Charles Holdefer’s new novel, higher education, and outsider music: some thoughts

 A New Novel by Charles Holdefer

“…Literature had a good run, but let’s face it, fashions come and go, and people who indulge in special pleading simply don’t know their history. No one bothered to study Shakespeare in university till the late nineteenth century…That formula is finished now. We’re moving on to other models.”

“But you specialize in literature,” Holly said. “Does that make you a dodo?”

[Philip] raised a cautioning finger. “Part of my appointment is in literature. My role is that of a sympathetic doctor, slipping that last extra dose of morphine to the unfortunate patient…”

—from Charles Holdefer’s Don’t Look at Me (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2022)

Charles Holdefer’s latest novel, Don’t Look at Me, is the story of a giantess attempting to navigate the modern-day American university campus, specifically that thorny milieu of clashing egos known as the literature department. The protagonist, Holly Winegarten, starts out as a 6’9” basketball star, but after an injury puts her out of commission, she discovers the work of Emily Dickinson and falls in love with literature. Soon after, she becomes a 6’9” graduate student. Unfortunately for her, a university is a terrible place to fall in love, no matter if you’re falling in love with a writer, an area of study, or someone you met at a party. Later, when Holly begins working at the university library’s Civil War archives, she discovers a hitherto unknown Dickinson poem, along with a love letter from Dickinson to a Union soldier. She swipes the poem and keeps it to herself for a while, a secret communion between her and her favorite poet. This theft and a climactic MLA conference form the moral core of the novel, raising questions about who literature really belongs to and whether literature as a career field is even viable in today’s world.

In many ways, this is A Campus Novel, a genre which some people aren’t too keen on. This is either because they had their fill of the university experience years ago or because they work at a university and don’t want to be reminded of their workaday existence when they crack open a novel. Fortunately for me, my contact with any form of higher education was mercifully brief, and yet somehow my wife, brother, and most people in my social circle are either grad students or some kind of university employee; as a result, I often have a front row seat to squabbles and interdepartmental rivalries that someone at some time decided to call “departmental politics,” but, from what I’ve seen, aren’t much different from the grudges I’ve witnessed while working food service. 

Universities are bizarre, insular worlds, cities within cities that serve either as high school 2.0 or else bastions for the nerdy among us who just can’t fit in anywhere else. Whenever I read anything about the current state and future of the American university, I’m reminded of the following monologue from John Williams’s Stoner:

“It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that’s just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn’t give a damn about the laity or even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive. And we shall survive—because we have to.”

“Us” being the professors and grad students. Of course, the university of Stoner was a very different beast. Departments have become more specialized, disciplines of study have narrowed, and the system as a whole has become depressingly mercantile. There’s hardly room to breathe and simply enjoy the greatest poets, novelists, and philosophers our species has to offer when you have student loans and a pending job hunt breathing down your neck. The idea of education or literature as goods in and of themselves is an alien concept to most lay people, and increasingly it seems like an alien concept to English faculty. Back in my tender college years, one of my favorite professors, a renowned William Blake scholar and amateur poet, confessed to me how alienated he felt being one of the few members of the English faculty who wrote something other than scholarly articles. Literature was no longer the goal—rather, it was analysis and critical theory. In his words, the department was teeming with oceanographers who’d never set foot in the water.

How Necessary is Critical Theory, Really?

Many of Holly’s anxieties in the novel, from grades to her standing in the department, come about because of the gulf between the actual practice of literature and the theory that academics construct around it. If Holly thinks of Emily Dickinson as a dear friend, then Dickinson scholarship remains a workplace acquaintance at best. Don’t Look at Me is ultimately a love story about preserving your passion for those aspects of life (such as poetry) which, while not lucrative, still make life worth living. The following excerpt from the novel sums it up better than I could: 

…there was more to life than grasping careerists and money-getters and politicians routinely allowed; some of the most powerfully felt human experiences were treated as if they were nothing, but this nothing mattered very much, often more than others’ claim of lofty purpose. Poetry was the place where this nothing was permitted to happen.

