Drawing a Blank: the Top Literary Stories of 2004

We’re about to kick off a new annual tradition here at LitKicks: a review of the year’s big stories in literature.

These types of summaries are popular for other creative forms, and in fact I can effortlessly rattle off several other yearly summaries, just off the top of my head. The year’s big stories in music? Well, there’s the emergence of crafty, instrumentally skilled singles bands like Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and there’s the continuing overflow of pleasurable, crunk-toned hiphop from the likes of Jadakiss, Fat Joe, Ja Rule, Ludacris, Fabolous and Lil Jon. The big story in film? Easy — the huge success of two powerful, polemical and politically-charged films, Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ and Michael Moore’s ‘Farenheit 911’, each designed to preach to their own choirs (as well as to a tiny quadrant, including myself, that liked both).

In this spirit, I would like to announce the LitKicks Big Stories in Literature for 2004. Here goes!

* sound of crickets chirping *

If anybody needs proof that literature is in a lame state, this exercise is proof. I can’t think of a damn thing that happened this year. I read a couple of good new books, but none that represent significant trends. I’d nominate Russell Simmons’ excellent Def Poetry Jam TV show, but this premiered a couple of years before. I really can’t get too excited about books by elder statesmen like Philip Roth and John Updike or by the appointment of yet another U.S. Poet Laureate to go to all the proper functions and appear respectable.

What the hell is wrong with literature, that I can’t think of a single newsworthy thing that happened this entire year? I spend more time thinking about literature than either music or film, so it’s a pretty stunning fact that I can easily find interesting things to say about both of these forms and nothing about the one I care most about. I really can’t say why today’s established fiction and poetry scenes feel so crippled and irrelevant these days, but I do hope that sites like LitKicks can help fix the situation. And in that spirit, I’ve just decided that the big story in 2004 is the publication of the LitKicks book Action Poetry, and the restructuring of this site to emphasize more focused discussions on specific topics. That’s my answer and I’m sticking with it.

I’d like to hear what you think were the big stories in literature in 2004. And happy new year everybody!

35 Responses

  1. A Few ThoughtsSo,I went to
    A Few Thoughts

    So,I went to Books-A-Million last night and asked one of the employees if they had the book Action Poetry.

    “It’s put out by Litkicks,” I added.

    “Hmmm, let me see…” he keyed it into the computer. “Ah, ha!”

    There it was, on the screen.

    “We don’t carry it, but I can order it for you,” he said cheerfully.

    So I asked him to order it, even though I already have a copy. I asked him if there was a chance his store might stock a few copies.

    “You have to go through Corporate for that,” he said. Cheerfully.

    It’s good to see a cheerful employee anywhere. He must like books.

    So, let’s get that thang into Books-A-Million!

    I don’t know what year the following concepts started, so maybe they are not 2004 items, but all I could think of is:

    (1)There seems to be a trend in the popular media to explore great literature. Some people don’t like the results. The Da Vinci Code has been criticized for being simplistic pulp, but I say, hey, at least some scholarly subject matter is being presented to the masses. I liked the book. Remember, the transcendental poets thought the romantic poets were too stilted, and the modern poets thought the same thing about the transcendentalists, and the beat poets, well, they kind of leveled off, I guess.

    They recently made a movie about Sylvia Plath. Then there’s the new movie starring Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan. Also, there’s a film out now about Alfred Kinsey, who studied and wrote about human sexuality.

    (2)There seem to be more & more graphic novels (illustrated novels, I mean; not graphic as in naked people, necessarily).

    (3)House of Leaves came out in 2000, but I’m wondering if there are any other, newer books which feature that illusion of being multi-dimensional, that you can enter into and explore, maybe get lost. I read somewhere that House of Leaves started out on the internet and later became a book.

  2. He who tooteth not his own
    He who tooteth not his own horn…

    … the same shall not be tooted.

    My great aunt used to say that. She was a wise old bat. Portrait painter. Wife of a cotton broker.

