22 Questions with Jim Booth
I’ve known Jim Booth since August of 1975, when I walked into my freshman English class at Ledford High School and ran headlong into a teacher one of my friends had advised me to avoid (that’s the problem with being 14 – you don’t yet know that your friends are idiots). Booth was different – aggressively different – from any teacher I had ever had, seen, heard about, or even imagined. He was in his early 20s at the time, greatly admired the masters of the British canon, and also played in a rock band (and a darned good band, too, it turned out). And we read stuff that I actually liked – Sherlock Holmes, for instance. I had never enjoyed an English class before. This was all pretty edgy stuff for Ledford.
I’ve gotten to know Jim pretty well through the years (at one point we were even roommates), and was ecstatic to learn recently that these two novels he’s been sitting on for years, Morte d’Eden and The New Southern Gentleman, had been accepted, finally, for publication. I asked Jim if he could find the time to answer 22 questions from the Pit, and he graciously complied.
1: Morte d’Eden has been “finished” since the early ’80s, but during that period it has also undergone some major revision. Can you talk about the process of taking what was originally a book of tightly-related short stories and evolving it into a more coherent novel?
JB: Like most writers, I didn’t know I could write novels until I got started. Most of us who begin writing fiction think we might have enough for a short story, but almost none of us go out of the gate thinking we have a novel coming out.
So I wrote a story, “The Four Ladies,” then another story, “Velma,” then another, and another, and pretty soon I had about 110 pages of stories. I sent that off to a publisher way back then (in NYC, no less) and they expressed interest if I could pull the stories together (they all featured the same characters) and try to find a theme or themes that ran through the stories. Oh, and they needed another 80-90 pages or so of stories to make a manuscript long enough to justify the cost of publishing.
I started writing and revising and trying to tie together and I got there. I have to give some credit to that original NY editor. He had lots of good ideas and we had some rapport. It became a matter of looking at three things (at least for me) – chronology, thematic significance, symbolism. Luckily, I had high school in the South in the late ’60s, coming of age, and the Smith and Dan Rivers. So working out the ties was pretty easy. I also had Winesburg, Ohio, In Our Time, and This Side of Paradise, as well as Catcher in the Rye. So I had some pretty spiffy models.
In a way, I guess I’d paraphrase Dorothy Parker: “There is no new writing, only new rewriting.”
Anyway I sent in the revised manuscript and it went through readings and passed and it went through editorial and passed and it got to marketing and it failed.
That period happened to be the period of the shift to women writers writing about women coming of age and a man writing about men coming of age was so last decade – or so said marketing. We were also, then, on the cusp of the takeover of publishing decisions by marketing departments, which paralleled the takeover of publishers by media conglomerates – and that means the “if it has some literary merit it won’t sell” mentality had arrived.
So there I was. I got to “final vote” with Morte D’Eden four (4!) times. Each time it was a marketing department that shot the book down.
Needless to say, I was a bit discouraged.
So I kept plugging away, teaching, writing, teaching writing, writing for magazines, etc., revising and rewriting New Southern Gentleman (which only reached final vote once – this had more to do with editors becoming trained to spot “mid-list” [read “literary”] fiction and reject it before going through the humiliation of having their heads handed to them on plates in marketing meetings.
This is how we get books by Barbara Bush’s dog, Bill Clinton’s cat, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, and so forth.
So then the Internet arrived and it became possible to find “little” publishers and independent booksellers and so here I am, two books coming out in about a six month period. Except for the sales figures, I feel like Stephen King.
2: The South is famous for its post-bellum era fiction, but the new South you write about is very different from the South of Faulkner, Welty, Wolfe and O’Connor. What do you see as the dominant themes and “big stories” of the new South in which your novels are set?
Jim Booth: Dominant themes? Class and economic privilege, women’s roles, power, rock and roll (with its minions sex and drugs), male-female relations, consumerism/McDonaldization, and something a friend once called “responsible hedonism.”
