BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
The December ‘03/January ‘04 issue of the widely read The Believer magazine carried a long article on the Araki Yasusada controversy by the prominent Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson. The article, which culminates in the claim that Yasusada “hacks” with “misanthropic disdain” at “the core of what’s sacred in human endeavor,” is not exactly affable or gracious in tone. In fact, one could regard Atkinson’s piece as the essayed version of American Poetry Review editor Arthur Vogelsang’s now classic remark on the same subject: “This is a criminal act.”
In the weeks following the essay’s appearance, more than thirty letters, nearly all of them vigorously critical of Atkinson’s argument and ad hominem tone, were mailed to the magazine, a volume of commentary far exceeding (according to the magazine itself) anything in the publication’s history. The editors of The Believer, perhaps for perfectly understandable reasons given the quantity of response, but contrary to earlier indications that the replies would at least be made available on their quite spacious web site, decided to only publish two of the letters in their March issue (one by me and another by Eliot Weinberger), followed by a partly confused, partly disingenuous riposte from Atkinson—a reply, incidentally, that managed to further confirm his lack of acquaintance with the background particulars of the debate and its attendant poetical and philosophical issues. In any case, copies of most of the reactions had been kindly mailed to me by their authors, and these now appear here thanks to the thoughtfulness of Typo Magazine.
The letters strike me as a very valuable addition to the ongoing discussion Yasusada has provoked, a discussion that, more than five years after the publication of Doubled Flowering, not only energetically continues, but also gets (much of it, anyway) noticeably more nuanced and productive as it grows. I don’t find everything said in the below equally agreeable with my own perspectives on Tosa Motokiyu’s work, of course, but each of the responses has intelligence, insight, wit, or passion in some form of pleasing combination. For the fruits his righteous passions have come to bear, then, Michael Atkinson is to be thanked, and I heartily do so.
It was my son, Brooks, a fine young poet, who more or less suggested to me that Michael Atkinson’s article (“Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!” Dec. ‘03/Jan. ’04) is so campily histrionic that it could only be meant as a sly parody of self-righteous outrage, a kind of neo-Sokalian trap-hoax set for earnest upholders of Authorial sanctity. I’m not convinced yet my son is right, but there seems a reasonable chance he might be.
Given my uncertainty, I’ll skip any involved “critical” defense of the Yasusada writings and merely list a few factual errors and misleading references that I think are worth righting for the record. Readers can decide (assuming, again, the article is seriously meant) to what extent Atkinson’s misrepresentations call both his knowledge of the material and his propositions about it into question.
1) Javier Alvarez, my former Milwaukee roommate and co-executor with me of Tosa Motokiyu’s Yasusada writings, is not the mysterious “Mexican folk singer” Atkinson sarcastically states he is, but one of Mexico’s most esteemed avant-garde composers. Indeed, excerpts from one of his most widely performed scores appear in Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. This amusing misunderstanding about Alvarez appeared over seven years ago in a Lingua Franca article and has been corrected more than once in printed discussions pertaining to the Yasusada controversy. Atkinson is the first person, to my knowledge, to have recycled that howler from the now quite outdated article.
2) Citing a 1996 article in the Village Voice, Atkinson remarks that the renowned essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger “exposed the hoax in print for the first time.” To readers unfamiliar with the matter, the cursory reference will no doubt suggest that Weinberger’s column was hostile to Yasusada, written to smoke out, so to speak, closeted conspirators. In fact, his article was very admiring of the work, commenting as it did on the “strangely beautiful” nature of the poetry and prose, while pointing out that the writing’s fictitiousness was openly displayed from the start for any attentive reader to see. But there is another, more important detail to note, one that Weinberger himself recounted in a later column: soon after he had received the galleys of his article back from the Voice, and a few days before it was published, he received a letter from me, wherein I informed him of Yasusada’s heteronymic nature, doing so with a view that he might make the fact widely known. While the timing in relation to his column was purely accidental, my candor with him was perfectly intentional: those of us who had submitted the poetry decided to contact Weinberger (a writer we sensed would be sympathetic) precisely because we were amazed the poems and letters continued to be taken as actual translations. This was happening despite all the open clues to the contrary—clues which Motokiyu believed would make the work readily appreciated as a quasi-Pessoan gesture of empathic transference. (Indeed, in his first Voice column on the topic, Weinberger termed Yasusada a “nuclear Pessoa.”) In other words, contrary to the impression Atkinson gives, there was never any intent to embarrass anyone, and no one “exposed” Yasusada against the wishes of his late creator or the latter’s executors. Yasusada was “exposed” from the moment he was in print.
3) Mikhail Epstein, who has written widely in English and in Russian on the Yasusada works, is not exactly a “gumshoe critic.” He is generally regarded (as a feature article in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently made clear) to be Russia’s most important literary and cultural critic at work. Further, the essay by Epstein on “hyperauthorship” that Atkinson has him first “writing in the journal Rhizomes” appeared about three years earlier, and quite conspicuously, in Doubled Flowering. The misstep here is a revealing one, for it suggests both that Atkinson has never really read the very object of his moralistic harangue (though in fairness to him, he does declare in his article that no one would want to read it anyway) and that he is unaware the book he paints as a callous “hoax” aimed at undermining “what is sacred in human endeavor” is quite overtly presented, in its appendix and on its back cover, as a work of fiction. True, its form is idiosyncratic—a book of writings by an imaginary author, imagined by someone who saw his perpetual anonymity as intrinsic to the aesthetic and ethical spirit of the work. But it is a work of fiction nevertheless.
4) Atkinson approvingly alludes to “An Author May Not Exist,” an essay on Doubled Flowering by Brian McHale, one of this country’s most respected literary critics. But the reference is disingenuous, giving the impression, as with Weinberger, that McHale’s partialities are in general accord with his own. In fact, McHale’s eloquent study emphatically counters the kinds of simplistic, anxiety-ridden views about Authorship expressed in Atkinson’s article. Moreover, McHale’s central thesis is that the work’s conceptual and aesthetic complexity—in particular its propensity to auto-expose its “false” nature, even while building up multiple layers to bury its “true” origins—places it outside any banal and punitive category of “hoax.” His essay, incidentally, is to be included in a collection of writings on the controversy, currently in preparation by Anthony Robinson. I hope Atkinson will consent to lend his article to this book, where it could be instructively set alongside McHale’s.
5) Finally, Atkinson paints me as a secretive, “cackling goldbricker,” hiding in cowardly fashion behind the scenes, “motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain,” enjoying, through my “cunning duplicity,” a “narcissistic” and “meaningless satisfaction” at my “fabulous coup.” Again, I am not sure these shrill, ad hominem attacks are meant to be taken straight, but I do feel compelled to clarify, for readers not familiar with the wide-ranging debate still taking place (i.e., The Nation magazine has called Doubled Flowering “the most controversial book of poetry since Allen Ginsberg’s Howl”), that I have hardly ducked the controversy and have addressed, to the best of my ability, on various panels and in numerous articles and interviews, the difficult issues Yasusada has brought forth. The discussion, no doubt, will continue; “Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!,” unfortunately, will no doubt stand for some time as one of its more bizarre and ineptly rendered entries.
To the Editor:
Re: Michael Atkinson's "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!" – his discussion of literary hoaxes, the Yasusada hoax in particular:
There's not a little irony in my writing to complain about Atkinson's polemic, in that I've had any number of (what I would like to think are) principled (online and face-to-face) exchanges with Kent Johnson since the publication of Doubled Flowering, exchanges in which he and I have often found ourselves on opposite sides of the perceived ethical line, as this applies to authorship and its caprices.
But Atkinson botches his sketch of the authorial terrain so completely that I felt I simply had to write in to express my dissatisfaction, and to suggest that he hasn't done justice, either, to Johnson's writings, regardless where one ultimately locates oneself on the heteronaut barometer. To take a glaring example: "Wherever you stand, the entire deconstructionist zeitgeist now seems unarguably shortsighted, kvetching about an authorial tyranny that has only existed, if it has existed, for a short century's worth of human history" (p. 58). This rather amazing single-sentence condensation of decades of poststructuralist thought not only collapses distinctions, for instance, between "authorial tyranny" (Atkinson's straw man throughout) and authorship as such, but it suggests too that "authors" only really existed as such during the 20th century – never mind, e.g., the rise of the novel, or how we have been taught to think about the rise of the novel (i.e., often by a critical establishment that itself wishes to dismiss the past few decades of formative literary revaluation, ensconced as that establishment is in 19th-century conceptions of the, uhm, novel – as anyone who reads the The New York Times Book Review on a regular basis should be able to verify).
Not to mention which, "the deconstructionist zeitgeist" – which would be, let's see, the far-fetched notion that we might actually have to think and rethink what authorship (among other things) is, and how it works? (a generous crib, I'm sure) – is reduced to "kvetching," with the very next sentence ("Anyway, what happened to readership?") exemplifying for this reader the sort of bait & switch discursive tactic Atkinson employs throughout, so as not to get us to think too much, either, about his own argument. This in addition to our not thinking too much about how literary networks actually work, predicated as they are on a mélange of centuries-old authorizing activities ranging from the niceties of copyright and royalties and the like to the far-from-level playing field of publishing houses – trades, small presses, academic presses, vanity presses – and how such realities generally overdetermine reception of a literary work.
Ergo, out with Yasusada, out with deconstruction, out with the author function, and in with – "sacred ... human endeavor" (p. 61)? Oh yeah baby, bring it on.
Dear Michael Atkinson,
I generally agree with everything you say about the direction of our literary culture. It seems to me important to know who wrote a given essay, play, novel, or poem. Like you, I don't buy into the deconstructed author or the abstracted text, at least not in the total form that it has been presented by the likes of Barthes and Foucault. When I'm reading a Roald Dahl book to my kids at bedtime, "The Death of the Author" strikes me as a lot of theoretical gamesmanship.
However, the way you lay into Kent Johnson, calling him a "goldbricker" and a purveyor of "pure cock-and-bull," seems a little naive. The trust you accuse Johnson of betraying didn't really exist in 1996, at least not in as pristine a form as you imply, and it doesn't really exist today. There's a good chance it didn't even exist in Shakespeare's time.
Who wrote the footnotes and dedicatory epistle to Spenser's "Shepheardes Calender"? One doesn't have to swear by Foucault to recognize that "E.K." was certainly Spenser himself, though he never declared the fiction. And how does one read Chaucer's notorious "retraction"? That short bit of writing would seem to throw his whole canon in jeopardy. Chaucer, in a final brilliant stroke, proves himself even more radically artful than the tales themselves reveal. Or does he? As preoccupied with "entent" as he is, Chaucer bears either reading.
