I’m a freelance writer in Denver who graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Writing in 2008. I went to the undergrad program at the same fantastic school, and one of my advisors during that time was outspoken feminist Rickey Gard Diamond, author of Screwnomics: How Our Economy Works Against Women And Real Ways To Make lasting Change. She is also an author of fictions including Second Sight, And other titles, including Second Sight, whose protagonist is a female wild game hunter in Vermont, the collection of stories entitled Whole Worlds Could Pass Away, and others. This article was derived from a recent conversation with Ms. Diamond conducted in the “vigorous dialogue” style of our former teacher-student relationship, which began with my inquiry about getting an agent, touches on the #metoo, Corey Feldman and other contemporary scandals, manufactured and otherwise, in giving an overview of her point: that the dominant economic module is deliberately constructed to make its subjects passive female parties to be invaded and exploited. I know that sounds heavy, but I’ve been praised on my delivery, and hopefully this will hold your interest. I was about to go to Santa Fe Community College for a visiting author gig and busy getting ducks in a row before leaving. I dashed off the first round of informal conversation without much forethought, figuring we’d do that a couple or maybe three times before I’d boil it down into a proper article in response to her responses and publish it at a litmag or my blog in late April/early May. Which is approximately what happened, as follows.
1/ Your stories favor female protagnists, and predatory phallic metaphors like ignorance of the economic setup as falling asleep with a python in the house or lines like “the worms of her awful pleasures began” in your fiction. To explain: I’ve not read Freud, but overtly phallic symbolism seems obvious enough as to divert seekers after union into the unconscious perpetuation of divisiveness, i.e. villain as Big Dick instead of something anti-human for readers/viewers of any gender to contradict jointly. This is my preferred manner of addressing that fracture. That said, I dig the blindly probing forked tongue EcooMan phallus image always looking for more things to fuck, so I’m torn.
Yes, most of my short stories have female protagonists, but I placed those stories of men almost instantly. The female tales took longer to find a home. And I wouldn’t call the python in Screwnomics a “negative phallus,” rather a fake one, perhaps rooted in sexual insecurity. The forked tongue of the social construct I call EconoMan, his slithery language and his unfeeling ability to crush smaller beings, whatever their sex, is more a metaphor for dominance that he’d like us to believe in. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
2/ A friend asked me the other day how does one go about getting an agent and I couldn’t give an answer. I asked Dan Fante about getting an agent years ago, and he warned against ever doing that since it would require an unwelcome compromise of authorial vision. Of course, he had his father’s name to trade on in seeking publication, however much of a help that was. I’ve spent the last several years doing a whole lot of self-publishing and small-press publishing, developing a somewhat recognizable name for myself in limited circles through persistence, but so far without significant remuneration, so I still have to work a day-job. It would be nice if someone helped me with the marketing of my writing. Are there any agents you would highly recommend?
For “significant remuneration” in these times, my advice is to give up all hope, or possibly move to Britain or Europe where literature still seems to matter. Japan’s another possibility where you could teach English as a second language and would enjoy being thought exotic. Probably your livelihood there (or here) will never come from royalties and publishers, the reason more writers are going the route you have, publishing your own stuff, which I think smart. (Though I think your marketing could be better to reach a wider audience). The same income inequality we see throughout this economy reigns in publishing too. Steven King and James Patterson are industries onto themselves, the 1 percent. Even King started self-publishing, I believe, complaining of the raw deal even someone like him got. Patterson churns out formula stuff that is well marketed, and that’s what agents want, serials and celebrity, and the smell of money. The rest of us writers? ….well, Princeton has done studies on it, and most writers make their living doing something else. I earned mine by teaching–and now I fear even that field is drying up. So I tend to agree with Dan Fante about agents, a churning changing population, true for mainstream editors now too, and more female than ever, a sign that a field is becoming less lucrative. My sense is that they look for “new voices,” culled from the latest crop of MFAers. They track data on sales, and if you get them, you’ll get another chance. Or find it harder than ever. The days of cultivating a talent as with Hemingway and Faulkner are over. They were about the last widely known and popular American literary writers. (Or maybe that was the great Ursula LeGuin, whose book of blogs, No Time to Spare, I’m reading now.)