    But literature? She might say the last thing to happen in litratour was ‘The Waste Land’ — but since she’s no longer with us…

    Not that I’ve seen ‘Action Poetry’ but I might be inclined to agree with you that it’s an important thing. This website has managed, through these years I’ve known you, to produce many a good thing and be consistently important. and lively. (and I’d argue for more live events.)

    But then we get to that same discussion. What is literature? Is there any? I consider the things I do to be simply writing. Or maybe plain art. (Especially when I start mixing the media.)

    The word ‘literature’ does not harken toward positive or interesting things at this point. Who wants to waste their time with Roth or Updike or Sharon Olds? I’d rather read zygoteinmycoffee or LitKicks or another well-named e-zine.

    I’m tired of the beats. They’re literature now. Not plain good writing, but literature. Yawn. I went to college for a while and took literature classes where you’re only allowed to sleep and not enjoy. More yawns. And they wouldnt even allow beats. And the internet barely existed then.

    I dont know where I’m going with this. I am totally ambivalent about literature.

    Is Cordwainer Smith literature? I hope not. I hope so. It is good writing — but it’s scifi so it can’t be real art.

    That’s still fifty years ago.

    But newness? hmm… I dont know what there is…

  3. I like that pronunciation,
    I like that
    pronunciation, “litratour.” I can hear my dad saying it that way.

    One thing I like about Litkicks, which I didn’t understand at first, is the tendency to refer again & again to “poetry.” What I finally figured out is, poetry is more exclusive than say, a “book of the month” club. It really narrows the field. Even tho Litkicks isn’t all poetry, if someone is attracted by the term “Action Poetry” they probably have an extraordinary outlook on literature.

  4. mindbum, I went to your
    mindbum, I went to your website and looked for your poems, but do you go by another name on other sites?

  5. Well, I’ve never heard of
    Well, I’ve never heard of Crowdainer Smith so I can’t tell if he’s literature or not. I think your great-aunt has a good point about The Waste Land, although I’d put Howl on that list as well.

    I’m glad you vote for more LitKicks readings, because that’s something we want to do in 2005. Hope we’ll be seeing you there, Mindbum.

  6. Lilly Award for PoetryOne
    Lilly Award for Poetry

    One notable thing that’s happened recently is the Lilly award (approximately $100 million dollars) to Poetry Magazine. This happened before 2004, but we are only starting to see the ripple effect of this very generous gift now. 100 million for poetry! It’s about time, says I.

    I agree with Asher, however, that pop music and modern cinema have far more vitality than contemporary poetry. I have read other literary end-of-year summaries (there is one in my local newspaper, in fact), but these writers seem to be trying to pretend there is something to write about. I applaud LitKicks’ honest revelation about the emperor’s lack of clothes.

  7. Pretty AccurateI think it’s a
    Pretty Accurate

    I think it’s a pretty accurate observation that it’s much easier to remember and name big events or trends in areas such as music, movies or television — even stage. This is probably because these events are repeatedly reported on the news, in the papers and over and over in magazines and on the web. In fact it seems that a lot of writing is being done about movie, music and other artistic notables. This could be considered a trend in itself, but not really too unusual. Literary news: news about publishing, authors, etc. may be interesting but most of the time lacks any real punch, even to writers and publishers themselves.

  8. Dylan’s ChroniclesWhen I buy
    Dylan’s Chronicles

    When I buy a book, it’s a big story – (…sound of crickets chirping)

    1. Dylan’s Chronicles
    2. Litkicks Action Poetry

    Those are the 2 books I invested in this year that came out in 2004.

    (The Everything Reiki Book might also qualify, but it’s not exactly literature)

    Yes, the stories of 2004 are non-fiction revelations. Litkicks action is based on pure unadulterated facts, spewed forth in a passion of catharsis by desperate human beings eager to be rid of their inner truths.

    Chronicles is unabashed Dylan, who spent a great deal of his time living a fiction of his own creation, but the book makes it non-fiction retroactively.

    Big stories.

  9. 2004’s Top 50 Favorite
    2004’s Top 50 Favorite Books

    For simple convenience, an online book retailer’s list of top 50 customers’ favorites was referred to.

