The Buck Stops Here

There were writers. There were readers. One was distinct from the other. Readers went to writers for an account of the far away and different (hunting whales, Gauguin in Tahiti); to read the news; to learn how to live (Emily Post was first a novelist); to escape. Although writers may have been readers first, for the most part readers did not become writers.

This began to change at the end of the nineteenth century. The letter to the editor, Walter Benjamin notes, convinced the reader of newspapers he was a writer. Today, anyone can give his opinion of books and films on He may appear himself as his own actor on television in reality shows. He may carry on long conversations on e-mail or in chat rooms with people he has never met thousands of miles away. Editors of little magazines complain that there are more poets who submit poems for publication than there are readers of the magazine.

There has always been culture which functions outside the domination of mainstream culture and never gets recognized or acknowledged by Time or Newsweek. In Cleveland, as I recall, there have been as many as eight Hungarian language daily papers. Black novelist Donald Goines wrote 16 novels between 1970 and 1974, before he was shot dead by police. Although his novels sold millions of copies, they were not written for the educated, middle-class white readership. He is read by more blacks than any black writer. Everyone found his culture where he was.

To some extent, universal public education in America changed the terms of the equation. In the nineteenth century, American culture was Anglo-Saxon. By the Depression, however, the sons and daughters of immigrants who had come to work in the factories and mines as well as the grandchildren of freed slaves had stories to tell and, because of public education, had the tools with which to tell them. They demanded their place at the table. For the first time we have a true democratization of American literature.

We may characterize Anglo-Saxon culture of the nineteenth century as a river with well-defined banks and see American literature today to be an ocean with many streams and currents in it. It is doubtful that we will have a major writer again, in the sense we did fifty or hundred years ago. Instead, we find who is decisive for us in the stream we swim in.

Well over 50 per cent of black novelists before 1960 wrote only one novel. They had a story to tell, and, once they told it, they had nothing more to say. What was urgent was that their story be told. That it be heard. If the writer as we have known him must at some time look outside himself for material, the new black, Hungarian or Japanese writer tells a story he knows all too well. He does not have to do research, talk to people who were there, observe. He tells his story himself instead of having a writer screen it through his sensibility.

This is particularly germane in class matters. In the 1839 revolution in France, a magazine for workers insisted that only workers could write for it. The journalist, mostly middle-class, would never get it right, and would stand in front of the story blocking our view. To speak for someone else, the magazine understood, is always colonization.

We never fully understand the consequences of technology at the time a new technology is implemented. We thought that the car would take us from A to B faster. We did not see how the car would transform how we live and the design of cities. Today, new electronic and wireless technologies permit us to retrieve information we could not retrieve, let alone know, before. We may visit and do research in libraries thousands of miles away. The poet, who waited two years for a magazine editor to publish his poetry, could publish it himself instantly on the Internet. There was no editor, publisher, teacher or school to determine what was worthwhile. On the Internet, we make up our own mind.

If the Internet be babble, as many insist, a vast Sargasso Sea into which everything disappears, it is also where we find our history, although not the one that fits the past like a hand put into a glove. Nothing disappears forever in the Sargasso Sea, and, at some point, everything will surface once again. When it does so unexpectedly in front of us, it may do so as a nightmare that awakens us. If this be the dream that drives the revolutionary, it is also the hope we hold fast. That we be not forgotten. That our existence be validated.

The workers' councils that were formed in Hungary during the 1956 uprising functioned much like the Internet does today. There was no leader, no officers, no agenda, no Robert's Rules of Order. Everyone spoke. Everyone listened. Everyone was equal. As I understand it, this is the argument of The Lakewood Observer.

From the Archive

When Lakewood novelist Herbert Gold asked a television producer why he had rejected a story Gold had given him, the producer replied, You don't understand, Mr. Gold. We want happy stories, about happy people with happy problems.
Read More on The Buck Stops Here
Volume 1, Issue 4, Posted 10.10 AM / 27th September 2005.