What aren’t themes of this novel? The themes of the writers you mentioned above – race, religion, family, and The South (except as a myth that these characters do lip service to but don’t really, to quote Rhett Butler, “give a damn” about).
Scarlett wouldn’t recognize it. Well, maybe she would in the psycho-socio-sexual behavior of characters like Dan Deal, Alex Radford, Evelyn Daiches, and Alicia Pauls from New Southern Gentleman.
Could I elaborate? Why, certainly.
This novel, as you know, is satirical (I wonder if satire or romance are all one can write about the South).
Dan and Alex act like “gentlemen,” but they’re not above one night stands, lying to get sex, and all the other behaviors we’d associate with Boomer males (and females, for that matter) no matter what region of America they hail from. Role models/prototypes for these guys would more likely be Mick Jagger or Sam Malone/Diane Chambers from Cheers rather than Robert E. Lee or Andy Taylor/Helen Crump from The Andy Griffith Show.
We’ve all heard social critics, pundits, and gurus rail about the homogenization of American culture by corporate forces like McDonald’s, The Gap, etc. The New Southern Gentleman takes place during the 1970’s in the American South. At one point in the novel Dan meets Evelyn at a party and The Doobies are playing in the background. Later, when he’s trying to seduce his cousin Ramona, he puts Joni Mitchell on the stereo. If the scenes were taking place anywhere else in America rather than Winston-Salem, NC and Charlottesville, VA, the music would have been the same. Rock and roll does as much to homogenize as any other corporate or social force. Our lives have sound tracks. That’s how it is. Place is irrelevant. The only reason Dan refers to the South is for social advantage – as in his run-ins with the Yankee Jason Manetti.
Dan goes to church – he’s an Episcopalian (preferred church of Virginia gentry) – but his religiosity (he regularly attends services, the novel tells us) doesn’t really affect his life – in one scene he skips the Christmas Eve midnight service so that he can sit and brood over Evelyn. Religion is about social image for Dan – if it has any relevance to his life at all.
Race isn’t an issue in this novel because race is irrelevant to this group. It’s the 1970’s. The sweeping social immigration from the Pacific Rim and Hispanic America hasn’t occurred yet. These are privileged, insulated white people ripening in well funded hot houses of Southern white privilege. Look at the schools characters attend – Wake Forest, Duke, UVA, UNC – all schools where the paltry numbers of black students (at least in this time period) are present to make up the athletic teams.
Dan systematically and mercilessly uses family when it brings him what he wants – whether that is to get a great law clerking job or to be rid of a woman he’s lost interest in. He certainly is part of a Southern family – with all those attendant horrors – but he’s all about Dan. Evelyn Daiches, of course, is even worse about her family.
The South as most people think of it in America – and in the “most people” category I put many Southerners – hasn’t existed for nearly 30 years. People still buy those shopworn images (that word again) of the South because most Southerner writers are so elegiac by nature and because myths are more entertaining than realities. This book tour will spend more time at Barnes & Nobles and Borders than in Susie May’s Book Shop or Loretta’s Southern Reader. And it won’t matter if it’s Ames, Iowa or Macon, Georgia – B&N and Borders will be the same. That’s the South – that’s America.
3: Eden, NC, your hometown and the setting for Morte d’Eden, is only a few miles away from Reidsville, which served as the basis for T.R. Pearson’s wonderful A Short History of a Small Place. Two great books, but two very different books. Would you do a little compare and contrast between what you and Pearson derived from that particular neck of the woods?
JB: Tom Pearson’s book is about capturing the past – a la recherche du temps perdue, as Proust would say – and, as you know, the book is digressive as hell (wonderfully so, let me say), and the main character spends a lot of time listening to Southern women (and men) spin stories about relatives, friends, and neighbors. All kinds of funny, silly, eccentric stuff gets revealed – but it’s all the past – the South as it was. It’s a history, for heaven’s sake. Family, religion, race relations, the place – all that good Southern turf of Faulkner, Welty, Wolfe, O’Connor, et al. – are central to that history. That elegiac strain I’ve talked about. (I’m just getting ready to begin his latest book The Gospel Hour – I’ll let you know what I think shortly).