A good deal of theory, on the other hand, attempts to replace this splendid nothing with a something, and this process often involves exploring literature in ways writers never intended. I’m not trying to say that scholarship and criticism are worthless and that authorial intent is all that matters when evaluating a work of literature, but as a writer myself, I’m firmly of the opinion that a writer like Dickinson speaks for herself better than any commentator ever could. 

Don’t Look at Me is one of those rare novels such as Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days that forced me think about a dead writer I hadn’t thought about in years. The novel’s title (which comes from a scene in which a young Holly is making faces at her little brother, at which he cries out, “Don’t look at me!”) evokes not just Emily Dickinson’s own reclusive lifestyle, but the reclusive lifestyles of so many artists who fall into the category “creative recluse.” If university faculty are removed from the general public, then creators like Dickinson are even further removed from the rest of humanity. The irony of Emily Dickinson, who lived so much of her life and created some of the most memorable lines of American verse in an attic, is that her lifestyle basically screamed “Don’t look at me!” and yet, in death, every aspect of her personal life and psyche has been placed under scrutiny.

In high school, I had a teacher who opened her lesson on Emily Dickinson by showing us articles about how Dickinson may have been a lesbian. Later, on my own time, I found articles and blogs in which scholars (both professional and amateur) speculated on every aspect of Dickinson’s mind, body, and social life, diagnosing her with everything from autism to bipolar disorder to lupus. At the time, this was all very interesting, until I came to the conclusion that post-mortem diagnoses like these are useless when it comes to understanding art. Dickinson didn’t write the way she did because she was repressing her sapphic desires or because her brain was wired differently; she wrote what she wrote because she was Emily Dickinson.

Is Emily Dickinson an Outsider Artist?

Recently, I’ve been listening to the work of an Australian singer/songwriter who calls himself Imbred. Imbred, according to his autobiography (which you can find on his Soundcloud), is a schizophrenic stoner with Asperger’s syndrome who writes short songs about such topics as depression, smoking weed, being in love with his online friend from Tennessee, smoking weed, people being mean to him on the Internet, smoking weed, being lonely, smoking weed, and smoking weed. If this sounds repetitive, it is, but regardless, his music is addictive. He’s released over a dozen albums so far, and he has a rough, homebrewed sound that sounds like Daniel Johnston meets Nirvana. 

Because he currently lives with his father, Imbred is free to spend his disability checks on weed and adspace on 4Chan and Reddit.

His ads often make use of popular online memes, often making jokes at his own expense—his lack of formal training in music, the fact that he advertises his Soundcloud and YouTube so aggressively, and the fact that users on Reddit’s r/music can’t stand him. But one ad in particular stands out to me:

He wants to be famous, so much so that he’s sacrificed weed in order to pursue stardom. More than that, he wants the Internet to turn him into a lolcow, which, let’s be honest, isn’t most people’s idea of fame, but it’s a uniquely 21st century kind of fame that you don’t need to be rich, goodlooking, or even talented to acquire. 

This may seem like a diversion, and maybe it is. But if there’s one artform that is the mirror image of literature, it would definitely be music. And if literature cries “Don’t look at me!”, music screams “Please, look at me!”

I suppose it’s fitting that Holly’s younger brother, Honus, is the frontman of a band which consists of himself, a one-armed veteran drummer, Steve, and a white-bearded guitarist who goes by The Yeti, a moniker which combines the elusive nature of a creature which doesn’t exist but which, because of its elusive nature and nonexistence, draws attention to itself. The very reality of being in a band or being a performer of any kind relies on your ability to impress yourself on others. In one scene, Holly and Honus are talking about Steve, who, unsurprisingly, isn’t the best drummer because one of his arms was blown off by a landmine. Honus is as honest as he is cynical when he tells Holly that Steve belongs in the band because he’s black and missing a limb; it doesn’t matter how good he sounds, because the very fact that he’s black and missing a limb helps the band stand out. 

