During 1999-2000, Thomas M. Disch had a weekly broadcast slot on WNYC radio in New York City, reading short commentaries on a wide variety of subjects ranging from topical political issues to broader cultural questions. We've selected a few of these "sermonettes", as he calls them, that we think will be of interest to our readers. More sermonettes can be found here.
I am a staunch believer in the power of a bad example. I think every child should witness the unhappy fates of ogres and wicked witches at an early age and that teenagers should be given prison tours in which convicts rue the day in convincing ways. Then there might be fewer witches, ogres, and drug dealers in future generations.
Along the same lines I think there is no better way to learn to write well than to study the work of geniuses, of course -- but also of those who write execrably. Not just a quick giggle at some prize blooper but earnest analysis of the worst examples.
For verse there is no more compellingly dire anti-poet than the 19th century Scotch bard, William McGonagall, a poet so bad his fame is almost as secure as Wordsworth's. But novelists of comparable awfulness are hard to find, since very bad novels tend not to be sustained at full-length. Bad novels exist chiefly as fragments and in manuscript form -- except for those that are self-published. Of those few exceptions there is one that stands alone as perhaps the worst novel ever written at full length, bad enough to be considered wonderful. That book is The Jade God by Florence Prusmack. In 1981 it was submitted by its publisher Ashley-Ferguson for the Hemingway Award for Best First Novel of that year. I was one of the judges. And while I confess I no longer recall anything about the novel that won, or the runners-up, I have never forgotten The Jade God. Its pages are tattered with use like a family Bible, for whenever I teach a class in writing fiction, Florence Prusmack goes with me. I have delighted generations of students with monologues by Prusmack's Irish maid, Mrs. Muldoon, and I've brought down the house with the climax in Chapter 17, a scene worthy of the Three Stooges at their godawfulmost. Someday I'd love to record the whole thing on audio cassette. Meanwhile I am still looking for the Prusmack novel advertised on the back of The Jade God. The Sands of Desire. It recounts the youthful adventures of Ghenghis Khan, a young man who is, and I quote, "devoted to his mother, tormented with guilt about his wife, and obsessed with fiery passion for his beautiful blonde Hungarian mistress." Please, if you ever find a copy of The Sands of Desire, please let me know. For twenty years I have been looking for it without success.
I recently was informed that I am not a likely candidate for Alzheimer's disease because I've been a lifelong reader of novels and worker of crossword puzzles. It appears there is a strong counter-correlation between those pastimes and Alzheimer's. The skeptic in me does wonder whether cause and effect might not work in the other direction. People who can't remember from one day to the next who's who in War and Peace won't invest their time in Tolstoi, and those who can't recall that Mineo's first name is Sal and that the nene is a goose peculiar to Hawaii will find crosswords a pursuit too trivial to bother with.
Not me: I am an addict of the New York Times daily crossword, and of the double-crostic that appears in the Times Magazine every third Sunday. I have solved them religiously for something like thirty years, only funking their challenge when I'm beyond the reach of the Times -- or sometimes on a Friday or Saturday, which are the toughest puzzles of the week.
Twice I've known the people who appeared in the puzzle, and I immediately phoned them to let them know of their incredible celebrity. For a long time I hoped that I might be honored the same way -- not, of course, with the regularity of novelist Umberto Eco or the spy Mata Hari or the Art Nouveau designer Erte. Their names must have been adopted with crossword puzzle fame especially in mind. But Disch is only five letters, and all of them but the vowel have good terminal possibilities. Still, it's never happened.
Except once, when my younger brother Gary made a personalized crossword for my birthday. Gary is a crossword professional. He's had his work in Games magazine, and even in the Times. Not a crossword, but a puzzle of a kind that he invented. And soon enough he's going to have a whole book of puzzles for sale in those racks of paperbacks beside the checkout counters in supermarkets. After that, knock on wood, there'll be infinite sequels.
There is one problem, however, with having a brother who is a professional puzzlemaker. No matter how good any of the rest of us are at Scrabble (and we have a long family tradition), no matter how lucky his other siblings may be in the letters they draw, Gary always wins. It's like being ten years old again and playing with a grown-up who isn't going to give an inch. In fact, sometimes, playing with Gary, who is eight years younger, I wonder if maybe I'm not already coming down with Alzheimer's. He always wins.
