I have a book mostly finished. I’d like to have some help putting it out. Somebody else to market and distribute it. I’m terrible at those tasks and hate doing them. It would be nice to partner with someone who values what I do, who has more of a knack for the business. Odds are, I’ll put the thing out myself, but there’s no harm daydreaming. Especially when great writers are resorting to some out-there tactics to get their work to readers nowadays.
Bruce Wagner’s publisher wouldn’t put out his book, so he released it into the public domain instead. Anyone can print, copy, or do whatever they want with it, according to Wagner. It’s an extreme solution, but an intriguing one. According to the writer, his publisher told him that they couldn’t release a book with a character that calls herself fat (much less, one in which someone else says she is); the woman in question starts out at 500lb with a goal of getting to 1000lb. She calls herself the Fat Joan—a riff on a pop culture figure named the Fat Jew. This same woman later loses so much weight she basically vanishes. Joan and how she thinks about and labels her weight is probably the least likely reason that a censor should consider banning Wagner’s book.
One character turns into a bird, another’s so guilt-ridden by the suicide of a long-ago mistress he dedicates his career to women’s causes, only to get MeToo’d by what turns out to be a scam artist. There’s a lot of ugliness in this book, but its not there for its own sake—this isn’t a Tarrantino flick. The grotesquery is related to the current media moment. I wonder how it will read in a decade or two when Twitter and TikTok are as quaint as kerosene lamps.
Most of the main characters in The Marvel Universe are sick to a greater or lesser degree. Some have made careers of their maladies. They perform their illness on social media, hold fundraisers, and join forces with sufferers of other ailments to promote one another’s brands. Sickness is a marketing gimmick, a way to get ahead in their world. Addictions, scams, and even murder are common in this environment. Each is a bargaining chip of shifting value.
In the two books and one movie based on his writing that I’ve taken in, Wagner’s theme is always the outsize fame-mongers that dominate Hollywood, and, by extension, American culture. He freely mingles the likes of Kanye West, the Kardashians, land artist James Turell, Patricia Arquette, and untold other “influencers” in with his own characters. Limits of taste wobble, but it’s not prurient. Wagner’s no Marquis de Sade, he’s not even a Russ Meyer. There’s a sturdy moral framework undergirding his wildest flights through the gutter. There’s never any confusion about what the author thinks about the monsters he’s fashioned. The outsized absurdities in his writing don’t cloud his judgment. He’s a moralist like Swift or Moliére rather than any sort of libertine.
I got a kick out of this book but don’t know who else would. Not readers concerned with others’ judgments. We’re in a very straight-line moment right now. Everybody wants to be sure beyond the shadow of doubt they’re on the side of the angels.
That’s not Bruce Wagner’s universe, nor ours.
I don’t write anything as outrageous as he does but wonder if maybe there’s no place for what I did write in the current media climate. Wagner is resorting to publishing his next book with Skyhorse, I think. I wouldn’t do that. It’s a move borne of either desperation or a belief in free-speech absolutism. A look through that publisher’s backlist doesn’t inspire any good feelings. It’s a kind of lepers’ colony. I wouldn’t mix with Blake Bailey and Woody Allen, but Wagner must have other considerations. In the same interview I found out about The Marvel Universe he talks about recording an audio book for that antivax member of the Kennedys. Maybe his moral compass isn’t as ship-shape as it appears on the page.
That’s where the best of us is always left. Downtime/private life is often a disaster. I never met the guy. Maybe he’s happy as a clam, but I don’t think so. Art always costs.
He might be a monster but he made a beautiful thing.
—I interviewed musician Chris Brokaw in print and writer Kathleen Rooney on tape, and answered a few questionsmyself. My talk with writer Gint Aras goes up Wednesday. Listen to more talks here.