Getting noticed is about knowing your market. Imbred is striving for a very specific kind of fame, a fame more akin to that of outsider artists like Wesley Willis who, even if they weren’t great on a technical or aesthetic level, offer something you can’t get from someone who regularly lands Top 40 slots. 

I started listening to Imbred around the same time I was reading Don’t Look at Me, and with outsider music and Emily Dickinson swimming together in my brain, I inevitably asked myself whether or not Dickinson counted as an outsider artist. Of course, this begs the question of what exactly counts as outsider art and who qualifies as an outsider artist. Usually, the label “outsider artist” implies some form of mental or psychological disorder. As I mentioned earlier, Dickinson has been stuck with all kinds of “neurodiverse” labels over the years, labels which tell us less about the people who get stuck with these labels and more about the 21st century’s obsession with labeling and categorizing every kind of human mind and every kind of human experience. 

When I listen to someone like Imbred or read the work of someone like Dickinson, though, I stop caring about what labels may or may not apply to them. I enjoy their work because I enjoy their work, a fact which is more meaningful to me than any classification or pet theory.

Purple Guitars and Getting Past the Bullshit

Sometimes the curtains are blue because they’re blue.

The more I talk to people about books, films, or pretty much anything that requires a bit of thought to appreciate, the more I realize how much English classes have scrambled our collectives brains. When we hunt for symbols and allegories instead of actually enjoying art, we lose sight of the fact that our favorite narratives and verses aren’t these ethereal Platonic ideals we must intellectualize, but the products of humans beings who are just as human as the rest of us.

Back when I was still in college, I was in a 20th century American Literature class in which we were discussing the poetry of Wallace Stevens, specifically “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” I like this poem, but the class discussion almost made me hate it. One of my classmates, whom I will refer to as Ms. Purple Guitar, for some reason did not like the fact that the titular guitar was blue and not some other color. Why, she argued, couldn’t the guitar be a different color? What about purple? 

What followed was the most profoundly asinine discussion I’ve ever heard. Ms. Purple Guitar was adamant that the guitar’s blueness was sexist and patriarchal (?!), and of course when our professor delicately (and quite reasonably) asked Ms. Purple Guitar to explain how she had come to that conclusion, Ms. Purple Guitar delved into a lecture about color theory, oppression, intersectionality, and a whole host of other topics that I’m certain never crossed Wallace Stevens’s mind when he wrote “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”

It was in the middle of Ms. Purple Guitar’s diatribe that I imagined what Stevens himself would think of this discussion. Would he be flattered that his work was being discussed so ardently in a university? Or would he be disappointed that someone could be so lost within a labyrinth of critical theory and phraseology that she’d lost any and all ability to appreciate poetry for its own sake?

Later, I had Ms. Purple Guitar in a modern poetry class. We were discussing a poem by a Jamaican writer about a salmon hatchery, and Ms. Purple Guitar somehow came to the conclusion that the salmon hatchery was an elaborate allegory for the transatlantic slave trade. Later, when the guy who wrote the poem visited our class and told us about how that poem came from his years working in an actual salmon hatchery, Ms. Purple Guitar was noticeably disgruntled and tried to tell this poet that he was mistaken about his own work. Then the poet laughed at her. It was a great class. 

My college experience was a brief one, but it helped me realize what happens to your mind when you start binging on theory instead of eating a healthy diet of actual literature. The Campus Novel is a great medium for exploring the kind of academic batshittery you encounter in a classroom, but Don’t Look at Me is that special kind of Campus Novel that reminds us that there’s life after 3 p.m. American Literature class.

Some people say the university is dying. Some say it’s stronger than ever. For me personally, it’s an intriguing little theater that I love to observe from afar. Whether you’re a pessimist, an optimist, or an emotionally distant cynic like myself, Don’t Look at Me is a refreshing look at a time-worn genre.