We live in an age of permitted theft. From high to low thieves feel they are entitled to take what they want, so long as they really, really want it. Bush steals the election, and young music fans use Napster to do their shoplifting electronically. It's hard to blame them (the fans, that is) when the music they steal may feature "tracks" that the recording artist acquired by "sampling," the preferred euphemism for theft among working musicians.
Writers, notoriously, do the same thing, of course, and one of America's most notable writers has just received the National Book Critic Circle's Award for a novel in which she was caught filching from one of America's still more notable writers, Willa Cather. It was only a few choice sentences that she pilfered, just something to lend some period flavor to Sontag's historical novel (which I won't advertise by naming here). It's not as though she can't write choice sentences of her own, when she makes the effort. But she did not offer any acknowledgement of her borrowing, so she must have thought her borrowing would pass unnoticed. Did she suppose Cather would take it as a compliment? In the sense that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.
I have only been in Cather's situation once (that I know of), when some twenty years ago I agreed to be a judge for PEN's annual contest for Poets in Prison. Among the large sheaf of poems I was given to winnow was one that seemed vaguely familiar. In fact, it was one of my own, with its first lines carefully amended to avoid instant recognition. I confess I was delighted, and though I did not recommend my revised poem as a finalist, I did write to the author to share my astonishment at the trick of fate that had connected the two authors of our poem so much against the odds. He never replied to my letter, and Sontag has not had much to say, either, about her debt to Cather. She has had the modesty not to make the usual claim of the plagiarist who gets caught, that he or she had confused his or her notes with his or her original work. That always registers as a lame excuse, so why bother? Better just to brazen it out, as Sontag has done. And it works. Already she's received an award for Best Novel of the Year. Perhaps President Bush will decide she's ripe for honors at the next White House Awards Ceremony. And if there's a cash prize attached perhaps Cather will get a suitable percentage.
The Blue Flower
Books are always coming to me in the mail. I have lots of friends who are writers and send me their books, plus I do a fair amount of reviewing, and then this last year I discovered eBay, which has added to the flow, but the other day the very rarest of book deliveries appeared in my P.O. box: two books that I'd lent to someone years ago were returned, without a hint or a nudge, to the lender.
I know that it is a part of received and ancient wisdom that one should not expect a borrowed book to be returned, ever. And I don't. But in the heat of the moment, after I've been singing the praises of a particular author for perhaps a longer time than Miss Manners would sanction, it seems only fair to insist on lending the book to one's patient listener. And if that's the last one sees of the book, so be it.
In fact, that can actually be a good thing. A case in point. Recently I was on the phone with someone who was going to the hospital for an operation that would keep him bedridden for a week. This invalid-to-be is someone who lives without a television, and doesn't ordinarily read novels. Only poetry and philosophy and the really hard stuff. A modern saint -- but even saints should be given some slack after surgery.
So I told him about Penelope Fitzgerald's novel, for which she won the Booker Prize, The Blue Flower. It is a droll account, in short, bite-size chapters, of the romantic passion that the German poet Novalis developed for a twelve-year-old girl, who became his fiancee before she turned thirteen, and died a year later. It is the least likely subject for a comic novel I've ever heard of, but it's achingly funny, and one of the best biographical novels about a real poet ever written, and I knew my friend would love it.
Good novels about bygone poets are not as uncommon as you might think. Robert Graves did Milton, and Rose Macauley did Herrick, and Mann did Goethe. But Penelope Fitzgerald's may be the best of the lot.
Anyhow I insisted on lending my friend the book, and just yesterday he called to say how much he'd loved the book -- and to apologize that he couldn't return it because he'd enthused about it so much to a friend of his that he had felt obliged to lend it in turn.
Make a note: The Blue Flower. Penelope Fitzgerald. She was in her seventies when she wrote it, and about to die herself. But every page smells of springtime. I'd lend it to you, but someone else has my copy.
Copyright © 2000 Thomas M. Disch. Reprinted by permission.
Author of over a dozen novels, five story collections, seven volumes of poetry, two books of criticism, and more, Thomas M. Disch has been publishing since the early 1960s. His best-known SF novels are the critically acclaimed Camp Concentration and 334; his book of SF criticism, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, won both the Hugo and Locus awards. He currently splits his time between New York City and his house in upstate New York. For more, visit this fine Web site.