The Belly of the Beast

NB: Paper Cut Flophouse was a group blog that ran in the late aughts. Most posts were written by two contributors: me, using the pseudonym Roman Briton, and my friend Pompeston, the mastermind of the endeavor. This is a cross-posting of a post I originally wrote for PCFH; here’s a link to the original.

The new Poets & Writers. Page 125. (This is way back in the “recent winners” listings; past the eternally optimistic “deadlines,” heading in the direction of the slightly tawdry “contests,” the suspect “personals” and “rentals,” the downright unsavory “services.”) The bottom half of the page is an advertisement for a graduate program in creative writing; no great surprise there, the pages of this magazine are filled with them, and it’s not that the ads shock me with their quantity, I’m well aware that this country is multitudinous with writing programs, it’s just that seeing all their disciplines, all their addresses, all their distinguished faculty and recent distinguished guests, it’s like putting a face to a name, names to a number. This one, the ad I’m looking at on page 125, has a quote from Flaubert: “Writing is a dog’s life, but it’s the only one worth living.” This is not surprising either; many of these ads are appended with quotes that seem to attempt to summarize a theory, a sensibility, a philosophy; NYU‘s ad, for example, has E.L. Doctorow, “A book begins as a private excitement of the mind” (an onanistic approach to writing if ever there was one!). But this, the Flaubert’s dog one, this one features a photograph of a dog, or, rather, either the right half of a photograph of a dog, or a complete photograph of only the hindquarters of a dog that is lying on some sort of white sheet, as if it’s participating in a tasteful erotica shoot, a languid dog, all stretchy leg and lazy tail, perhaps reminiscent of the ubiquitous anonymous women’s bodies, all skirts and boots, that have been haunting the jackets of every work of fiction by a young woman about the travails of young women since flying earflap girl ran away from us on the cover of Melissa Bank. And someone—the photographer springs to mind first, or perhaps the dog’s owner (Whose dog is this? Is this stock photography, or was this shot especially for the James A. Michener Center for Writers?)—has tossed the manuscript of a novel onto the animal’s left side. The words on the manuscript pages are difficult to read in the photograph, but, squinting, the title page appears to read A Blessing on the Moon, by Joseph Skibell, who graduated from Austin in 1996 (so it was not stock?). The printed sheets have fallen apart loosely, some limning the dog’s belly, some pushing down toward the darkness between its legs; the top right corner of what looks like it might be page 11 has gotten itself tucked inside the dog’s left knee, seeking fur, and warmth, and crotch. A pencil has been placed on the manuscript’s cover page, so we are certain that this is a static shot, not one of action, but still, I wonder, is this what Updike was talking about? Must we lie down with the books we want to write like this, like a love between animals and objects, the tasteful pornography of the domesticated and the inanimate, dogs and pages quietly searching out comfort from each other amid the cold air, the bright lights, the ice cubes, the satin sheets?