    Philip Roth’s latest is there as well as 16 other fiction titles. Some of the top 50 are funny — the third title “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”. Bill Clinton’s autobiography is given as number one. After reading the list, one could draw the conclusion that people who do buy books online want to be informed or inspired or entertained.

    An aside: people rely on DVDs and PCs for entertainment whereas before, some used to read books. Before the modern era of radio and film, readers read dime novels, so the lack of a literary story is nothing new, even in 2005.

  10. Agreed about “Chronicles” by
    Agreed about “Chronicles” by Dylan. Even the New York Times admitted it was one of the best books of the year. I love to see “Action Poetry” in company with that one, thanks Judih …

  11. Good point about the Lilly
    Good point about the Lilly gift, Rog. I’ve always been interested in Poetry Magazine because it was apparently where T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”, which is in my opinion just about the most impressive poem ever written, was originally published. I’m glad they are floating in unexpected wealth now. I haven’t been closely following how and where this money is trickling down, but I hope it is in good hands.

  12. Exactly … but it shouldn’t
    Exactly … but it shouldn’t have to be this way. Every once in a while, the mainstream media tries to get excited about a literary scene or a group of writers, like the Brat Pack (McInerney, Janowitz, Ellis) in the 80’s or the McSweeneys/Eggers/Pollack crowd today. But if today’s literature were a tv show, I think it would have been cancelled by now. We need some better material.

  13. I don’t remember Hunter S.
    I don’t remember Hunter S. Thompson’s comment but it was in his article about the hippies in Colliers’ yearbook, 1968 or so, and he said the media only picked up on a scene when it was over.

  14. Some neo-graceEven from my
    Some neo-grace

    Even from my distant point of view I think I can agree with Levi – but it may also be a sign of (personal?) exhaustion.

    I love to see the Beat Scene still breathing and developing (nearly like the method of Marxism). I don’t think it can ever be ‘dead history’ since it meant a pattern of living/thinking, of interaction/expression, struggle for vibes and communication, a way to move that is per se timeless –
    even if the particular contents may have become ‘antique’.

    Therefore, I don’t hesitate to mention (releases in 2004):

    * The Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, even if there’s some ever-present criticism stating that it’s ‘another Brinkley sell-out’

    * Departed Angels: Lost Paintings by Jack Kerouac

    * American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and The Making of the Beat Generation

    * Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers (still a socially unsolved topic…)

    * Gary Snyder’s Danger on Peaks, (see Jamelah’s recent thread)

    But: looking for some new kinda neo-Beat forces (in my eyes), with “making you want to turn the page” spells and scanning real life with ‘Beat’ sensitivity, there’s 2004’s Peter Plate(Literary Laureate of San Francisco) with ‘Fog Town’ — and Alan Rifkin’s psychologically intense life stories looking into greater L.A., balancing love and loss:

    “Why shouldn’t the world be a little — unhitched ? I was going to say unscrewed. Screwed is not a reversible condition. That is another world You can’t escape.”

    Sorry, that’s the end of 2003 — but, with the badly needed try to live and survive with grace for the signs of these times, these insane macros and micros of the world, at the end of 2004:

    “Even today, I can hold out as long as the sun is up for the story to have been about hope…”

    And, by the way (again my mind reminded me), there was a great textbook out this year:

    * Stryer’s Biochemistry, also kind of literary bridges of insight between biology and (bio chemistry, the wonders of evolutionary modules.

    And there must(‘ve) be some spoken word street poets published, or beating it out?

  15. What was instead of what
    What was instead of what is…

    Imagine if God came down from the mount and said “I was” instead of “I am.”

    It wouldn’t be quite as profound? Eh???

    Authors are not god. Authors at the very most can be prophets.

    Proust and Joyce had considerable problems with publication, money, and acceptance even at the peak of their careers. Kafka didn’t meet fame until after his death. Who knows what anyone thought of Sappho when she was living or Rumi.