Morte d’Eden, on the other hand, is subtitled “Tom Sawyer Meets The Rolling Stones.” That should be warning enough. It’s a book about rock and roll more than about The South – although the South is important – it’s a book about self more than family – although family is important. Religion? Forget it. We’re talking teenagers here. Race? Kids on both sides act pretty stupid – but again, they’re teenagers. Boomer youth culture trying to manifest itself in a little Southern town in the late 60s. The subtitle does the subject justice.
But where I’d say Pearson and I diverge most is that SHoaSP is about childhood and soaking up what the elders say – you’re a Southerner, Sam, you know what I’m talking about – and MdE is about adolescence, specifically late 1960s adolescence, when rock music and peer relationships had become more of a communal force in the lives of kids than anything the church, the school, their families, or the place they lived said to them.
Kids listen to elders – teenagers don’t. SHOASP vs. MdE in six words.
4: Who do you see winning the ACC this year?
JB: Duke, with challenges from Wake Forest and NC State. If the Dukies are just too young (and they’ll be very young), I’ll go with Wake. They’ve got talent and, finally, a coach who’s willing to let the horses run.
5: In many respects you clearly are Jay Breeze, the central character in the (one assumes) forthcoming Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, and you perhaps have an even greater affection for Charlie Beagle and Teddy Hatter, the stars of Morte d’Eden. However, there’s a lot less to like about Dan Deal and Alex Radford, the well-off law students around whom you build The New Southern Gentleman. Can you talk about the differences in writing a novel featuring characters you’re emotionally invested in as opposed to one where there’s a certain undercurrent of loathing toward the protagonists?
JB: You assume rightly. Jay Breeze should appear in late 2003-early 2004. Probably the same publisher as MdE.
Yes, I love old Jay (and Teddy, Mick, and Sid) and yes I love Charlie and Teddy even more. (You’ll grow to love Mick – he’s in part based on you, Samuel.) [Ed. Note: Coulda been worse – coulda been the drummer.]
Yes, they’re like me, but none of them is me. Remember, I got my undergraduate degree in English at one of the old bastions of “New” Criticism, UNC-Greensboro. I’ve forgotten more about the “intentional fallacy” than most people will ever know.
I tend to think like Trollope. Characters come to me like friends – no, more like family members; you can pick friends, but you’re stuck with family members – and I just go along with them as recording secretary/biographer as they live out their fictional lives. Maybe we have a sort of Johnson/Boswell relationship.
Anyway, one of the things I learned early (and that all writers must learn early if they’re to make anything worth reading) is that I ain’t the character. As Trollope once observed to someone who asked him why he “made” one of his characters behave a certain way, “Madam, he did just as Plantagenet Palliser would do. I merely noted it.” (Not a perfect quote, but close, and no I’m not looking it up, it’s my interview.) So, the character has to act as he/she is going to, not as I want him/her to. Or the story won’t work at all.
One last note before I actually answer the real question within the question. You used the word “stars” to refer to Charlie and Teddy in MdE. Good analogy. Characters are like stars – you take them as they come, easy or difficult to work with, and you try to get their best stuff. Enough said.
Now, to Dan and Alex. Here we get into the mistakes a writer can make when he thinks too much. My premise, when I began NSG, was “What would The Great Gatsby be like if told by Gatsby himself instead of Nick?” Okay, maybe it’s a crazy idea, but it’s an interesting crazy idea. That’s all any writer is looking for.
So I wrote a 185-page manuscript. In first person. From Dan’s point of view.
I knew it didn’t work. My profs at Albany knew it didn’t work. Dan knew it didn’t work. I finally realized I didn’t want to romanticize Gatsby, I wanted to satirize him. That was a breakthrough of sorts. That helped me realize that I needed some distance from the character(s).
I resisted changing POV for a couple of years. I mean a rewrite of 185 pages to change POV for the entire novel? Ouch. Then I read somewhere that Tolstoy rewrote Anna Karenina nine (yes nine) times. He even burned the first five drafts. As I mentioned earlier, I dig Tolstoy.
