century rhetorician. Any chance that Quintilian will be a hot topic in New York publishing offices soon? Roy needn't worry about that as he draws upon the ancient master for his next story or essay. His tiny, devoted readership will go along with his latest forays as long as he gives them something lively to read.

In short, Roy Lisker is writing American samizdat. The comparison might strike some as insulting to the brave Russian writers who secretly created a literature in the Soviet Union that might, and in some cases did, earn them years in prison. After all, what kind of samizdat is it when the author can use the country's mail service to deliver it, and when the mayor occasionally shows up to hear the author recite it?

But Lisker is an American writer living the twenty-first-century American literary situation and, while he certainly doesn't risk death, he does risk, by not tailoring his writing to the exigencies of mainstream publishing, the American version of Siberia for writers: complete indifference, isolation, ineffectuality, and a one-way ticket to solipsism. That he has persisted with his cranky, occasionally brilliant, and always communicafive work seems to me, in a lesser way, heroic enough to be called samizdat.

How many other writers in the future will be doing similar work? As I was completing this essay, I heard of the merger of AOL and Time Warner, the biggest in a series of media mergers over the last decade. Does anybody seriously think that such corporate Goliaths, though their minions blather on about the explosion of creativity they are going to unleash, will really encourage true idiosyncrasy (as opposed to "cutting edge" trendiness), corrosive wit, oddball brilliance, or even just plain civilized writing? It seems to me that in the era of the bottom line, when even the products of university presses are beginning to look a little too much alike, a few writers may want to swerve away from all straight lines, whether at the top or the bottom, turn their computers into printing presses, and hit the streets with a few chapbooks for sale. Frangois Villon would sympathize and might even steal a copy or two.