In contemporary literature other examples abound. Philip Levine, by his own private confession, dressed his autobiographical Bread of Time in untruths–or emotional truths that are not completely factual. And yet the book gives the impression of being a non-fictional account of the poet's personal history. David Eggers made up portions of Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, yet never provides a caveat. How is the reader to discriminate between fact and exaggeration in contemporary non-fiction? Is ascribing one's own real identity to a false work any less unethical than ascribing a false identity to a real work?
At the very least, Kent Johnson's art should be taken seriously, not written off as a MacGuffin. What he has done with Yasusada is play according to rules handed down to him by some of the most revered critics of the 20th century. You are entitled to disagree with their conclusions just as you are entitled to disdain Johnson's cubic zirconia text. But I believe he embodies postmodern authorship in all seriousness, not as the cackling narcissist you portray.
In the end, all art is essentially trompe l'oeil. We struggle to teach a reality-TV jaded generation that fiction is not a lie; it is, in its own sense, true. The Yasusada poetry, no matter how many editors felt duped or expressed outrage, represents a true answer to questions raised by not only Barthes and Foucault, but implied by media culture. Furthermore, it is not theoretical – it really is beautiful art.
St. Louis, MO
Although I was quite pleased to see attention paid on the so-called Araki Yasusada “scandal,” I was quite displeased that the article had little to do with poetics and everything to do with Michael Atkinson’s idea of “reading” and the “responsibility” of the author, who exists, Atkinson says, for the sole purpose of delivering pleasure to his or her reader. Call me old-fashioned, but I must argue in favor of the old adage, of which my bedfellow Ulysses reminded me last night, that the job of the poet is not to give pleasure, but rather to offend. Plato, too, could not tolerate the layers of offense with which Homer ornamented his epics and thus cast poets out of his Republic.
Besides Atkinson’s desiring too much emotional bonding with one’s author, there were numerous weak arguments: that a text without an author is little more than nonsensical animal markings (What about The Epic of Gilgamesh?); that a work of art is discredited if the “experience” is not genuine to the author (Where does this leave every work of “fiction,” including Don Quixote?); that the value of a work of art is lowered by negative findings concerning the actions or lifestyle of the author (Does a work of art then become more valuable if the author is chaste, god-fearing, devout, and truthful?); and that a work of art needs a creator (When we have an “author,” such as Shakespeare, we do not want him anyhow—we prefer the constructed Shakespeare to Shakespeare). So what if someone somewhere made up some poems and passed them off as real experience? That’s what poets do.
The outrage that many “readers” have experienced at the hands of the Yasusada Author has nothing to do with lies or deception, but rather everything to do with how literary criticism (and literary publishing, which seems to me to be the most damaging untruth as well as the biggest joke that can be played on readers) has evolved into a vehicle for victim empathy that proliferates as well as diseases society today.
Critics of Araki Yasusada will do well to remember that after the Inferno was published, readers would spy Dante (who is one of the most offensive poets of all) on the streets and say, “There! There is the man who went through Hell with Virgil!”
Brooklyn, New York
To borrow a question raised by Michael Atkinson in his essay “Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!” (Dec. ‘03/Jan. ‘04 issue), “‘Who is this guy?’” Could the piece be written by Jerry Falwell and Newt Gingrich channeling the late Ayatollah Khomeini? Or is it a put-on, written by one of those wily pro-Kent Johnson mutinists to demonstrate yet again how reactionary the literary establishment is?
Perhaps Atkinson could form, along with John Ashcroft and Laura Bush, a U.S. Department of Literature (USDL) safety inspection team. Each new literary work could be tested and rated for consumers. The USDL could provide the percentage of “horsefeathers” in each literary work, and issue a USDL stamp of approval if the author can be established as The Sole Creator of each and every feathery word and thought. If the author appears to have influences, or sees the work as more important than the author, or gets too creative with nonfiction, or withholds or monkeys with bio and photos, the work would be banned and the author exiled to Neverland.
Even sorrier than Atkinson’s call for a “pure” literature is his dismissal of the poetry of Doubled Flowering. His inability to read poetry, however, shouldn’t be a surprise given his revelation of the driving force behind works of uncertain authorship:“the incentive is always profit.” Yes, I’m sure that Kent Johnson is collecting a fleet of Hummers off the royalties for a book of poetry, just like all those other “hoaxers” out there, who are forming, as I write, Committees to Re-elect the President in order to preserve those tax breaks for their ill-gotten gains. One can’t help but hope that “Michael Atkinson” is a “hoaxer” who’s having a good laugh at all those who take this piece seriously.
I submitted this letter to your "Snarkwatch" section, but seeing as it's about what's appearing in your own pages, I thought it would be more appropriate for your letters page. The original text follows:
You want to talk about snark? Look no further than your own pages, in which Mr. Atkinson deliriously takes on any number of academical straw men, hooting at the notion that Language might speak us rather than the other way around–as if such theories didn't always take into account as their main premise that we are socialized into a pre-existing language. It's easy to mock the "death of the author" premise–I am sure the author of the piece is alive and well and staying very far from New Mexico indeed. But Atkinson seems willfully ignorant of the fact that authors and readers don't meet each other in some kind of democratic dandelion field: up until very recently you couldn't be an author without being anointed as such by someone with the means to print and distribute your work. Institutions and publications like the Academy of American Poets and American Poetry Review are constituted by their power to turn Joe Schmoe, or Araki Yasusada, into an Author to Be Reckoned With by Those That Care–a group Atkinson grumpily and marginally counts himself a member of. He writes that "the Yasusada verses are not literature anymore." But what made them "literature" except the authorization of an outfit like APR? And does the attachment of the name of a "literary author" which happens to correspond to the name on someone's cultural credit card, guarantee that their writing will not be "motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain"? Out of the literary pool, Charles Baudelaire! Go back to your cliff house, Robinson Jeffers! No spleen, please–that could never be "true" (the scare quotes are Atkinson's) "to any genuine emotional experience."
I happen to believe that the Yasusada hoax was nothing less than a piece of performance art–a genuinely avant-garde act because the object of its critique were those same authorizing institutions that made its own "authorization" possible. Yasusada's work makes us think as well as feel. (And yes, I do happen to think that the poems themselves have aesthetic merit.) Of course, this can only happen to its fullest extent if the hoax is revealed, and there's a great deal of evidence to suggest that Yasusada's eventual unmasking was all part of the plan. Atkinson writes that "Literature is our record of being, and to defraud it is an act of nihilistic mutiny." Stirring words: but to proclaim literature to be some immortal repository of "our" values is one of the oldest strategies of the cultural conservative, by which he attempts to persuade us that the record of his being is or should be ours. Elsewhere in the article, Atkinson writes of the high modernists (who, despite their thorniness and difficulty and, yes, "nihilistic mutiny" must be recuperated for "our record of being" or the whole house of cards will tumble) that, "in breathlessly witnessing a feat of brilliant daring, we long to glimpse the big brain at the controls, to see how different he or she is from us." This is the same author who writes "I know some women who only read women, and I can't think of a single reason why they should do otherwise." Because in spite of all his high talk about community and our being, Atkinson cannot imagine a mind or self truly different than his own and the idea of people crossing demographic lines, much less pretending to be dead Japanese Hiroshima survivors, appears to make him woozy. Joyce, et al, "were silly like us," to quote Auden, and the privilege bestowed upon their big brains to unsettle our notions of the "literary" (and, in so doing, to change or challenge the borders of community, which are always guarded by gatekeepers of one sort or another) is not withdrawn simply because it would make the narrow-minded more comfortable. Atkinson claims to write on the behalf of readers, but readers need no defense from Araki Yasusada or Kent Johnson. It is the self-appointed guardian of the narrow strait of "literature" who must bite at the flea, and glance around fearfully, and bark as the caravan passes him by.
Michael Atkinson's article "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!" is plain old hat. Araki Yasusada has been controversial for years. Atkinson rehashes the same old points and comes to the same old conclusions. Nothing new is added, no serious thought provoked.
Whether or not Atkinson approves of Yasusada is beside the point. His dull hatchet is not going to make Doubled Flowering go away. It seems to me that a book that has been so mocked by one of your contributors deserves more reasoned attention. Why not open The Believer's website to a discussion of Doubled Flowering and its literary implications?
"Cultivate what the public mocks in you." – Jean Cocteau
San Francisco, CA
Dear Believer (well, Dear Michael Atkinson, really):
Your article in The Believer in response to Doubled Flowering was petty, smug, poorly tuned, regrettably boorish, patently naive, possibly drunk, definitely sloppy, oafish, seemingly driven by spite, nearsighted, inconsistent, contradictory, rudimentary asinine, hallucinatory, dumb, and alarmingly bizarre. The fact that you have achieved this belly-flop on such a complete basis and in such a forced fashion within this new and surprising magazine is perhaps something to be proud of, I don't know.
By displaying an overweening fear of "being taken in" by a fictional author (versus what, a fictional character?) you have shown your imaginative and sympathetic limitations. Your largest concern appears to center around being duped by a fictional author. This delicate ego driven worry seems especially paltry compared with the gravity of Doubled Flowering's imagined context. At some point it may prove valuable to reflect and inquire whether or not this text has read you more than you were ever able to read it.
Editor / VeRT
San Francisco, CA
I read Michael Atkinson’s “Hyperauthor, Hyperauthor!” with a feeling of awe that bordered on reverence. Never before had I come across an essay that so perfectly fused a fundamental and impenetrable cluelessness about its subject with ad hominem attacks and breezy assertions so obviously wrong that they could be demolished by a typical sophomore English major. No doubt that sophomore would also give Atkinson some tips on writing, since the essay wanders so relentlessly that it seems like a hastily scribbled first draft. I’m still amazed that the words “impactfully” and “straight-facedly” made it past your copy editors.
Atkinson repeatedly demonstrates that he misunderstands the most basic issues of the Yasusada affair. For instance, he repeatedly uses the term “hyperauthor” which was coined by the critic Mikhail Epstein, although Kent Johnson, the man whom Atkinson claims was the actual author of the Yasusada poems, uses “heteronym” a term invented by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa in the early twentieth century. Pessoa wrote his poetry under the guise of three major heteronyms, each of whom had very different styles; Pessoa even developed a unique signature for each.
Had he recognized Pessoa’s influence, Atkinson might have managed to avoid his obtuse readings of what he calls “deconstructionism” and which he incorrectly claims is one of the major influences on the Yasusada affair. His assertion that critical theory led to a situation in which author and reader are “Cold War-ish [sic] combatants, not interfacing fellow-travelers” suggests a complete ignorance both of Barthes, Foucault et al, and of their reception in North America. (The phrase “interfacing fellow-travelers” should also have sent your copy editors leaping for their pens. You do have copy editors, right?)