So, I got to work and rewrote about 50 pages with Alex as observer-narrator. An unreliable narrator – like in Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier or Cynthia Rich’s (Adrienne’s sister) story “My Sister’s Marriage.”
Sort of worked. But I had a disk drive die (this was back in the old KayPro word processor days, when stuff like that happened way too frequently). So I lost the entire 50 pages. Poof. Gone.
I did nothing but mope for almost a year.
Through all this time, I wrote to several people. My old prof at Albany, Gene Mirabelli. The late Walker Percy. The late Tom Walters. JD Salinger (really, I did). Santa. They all (except Salinger, who doesn’t exist) wrote back and said the same thing – “can’t be 1st person.”
Well, I knew that.
Then, as I was teaching an American lit class and we were doing Hawthorne, it hit me. For the satire I wanted, and the distance to let the reader see a dislikeable so and so like Dan Deal, 3rd person omniscient was the only way to go.
So I rewrote the whole damned thing again. In 3rd person omniscient, although with some shifting viewpoints (did I mention I also love Katherine Anne Porter?) for key scenes.
And it worked. People can see Dan for the jerk he is, and they don’t see Dan as me – extraordinarily important for the right reader reaction. That loathing you speak of gets aimed at Dan, not me. And, because I’m distanced, I can suggest that loathing is okay without compromising the character, narration, or the story.
What a question! Like my doctoral orals. BTW, did I pass?
6: Dan and Alex are descendants of a proud heritage – both of them come from prominent old Southern families, although both families have fallen into decline. As you noted, though, their “gentleman” act is little more than that – an act. Having attended Wake Forest, where these characters are pursuing their law degrees, and having further had the privilege of living next door to the “Old South” fraternity for three years, I know precisely where you’re coming from. But what I wonder is this: is it fair to romanticize that “pure” Southern heritage (which is unavoidable when we begin writing about those who taint it) when in fact even the virtues of the Old South (courtliness, respect for women, noblesse oblige) were founded upon racial, gender, and class inequity? This looks like a trap, and I’m wondering how you go about dealing with not just the realities of the fallen gentleman, but the social truth about his ancestors.
JB: Fair or not, the nation’s (indeed, the world’s) romanticization of the South and the concept of “Southern Honor” is, like the War of Northern Aggression, 1861-65, past arguing. Those who don’t think the South is Mayberry think it’s Tara. What you’re asking for here seems to me to imply that it’s my responsibility to engage in revisionist history and I know you better than to believe that’s what you meant. A phrase like “social truth about his ancestors” strikes me as PC rot.
This novel is satire, pure and simple. Dan is an object of scorn to readers. My response to those who scorn him? “Good read.”
I’m reminded of “Janeites,” the groups of women who for years misread (still do, in England, especially) Jane Austen thinking she was writing “Regency Romances” when she was writing biting novels of manners about the social suffocation women of her class (that she indeed chose rather than marry without love) faced if they didn’t get husbands – or got anyway if they got the wrong husbands.
Anyone who thinks that son-of-a-bitch Dan Deal is a romanticization or compliment of any kind to the “Old South” is giving NSG a petulant knee-jerk social-critical school reading (think Marxist, those of you without the PhDs in Humanities fields).
I think I do a pretty good job of debunking the “myth” of “Southern Honor” (thank you Bertram Wyatt-Brown, William Robert Taylor, Rollin Osterweiss, Wilbur J. Cash, et al) in the first chapter of the novel. Therefore, I don’t see myself as “romanticizing” anyone’s heritage. That heritage stuff is all pretty dubious, methinks. And Dan’s (and Alex’s, to a lesser extent) behavior is anything but gentlemanly, given the definition you yourself offer in the question.
7: Most of us have musical guilty pleasures, things we like but aren’t necessarily proud of. Is there anything in your CD collection that you hope people won’t notice when they come over?
