MisIt is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. – Mark Twain
Atticus does not publish literary posers. We discover authentic voices whose timbre rings true. They’re not voices that you hear every day, and some may rattle your bones a little, like the staunch intensity of a Tom Waits garage sermon or an Allen Ginsberg rant. These writers are necessary (instrumental, even) in getting you through the night. They’re like a shot of complex bourbon at closing time. Their words go down rough. They scratch your throat and fill your head with industrial disease. They’re an acquired taste, the medicated goo that Steve Winwood and your first creative writing professor insists is good for you.
Other voices Atticus Review editors find are as smooth as white silk and Persian fur, like an ear massage from Norah Jones and hiking tips by Annie Dillard in a faraway forest of giant sequoia trees on a lost weekend. They have a melody that softens and sways the listener, there to soothe and protect you. Like a campfire tale on a moonlit night, their words cover your scars like an old checkered blanket with familiar scents.
Some may say these voices of modern music and literature define the breadth of mainstream American culture. They’ve earned respect via shelf space, radio play, and accolades so audiences generally consider their output as pitch perfect (no matter how out of tune Waits may sound). But the reality is what distinguishes performers like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell—what separates writers like Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, and Dorothy Parker from pedestrians who live on Common Place—is the same element that destroys lesser artists.
What makes shooting stars so spectacular? What makes them rise above obscurity? Mediocrity?
Clearly these household names (at least in my household) own talent in spades, but moreover, each has the courage to be The Outsider. The Freak. The Misfit.
These titans of alt-popular culture each possess a higher power, a mystique that eludes most muggles. They find a way to excel on stage not because they seek the spotlight, but because they know how to work the stage lights. They know how to design a set. They know how to create and employ a mood. They know how to show up late for a first date without flowers or an alibi and, in no short order, turn the tables, pay off the maître d’, and win over a dyslexic heart.
You don’t have to be a Frank Sinatra scholar to know there’s a stark difference between range and the ability to turn a phrase. When I listen to the delicate vocals of Eva Cassidy and the powerhouse chops of Aretha Franklin, I am humbled by the sheer talent. It astounds me how they tear through songs like sheets of communion wafers. As Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell used to say on American Idol, they can make a list of names from the phone directory sound like poetry. There seems to be no end to where they can take a song. Listeners go wherever they lead.
Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Aaron Neville, Kenny Rankin, Martin Sexton, my list of indomitable male vocalists is long. I have an undying appreciation for their vocal gift, their capacity for moving me, consistently hitting the high note, reaching new plateaus.
But it’s the rare bird—from Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and Randy Newman to Lucinda Williams, Bruce Cockburn, and Bonnie Raitt—from Carson McCullers, Edward Albee, and Anne Sexton to Kurt Vonnegut, Gertrude Stein, and Truman Capote—who holds a tight connection to my heart, who expresses art at a level seldom seen, who plays the game by their own rules and all the while does it out of bounds, off the court, at a higher plane and in another dimension, without concern of scorn or ridicule. Their greatest strength is their capacity to touch a chord in others while being completely off-the-charts insane.
Atticus does not publish posers, but I sometimes feel like the biggest poser of all. It’s not that I don’t genuinely love literature, books, and the English language. It’s just that I don’t fit the mold of a well-read academic. I never could recite poetry from memory. I am indifferent to Shakespeare and much of the grand literature produced pre-1920. And my track record of reading Oxford’s World Classics is dismal.
I can’t dodge these inelegant facts.
I’m an entertainment-craving, Gen X loafer with few remaining strands of hair or intellectual pride. I’m a pseudo-New Yorker rube who often enjoys the pithy comic panels more than the stories. I prefer Esquire to Harper’s and Paste to The Atlantic. I read Rolling Stone and Slate more than I read The Paris Review or Hobart.
That last confession is hard for me to stomach because I believe in the power of indie lit citizenship and appreciate the fact that lit journals like Hobart are producing some of the finest writing on today’s scene. I care about my literary brethren. Immensely.
I just can’t seem to find the energy, discipline, or bandwidth to regularly connect. I have a strong wireless signal, but little lube flowing in the frontal lobes.
I have not read one notable book published this year, according to the New York Times. Not one! Again, not proud of this omission, just stating fact.
I’m a natural born misfit. I read and write in fits and starts. I am a book publisher who is more addicted to film, music, and sports than literature. I evidently have no problem living well outside the mainstream literary clique, mostly because no one in my immediate circle even asks if I read a book this year.
No one in my life cares if I read a mind-altering, Pushcart Prize-nominated poem, and they especially don’t care if the book on my nightstand’s TBR pile came from a year-end, best-of list.
These matters don’t interest most normal folks. And I say that without a hint of condescension. I am surrounded by people who don’t discuss literature. This is mostly because: (a) they don’t read much; or (b) we do not have common interests.
I don’t attend cocktail parties with people who discuss the finer points of writing either. I am not popular with the overeducated, nor the undereducated. I am about as middlebrow as it gets. I loathe trendy things. Hipsters bore me. I use coasters and collect limited edition stamps.
Sadly I would find it much easier to rattle off the lineup of the 1986 New York Mets than many of the novelists making this year’s best-of lists. I also could name more inductees into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame than winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
You might say my life is a fiction.
I watch too much TV. I find the medium has never been better, particularly for series drama. Walter White of Breaking Bad is as layered a character as any I’ve read in a book.
I have binge-watched House of Cards, Fargo, Mad Men, and Homeland, to name a few. Aging may have something to do with it, but I cannot remember a time when I’ve enjoyed TV to this degree.
I’m a misfit. My editorial staff probably will turn against me. I wouldn’t much blame them. I cobbled together this column in less time than it takes me to pore through my fantasy football league’s free agent wire. I don’t deserve their respect.
I sporadically read raw manuscripts in my spare time and drink bourbon. I also swear a lot when no one’s listening. I’m a real Rebel Yell. I participated in NaNoWriMo and fell short of my goal by about 40,000 words. There’s no saying what I’ll do next.
For more on misfits and their place in contemporary literature, see the stellar collection of stories and poems gathered by Atticus Review editor-in-chief Beth Gilstrap for this week’s Misfit Issue.
Frankly, I’m way ahead of myself writing you today, but what the hell. I agree with pretty much everything in your essay above, though I might trade Kenny Rankin for Liam Gallagher. TV-wise; dead on. Try Transparent on Amazon, trust me.
I’ll spare you the full bio, but after a pretty great life of stand up comedy, TV writing, travel and adventure I’ve written a book on midlife crisis. I specifically wrote it in a non-writerly way to appeal to guys who don’t read books, self-help or otherwise. While I am currently making the final corrections to the first bound galley (the Kindle adaptation will happen after that), I would love to get a doc version to you for a look.
I can’t say you’ll agree with everything I have to say, but I’m confident my approach will please you.
Thanks for the great site,