Atkinson has a bad habit of making pronouncements that are obviously untrue. For instance, he contends the Yasusada poems are “Narcissus-works, self-relevant only in their reflection and irrelevant to all others.” I’ll skip over the question of how a text which contains no reference to its author could be a “Narcissus-work” to note that his claim that the work is irrelevant is little more than wishful thinking. Poets and critics such as Carloyn Forché, Forrest Gander, Marjorie Perloff, and Ron Silliman have praised the work; Eliot Weinberger has even called the fictive Yasusada “both the greatest poet of Hiroshima and its most unreliable witness.” Atkinson’s assertion that “no one will buy [Doubled Flowering], no one will read it” is, frankly, stupid. Why bother to write about something that no one reads? (I would hope that Atkinson himself had read the book, but given his ham-fisted critique, I’m not so sure.)
At the heart of Atkinson’s often incoherent polemic is an extraordinarily naïve understanding of the process of reading. He claims that when reading literature “[w]e know there’s another person on the other end of the line, so why should we pretend that who they are, where they’re from, how old they are, and what gender they are doesn’t matter?” He goes on to assert that “the author is my compadre, and the writing is, simply, a communication between us.” The metaphor of the telephone is a laughably inappropriate description of the struggles and pleasures of the interpretive process and begs the question of what’s being “communicated’ in, for instance, Tristam Shandy or Blake’s prophecies, or “ Bartleby,” or A Season in Hell? The word “communication” would imply that there’s only one general reading of a text, fixed throughout time. When I call my wife to tell her I’ ll be home at 5:30, we’re communicating: I have a message and she indicates whether or not she understands it. When I’m working my way (again) through an edition of Pound’s Cantos, that has a decades worth of my notes scrawled in the margins, I’m reading.
I’m astounded by the glibness of Atkinson’s contention that “[l]ike it or not, we need a real author,” which implies that I should throw away my copies of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Song of Roland and any other text in which the author is largely or wholly unknown. In any event, Atkinson sinks that entire claim with his reference to the controversy surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. We don’t know who the “real” author is, yet the plays attributed to Shakespeare remain the most popular works of literature in the English language. In other words, we don’t need a “real” author; instead, many readers desire a character (in every sense of the word) to fulfill the function of the author. Atkinson demonstrates this when he claims that Kent Johnson is the “real” author of the Yasusada poems and then proceeds to offer a series of bizarre claims about the “real” author’s motivations, all of which contradict what Johnson has said about the work. The author, according to Atkinson, was “motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain,” has committed “intellectual duplicity,” is “blackhearted” and a “cackling goldbricker” (I’m not quite sure what that last epithet is supposed to mean, since the layers of reference in Doubled Flowering demonstrate that the author is anything but lazy. Perhaps Atkinson meant “gold digger,” or perhaps that’s just another example of the sloppy writing that characterizes his essay.) I also wonder if Atkinson would direct those same insults at Jonathan Swift, who claimed the Gulliver’s Travels was an actual travel narrative composed by Lemuel Gulliver. Swift went so far as to have a secretary transcribe the manuscript so that his handwriting would not be recognized, and left that manuscript at the printer’s in the middle of the night. Is this what Atkinson calls “an act of nihilistic mutiny?”
Regardless, Atkinson knows nothing about the motivations of the actual author of Doubled Flowering. He has simply invented an author that reflects his own skepticism about the Yasusada work. His attacks, in other words, are directed not toward the author, but to an author function, a character (and caricature) of Atkinson’s own devising.
Atkinson notes, correctly, that until very recently many texts were published anonymously or pseudonymously and that readers didn’t seem to care. This forces him to develop an explanation as to why the author should suddenly matter, and he comes up with a doozy: “[y]ou couldn’t take in Ulysses or The Waste Land or Malone Dies or…The Dream Songs or Gravity’s Rainbow and not wonder: who is this guy?” Leaving aside the absurdity of placing John Berryman alongside Joyce, Beckett, and Pynchon, I’ll make two observations. First, there’s a huge gap between wondering who wrote a given text and asserting, as Atkinson does, that the author is an indispensable part of that text. Second, the implication of Atkinson’s claim is that The Stranger and The Dream Songs were more revolutionary texts than, for example, Lyrical Ballads, the first books of Byron’s Don Juan, or the handful of Dickinson’s poems to appear during her lifetime, all of which were initially published anonymously. Even if that were the case, it wouldn’t explain why we insist on knowing the names of such decidedly anti-revolutionary writers as Billy Collins or Dana Gioia.
What is most extraordinary is that Atkinson never answers a very basic question: are the Yasusada poems any good or not? Instead, he attempts to skirt the entire question with the ridiculous claim that “the Yasusada verses are not literature anymore. Rather, they’re the residue of a cultural trump, the McGuffin in an intellectual cocktail-party story….Their actual substance resides not in the writing but beyond it.” While Atkinson attempts to use that last sentence to dismiss Doubled Flowering, he ironically offers a synopsis of his own aesthetic. For Atkinson, the actual substance of a text lies not in the words on the page but in what he himself imagines the author’s intent might have been. Nonetheless, the question of quality remains central. If the poems are good, then the question of who wrote them becomes peripheral. If they aren’t any good, then we see the fundamental problem with Atkinson’s model of reading: all of the initial celebration of Yasusada’s work would have been based not on the poems themselves, but on the person of the author. Ultimately, this is the greatest irony of Atkinson’s polemic. While he insists that the author must remain central to the text, he unintentionally shows how this view inevitably impoverishes our readings.
Atkinson demonstrates that when he alludes to the Ern Malley affair, in which a couple of Australian poets invented a recently deceased avant-garde poet in an attempt to embarrass the modernist poets whose work they despised. Atkinson fails to note that the poetry of “Ern Malley” nonetheless retains a following, having been celebrated by poets such as Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. While Atkinson claims “Australia has had a tough time trusting avant-garde writing ever since,” the editors of The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry have included all of Malley’s works in their anthology. Is it interesting and important that Malley never existed and that the work was intended as a hoax? Yes. Does it invalidate the quality of the writing? Of course not.
I bought a copy of Doubled Flowering weeks after it was released in 1998 and I continue to find it an absolutely extraordinary book, by turns moving, eerie, funny and disturbing. I hope that at some point Atkinson gets a chance to read it. I’d be happy to lend him my copy, as long as he promises to give it back.
So when I heard about The Believer doing an article on hoaxes in contemporary American poetry I almost fell off of my sofa. I was watching Queer Eye and really considering how a perm might look when I hopped up and bolted to the Astro van. I drove non-stop to the Borders, well ok making one quick stop in the Krispy Crème drive-thru but that's irrelevant, isn't it? So when I finally get to Border's to buy the magazine the clerk notices my choice and thinks the The DaVinci Code is the perfect add-on sale, so I buy that too and move over to the Border's café and get a cup of imitation Kona in a to-go cup and it's back to the Astro van and back to my sofa . The Fab 5 was still on since Bravo doesn't seem to show anything other than this and West Wing.
I like West Wing a bit better than the other reality TV shows. Sheen seems so presidential, and to think that he wasn't really elected makes it all the more compelling. Sure he's a fake, but it mirrors real life. Don't you agree? As an American consumer I do not inherently understand the difference between real, fake, diet and caffeine free. It's a process of trial and error. One has to understand the ethical consumer core before going all wonky over what makes a president real, who wrote this and who performed that. It's an exhaustive process to go through, however most American educational systems incorporate this in their standard curriculums. I mention this because your article seems to be out of 'the know.' Atkinson's reaction to Yasusada is similar to my childhood response to finding out that Carrie Fisher was not, in fact, Princess Leia. I too was bowled over. How could she have done this to me??? I loved her man! Women, hrumpf.
So I had an early entry to disappointment which might make me callous, but one needs a thick skin in this bazaar. Other members of my consumer support group have had similar reactions to fakes. One guy, who takes his pain in oral fixations, chain smoking clove cigarettes, is still mad at Shatner for that T.J. Hooker thing. He calls him a real phony. I pointed out that that was a real post-modern response and all he can do is flick his clove ashes at me. "Fuck Shatner!" He says and goes back into his Nick at Nite trance.
How does an artist respond to his times? These days it's especially hard to determine what is real and what is sold to us. The difference is small, irrelevant maybe.
Case and Point: I am an unemployed poet and Christmas is all about getting something real for the one you love to substantiate past feelings of love and comradeship and purchase similar feeling in the coming year. It's Christian giving and makes everyone feel good. So mom wanted the Dooney & Bourke Signature Satchel Tote from the Macy's website but damn, that shit was one hundred and fifty bucks and, well, I just don't love her that much. So I was catching a bus home from the arts council soup kitchen and stopped to buy a pack of Marlboro Medium's in the local bodega and what luck, they carried the entire Dooney & Bourke line of handbags at a real savings. The cigarettes cost more than the bag and that worked out fine. With the money I would have spent I got a can of Foster's. G'day mate! Christmas morning, mom is screaming counterfeit this and you bastard that . I couldn't understand it all because I was drunk. I think Atkinson might understand my mom's point. But the issue at heart was not the object but the intent. One sees maliciousness and the other sees himself as the hero, the one that saves the day by doing what they can to make the proper statement for the proper time.
I have until now enjoyed your magazine. But the recent article by Michael Atkinson (I’m assuming that’s his real name) is hands-down the most closed-minded and childish thing I’ve read in your pages to date. It’s not just the flustered name-calling, jumping up and down, finger-pointing and projective innuendo, but the complete ignorance of the piece, which reminds me of the stuff that once passed for literary criticism in early Nineteenth Century America. I have to reach back nearly two hundred years to find ink equally as useless as Atkinson’s. That was a time so awash in flustered muttonchops and shaking jowls that a man calling himself Henry Brooke was moved to write in the August 1809 issue of The Polyanthos, a magazine not unlike The Believer, “Because finding fault implies a plain superiority of genius....Claim boldly, then, for criticism hath, in this respect, some resemblance to calumny; and, indeed, it is so like it, in some hands, that none can adept distinguish them; and you know the rule, calumniare fortiter (in English criticise boldly).... It is a clear consequence from this rule, you should always censure those works most, which are thought most to excel….” Whoever wrote Doubled Flowering and whoever made Araki Yasusada, has made one of the most beautiful works – and interesting authors – of the Twentieth Century. It is Borgesian in scope and conception. And it will last much longer than the small-minded and flustered poppycock of whoever wrote Michael Atkinson’s article. The name and life and works of Araki Yasusada are here to stay, whoever created them.
Poetry, it seems, refuses to stop being poetry, despite the best efforts of writers such as Michael Atkinson in his "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!" (The Believer, Dec 03/Jan 04).
That the contemporary literary hoax, and more specifically, poetry that is produced by spurious means (collaboration, pseudonymity-heteronymity-hyperauthorship, borrowing) is "smug, purposeless, and self-congratulatory" is manifestly repugnant.