JB: As a British Invasion fan, I have a couple of things – one is The Hollies Greatest Hits, pretty chirpy stuff for most folks past the age of 15, but I still love it. I still listen pretty regularly to The Dave Clark Five, The Searchers, or Billy Jay Kramer and the Dakotas whenever they come on oldies radio. All pretty fizzy stuff from the BI period.
In a similar vein, I regularly listen to Greatest Hits of the Loving Spoonful. [Ed. Note: Ptooi!] I also listen to the Buckinghams, another of the American groups from the period.
Oh. I love Stephen Bishop. I don’t know why. I’m getting help.
Other than that, with the exception that I buy (and listen to) about everything Macca (Sir Paul) puts out, good, bad, indifferent, I’m pretty clean.
8: You spent several (frequently hellish) years of your life teaching at a small Southern school for girls, and a lot happened to you during those years. Looking back, what advice would you give to somebody getting ready to take the same kind of job you once had at Salem College? And should we be expecting a novel someday that draws from that experience?
JB: Okay, you spent some years there, too. What advice would you give? [Ed. Note: Run like hell.]
Run…no that’s not far enough, no, run farther than that, no farther than that…I think your readers can see a trend developing here.
The novel is in notes – look for it in about 2-3 years. The title will be The Salem Witch Trials. I think that explains my position fairly well.
(I would only add that I have some former students who are dear friends from those days, and to them I say, “When the novel comes out – duck!”)
9: What are the last three CDs you bought? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
JB: Last three? Hmm…in no particular order, they are as follows:
- Bigger-Than-You – Trash, Goat Boy Records, 2002. Okay, so this is my label and I didn’t have to pay for it. And yes, both my sons play in this band. But, and I say this as someone who knows the business, it’s a good record. They’ll learn more and make great records. Then I can drive their limo, like the dad in “Cover of the Rolling Stone.”
- Spirit – Greatest Hits – Late 60s California band that I really dug that didn’t become as popular as the Airplane or Doors or Dead. Really, really cool. Lead guitar player was a guy named Randy California who played with Hendrix’s group when he was 16. Hendrix gave him the “California” moniker. Maybe readers know “Nature’s Way” or “Got a Line on You.” But there’s much more to the band. Check them out. Especially a tune called “Dark-Eyed Woman” that my own band used to cover back in the misty days of rock.
- George Harrison – Best Of – I bought this off a rack in a drug store in those numb days in December when I was trying to come to terms with the reality that two of my big brothers were now gone. It hasn’t left my CD player yet. I just love those Fabs. I’m trying to find one of the limited edition releases of All Things Must Pass, but haven’t yet. When I do, this’ll get a rest.
Thumbs up on all three.
10: You’ve had these two novels in stage of completion for years – in the case of Morte d’Eden, it’s literally been over 20 years. And now all of a sudden, they both get published at once. A lot of people would have given up. What kept you going?
JB: Stupidity. Determination. Belief in self and talent. Crankiness. My kids. Occasionally booze, chicks, and rock and roll. Occasional kind words from friends (BTW, thanks, man). Southern stubbornness.
11: Let’s talk for a second about Charlie Beagle and Teddy Hatter. They’re the central figures in MdE, as well as the Jay Breeze book you’re currently working on. Unless I miss my guess, we’ll probably hear from them again, huh?
JB: Yeah, well, they’re great characters. Charlie’s my alter ego, Teddy’s modeled on one of my best friends, Ralph Dodge on another, Mick Norris and Sid Vegas (from Jay Breeze) on still others. The message here, dear readers, is, if you long to be turned into a literary character, make friends with The Jim. 🙂
Morte d’Eden is about Charlie and Teddy coming of age. Readers will be able to see that Teddy’s going to become a musician, Charlie a writer, Ralph a pilot/astronaut. Here you get to see them as kids. (In another book I’m working on, you actually get to see some of the characters from MdE as little kids).
I guess I get it from Faulkner – or Wolfe. I have this cast of characters, they have their world, and I like writing about them and it because it lets me talk about stuff I want to talk about in terms of a small world – which is what most of us, like it or not, live in. It’s the old microcosm/macrocosm thing.