    OF course, there is the entire of problem of reading. Writers are no longer the jet-set. In the 20’s the roaring Jazz Age the Fitzgerald’s, Hemmingway, Cummings we at least popular with the ‘educated classes.’ Authors like Max Brand filled the dreams of the long-past with the new literate working society. Reading was in.

    Even if it was reading the bible. Wendell Johnson, whom I have quoted more this once in this issue, stated ‘You can’t read reading.’ You can only read. How does one improve comprehension? Reading speed?

    The simple answer is reading more. Practice makes perfect. I can’t say that it is a good or bad thing but more people would be working on attaining the final levels in a game cube program or watching 5.1 Video at home then poring ‘Finnegan’s Wake,’ ‘Catch-22’ or even Vonnegut down the hatch.

    Writers like Grisham or King still sell millions of copies. They are the Shakespeares’s of our age. ‘Carrie’ becomes ‘Oepidus’ for the generation. Stage has died.

    Nothing good has been on Broadway for decades. No I don’t want to go to ‘Cats.’

    King comes out well on film. Thomas Wolfe doesn’t.

    People want short. If you could make human pregancy a matter of weeks instead of months you would have a billion dollars.

    This isn’t to say that the pop writer isn’t without his/her merits. The are those on the verge like Joyce Carrol Oates but she doesn’t sell that many copies.

    People want Oprah’s book club not C.S. Peirces theories of semiotics, or Rorty and Derrida notions of pragmatic deconstruction. At the same time, the classics die.

    You read about T. Williams or Truman Capote wondering through volumes or Rabelis or Homer. Who amoung us bothered with that? For me in the earliest stages ‘lit’ consisted of D.T. Suzuki, Lao-Tao, Camus, and Sartre. Dense enough stuff, but not the stuff T.S. Elliot alludes to.

    Oh yes, ‘academic’ writers. They can’ got over Joyce or Elliot or Pound. Instead of invention it has become obstuse literary video pop-up no room for the news ideas that these authors heralded in.

    Reference ‘The Waste Land’ in a lit class and get an A. Mention Rexroth, Synder, Keroauc, and get a dirty stare or a blank look. Sad isn’t it?

    So a bunch of big headed run the universities so caught up in new ideas that were fresh 80 years ago. Amazing?

    Take the general reader and hope for an 8th grade level at best.

    Somehow the next ‘great’ will have to venture across this cross road. ‘Lit’ is worthless if have to have a ph.d in the classics to understand it or have to be uneducated to appreciate it.

    I can recall people ‘reading’ ‘Naked Lunch’ in my high school. Very dense. ‘Queer’ or ‘Junkie’ is something a 15 year old could digest. What I’m getting at is that the new ‘classics’ the beats the post-modernist etc…often are misunderstood.

    Kerouac said he’d rather be dead then famous. By the time he achieved fame he was declining. The last great literary author who appealed to the common man was Hemmingway.

    Seeing ‘OTR’ in Korn videos is disheartening.

    The whole point of this is that often what is the ‘greatest’ is over looked when it is written, hell maybe ‘Summer of the Mets’ fifty years from now will be heralded as a classic. The best music usually isn’t on the radio. The best television isn’t on prime time network tv. The best books often go unread.

    Don’t take me to a be a high-art purist because I’m most certainly not. I did really enjoy that story of King’s about the failed doctor trapped on a desert island with a kilo of smack who eats himself to death. Very gory. I liked 28 Days Later. However, I love ‘Lost in the Penal Colony’ and “Night of the Living Dead.” Culture in a very hackneyed metaphor is like wine. The best vintages can be surprising.

  16. True but only to a point. I
    True but only to a point. I assume you read. I read. Some of us still read. Maybe only convicts. Write novels and give them away to prisons. That might be the best bet. Yes.

    After all, although reading is fading, locking people up is getting really really cool.

  17. thank youare you my angel?who
    thank you

    are you my angel?

    who ever is reading

    these words tonight

    you might not be

    perhaps an alien

    like ronald reagan worried about

    snort some downers

  18. Uni had a story
    Uni had a story published!!!

    My first story, just a one-pager in an obscure magazine, but I must say I was, and am still, pretty thrilled about it.