The very word "poetry" is descended from a word that essentially means "to forge." The contemporary criminal connotation of "forging" as stealing, with its modern legalistic insistence on strict property lines, is the only feature that differentiates the contemporary hoax from the ancient one.
To say that Kent Johnson is "smug, purposeless, and self-congratulatory" seems itself to be smug. What then is the purpose of Atkinson's article? For whose congratulations is it written?
If we are to agree for the moment with Mr. Atkinson that knowing who is "on the other end of the line" is not "completely irrelevant" (p.57), then we might argue that the short-sighted & dismissive nature of his article demonstrates that Atkinson may be the smug self-congratulatory party. In arguing that Johnson's obfuscated authorial authority is equivalent to authorial smugness, Atkinson may be setting himself up as the pompous player.
To remain fair and in the spirit of my argument, I cannot say with any certainty that Atkinson himself is indeed reactionary, short-sighted, or smug. What I can say is that his article seems to indulge in such destructive textual gestures.
I have led myself (the speaker–not necessarily the author himself) to an important point.
The fine line that Atkinson's argument fails to recognize is the line between text and its author.
It is patently obvious to Kent Johnson and to those who appreciate the intellectual dimension of his work that the speaker of a text and the author himself are not necessarily one and the same. Knowing intimate details about an author does not necessarily shed light on the author’s text, particularly when it comes to poetry. What may be more important that authorial intent (which seems infinitely unverifiable) in parsing a poetic text is the poetry itself. While lack of equivalence between an author and the narrative voice of an author's work might sound patently obvious, it nevertheless seems to be a point easily neglected by people even as intelligent as Atkinson himself.
Atkinson is not alone in his mistake, however; the age-old line between a writer and her work seems to have been rubbed out by late 20th century identity poetics. It seems that the lack of the necessity of author-text equivalence is lost on nearly an entire generation of contemporary solipsist confessional poets and critics. Poetry is routinely forced into an evaluation constructed in terms of some biographical or pseudopsychological analysis of its author—sometimes to the exclusion of other far more tenable critical approaches. On an intellectual level, Johnson's work (which may or may not include the Yasusada text–I admittedly blur the two) ostends to the seemingly forgotten kindergarten lesson that the narrator is not always the author. On a poetic level, it points to the more difficult lesson that the narrator may not be the author despite even the most genuine and sincere efforts of the author to capture herself in the narrative voice.
The irony of Atkinson's dismissal of Johnson as a smug professor is that Johnson's work is, on an intellectual level, a retort to contemporary academic poetics (dominated by solipsism) and its own brand of confessional divide-and-conquer correctness. To label Johnson as "Professor Johnson" seems to border on being desultory, as Johnson, who has a doctorate in literature, modestly teaches Spanish at a community college.
Even more ironic is that Mr. Atkinson in his apparent pompousness never demonstrates time spent with the Yasusada text itself. In Atkinson's article we are to find only one sentence about the contents of the Yasusada text, and that sentence is a grave dismissal of one of the greatest acts of poetic compassion of the 20th Century, a difficult poem that John Bradley (editor of Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age) calls "simply one of the most moving and revealing poems ever written on the effects of the Bomb."
"Mad Daughter and Big Bang," undoubtedly the first poem from the Yasusada text that will live a long life, reads,
Walking in the vegetable patch
late at night, I was startled to find
the severed head of my
mad daughter lying on the ground.
Her eyes were upturned, gazing at me, ecstatic-like...
(From a distance it had appeared
to be a stone, haloed with light,
as if cast there by the Big-Bang.)
What on earth are you doing, I said,
you look ridiculous.
Some boys buried me here,
she said sullenly.
Her dark hair, comet-like, trailed behind...
Squatting, I pulled the turnip up by the root.
"Mad Daughter and Big Bang" is poetry at its finest, at its most difficult, and at its most rewarding. Expressing the inexpressible, the silent, unfathomable and absurd nightmare of a father who must walk in the dark light of his daughter's destruction, the severity of the moment, how it has displaced the speaker as the violence has displaced his daughter's head.
As to the poetic authenticity of Yasusada's voice, one need go no further than the eyewitness report of one of the Hibakusha, Shige Hiratuga:
My daughter kept calling to me, "It hurts, Mummy...hurry and get me out."
[...] No matter how desperately I tried, I just could not free her. The fires
were moving closer and closer. [...] I placed my hands together and asked my
daughter to forgive me. "Kazu, I am a bad mother to you, but please forgive
me." [...] I fled ... looking back at the ruins of our house as if I were being
dragged by the hair from behind. [...] In my flight I stepped on or stumbled
over corpses countless times without knowing what they were. Even when I
realized I was lying on a mutilated body, I could feel no revulsion, only pity.
The Yasusada text reminds some poets and readers of poetry to selflessly & compassionately exercise their imaginations. The Yasusada text boldly takes on the poetry status quo in order to recreate a place where poets may once again speak for those who cannot speak, for the oppressed and the dead. In my estimation such work is remarkably selfless in its construction. The work of Araki Yasusada (and the work of the work of Araki Yasusada, which reminds us that we are eternally enmeshed in rhetoric when into the poetic) keeps alive the memory of the horror of the US nuclear bombing of Japan; it provides a context for understanding the heartless aggressions of the current US war regime madly bombing the four corners of the earth. If Johnson is indeed the author of Doubled Flowering (and the author of Araki Yasusada) then he has selflessly refused to take credit for the magnificent work–just as he has selflessly and compassionately encouraged other poets to take on new dramatic voices despite the consequences, just as he has selflessly recorded for posterity the inhumanity of state-sanctioned mass murder. Selflessness on the cover, compassion inside.
It’s not that Johnson is a saint; he is most certainly not, in any stretch of the imagination. Calling him selfish for something that deserves recognition for its selflessness, however, seems both mean-spirited and ignorant.
The best poetry struggles with the precarious and paradoxical condition of truth and witness; Doubled Flowering is exemplary. Nevertheless, while it may be unfair to judge poetry (much less a poet) based on the literal authenticity of a particular poetic narrative voice, it may be entirely valid in many cases to use such criteria when evaluating criticism. We may then begin to understand how Mr. Atkinson, not Kent Johnson, may be the one who is smug and self-congratulatory. As to Atkinson's purpose, I will return to where I began: that spurious means of production are of the essence of literature.
Dear The Believer,
Kent Johnson told me about this piece of "grade-A horse’s ass" (that’s some serious horse’s ass) which appeared in the recent issue of your new faith-based magazine. Waving his Uncle Sam finger at me, he emailed, "I want you, David, to get on this horse’s ass quick and ride it ‘til Kingdom come." I reached for my pencil sharpener but didn’t know what to say. Words like "bamboozled," "LitWorld," "scofflawry," "auctorial context," "bitter humbuggery," "impactfully," "hornswoggled," "blackhearted," "snide goof" and "fart wind" (a bit redundant that last one) have a tendency to scare timid, lonely readers like myself and make me think the author, in this case Michael Atkinson, really knows what he or she is talking about. Here’s a suggestion: try not to publish whining that wants to be seen as intellectual activity. Unless of course you want to add to the ranks of idiot-avants like Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh, O’Reilly and other pseudo-victims who live to spot "sedition" in every gesture of nonconformity.
St. Louis, MO
I was dismayed to read Michael Atkinson’s essay, “Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!” in a recent issue of The Believer. I thought it a piece of bad writing, at best. The question of “literary hoaxes” aside, Atkinson’s arguments are largely specious, he often begs the question, and the essay is full of hasty generalizations. One glaring example of the latter, for instance, is his assertion regarding Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada: “[N]o one will buy it, read it, or own it—why would we? We know that the poems are not ‘true’ to any genuine emotional experience, and we know that the act of imagination that produced them was motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain.” We do? Who is this tricky royal “we” Atkinson employs, and how does he know “we” know this? Suddenly I feel like I’ve just heard another of President Bush’ s speeches about “the Evil-doers” and our “recovering economy, ” and have come up against the literary equivalent, a relentless out-of-touch rendering of the “America” I know.
No one would buy, own, or read it? Well, let it be known: I own two copies. I have taught the book at my Midwestern university (and will teach it again this autumn), and its use has been a stunning success even among first- and second-year students who largely fashion themselves nonintellectual. Not only has the book enabled them to investigate the complexity of authorship, voice, and questions of “what counts as literature,” but it moves people (myself included) precisely because its “emotional [as opposed to “literal”] experience” is “genuine.” What Atkinson fails to acknowledge here is that he himself has evoked the discourse of “emotional experience,” and—known author or not—he should then go on to engage the concept, considering the nuances of emotional experience and how it is often vicarious, complex, nonlocal, and highly contextual.
Beyond this, Atkinson’s personal attacks on Kent Johnson not only do a disservice to Johnson as a fellow human being but also—ironically—to what appears to be one of the author’s central points, that supposedly texts are read in order to identify with the consciousness of the author. After reading this essay, I have little desire to identify with Atkinson as author. In fact, that The Believer published this piece in its current state of disarray (including all the ad hominem attacks) is equally unsettling.
Ft. Wayne, IN
Dear The Believer:
This week I’ve been reading through your December issue, and the articles are great. The writing is solid, and the points are fresh. But then there’s that one piece that sours the whole magazine, and I can’t let it go without comment.
In printing Michael Atkinson’s “Hyperauthor, Hyperauthor”, what does The Believer want us to believe? Atkinson’s knife is so dull that he tears when he—presumably—wants to be precise, and the whole thing ends up hurting too much. It’s a botched operation.
I’m particularly put off by the anti-academic faux-hipster tone Atkinson adopts throughout. His first sentence sideswipes “the system of our loud but trifling herd of lit scholars, critics, and gatekeepers” in an unfulfilled sentence fragment, and he keeps moving from there. Reductions of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida follow, where Atkinson refuses to argue with their ideas, probably because they can be much more easily refuted through misrepresentation. Can’t we get beyond this Republican anti-intellectualism? Or at least, in the words of Tom Bissell in “Sir, Permission to go AWOL from Interesting!”, can’t we get an anti-intellectualism “more akin to that of Abbie Hoffman than Rush Limbaugh”? Atkinson doesn’t even provide first names of the theorists he attempts to debunk, making it all the more difficult for anyone who might want to reach past these one-sentence synopses and grab an actual understanding of deconstruction as a literary theory. Besides, his later favorable reference to Michel Foucault (who also goes without a first name in the article) belies his whole anti-intellectual project: Michael Atkinson comes off like a disenchanted lit major, a prize student on his way towards graduate school when he turned against the whole system because some prof gave him a B.