I think a lot of the time the reason many readers react violently to Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon is that they’re trying for the epic in what is really a small world. I don’t think we think in epic terms anymore – except perhaps in science fiction.
One last thing – Charlie and Teddy will also appear in The Salem Witch Trials. They’re friends with the main character, a professor named Wentworth Carroll, who’s also from Eden.
Maybe it makes sense this way: we all came “out of Eden” in one way or another, so it makes sense that we’d harken back to it even if, as Wolfe observed we can’t go home again.
12: In order, what are the five best barbecue restaurants in the Carolinas?
JB: In no particular order (you’re not the boss of me):
- Lexington BBQ Center #1 – Lexington, NC
- Southern BBQ – Lexington, NC
- Fuzzy’s BBQ – Madison, NC
- Short Sugar’s BBQ – Reidsville, NC
- Pig Pickin’s – Winston-Salem, NC
- Stamey’s BBQ – Greensboro, NC
- Wilber’s BBQ – Goldsboro, NC
Honorable mention and not from the Carolinas – the BBQ beef and chicken at the Wyoming Conference on English picnics – hope they still have them.
Yes, there are more than five. Sue me.
13: What non-writers have most influenced your writing?
JB: Again, no particular order:
- John Lennon – (well, actually he is a writer)
- Francois Truffaut – film director
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – composer
- Winslow Homer – painter
- Jay Ward – cartoonist, creator of Bullwinkle
14: What do you think is the greatest make-out album ever recorded?
JB: Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon.
15: You’ve had some lean years as a college and university instructor, and you’re not alone. What has caused you to stay in the academy when so many others have walked away in favor of the corporate sector and financial solvency?
JB: I assume this is a multiple choice question. Since you forgot to give me the choices, I’ll offer them for your readers’ viewing pleasure:
A) I’m above that money crap
B) My bulb burns at a brightness somewhere between Sponge Bob Square Pants and Patrick Star
C) I don’t know how to do anything else
D) I’m going to keep doing this until I get it right
E) To piss off ex-wives
F) All of the above
G) None of the above
16: What was the first concert you ever saw? What are the three best concerts you ever saw?
JB: First Concert – Rolling Stones, 1966, Greensboro, NC.
- The Who – 1976, Greensboro, NC
- Paul Simon – 1990, Chapel Hill, NC [Ed. Note: I was at this show. It was good, but not that good. Remember the damned self-indulgent 12-minute sax jack-off solo we were subjected to? That alone is worth a full letter grade deduction. Ahem, sorry, this is your interview…]
- Jimi Hendrix – 1969, Charlotte, NC (Chicago opened)
- The Monkees – 1967, Greensboro, NC (Hendrix opened)
BTW, I’m going to see Macca on Mon, Oct. 7, 2002. I’ve never seen a Beatle before.
Yes, there are 4. Sue me some more.
17: If they were to make a TV mini-series based on your life, who would you want to play you?
JB: Brad Pitt or Steve Buscemi. Flip a coin.
18: What five writers have exerted the most impact on your life and writing?
JB: Lovely question. You know the drill – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Jane Austen (yes, that’s right!), Twain.
Poets, too? Oh, you want poets, too? Well, all righty, then – Yeats, Thomas, Frost, Donne, and The Big Guy who ain’t Milton.
These are terribly unreliable answers because I have a long-running appreciation of Sterne and Tolstoy and of French symbolist poets like Mallarme, Verlaine, and Baudelaire.
I also like Norman Maclean and my son Joshua’s writing a lot, too.
And these days, given the world’s situation and the fact I have two sons – one 18, one nearly 20 – I’m reading Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Henry Reed. I just wish Dubya would. Or could.
19: What is the smartest thing you’ve ever done in your life, and the dumbest?
JB: Smartest: Continuing to try to get my work published.