    Even got paid $35, so now my family, which has been pretty confused about what the heck it is Uni does with her life, now can say, “oh her, she’s a writer.”

    (But then again I spent my first night in jail this year, so they can also call me the family jail bird.)

    My world is the world I experience, so in the world I live in, finally getting a story published was big news.

  19. That’s definitely a top story
    That’s definitely a top story for 2004, uni! Always glad to see somebody getting published, and getting paid is extra nice.

  20. Congratulations! That’s
    Congratulations! That’s great, being published. I hope it happens again & again for you.

    Oh, and, having been a guest of the Sheriff’s Office myself: May we spend 2005 safe at home!

  21. Very nice summary, slog. A
    Very nice summary, slog. A masterpiece of insight. I had an English Comp teacher who said her goal was to someday be a footnote.*

    *Her name was Anne White

  22. Judih, I like your comment,
    Judih, I like your comment, “but the book makes it non-fiction retroactively.”

    What a concept!

  23. I remember that comment, too.
    I remember that comment, too.
    It’s all a paradox.

    Meaning, no meaning;
    my head, everyone’s head;
    sublime, commercial;
    deadline, timeless.

    It’s a wonder we even exist.

  24. 24 Hour Poetry PartyNot since
    24 Hour Poetry Party

    Not since the time of Basho or the Beat glory days has there been anything like it. A cyber jam with 99 poets adding their licks all the day, and all of the night. Creating a documentary dialogue and group poem that is unrivaled on the internet. Like fontiersmen and women, these poets shook the heavens for 24 hours in the heat of June 2004. The group poem was published in LitKicks collection of writings called Action Poetry, a fine collection of writing from the LitKicks site. Edited by Litkicks founder Levi Asher along with Caryn Thurman and Jamelah Earle, the book is the starting point for published excursions into cyberspace documentation. Full of fantastic energy and talent the book is a must read for any poetry lover.

    The time is here and the internet poetry phenomenon is here NOW! Be a part of it, don’t be shy, jump on in, the water’s fine….wired

  25. thanksbut bill, english

    but bill, english teachers all hate that self-reverent stuff

  26. Wow, how could I have
    Wow, how could I have overlooked that? You are correct, Wireman – the LitKicks Poetry Party was indeed a highlight for me. Every now and then I pull the book Action Poetry off the shelf and re-read the 24 hour poem.

  27. I’m wanted on false
    I’m wanted on false charges

    All art is criminal and should be treated as such. The artist/writer/sculptor innately knows this from the moment inspiration dawns. Kafka’s own looking-glass-self was a grotesque insect and shows the burden every artist shares or revels in. Writing, and all art for that matter, is the laceration of the creator’s soul, an attempt to convey to the world at large a subjective reality/perception that dims and loses its validity from the onset. Think about it: you want to tell the world (or a co-worker, or an enemy) how the thunder rolls off of the Appalachian Mountains, how it caresses and oozes around tree tops, echoing off the valley walls like a metronome. Leaving the witness reassured that the danger lingers slightly below heaven. Can you hear it? I doubt it, but you’ve got an idea and its probably misconstrued. Sorry, that’s harsh but its a fact. And that’s what I worry about more than who the story will affect. Everything hurts, and art, more than anything else should hurt. Because it should always be pushing man to where he should be. It’s one of the few things man has to be proud of and it is also the most vile thoughts of a species.

  28. Hey Jed — I’m actually not
    Hey Jed — I’m actually not sure if this response makes more sense as a response to Caryn’s question or this one — either way, interesting points.

  29. Thanks for bringing that up,
    Thanks for bringing that up, Mark. The 24 Hour Poetry Party was definitely a peak life experience for me, being at the dashboard for something like that. I felt humbled and exalted … still not quite sure what happened in that 24 hour daze. I’m looking forward to getting back into things like that here.

  30. About nothing good being on
    About nothing good being on Broadway for decades: RENT, Avenue Q, and Wicked. I agree with not wanting to go see Cats, however.

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