But Atkinson as literary essayist doesn’t even deserve a grade that high. “Hyperauthor, Hyperauthor”, despite being an article about literature, gives us but one actual quotation (by Glenn Boyer, copied from the internet). How am I supposed to make an honest judgment of my own on the Yasusada case if I don’t have a single line of poetry to base it on? If literature presents, as he says, author and reader as “interfacing fellow-travelers” who tap into “the core of what’s sacred in human endeavor—the desire for community, for contact, for shared and received existence”, then the central vehicle for this communion between author and reader is the text itself. But where’s that text in Atkinson’s article?
Maybe text is too academic a word for Atkinson. But compare his piece to Amy Benfer’s “The Training Bras of Literature”, which got me—and I imagine many other readers—to develop an appreciation for the depths of the Sweet Valley High books in large part because of those well-placed and well-culled quotations. And Benfer doesn’t quibble with authors presenting themselves in writing as what they are not in life, either: “And I really wonder about [how] a sophisticated Manhattanite (who vacations in the South of France!) ended up wanting to write an ode to burgers, sunshine, letterman sweaters, and a California that doesn’t exist”.
And this is where Atkinson really stumbles. Where Benfer wonders, Atkinson condemns. But instead of damning the whole project, I propose that the Yasusada case is bigger than just a literary hoax; rather, it’s a penetrating debate about how we come to believe what we believe about our authors. Eliot Weinberger’s revealing that the poems are a hoax is as important to the creation of Araki Yasusada as Kent Johnson’s—or whoever else it was—writing the poems in the first place. And for that matter, even Michael Atkinson can take home a piece of the Yasusada cake. The debate doesn’t want resolution, but to make us take another look at what we thought we believed instead. Atkinson seems not to like the debate. Fine. But he obviously cannot escape it.
Finally, as a translator and editor of the online journal of creative translation, www.CipherJournal.com, I will always enjoy the Yasusada affair as one more step in which global literature and other traditions have, through translation and its influence, broadened American writing. And if the Yasusada author has achieved anything beyond mere pranksterism, then this is where it rests. As for the lie about the author, Atkinson should remember what Pablo Picasso said: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth”.
Editors, The Believer:
Too bad about the Michael Atkinson (“Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!”) piece in the December 2003/January 2004 issue. Where one hoped for an elaboration and exfoliation of the Yasusada-author’s terrific, pointed, and theory-savvy writings, the building up of a more lofty structure on the impeccably (note: word used advisedly, in its original sense, without sin) wrought foundations of Mssrs. Johnson and whatever band of confederates he’s mustered, what one discovers is mere journalistic cant, dutiful and polite. A mush. “Neo-meta-post-deconstructionist ironism,” indeed. (Rather than a fierce moral outrage, Atkinson settles for the clever jibes of a poseur, just another sniffer at the pants, like a hungry dog.)
The best way to respond to a hoax is to “hoax more, hoax without remission.” So Rufus Grattius put it. (Akin, I suppose, to Oscar Wilde’s dictum, a favorite of mine: “To stay young, what one must needs do is continue uninterruptedly and repeatedly to commit the follies of youth.” Akin, too, to Henry Adams’s singular admission, as a writer of history, that “the worst lives were the candid.”)
I admit it: what I looked for here in The Believer (for who’s more gullible than a believer-reader?) was a revival of the Yasusada story (already, you must admit, ’nineties old-hat in these mid ’thousands) in the form of a feigned, but near-seamless piece of anger-cavort. And I tried damnably to find it: in the clunky Britishisms (“peg the blighter)”, in the Time-ese punning (“the prevailing yen”), in the over-the-top excrescences of metaphor (“yanking the author out of the dynamic like a bad tooth”?), in the merely laughable (the claim that hoaxes “cut new wounds in the tender flesh of readerly hope,”), in the Snidely Whiplash (or is it Mortimer Snerd?) ending “revelation” that Atkinson’s been offloading another hoax-pox on us : that when it comes to the James’s: William’s the syphilitic, Henry’s the Hudson.
I cannot quit without one final admission: I did, hyper-reading, begin hyperventilating (though briefly), thinking I’d uncovered the tidy flaw in the carpet (the one that’d make it human, a beautiful fake). I googled “Richard J. Griffin” and found reference to little more than an Inspector General of that name, Department of Veterans Affairs. In one story, a few notches down, Veterans for Justice asked: “Why do we believe that Inspector Richard J. Griffin is not honest?” Aha, I thought, innocuous name or no, here’s the snicker-footprint of Mr. Johnson, pretender to The Believer-throne of Mr. Atkinson, or of Mr. Atkinson, pretender to some new throne. There is no book titled The Faces of Anonymity, I thought, ho ho, rich title. What a terrific piece, I thought, full of frisson and premeditation and verve, I’ll have to send kudos to Kent Johnson and see what he says.
It lasted all of three wonderful minutes. Time it took to search WorldCat and locate the table of contents for The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publications from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, edited by Robert J. Griffin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Robert? Robert. My pleasure all due to a Believer fact-checker’s temporary nod-out.
My thanks for pleasures momentary, and writers’ mistakes authentickal, though I continue to feel bad for Mr. Atkinson. He might better turn that roller-coaster insobrietous prose-style of his to something more fun and, finally, more important than mere believing.
Ann Arbor, MI
If readers were as "delicate" and "vulnerable" as Michael Atkinson suggests, what would we have left to read? Precious little. Certainly not the "blackhearted" or (occasionally) blackshirted knaves whose work we covet. Not Eliot the anti-Semite and misogynist, the American tricked out as a British banker. Let's not get started on Pound or Celine or even Lawrence or Yeats. Not to mention peculiar Reverend Dodgson's books for little children.
Atkinson asks us to believe that the bond between writer and reader "is so delicate, so reliant on blind trust and empathy–so much like love, really," that we require "intimacy with writers," as distinct from our intimacy with their works. Otherwise, he argues, literary evildoers can "easily cut new wounds in the tender flesh of readerly hope."
Most readers are made of sturdier stuff, but Atkinson is certainly not the first to demand such intimacy. "I do not look on literature," wrote the nineteenth-century critic Sainte-Beuve, "as a thing apart, or, at least, detachable, from the rest of the man and his nature. . . . One cannot provide oneself with too many means or too many objectives if one is to know a man–by which I mean something other than a pure intelligence. So long as one has not asked an author a certain number of questions and received answers to them, though these were only whispered in confidence, one cannot be certain of having a complete grasp of him, even though these questions might seem at the furthest remove from the nature of his writings. What were his religious views? How did he react to the sight of nature? How did he conduct himself in regard to women, in regard to money? Was he rich, was he poor? What governed his actions, what was his daily way of life? What was his vice, or his weakness? No answer to these questions is irrelevant in judging the author of a book, nor the book itself. . . ."
But as Proust wrote in response, "Sainte-Beuve's great work does not go very deep. The celebrated method which. . . consists of not separating the man and his work. . . this method ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us: that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it. Nothing can exempt us from this pilgrimage of the heart. "
Atkinson (somewhat astonishingly) brings Shakespeare into the mix, claiming that "we need a real author." Since when? This will come as news to centuries of playgoers and readers. Debate may rage on among scholars, but pleasure-seekers have never set off worried alarms.
Yeats famously wrote that "even when the poet seems most himself. . . he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast." Yet it is at this breakfast that Atkinson wants to pull up a chair.
A literature based on ersatz intimacy and trustworthiness would not only be prissy and impoverished. It would also be dead on arrival.
Palo Alto, CA
To The Editors:
Giving his reasons for reading, Michael Atkinson writes “another human made this so I can experience it, and a large part of why I’d bother is the experience of that other human’s impulses, ideas, creative reasoning, and emotional current.” There’s the beginning of a generous definition of the artwork here, but what Atkinson really wants is much more reductive: “the author is my compadre, and the writing is, simply, a communication between us.” And he goes on to use the Yasusada affair as a platform from which to launch yet one more nostalgic lament for the good old days, before the French got in and ruined everything, back when a book was a friend.
A poem is not a letter, nor is it a memoir. Atkinson is betrayed by the idea of the poems, and thus claims that “we”–note the pompous and dishonest pronoun shift here–won’t read them: meaning, I can only presume, that he hasn’t. The sort of childlike personal curiosity that Atkinson invokes is not so far from prurient aggression, as the betrayed vehemence of his attack suggests. What’s most revealing about the piece is that he wants to have it both ways, to decry “the increasingly sophisticated machinations of advertising and marketing” and “the devastating plague of mass celebrity-worship” without acknowledging that his own readerly desires are to worship precisely such celebrities in the safely middlebrow form of the author, his compadre. If Atkinson reads to meet people–in a culture utterly dominated by representations of personal authenticity–that’s his business; those of us who consider poetry to be the art of language will choose to read differently.
Las Vegas, NV
Dear Editors of The Believer,
I am writing to express my astonishment that you would publish such an obtuse piece of writing on Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (“Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!” by Michael Atkinson). The notion that the book’s “actual substance resides not in the writing itself but beyond it, in both the deceiving purposes of the writer and the subsequent reaction of the outside world,” as Atkinson puts it, that “they are Narcissus works, self-relevant only in their reflection, and irrelevant to all others" is put to bed on every page of Doubled Flowering. Undoubtedly the “reaction of the outside world” matters to our reading of the book (this is true of every book, whatever Atkinson’s own schoolboy fantasies about a transcendent relationship between himself and, one imagines, Mathew Arnold); it matters precisely because Doubled Flowering draws each of its readers, potentially, into a rich colloquy: about witnessing, about authority, about our complicity with victorious narratives, and indeed about what might be retrieved and revivified from the dust pile of history by a catalyzing act of language. The language of Doubled Flowering (yes, it turns out there are words on the page), is as poetic –– in the best sense of that term –– as one might imagine. Atkinson might have pointed out, for instance, that the final lines of “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang” (“Squatting, I pulled the /turnip up by the root”) forces us as readers to ask whether this “turnip” is real or metaphorical: that is, has Yasusada turned his attention, of a sudden, from his daughter, mad and sick with radiation, to the cold necessity to eat? Or is the turnip his daughter’s head and hair (and is this Yasusada’s hallucination or his metaphor for her appearance or mental state?). These are the most preliminary questions raised by the lines and yet Atkinson seems incapable of or unwilling to perform his basic function as a reader of poems, so wrapped up is he in his own didacticism. One might further note that the questions I’ve noted above are also mirrored by the overarching question that Doubled Flowering raises about the nature of authenticity as it relates to authorship. The book is rife with such examples of confluence between the poetic and the philosophical.
