The Great White Way

Curtis White cuts a scenic trail across the bland Middle Mind.

"I worry that I'm going to be known as the guy who says mean things about Terry Gross. People are astonished that I'm being so critical because everyone is so reverential of her. But I have a problem with that level of reverence."

Writer, editor, professor and thinker Curtis White is prickly about the popular interviewer of NPR's flagship arts and culture program, Fresh Air.

"She has a small, salacious mind that can't resist asking questions about the morbid," he says. "For her, art is freak show."

Like the time she was interviewing painter Frank Stella, he points out. "She just couldn't resist asking him about his deformed hand. I'm always hoping that she'll do an intelligent interview with an artist but she never does."

Terry Gross' scabrous interest in All Things Personal is, says White, a reflection of a more insidious cultural war being fought not, as expected, between the academic left and the ideological right. (He firmly embeds himself in the former as an academic at Illinois State University, having authored five works of fiction and a book of essays on literary politics and editing a forum on arts and culture.) There's a third force at work in this bloody culture war.

White introduces this tertiary axis in a recent essay simply titled "The Middle Mind." It blazes forth in the "Reading Culture" section of CONTEXT: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture, which he also edits. "Unlike Middlebrow," he blasts from the start, "the Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather it asserts its right to speak for high culture indifferent to both the traditionalist Right and the academic Left."

White aims his arrow at other Middle Minds: PBS' Charlie Rose, Spin and GQ, author Joe Queenan, The Antiques Road Show. The Middle Mind assumes its audience to be "benevolently stupid." Mediocrity hurts us all.

But White's doing his best to challenge conventions.

"The 'Reading Culture' section in CONTEXT has become a place where writers have an open hand to say things, to go over the top, as I'm accused of in this essay. Where else can you go to say these things? NPR is such a disappointment--it's become the chorus of approval on the Middle East. Who else is provoking its audience? The Nation? I don't think so."

In an ironic twist, White's Middle Mind essay is soon to be re-published in its entirety in Harper's. Middle Mind critic meets the quintessential Middle Mind magazine?

"You said that, not me," quips White.

AS A WRITER AND THINKER, White slithers around easily as a snaky cultural critic, editor and composer of fiction. His most recent book, Requiem, is a tapestry of disparate "fictional" elements woven together. Like the non-fiction world of criticism, the publishing venues for a writer who hop-scotches across storylines are limited.

"The book world is structured for the benefit of Random House, doing things on a large scale," he says. "What's wonderful about Dalkey Archive Press is that I have lots of freedom. I may not get to many people, but I'm happy with who reads me."

White's publisher is intent on pushing boundaries. "I like being in the company of Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Ann Quin and Carole Maso," White says of some of Dalkey's authors. And its umbrella organization, the Center for Book Culture, not only overseas Dalkey but also publishes CONTEXT as well as the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

In its form, Requiem is an obvious fit for Dalkey. The book yokes together three blocks of disparate material--the Bible, the lives of classical musicians and their requiems and digital culture--into a contemporary hypertext. "The narrative technique is really an old one. You start a story, stop it midstream, then return to it. Within that there's a sense of pleasure when the reader recognizes the storyline," explains White of his fugue-like style. "Plus it was a real pleasure for me to write despite the challenge of keeping it interesting. I liked the complexity."

Requiem, like its title, is a meditation on death. White says it's a "meditation in the old-fashioned sense, a consideration of human impermanence and mutability, but it's also a meditation on modern death." He adds, "What's it mean to be dead when we're all 'post-human'?"

White spent two years writing Requiem, indulging his intuition, letting the material drive the creative process like an improvisation. Of his influences, he says there are many, but "artistic experience gets internalized so I can't say precisely who's impacting me at any one time."

Of the characters, he's even less certain: "I wasn't always sure why particular characters entered into the text." His alter ego, Chris, the Modern Prophet (who also appeared in two earlier books), and now Terry Gross (accused of having a secret porn Web site), meander through the book. They meet, as do other characters, but not always linearly.

"I don't know how Terry Gross got into Requiem," grins White. "I must have been listening to her while I was writing.

"And the bestiality stuff--well, I've thought of editing it out but I needed it as a ballast, a dark place to balance out the lighter sections about the modern prophet and the lives of dead musicians. Plus Chad just had to have his weird Web site."

Like a Peter Greenaway film, Requiem compels the reader to forge on to the end, even if confounded by the titillation and gore. White surmises how people will engage with the book: "The ideal reader of Requiem lets the whole experience wash over them, then they pull back and say, 'Wow, what was that?!'" Readers can choose a linear approach or move hypertextually through each of the numbered sections that are related. White says he's gotten responses from people who say it's not daunting for them to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

"I wanted to create a marvel. That's an important part of the aesthetic experience."

Spoon-fed, printed TV it's not.