A)Trying to ski a black diamond snow bowl at Big Mountain, MT on what I knew was a malfunctioning binding
B) Continuing to try to get my work published
20: The thing that struck me about the life of Jay Breeze was the whole psychology of stardom – he was bigger than life, he was okay with that, and he lives in a world where everybody else is okay with it, too. But we now live in an age of the anti-star, where even the biggest stars in rock are often very suspicious of the whole concept of celebrity. In fact, a lot of people (including the musicians themselves) are offended by the kind of swagger we see in Breeze. What do yo make of this shift, and what would you say to readers who may be put off by what they see as arrogance on the part of your central character?
JB: “Back in the day,” as my sons would say, being a rock star meant something. It meant something to be a Beatle, a Rolling Stone, even a Monkee (in the latter case not anything flattering, but something). Now, in a media-drenched world where Warhol’s words seem to get truer by the nanosecond, it doesn’t mean much to be a rock star (as it doesn’t mean much to be a “star” of any kind).
Remember, all this applies to the “classic” period of rock (roughly 1965 – about the time of Rubber Soul – until some time in 1977 – depending on whether you want to date this from Never Mind the Bollocks or My Aim Is True). Remember, too, that The Lost Generation, the band Jay Breeze belongs to, came to fame late in this period. Post-Ziggy but pre-Ramones. Jay carries the biases of that period with him.
Let’s wax intellectual for a moment or two.
Fredric Jameson calls the Rolling Stones and Beatles “high modernist” because, he argues, they represent the modernist model of the alienated figure in revolt against society, a model developed in the Romantic period and, while lionized then, marginalized during the 20th century. Now, if we look at the Fabs and Stones as Postmodern in that they obliterate (artificially created, admittedly) distinctions between “high” and “low” art but Modernist if we look at their behavior by itself (alienation, yadda yadda), okay, I buy it. Of course he doesn’t say this, so he’s got it wrong. If he were talking about Wallace Stevens, I’d grant his point. But he isn’t. He’s talking about the Stones and the Beatles, who have the imprimatur of “stardom” and the power of mass media and who use it to send “messages,” raise “issues,” explore “themes,” and posit “ideas” – the same thing “serious” artists would do – via the work that made them stars – music, a form of art, but pop music, a “low” form of art. Except that the reaction of critics “high” and “low” is the “duck” reaction. If it looks, flies, swims, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, right? Well, right. And if “high” and “low” critics are treating the music of the Mick and Keith and John and Paul the same way, then where the hell are we?
[Ed. Note: Jameson was so completely wrong on this whole issue that his comments are embarrassing to read. Even if I grant the way he frames the pre-Modern, High Modern and Posmodern for the sake of his argument, he’s wrong. The Fabs and Stones would have been pre-Modern in his model, even though they’re clearly Postmodern in real life, which he’d realize if he actually studied popular music a little instead of sneering down upon it from on high. This is why self-indulgent jackasses should stick to subjects they know at least a little about. But again, it’s not my interview, so I’ll shut up now.]
Well, we have two forces at work. Media, which grants celebrity and makes for “popular” or “low” adulation, and criticism, which grants “authenticity” and makes for “serious” or “high” adulation. And the Beatles and Stones, among others, garner both.
Thus, to become a rock star in this period means both a) you’re going to be a media-created celebrity, and, b) you’re going to be taken seriously as an artist (whether you should be or not).
With this kind of power given to you at, say, age 21-23, is it any wonder that one would see oneself as a giant striding the earth?
It’s only post-Grunge that we see the model created by the Beatles and Stones (and carried to its wickedest excess by Led Zeppelin) successfully rejected for the punky populism of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Beck, et al, ad nauseum. In pace requiescat.
The interesting characters are the ones caught between the two movements – Tom Petty, Sting, Bono, Michael Stipe, Costello, Joe Jackson. Guys not sure whether they are “Giants in the Earth” or shams of some sort trying to make something good out of something inherently false. Because much of the eighties is about debunking the very premises that were used to measure the Beatles and Stones. Look at how embracing the “classic” model paid off for Petty, Sting, Bono, and Stipe and rejecting it led to problems for Elvis, Jackson, Graham Parker, et. al.