The author or authors of Doubled Flowering no doubt meant for us, as readers, to experience the full range of emotions when reading, from empathic to infuriated (at history and/or at the authors themselves). However, the book is not a hoax in any conventional sense of that word. As Paul Goodman has written of the “advance-guard artist,” “his audience and his relation to his audience are his essential plastic medium...throughout there is the attractive and repulsive tampering of artist and audience with each other.” Doubled Flowering asks us to involve ourselves in the full scope of its drama as it occurs both on and off the page. That Atkinson settles for the facile knowingness of the literary supplement should not deter the rest of us from considering ourselves as deeply involved in the process.
Michael Magee, Editor
Atkinson's article on Yasusada/Johnson resounds with the anguish of the gullible and anger at a unrepentant sinner every time Kent Johnson smiles and changes his tale a bit, leaves new and confusing tracks, and blows some smoke at the reader. Don't you young folks ever have any fun with literature anymore? We are not writing Holy Writ these days, and if we are, that's even funnier.
Atkinson brings up the "hyperauthor" as a device critics have used to cover their confusions. I've never met a hyperauthor, and figure he might be a Klingon, anyway. and the simple inventions of critics, given their numbed souls, are at the bottom of everybody's entertainment lists. How a bunch of French twits bamboozled many members of English departments across the land over the past thirty years into regarding their absurd effusions as being the newest and best that can be thought, can only be understood by those who actually buy and wear the clothes seen in fashion magazines. As a witness to this phenomenon over nearly fifty years in akademe, I will say that in my estimation it was the result of narrow reading, arrogance, a disdain for the past, and the generally rebellious mood of the sixties. I recall reading a bit of the "New Wave" critics when they first penetrated North American air space and it seemed to me then as now that they were intellectual con artists who had an obsessive desire to have nothing to say, and pass it on as Gospel.
Nothing is so easy to gull as a Young Akademic.
Atkinson also complains about "forthrightness." I see this as a little bit like expecting Hester Prynne to go buy a Scarlet A before the word got out. Was this her doing? Or the idjit preacher and his numbskull flock? Was Victor Segalen forthright about the stelae he claimed to have translated? (And if you have not read Segalen's Stelae, translated by Nathaniel Tarn in a lovely edition in the Unicorn Press French Series, 1968–a true classic–consider yourself benighted. And how long were Ferdinand Pessoa's multiple identities his alone to savor?
The English professors now tenured and full of grace generally came out of the sixties, and most made sure their curricula did not include more than one foreign language, and little, if any, study of Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Chaucer, Milton, and likely, Shakespeare. Their disdain and ignorance of say, the great 19th century critics, was equaled only by their disdain and ignorance of Pound, Bunting, Olson, Oppen, Zukofsky, and other 20th century lights. What they did know a little about were the various minority literatures–the more oppressed the better, gender studies, and socio-politico lit, and blessed theory.
Theory is written in no language ever spoken, and deliberately has nothing to do with sense. Worst of all, it takes itself seriously. There is no fun in it. Is it any wonder that Doubled Flowering caught their attention? After all it is primo victim lit. But then the inkling of laughter in the background, the hints that the surface under their feet was the Slough of Fools, and that what seemed so gut-wrenchingly real was fabricated as an unpolitically correct embarrassment to their fine-tuned senses...ah, outrage!
Darlings, as Tallulah might have said, learn to laugh.
Professor Emeritus of English
Bowling Green, OH
I’m writing in response to Michael Atkinson’s interesting article, “Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!” (December/January issue). I was glad to read of the literary connections made between so many differing texts, contemporary and historical, some of which connections were freshly insightful. Because the theme of this piece raises timely questions about authors, readers, reading as an action, editorial functioning, publishing interests, and authority in relation to subjectivity, I will be having my creative writing students here at University of Texas at Arlington read, discuss, and respond in writing (for class) to this article, during our current semester.
Although the article is admirably ambitious in its wide ranging attempt to survey the field on its chosen questions of authority, there are also things in it that I find very questionable. Many of the connections and references being made result from what develops as the article runs its course into a wild accusatory slant, some vague and often faulty logic, and therefore on the whole is just not a credible source. Most significant of these references is how “the reader” is conceptualized and perpetuated as a passive homogenized entity, and so I go into some depth below on that. But I also question why so much of the article is focused so lopsidedly and negatively to the work of one author, Kent Johnson. The effect of that lop-sidedness is that it starts to sound as if any other, meaningful connections being made are only there to serve an apparently personal agenda on the part of author Atkinson. It starts to sound like an agenda of rhetorical vendetta. In other words, the effect of any meaningful connections is seriously undermined by the often wild, if humorous, hyperbolic focus, thus it fits the category of “Methinks you do protest too much” (Shakespeare, Hamlet). Certainly Johnson’s work cannot command such a performance: his work is only one of many, both historically and currently, experimenting in fascinating ways with alternative authorial personae and the vagaries of history, cultural values, and publishing.
Speaking as a lively, enthusiastic reader, I have to say this: I do not care whose name is on a given work; I care what the work is doing, especially with readers. Although this article seems very interested in “the reader,” it spends most of its energy quibbling about who authors are, rather than what the works they write might actually be doing. Knowing more about what is being said than who says it seems far more urgent to me as thinker, certainly far more important than any accusatory problem one author (Atkinson) has or constructs with another author (Johnson). So, in that way I remain unconvinced by this article’s problem with the modes of tinkering with authorial personae, as manifested in its near obsessive focus on one Johnson. In that way the article makes me seriously doubt that it is meant to contribute anything of value to the larger community in terms of lively literary thought today. It also makes me wonder about your editorial goals, or if editors actually read and check for credibility what goes into this journal.
But perhaps more grievous is how readers are lumped together and assigned general characteristics of passivity that may not apply to all readers, let alone that “reading” is not the emphasis, then, but again, a static, monumental subjectivity in the person is highlighted. So that the act of reading is secondary to the reader, just as apparently the author is secondary to the writing and topic. Here is what might be a familiar criticism: the early reader-response theorists were roundly criticized for over-generalizing in their reliance on that monumental, homogenizing frame of reference, “The Reader”–as if there is only one static persona that people don when committing the action that is reading. Yet that same problem of homogenizing The Reader seems prevalent in this article.
The article contains a series of assertions about “the reader” which, taken together, amount to some vague and strange, very questionable notions and figures of “the reader.” Here are a few, followed by my questions and responses:
“Readers read creative writing for pleasure–an immense, beastly, and complex quantity that, most of the time, feeds lustily at the trough of empathic association.” (56)
I have no idea what this at first vague, then hyperbolic, description means: what is the difference between “creative writing”(what is that, anyway?) and other kinds?–and what is “beastly” and ‘feeding’ “lustily?” The system of reference starts to turn very foggy in the syntactical relations here. Readers are where?–being consumed by a beast in their pleasure at the trough? From what Night of the Living Dead did those readers stumble?
“...writing is ... everything to the understanding reader.” (58)
Is the “understanding reader” one who comprehends the writing (the text?), or one who approaches the text via an author that the reader thinks understandingly (cf. “empathy” below in quote from p.59) about?
[Historically,] “ ... readers had no need or desire to know their author... Here was Barthes’s utopia, where only the reader mattered and only the reader had power.” (58)
That statement willfully misreads and distorts Roland Barthes. It slurs both his life and his work. But in the climate this article creates, Barthes is actually fortunate over two things. First, that he is not named Kent Johnson, and second, since Barthes is no longer among the living, he does not have to read this article in the act of slurring him. Rather than being willfully misread for a single sentence, as is Barthes, Johnson, who is indeed alive and lively, finds himself willfully and hyperbolically misread for an entire three pages, only then to be stowed away for a page or two until finally trotted back out like a commercial catchphrase on TV at the article’s conclusion. Could anything be more boorish than this?
“The relationship between writer and reader is so delicate, so reliant on blind trust and empathy–so much like love, really... .” (59)
So far I have not seen much of this “love” in this particular writing, but I am still reading. Perhaps I have superpowers, because at this point I think I am supposed to be The Reader who akin to a cross between a slug and Tennyson’s “Angel in the House.” It’s true that like all beings I am capable of morphing, but only in limited ways, and certainly not that quickly.
“We [readers] can be safely bewitched by their sedition, led astray... .”
The Reader here want to be seduced into believing bullshit? Or worse, the reader is “We”–all of us being seduced into believing bullshit?
My point here, or rather my disappointment with the connections being constructed and made here, is that the underlying assumptions in this article unwittingly insult the multiplicity that is “reader(S),” first, and next are found to completely misread some writers that I, for one, find continually worthwhile for reasons that go way beyond the “pleasure” I am supposed to be getting when committing the act of reading “creative writing.”
My disappointment is not limited to the author or the article, however. I think it not too much to expect that the editorial staff of a respected journal such as The Believer, will better oversee what kind of writing is going into the journal. Oversee that the writing has not hyperbolically run completely off course, that is, such as this article seems to have done. I think if I were the editor who commissioned this article I would not pay for it until the writer wrote it in a far more credible and responsible way.
Despite my disappointment with this article, I do want to thank you for your journal and for taking the time to read through this letter. I am happy to say that The Believer has otherwise consistently offered lively and insightful material in rhetorically admirable form for its readers.
Your Dec 03/Jan 04 issue was a riot! At least I think it was.
I’m pretty sure that Michael Atkinson’s article is a hoax. Isn’t it? It’s as good a parody of self-righteous outrage (complete with unsupported claims, vague dismissals, and dreadful prose) as I’ve seen. And it would be pretty funny if the author didn’t seem so clueless. But maybe that’s the point. We’re supposed to laugh at the author’s rage, not rage with him, right? Or maybe this is one of those ultra-ironic super-hip parlor games in which we the readers are asked to navigate so many levels of irony that only the “in” kids get it for sure. I don’t think I’d be allowed to join the club.
Atkinson claims that the Yasusada verses are not literature. Why? Because they’re not “ ‘true’ to any genuine emotional experience.” It’s the unfortunate fate of poetry in post-modernity to occupy such a narrow range of semantic possibility. Poetry is—and always has been—fiction. Is Shakespeare untrue to emotional experience? Is Toni Morrison? Why must the author (whose biographical note claims he is a poet—of all people, one would think he’d understand) imply that the only poetry worth our while is biographical, is “true” to life? Some of the Yasusada poems are extremely moving. The editors who published them seemed to think they possessed sufficient literary merit; it was only after the “hoax” was revealed that the same editors began back-pedaling, which, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, says a lot about the editors, but not much at all about the poems. How does a poem cease to be good when the circumstance surrounding its production change? Isn’t this sort of waffling a disservice to literature? Finally, if Yasusada is “not literature” why does Michael Atkinson care at all? Why should we care? (He asserts we don’t, which begs the question—why are you writing this article?)