3/ Writers like Mark SaFranko have achieved greater success placing their fiction and achieving renown overseas than in the U.S. I get that non-fiction is easier to place here, having had more luck financially so far with my book on the Beats than anything else, also because History Press did all the distribution. I’ve been thinking about writing something else for them. I’m also interested in learning how to animate my art and come up with some new modernized hybrid of the same creative impulse involving writing, animation, and music. First the new day job.
Non-fiction is easier to place. Independent films matter, too, but may be even more competitive because people get PAID for movie work. I fear it matters most who you know, probably always important, and whether the artist has connections to moneyed folks who respect art. Some of that is luck. Remaining persistent is also necessary, which clearly you’ve already demonstrated, but readers are pressed for time to read, reading more and more, possibly diluting all we do. If you’re like me, you write to stay sane. Work and observe: it’s all material, you know that. I wish I could be more encouraging. I think more hopeful is the route that Rain Taxi is going: a non profit promoting local writers, local readers, and independent bookstores and publishers–the people who love stories and poetry and believe they can change the world. We need another kind of localvore movement. And also the folks known as hybrid publishers, who curate their books and are picky, but give better contracts because the author also invests.
4/ I agree with your proposal in Screwnomics (great title), that the economic setup is a giant screw and we’re all getting screwed, also that females and minorities are on the low end of the seesaw as they have been traditionally in terms of civil rights. Power tables are getting turned with formerly revered men like Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and in the lit world, Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie exposed as serial abusers, and the Me Too movement expsosing the universality of sexual harassment The occurrence of momentous societal events seems to have speeded up in the last few decades to such a pace that events like the Arab Spring, in which citizens of multiple nations revolted or Occupy Wall Street, in which the same impulse was apparently quashed or postponed by outright brutality (making seated pregnant woman, etc.), seem virtually stripped of lasting effect, instead transformed to purely clinical eruptions of market share. Either that, or the mass consciousness has become so distanced from emotion, so much nearer to clinical accounting, that this is our natural response anymore. Which makes the likely progression of social movements harder to forecast than ever before, perhaps impossible. Everything seems like a “managed crisis” these days, from balloon boy to Corey Feldman, and how most popularized crises turn out to be managed to some degree, and therefore artificial, lit bumpers in the ever-changing pinball game of our managed attention.
The speed of disruptions–and their regular disappearance–tends to dull into one blur of noise after awhile. The gaping maw of a globalized media gobbles things down for us, chewing it up into tiny, unrelated bits–the most visually dramatic ones—while we watch vicariously. Each is quickly swallowed and done; rarely if ever heard of again, and certainly not digested, or informing us in an empowering, nutritional way. Certain sources do try, like I read AlterNet and listen to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, but even these can overwhelm. Each of these disruptions, like Occupy or Arab Spring, has a complicated context and history–and only those directly involved can really tell us what mattered to those involved, and whether, in fact, they made no difference. Those local sources that have some sense of history can follow a thematic thread, which helps. I’m thinking now of Rachel Maddow who rarely reports Washington news without giving us a long backstory, and helping us make sense. Compare her emotive coverage, with inflections of voice, sarcasm, eye-rolls, etc., with the cool tempers of old “objective” news guys like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite, speaking dispassionately. The latter was possible in an earlier time of “the establishment,” which could speak from afar like God. So in a way, I think all the disruption and ill feelings and accusations are evidence of necessary change already happening. As for the way it will turn out? Money’s corruption here in the US has gotten so bad that even the mainstream media has stopped ignoring it. Naturally, I think money, I mean, its very nature as an instrument of debt, and the economy being waged like a war is unsustainable. But after its collapse–then what? It’s true that clever, well-paid PR people are very good at making shit look like posies. But the stink remains, particularly when there are so many posies in the room. After a while, people have to open a few windows to let in the fresh air.
5/ I grew up understanding “fiction” as the word for artistic writing, life-based or not. Creative nonfiction seems to have emphasized the aforementioned clinical approach to experience of literalizing away imaginal elements of perception. Having lived and written my life as fiction for so long, I am unable to see that perception as any less real or factual. I recognize that’s a personal muddle. What’s your relationship with those two fields (fact and fiction) as a writer?