It’s the whole Cultural Studies critical phenomenon that purports to “raise” popular culture to the level of “high” culture (according to these “scholars”) and only muddies the water unmercifully. By reducing what the Beatles and Stones do to anthropological artifacts to be measured according to “production in use” and “fan behavior” criteria, everything becomes an economic/socio-political issue, which suits these folks fine because they’re only interested in positing Marxist political hypotheses about all this anyway.
Remember, it’s Simon Frith who points out that Peter Townshend’s tragedy is that he could never reconcile his rock star celebrity with his artist’s ethos.
That’s the same dilemma Jay feels. It’s what makes him (in the book – it’s more a pastiche than a novel [how Postmodern!]) reject his stardom and go back to school to finish his BA in English and start to work on his MFA in writing.
But, of course, it’s very hard to do that when you’re recognized and fawned over (there’s a great little song by Stephen Bishop, my guilty pleasure, on this very topic) everywhere you go for the work you’re trying to reject. Look at Townshend’s struggles with this very thing.
If readers accept that Jay is a “dinosaur” – something he rails about at different points in the book – then they should be able to understand and accept his behavior. Look at how Pearl Jam fawned over Neil Young or that everyone fawns over Sir Paul these days. Oppose that to Elvis Costello’s “debunking” of Paul during their work together in the ’80s. Look at all the encomia recordings made by various artists of work by everyone from Led Zeppelin to the Eagles to the Kingsmen. (Remember that “Louie, Louie” tribute album?) Or the heartfelt tributes to Freddie Mercury by everyone from Axl Rose to George Michael.
In other words, once a star, always a star, what I say (to paraphrase Faulkner).
Finally, there’s the iconography thing. Jay and company, like their rock star brethren (women are almost unknown in classic rock) are images – throughout the book, Jay makes reference to how he and the other guys are dressed as a way of differentiating them from their social situation. That was a distinguishing characteristic of classic rock – whether it was the Beatle haircut, Bowie’s makeup, or Elton’s outfits, there’s an image thing that becomes iconographic – and whether it gets sliced and diced by Cultural Studies critics or sliced and diced by Madison Avenue, the iconography is still there. That haircut is a Beatle haircut to any generation, it seems.
Jay’s an “Old School” rock star. That’s all. I think readers can handle that.
21: I love “The Balcony Scene,” the Jay Breeze story that was recently published in storySouth. Can you tell us where that idea came from, and maybe comment more generally about how you generate characters and events for your stories?
First, thanks for the plug for both my story and for storySouth, an excellent journal. My story is currently avavilable in The storySouth Reader which can be accessed at www.storysouth.com. (Okay, end of shameless promotion).
“The Balcony Scene” came from two places. First, it came from time I have spent in New Orleans in 1968 and 1992 under very different sets of circumstances. Second, it came from my own experience on tour with my band Backyard Tea in the early ’70s. Okay, so we have New Orleans, rock stars on tour, plenty of booze, college girls. What could happen?
22: If you had a magic wand, would you trade places with Jay Breeze?
Well, he’s dead and Charlie Beagle has tried to put together things he’s written. That’s the premise of the book. So, no, I don’t want to be dead.
Now, as for the rock star part, I’d swap in a New York minute. For me rock and roll is where it’s at.
Jim Booth is Director of the Effective Writing Program at the University of Maryland University College. He holds bachelor and master’s degrees from UNC-Greensboro and a doctorate in writing and the teaching of writing from the University at Albany (SUNY). Jim has taught at Salem College (NC) and North Carolina A&T State University.
A former touring rock musician, Jim currently operates his own independent record label, Goat Boy Records. His wife Susan is a college administrator. One son, Joshua, is a sophomore at Columbia University. The other, Trevor, is a senior in high school.
Jim is a fiction writer and the author of The New Southern Gentleman (Wexford College Press, 2002) and Morte D’Eden, or Tom Sawyer Meets the Rolling Stones (forthcoming, Beach House Books, 2003).