Accusing Kent Johnson of doing “something dreadful to world literature” is hyperbole of the highest order—as if “world literature” were a flimsy shade of ashen fluff, ready and willing to be knocked over by any bamboozling architect of bad will and white male rage. But now I’m being hyperbolic. Fortunately for us, literature can survive Araki Yasusada, Kent Johnson, and yes, even Michael Atkinson.
This article was a joke, right?
P.S. It might come in handy to know, Mr. Atkinson, that Allen Smithee is a pseudonym, and that many motion pictures are based not on real life, but on stuff people made up!
Michael Atkinson takes a dim view of the credulous reading public (“vulnerable, revelation-hungry, ready-to-be-moved, prepared-to-be-transported”), and, in his piece called “Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!” volunteers to act as their advocate against the venal, ungenerous and blackhearted trickster, Kent Johnson. If it sounds like a fairy tale, it might be. As Atkinson says in an admiring Village Voice review of Peter Pan (12-23-03), “Everyone has their genre fetishes, and 19th-century (or faux-19th-century) Barrie-Carroll-Baum-Maeterlinck-Burnett faerie lit, as well as its Romantic art and ad imagery, is one of mine.” In another recent review for the Voice (12-9), he ventures that “The Statement . . . maintains a dignified literary air.” These efforts to preserve childhood fantasy structure are touching, but if literature is anything, Mike, it’s not “dignified,” and the few people I know who practice it have more interesting fetishes than genres. What’ s a poor ex-English major to do?
“But perhaps I’m not to be trusted,” he says in the Peter Pan review. Indeed, there are so many unproven assumptions and assertions in his essay that I got tired of counting them. One of my favorites was that the poems of Doubled Flowering “are not ‘true’ to any genuine emotional experience,” which begs so many questions that it might as well be homeless. But I prefer to note an idea he shares with his subject, namely, that both see the literary establishment as an edifice, or as some sort of sanctuary (your essayist calls it “LitWorld”). While Atkinson admires this shining city on a hill, “temples of experience” to which access can only be gained through playing by strait-jacketed rules, Johnson prefers to expose the rusty pipes and shaky foundations of the fading mansions, revealing that the walls arose as the result of kickbacks and bribes, etc.
Except for liking Kent and respecting his work and intelligence, though, I don’t have a dog in this fight, except to note that the truth on both sides may be a little less glamorous. It could just be us out here, trying in our various little ways to shore up words against the dark, with no guarantee of ever renting a room in the Chateau Marmont of Literature – assuming it exists – whether we register under an assumed name or not. As Leonard Cohen said of Hank Williams, “I hear him coughing / all night long / Oh, a hundred floors above me / in the tower of song.”
Wow. Here it is the last day of '03 and I'm looking at Michael Atkinson's article, "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!," published in the December issue of the San Francisco-based monthly, The Believer. Therein Atkinson re-hashes the whole Araki Yasusada affair of publication and exposure, making nostalgic claims for a lost relationship between reader and writer.
His article looks at literary hoaxes, focusing specifically on a book attributed to a survivor of the US nuking of Hiroshima in 1945, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada.
"Kent Johnson & Co.'s purposes, for example, could range from simple opportunism to metaliterary experimentation, and we may never know them for certain," Atkinson writes. "I for one, would like not to care a lick about the the Yasusada scandal, savoring the spin of the dustdevil the culprits have kicked up but feeling mildly disgusted at the meaningless satisfaction I imagine they're enjoying as a result. But, if you're going to bother to read the Yasusada poems, you simply have to care: despite some critics' old college tries at evaluating them as authorial-context-free works of art—as 'just poems'—the Yasusada verses are not literature anymore. Rather, they're the residue of a cultural trump, the MacGuffin in an intellectual cocktail-party story, the gun but not the crime. Their actual substance resides not in the writing itself but beyond it, in both the deceiving purposes of the writer and the subsequent reaction of the outside world. They are Narcissus works, self-relevant only in their reflection, and irrelevant to all others."
I don't know who could really think "Kent Johnson has pulled off a fabulous coup, a litmag Tom Sawyer-ism," for the amplification of the work is much greater than the mere market instability it caused. Clearly, though, Atkinson is right to a point. The work is not merely literary, and it is a residue of something that reaches beyond the bounds of literature. The Yasusada poems were written and published within the context of American military and cultural hegemony. Kent's theorization behind the Yasuada debates of hyperauthorship in essence values the imagination over cultural formalities such as appropriate models of writing and dissemination.
Hyperauthorship is exploratory and expansive rather than static and determined by a number of set forces. The relationship between writer and reader is not as significant as that between the individual and the imagination. The power of language runs according to images that strike us, demanding our complete attention. To be absorbed by strange and unknown forces is to inhabit hyperauthorial space. It doesn't matter if Yasusada isn’t "real"; his existence in language is vitally active within the imagination of many people. There's a thin line between existence and nonexistence anyway, and both stream through us and language is the thread in it all. Yasuada is image, and is a fact as such. You may not find his corpse, but you'll find 65,000-200,000 others from Hiroshima who were minding their business that August. Yasuda doesn't speak for them. He doesn't represent their "interests" or "claims" or their "voices." Yasusada is an American image created to navigate the consequences of its actions. Yasusada is sympathetic to lives evaporated in Japan but he's playful and contradictory to American literati queasy with their own insincerity. More than anything, actually, Yasusada is a sincere reaction to our world now. Again, there's precious little between existence and nonexistence. Yasusada is a medium, an angel, of these distances.
Regarding Michael Atkinson's piece on literary hoaxes: I am hard pressed to remember when I've read a worse-written piece of journalism. Its tone is confused, and confusing, from the beginning:
"Well, identity known by at least one person, one cackling goldbricker, right? Who would do such a dreadful thing to world literature? Naturally, the bamboozled editors, critics, and Nipponophiles were outraged to tears... the socio-critical knuckle-whitening quickly became a cottage industry... and the top-shelf project quickly became a lynch mob campaign to peg the blighter."
In this excerpt Atkinson is by turns sarcastic toward the "cackling goldbricker" (shortly thereafter named as Kent Johnson), apparently mock-scandalized (at least, I hope "dreadful" is in mockery) by the entire event, and dismissive ("bamboozled"; "outraged to tears"; "knuckle-whitening"; "lynch mob": all suggest, not subtly, hysteria) of the offended parties. His inconsistency in this paragraph, and elsewhere in the piece, makes it difficult for the reader to know exactly what he's talking about, and his case is not helped by several of his points which by dint of their extreme asininity demand addressing.
Atkinson says "There should be a distinction made between literary hoaxes and scams of a merely nonfictional nature." (I assume he means "a merely nonartistic nature" as there is a fictive quality inherent in every hoax). If he had read Brian McHale's essay, as Johnson has, (interview with John Bradley, readme #1, Fall 1999), he would have seen such a distinction: "Genuine Hoaxes," such as the Macpherson and Hitler diaries cases; "Trap Hoaxes" such as Ern Malley or Sokal; and "Mock Hoaxes" such as the work of Pessoa, Chatterton, and Yasusada. Perhaps this might have cleared the bile out of his system and allowed him to read the Yasusada poems with an eye toward criticizing their purpose, effect, or even their substance, rather than assume that "the act of imagination that produced [Yasusada's poems] was motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain. Or both." Rereading Doubled Flowering again and again, as well as interviews with Johnson, I find no evidence of "disdain." If Atkinson is going to make such sweeping assertions, I'd like to see some text to back him up.
And as to the first half of that sentence, "We know that the poems are not 'true' to any genuine emotional experience." Where does Atkinson get off deciding this? Has he encountered every "genuine" emotional experience? Has he looked into the mind of the poems' creator? The smugness that Atkinson decries in Johnson, and which I have yet to locate, reeks in these words.
Finally, I want to respond to this assertion: "Not surprisingly, it's impossible to locate a genuinely generous impulse anywhere in [the poems], particularly when they're dealing with Yasusada's fictional daughter's agonizing death." First: again, I question Atkinson's apparent knowledge of the poet's motivations. Second: I am amused that the fictional death of a fictional entity should cause Atkinson such distress. Third: "generosity" seems to me beside the point here - since when is this a necessary literary quality? I will assume that Atkinson means something like "tenderness" in which case I submit "Trolley Fare and Blossom," subtitled "for my daughter, Akiko, 1930-1949, May 18, 1949":
How can I tell you now
that the fire's warmth was pleasurable
on my body?
Your body enveloped by it
and somehow, still, by mine.
The round urn, so finely cut,
each blade of grass bent black
against a black moon. You, weightless
How embarrasing, I thought, cupping it before me,
if in the middle of this ceremony I
stumbled, kabuki-like, and fell!
Thus, bearing you, and weeping,
I paid the trolley fare.
How to tell you now
of this simple happiness,
of the children laughing in a ring
at Hiroshima's heart, the brushstrokes
falling fast and light?
You, Akiko, thick branch
on which this scentless blossom
The still-present bond between father and daughter. The concern for dishonoring her as well as himself via his own clumsiness. The inability to say these things to the deceased. The backdrop of Hiroshima. If Atkinson cannot see the obvious tenderness (or "generous impulse") in each stanza of this elegy, I pity him. In fact, I pity him anyway, for being so caught up in his own contradictions (on p. 58, Atkinson acknowledges the possibility of "a good, wicked hoax" and yet he damns each practitioner he can get his beady little mind on; also, anonymity and pseudonyms are apparently fine, as long as Atkinson is able to grasp the motive and/or the face behind the name, or the lack thereof) that he cannot be bothered to think (or laugh; after all, on one level the whole Yasusada controversy is funny), and for being involved in a dysfunctional relationship with literature that leaves him craving some imagined intimacy with some "real" author.
Dear The Believer,
I'm sure you've gotten plenty of flack over Michael Atkinson's essay – I know it's likely late in the game (for all of us), but here's my take: I stumbled upon the Yasusada affair a few years ago, uninitiated by any insider information (although my magazine has translations and poetry forthcoming from Kent Johnson, I still have no "scoop" on Yasusada), and found the whole debacle invigorating and unsettling – in ways I still cannot quite articulate, it seems that whatever force (or forces?) behind Yasusada has taken the idea of Negative Capability with utmost seriousness, extending Keats' intuitions from the realm of the text to the realm of authorship. I'm not going to quote any critics here. I'm your typical poet, running on instinct, flailing about – a man in such a state, you'd think, would be angered by the games (the"serious play" perhaps) being played in the name of Yasusada. But no, I've found my own poetic presumptions challenged and enriched by the entire affair, and the still-relevant issues Yasusada raises. Yasusada, as opposed to somehow severing some vague sacred connection between the poet and his/her submissive reader, has helped bring into my view a lot of the sometimes unpleasant but always relevant dynamics involved in reading, writing, and publishing poetry, as well as drawn my attention to the manufacturing of the personalities that shape our views of poetry. Plus, there's the poetry itself, which I find, for many reasons (some old-fashioned), quite compelling. For me, "Yasusada" is not merely a hoax, or a means of dissent; I think "he" is a creative act writ on a larger scale than most of us can deal with. "He" makes me uncomfortable too. But so does Pound. And Dickinson. And Duncan.
