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Twenty-first-century man of letters

Preparing to record another conversation with (twotime Marketplace of Ideas guest) David L. Ulin, I thought I’d give his recent book reviews a re-read. In his consideration of (one-time Marketplace of Ideas guest) Geoff Dyer’s essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, he writes that “Dyer lays out a quiet kind of writerly revolution, in which ‘the late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century man of letters’ might best be described as a literary gadfly, unbound by genre or a reader’s expectations, writing about anything that comes to mind.” So that’s me quoting Ulin, quoting Dyer.

I have no small stake in the definition of the late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century man of letters — or, now that we’re up to 2012, the twenty-first-century man of letters. I’ve occasionally introduced myself as a “man of letters and sound waves” in broadcasts, and indeed, that little-trod pathway offers my only hope, and a vague one at that, of three squares a day. Increasingly, the figures I follow closely — those whose work I can’t stop examining, dismantling, and sweating to re-create — inhabit the spaces where the circles in culture’s Venn diagrams overlap. They absorb as many forms of the stuff as possible and craft their experience for delivery right back out, far and wide, into the world.

Like Dyer, these figures have often carved out reputations primarily or solely as cultural writers — reviewing, essaying, criticizing, reflecting, what have you. They pull ahead of their vast herd of colleagues for the simple reason of not sounding so damned wan. Nine out of ten cultural articles I read come off as 750-word shrugs, premised chiefly on the assumptions that (a) nobody will read this and (b) yeah, but nobody would’ve sought out the films, books, or albums it’s about anyway. B.S. Johnson once sent down an edict, as he was wont to do, to write like you mean it, like it matters, and like you mean it to matter. Those who’ve let the mandate slide — and thousands have, I fear unknowingly — write like they want to make word count, like it barely matters even to them, and like they wonder when their two hundred bucks will get here.

The time has come to capitalize on my compulsion to work the cultural room (as Dyer’s U.K. publisher might say) and my mounting irritation at the volume of would-be man-of-letters product written at a workmanlike plod, heaving under its own inconsequentiality. The task of engineering a new species of cultural writing, one not burdened into meaningless by traditional obligations interpretation and/or evaluation, could well yield fruit. I find myself in a not entirely disadvantageous place to do that, given that my writing thus far has walked me around a sizable patch of that old Venn diagram. My last nine literary primers for The Millions, for instance:

(Even now, Oulipo fans, I labor over a Harry Mathews primer. It’s taking longer than I thought.)

Or my pieces on books for The Quarterly Conversation:

Or my last nine Humanists columns for 3Quarksdaily:

Or even my last nine (as long as we’re doing nines) Podthoughts for

(And let’s not forget the Ubuweb Experimental Video project, found here, on my old Typepad blog, and on Ubuweb itself.)

Sure, the goal of this post lays, ultimately, in clarifying my direction to myself. But, that admitted, perhaps I could be of use? Happen to read any publications lately that feel in need of a bracing shot of interestingness?

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