WOW. I think that is the question of our age, not a “personal muddle,” at all! Post-modernist writers have attempted to draw attention to the construction of their art, their artifice–and of all human artifice, whether in newspapers or science, full of measurable data and fact, or in emotive, colorful fiction. I think the latter the more “true,” if I dare use such a word, because of the way it is more fully human. But our collective imagination, especially when believed too fully and faithfully by too many, has led to horrible wars and hideous control, worse than individual delusion. Undying certainty is to be feared, I think. Give me a little doubt to save me from orthodoxy. So I think a wider consciousness about the contradictions of perception, dependent upon your angle of view, is a healthier reality than the more simplistic black and white/good vs. bad duality of our past.
6/ You were recently interviewed for television on the eve of a book launch. How did these events go?
I’m delighted by the interest of so many people–younger, older; male, female, and trans; business types and hippie types, folks of all colors . . . the conversation has been lively because really, when you look closely, the economy is very personal, and also pretty universal. Maybe talking about our last taboo, money, will help us discover our common ground and what we really value the most. Now #MeToo is more public, but it’s not news to women. Whenever you’re treated like property, used, discarded, damaged—It costs us economically. It’s interesting that the men of power you mention who have been outed by #MeToo are more diverse than the men of power at the top of the economic pyramid. While we think of these public figures like Cosby, Alexie, and Spacey as powerful, they’re really money-pikers, compared to the insider guys making economic decisions for the macroeconomy. These mostly white guys generally stay out of the public eye, a relatively small group. Sexualized bullying, misogyny, racism and homophobia is part of their M.O. and their language. The secret 1 percent brotherhood of Phi Betta Kappa I talk about in Screwnomics is one example, a close culture kept secret for good reason.
7/ My friend Maria Giese, who directed an excellent modernized adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, has been at the forefront of the movement advocating female directors, and will be directing or is helping to find a director for Jami Cassady’s forthcoming film on her mother Carolyn Cassady’s life, and I’m happy to have introduced them. Besides being Neal Cassady’s widow, mother of three of his children, and a former lover of Jack Kerouac’s, Carolyn had a fascinating life story, including travels all over the world, authorship of a travel journal about to be published by the Cassady Estate, and friendships with 20th century notables, including author Peter Ackrroyd. There are several examples of underrated or overshadowed female partners or relatives of prominent male authors, like Anais Nin per Henry Miller or Jane Bowles per Paul Bowles or Joyce Maynard per Salinger, who gained renown through association with their males but whose talents equaled or outshone theirs. What are your thoughts on this topic/who comes to mind for you in this dynamic?
In my recent experience, I’m feeling hopeful. As you note about your director friend, and overlooked partners of famous writers and artists, women are now beginning to make their own media decisions, make movies, write books, and even confront predatory men. The real change is that these are stories and accounts are being listened to now by a new generation. In my recent experience, I’m feeling hopeful. As you note about your director friend, and overlooked partners of famous writers and artists, women are now beginning to make their own media decisions, make movies, write books, and even confront predatory men. The real change is that these are stories and accounts are being listened to now by a new generation.
8/ #Metoo seems to have outlived its time in the current window of attention. How do you see that one playing out?
I don’t think that’s going to go away. The sexual messaging of money goes way back, at least 10,000 years, when agriculture first made “civilizations” with surplus wealth possible. The ownership of women and their reproductive powers was a cornerstone of these civilizations run by men and by force. Women were the first property that made “labor” possible. Slavery accompanied it, once males could be chained or bludgeoned into submission. I call my book Screwnomics, but that word, “screw”, is not my word. It’s a masculine vernacular, and it isn’t about lovemaking. It’s about being made “female” whatever your gender or sexual preference. It means to be dominated against your will, controlled and humiliated by someone who cares nothing about you. It’s one way of relating; but it isn’t the only way. Importantly, I don’t think we’ve called it out before as a gendered story of violence. It was just the way it was. But this way of operating is foundational to our present economic system that assumes Mother nature and women (including “lesser men”) are there for the forced taking, no reciprocity required. Once you see that, you begin thinking: well. Does it have to be this way?