I found Atkinson's article rather shrill and sad. Yasusada is a great subject; large enough, I'd say, to argue intelligently against. Maybe next time?
co-editor, Octopus Magazine
Chapel Hill, NC
In his shrill and naively argued article, "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!," Michael Atkinson states that works like Yasusada "hack at the core of what's sacred in human endeavor– the desire for community, for contact, for shared and received existence, transformed into enduring testaments of voice and mutual understanding."
As translator and interpreter of authorship in the Bible (in books such as The Book of J, etc.) I can assure you that the great biblical writers of Hebrew narrative did NOT hold the author as sacred. Instead, they held authorship itself in the highest esteem, which meant they were free to disguise themselves as dream interpreters or vision documenters or even translators and "secretaries".
In modern terms, I have just a few simple questions for you and your reviewer: Does a great writer like Fernando Pessoa, who published his work under multiple identities, also "hack at the core of what's sacred in human endeavor"? Are his Caeiro, de Campos, Reis, and Soares products of "sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain" like Yasusada? If so, how? And if not, why not? Answers to these questions might begin to take us beyond Mr. Atkinson's vitriolic, personal language (Does he know Johnson to be such a nefarious individual?) and help us to begin thinking with seriousness about the fascinating questions a work like Doubled Flowering brings to the surface.
What makes the latter book and the "Letters" of Yasusada in progress one of the major projects in world poetry is that it is so serious and intelligent at the same time it is high drama and high comedy. Considering the genesis and ethos of The Believer, you would be fulfilling your strongest mandate by recognizing that Kent Johnson deserves your astute attention. Without properly understanding him, there is the danger of something lacking at the core of The Believer.
The Everglades, FL
To the Editor:
It's hard to understand why Michael Atkinson, that excellent film critic, is suddenly so apoplectic about the Araki Yasusada poems. All this happened eight years ago. By now everything that can be said, for or against, has been said too many times, and surely there are more pressing matters of international duplicity.
What the Yasusada Author (whoever he/she is) did was attribute a work of art to a fictional writer– a common ploy (the manuscript found in the trunk, etc.) of countless novels since the 18th century, however unusual for poetry. This occurred at a time when there was a general preoccupation in Poetry Land with "witness poetry." Yasusada effectively demolished its More Authentic Than Thou strictures by presenting moving poems of Hiroshima from an utterly unreliable source.
Atkinson rambles far from the case through every fake document, phony reportage, and product of false memoir syndrome that comes to mind. By the time he gets to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” he's fallen off the cliff. (Uh, nobody died because of Araki Yasusada.) What he never does, tellingly, is talk about the poems themselves, concentrating instead on the easy target of the po-mo blah-blah that has surrounded the case. To my mind, the poetry becomes more, not less, interesting when one knows the Japanese author did not exist. It is too bad that, on either side of the controversy, the invention of the author has obscured the imagination of the work.
It's even harder to understand why this article was accompanied by a drawing seemingly copied from anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish or anti-Arab) propaganda. We know what this Believer author believes, but what were the editors thinking?
New York, NY
Dear The Believer,
I hope that you’ve been flooded with letters written from various positions of support, disdain and possibly flatulence in response to Michael Atkinson’s article, “Hyperauthor Hyperauthor!” I’ll tell the truth: because I’m a poet and frequent places where poetry is discussed, I’ve already seen some of these letters, mostly on blogs. Like everything else surrounding Kent Johnson and Yasusada, this most recent chapter (YASUSADA Vol. 3, Issue 5: The Believer: Letters to the Editor) has already become, before your magazine even acknowledges the letters or not, more textual fodder in a conversation that continues to compel, delight and enrage the poetry community. Indeed, each person who writes into the foray becomes some part of the Yasusada Affair. Even here, in this paragraph, I lick my finger and adjust my bangs. I check my lip gloss in the computer monitor, because, make no mistake, I’m performing.
My performance, a dance known as “letter to the editor,” is only one of many participatory invitations that hyperauthorship extends to its readers and critics. Contrary to Atkinson’s fear and disdain for an authorial imagination (he himself imagines to be) motivated by “sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain,” I’d argue that Yasusada demonstrates an authorial presence almost hypnotically in tune with the peculiar pleasure of poets and the poetry community. It’s a guilty pleasure which Johnson is intimately familiar with and continues to mine with playful and sometimes cutting accuracy: the first half of his most recent book, The Miseries of Poetry (Skanky Possum Press, 2003) consists entirely of blurbs written by other poets. Is anyone more attuned to the miseries and pleasure of authorship, marketing and self-creation than he?
But I agree with Atkinson in places. It’s naive to imagine that we, as readers, receive works of literature separate from whatever nexus of biography, rumor, gossip, romantic entanglement, measurements, history, marketing and interconnectedness that surrounds them – a nexus generally organized around an author figure. An author, real or imagined, often draws us to a piece of writing before the writing does. Ironically, a letter to the editor from the same issue as Atkinson’s article bemoaned the creation of authors as marketable identities by publishing companies and other media sources. Atkinson himself mentions the “snowballing, pervasive power of capitalism—most impactfully the increasing sophisticated machinations of advertising and marketing, which have used the author (and the author bio and photo and interview) to persuade us to buy books we would not otherwise buy.”
He mentions these pervasive powers once and then moves on, focusing his attentions instead on the delicate relationship between reader and writer in which the reader must always be told exactly what they’re about to read, and never, ever get a surprise. (The reader in this case is a kind of Victorian consumptive in constant need of reassurance and sometimes smelling salts.) Don’t call it a memoir and serve up fiction. The worst thing it seems, that a writer could do, is mess around with their categories. Atkinson is hopeful in one sense, as his arguments envision a reader so attune, so sensitive, so ready to receive new works of literature that they’re thrown wildly off balance by a surprise. I’m gloomier than that, and afraid our current situation might be just the opposite: a nation of desensitized, cynical readers who have seen everything, experienced everything and who require a little prodding when they fall asleep and snore during the concert.
What Atkinson insists on is a puritanically direct relationship between the organizing figure of the author and the reader, in which the author is never veiled or in any way mysterious, a relationship based finally on accurate and fair reporting of biological and other personal data. This is supposed to create, I guess, the foundation for human, empathic communication that Atkinson terms the “cornerblock of culture” and which he holds poetry and all creative writing responsible for. It’s a bleak outlook, in which the reader’s pleasures are prescribed and the writer’s cultural responsibilities rendered horribly clear.
Atkinson misses out on the murky area where authorship is doubled, tripled, quadrupled—and the pleasures to be found there. Certainly those pleasures are not so different from those Atkinson ascribes to the one-author-per-text-per-reader model, just more complicated. He characterizes (and maligns) the decentered relationship between author and reader as a “cold war” but the language of sex is really a better description for the shifting role of relations between author and reader in and out of theory during the last century. Not so much that they’re in a cold war – but maybe the author isn’t on top anymore, or at least not all the time. What I’m afraid is that Atkinson would like nothing better than for author and reader to be locked in a marriage and doing it missionary style forever and ever, “lie back and think of England,” procreating to keep the culture intact, amen. We’re allowed to have the relationship a publisher would like us to have with their author, but that’s it.
The most depressing thing about Atkinson’s article is that it marked The Believer’s first actual engagement with the current U.S. poetry scene as it exists outside of David Berman and Anne Carson, both fine poets but hardly representative of the diversity in U.S. poetry. A poet, I’ve mostly avoided The Believer as another magazine devoted slavishly to the fiction market. And it’s ok, really—poets, we know, are a terrible market and aside from a few breakout titles and slam poets, our books just don’t sell. We might as well be needlepointing, for all the difference we make to the larger culture. The Believer’s prevailing non-interest in current poets and poetry is no different. It’s funny that the Kent Johnson / Yasusada debates may be the most interesting subject one could remove from the poetry scene and relate to a larger audience. The sad part is how it’s used by Atkinson keep poetry in its place, somewhere back in the 19th century, and to delineate what it can and can’t do. Atkinson says of Doubled Flowering: “ no one will buy it, read it, or own it—why would we? We know that the poems are not “true” to any genuine emotional experience.” A double irony, as he makes this pronouncement in a forum which holds some influence over the book buying habits of its readers and could ostensibly boost poetry sales. (I have only anecdotal evidence on this last point, that is, I’ve overheard someone say more than once while waiting in line for coffee at Peet’s, “Yeah, I read about it in The Believer.”) Atkinson needn’t curse Yasusada’s poems to poor sales. Poets hardly need The Believer to tell us what we already know: “true” or not, poetry doesn’t sell.
In the end, Atkinson’s treatment of Johnson and Yasusada is just MEAN: he trots out the weirdo, calls him names, tells him that nobody will ever love him or buy his book, pulls his pants down, rubs his face in the snow, and sends him back to the other freaks: readers and writers of poetry who, despite Atkinson’s pronouncements, DO read the work and DO get many, various, polymorphous and perverse pleasures from it.
I know I’ve hardly talked about the Yasusada poems themselves. To provide a counterpoint to Atkinson, I’d advise you to purchase and read them. They, and the surrounding materials and controversy, provide a necessary and shifting mirror for literary and culture-making machines in the U.S. Might the project have been valorized had it taken a more straightforward form of satire and parody? Maybe. But it’s Atkinson’s insistence on the straightforward that I find so frustrating. While Johnson and Yasusada have never been straightforward, they did leave a large number of clues and loose threads in the poems and biography, all of which have been unraveled in high seriousness by academics and non-academics alike. The breadcrumb trails they left behind suggest an imagination very interested in engagement and participation with its reading community.
Besides, it is in the moments of the trick unraveling that the trickster’s face is revealed. In this case, should you choose to play, the trickster’s face may be your own. And what sort of trickster announces their presence before they play the trick?
Many bests, I wasn’t a subscriber before but now I’m considering it, go figure,
In light of Michael Atkinson's article in the December/January Believer, entitled "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!" I must vehemently protest his specious attempt to inter the 20th century masterwork Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, which to me is the labor of an evolved imagination. If the intent of Atkinson is to draw away love, he has failed to do so in this reader. After all, literature is in question here, not our personal relationship to the author. In stark contrast with Atkinson, I wholeheartedly disagree that the purported author Kent Johnson was motivated by any ill-intent whatsoever; Johnson is simply an author who sees no need to keep himself from complex phenomena. No amount of attempted character assassination or casuistry can detract from the enormous beauty and fecund intelligence of this tour de force.