20 Years of The Mumpsimus


On August 18, 2003, I clicked "publish" on the first post of The Mumpsimus blog. That very first post was a simple definition of the word of the title. The next day, I wrote a statement of purpose. And then kept going. (Thanks to the Web Archive, you can see what the original version of the The Mumpsimus looked like.) All together, it's 2,074 posts and who knows how many millions of words.

In 2013, I wrote a series of posts looking back year by year at the blog's first decade. That's as thorough a chronicle of the origins as I can make, and since it was ten years closer to 2003 than we are now, it's probably more reliable than my ever-less-reliable memory.

Looking back at those lookings back, I'm pleased that in the post about 2003, I highlighted my friendship with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Jeff and Ann were up here for Readercon last month (Jeff was Guest of Honor) and we hung out together with Eric Schaller for a few days in Boston afterward. (It feels really odd to read that post and see it refer to the Southern Reach books as upcoming. They feel like they've always been there.) In the burst of things I posted on August 19, 2003, one was a review of Veniss Underground (recently released in a 20th anniversary edition), and that little post started ... a lot.

Another decade has passed since I wrote the 10th anniversary reflections, and while I am tempted to complete the year-by-year exploration, I don't think that's the best way to go, because the blog changed a lot after 2013. At the end of the summing up post for the series, I wrote, "Tomorrow, I start in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire. It's a new path, a new experience."
I was ready for a change, and a change I got. The work of the PhD and then the work of academic life meant I had far less time than before to devote to The Mumpsimus. Sometimes, I regretted that, but mostly I did not. I could not have kept up the pace no matter what, as my mind and inclinations changed — blogging regularly is, for me at least, a young person's game. But I also grew suspicious of some of the habits and tendencies that arose from the work: the inclination to post a quick opinion on a topic, the inclination to keep up with publishing and media hype, the inclination to read quickly and write even more quickly. These are all tendencies exacerbated by the social media age. There are people who are skilled at forming opinions quickly, at writing and reading quickly, and I value their work, but it is not where my own talents lie. I need to think slowly, to consider and reconsider.

This may be one reason why the writing has gotten longer over time. As I gave up trying to keep up with all the newest and hottest stuff, I could spend two weeks or two months writing a single post and not care. That freedom was revelatory.

Thus, after 2013 there are far fewer posts than there were in the previous decade. Going through them year by year would not be especially enlightening. However, if you want to give it a try yourself, here are links to yearly archives for the last decade: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023.

What I will do here is offer 20 posts I still like, in chronological order and with brief commentary. (Well, 21. For reasons given at the end.) This is a sampling, a way to glimpse the whole scope of The Mumpsimus. It privileges the last decade, since the anniversary posts from 2013 cover the first quite well, but it does not exclude the whole 20 years. It's fun to be able to look across the span of two decades.

1. "Stone Animals" by Kelly Link, December 2004
If there is a single short story that can represent what The Mumpsimus advocated for in the first decade, it is "Stone Animals". It's a strange story, certainly, but also a deeply evocative and haunting one. My goal was simply to give people a way of reading it, to help folks who might otherwise bounce off the story's wonders. More than anything else I wrote in the first year or two, I think this little post achieved that goal. (Recently, I wrote a patrons-only piece about that post here.)

2. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest, November 2007
Since I had cause to mention Christopher Priest just a few days ago in a post about Nina Allan's Conquest, it seems only right and proper to note this piece about Priest's novel The Affirmation. The only other time I think I've written about Christopher Priest was a 2005 review of The Glamour for SF Site. This surprises me, as I've read most of his books. I should write about him more often. But I remember how difficult it was to write about The Affirmation and what writing about it brought out of me — a friend even contacted me the moment after she read it to say she was worried about me, given what I'd written! I was fine, just deeply affected by the novel and seeking a way to write about it. I don't know how successful that post is as a piece of writing, but I still remember the struggle to express myself in it, and the blog existed to provide opportunity for such struggle (and its resolution), so it seems like a good piece to put in this list.

3. Rick Bowes on Stonewall at 40, June 2009
This post is not by me, but rather by my friend Richard Bowes, who lived in New York City at the time of the Stonewall riots. I'm immensely proud to have published this short piece, which later became part of Rick's extraordinary book Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, one of my favorite books of the last 50 years.

4. G.I. Joe, July 2009
This is a pretty ordinary post, but I want to put it on this list because in its own small way it takes popular culture seriously while also having some fun. I wrote plenty of better, more substantial posts around the time of this one, but the blog in its first decade was about offhand ideas, fragments of experience, and quick explorations — that's what The Mumpsimus was really best at back then, and this post embodies that.

5. The Snowtown Murders, March 2012
I've written a lot about film and horror (and horror films), but almost everything I've ever tried to say is at least implied in this post about one of the most disturbing, unsettling, and brilliant movies I've ever seen. I'm extremely desensitized to fictional film violence, but this movie continues to be one I hesitate to rewatch, despite how much I value it. It is a singular work of art. It is horrible.

6. Samuel R. Delany: Another Roundtable, March 2014
Over the years, I've written more about Samuel R. Delany than about any other writer, I expect. This roundtable discussion, most of which I did not write, is one of the things I'm proudest to have published about the man and his work. (Not that I think it's perfect. I wish it wasn't all guys — we tried hard to get some women involved, but our necessarily pretty quick deadline didn't work for their schedules.) This was a work of activism. I wanted to fight against a prevailing view of Delany as a great science fiction writer who had somehow gone wrong.

7. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, June 2015
My favorite novel of the last 25 years. Nowadays, it almost feels dangerous to offer praise of A Little Life, never mind make such a large statement, but I'm being honest. The book became an unlikely star of social media, a national bestseller, and naturally suffered backlash. It's become a favored stone for people to grind their axes against (see my critique last year of Parul Sehgal's use of the book in her screed against "the trauma plot"). It's not a novel people feel neutral about. For me, it's a glorious gothic melodrama that uses the gothic and the melodrama for serious and overwhelmingly powerful purposes. (That great connoisseur of postmodern melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I'm sure would have loved it.) I still don't know how Yanagihara achieved some of the effects she achieved on her pages. It's a book I am in awe of. Even if all right-thinking people hate it. So much the better!

8. Elements of Style for the Age of Blight, January 2017
An impressionistic exploration of what Kristine Ong Muslim's collection of brief stories The Age of Blight can teach us about how to write while living through the end of the world. This remains one of the most succinct statements I've made about the relationship between aesthetics and the anthropocene. It's the sort of oddball expression I cherish having a blog for — who else would have published this if I didn't do it myself? And yet I'm as proud of it as anything I've had published by professional outlets.

9. What Is To Be Done About the Social Novel?, August 2017
This post, like many, is overlong and a bit rambly, but it raises points that remain important to my idea of what art can do and be. The length is mostly because it's an almost line-by-line argument with an article by Jonathan Dee in Harper's. As such, it serves in some ways as notes to myself toward an unwritten shorter essay about novels and their relationship to society.

10. Ghosts: In Memory of Elizabeth Webb Cheney, November 2018
I've written a lot of obituaries and eulogies at The Mumpsimus. This is the most important one: for my mother.

11. The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, February 2019
Maria is an old friend (from college years!) and a brilliant writer and I love this book. Saying "I love this book!" in public never gets old.

12. Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan by J. Hoberman, July 2019
In the early 2010s, I spent a few years researching and drafting a book project on 1980s action movies and their relationship to the Reagan presidency. The project never came together, but it led to my short story "Where's the Rest of Me?" (included in my first collection, Blood: Stories). That story is a personal favorite, so I'm okay with that. I'd rather have a short story I am happy with than an academic book any day. But I was also able to draw on the research when I wrote this review of film critic J. Hoberman's book on the movies of the Reagan era, and I'm glad to have some of what I discovered preserved in this post.

13. A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor, March 2020
A post about an unjustly neglected novel by an unjustly neglected writer, which is what I most love writing about at The Mumpsimus — but I share it here at least as much for the historical moment of the post's writing as for its topic. In the final paragraph, I note the COVID-19 pandemic. I'd forgotten that paragraph until now, and reading it gave me chills.

14. Eight Hours Don't Make a Day, May 2020
Deeper into the pandemic. Fassbinder's great, warm, weird tv mini-series gave me tremendous comfort during those dark days. I said it was "perfect viewing for this moment, when we are living in fear of COVID-19 and are encouraged not to physically interact with other people for fear of spreading the virus or becoming ill ourselves. For  me, at least, its honest warmth and humanity was comforting without feeling delusional or sentimental. It's quirky, even goofy, and yet deeply serious at its core, and often delightful — how often, after all, do we get a story where a subplot involves something like, for  instance, the creation of an underground kindergarten?"

15. Drifting, July 2020
I spent a lot of time in 2019 and 2020 reading the works of Kate Zambreno. Her books have had a significant effect on my writing and thinking. This is the most substantial piece, part of what at the time I thought might become a book-length series called Asterisks, and which sort of has. (The Asterisks manuscript is done, though it's not what I originally envisioned. More details in a patrons-only post here. Still not sure what I'm going to do with it.) This post engaged with Zambreno's novel Drifts, which I note was written before the pandemic but made for perfect pandemic reading. I value this post not only because it celebrates Zambreno's writing but because it also really digs into the experience of writing and living during difficult times, which has become something of a theme for my work since 2016 or so.

16. Artificial Jungles, August 2020
A call for a queer, ridiculous aesthetics. This, too, was a symptom of the ongoing pandemic. As much as I was exhorting the world to explode the idea of the short story, I was also exhorting myself. It was a harder task I set than I realized at the time. The closest thing I've encountered recently that fits the aesthetic I called for in this post is the amazing Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History of Popular Music. (See it if you haven't! It is pure radical fairy joy and wisdom!)

17. Paul Celan at 100
A celebration of my favorite 20th century poet and of Pierre Joris's astonishing translations of his work.

18. The Revisitation Series, February-May 2021
This is cheating because it's a series of posts, but it's worth the cheat. In 2021, I set out to read all of the Men on Men anthologies of gay male short stories from the 1980s and 1990s. Ultimately, I could not finish (it was too depressing to keep thinking about how many writers we lost during the first era of the AIDS crisis), but I think I accomplished a lot with what I could get written. I never want to forget those difficult years, never want to forget the scale of loss.

19. Unelevated to the Gallows: The Lords of Salem
People kept thinking I was joking or ironic or something when I said I think Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem is one of the great horror movies. It's a movie I truly love. So I wrote this post to explain (at perhaps tedious length) exactly why and how. I know my taste is weird. If you think I'm wrong, just remember what the name of the blog means.

20. Difficult Peace, May 2022
I've written a bunch of times about guns and violence in America, and though I think some of the insights over the years hold up, I have always been dissatisfied with whatever I wrote. I'm dissatisfied with "Difficult Peace", too, but less than with other posts about guns and violence. I think this post digs a bit deeper, gets at some things I hadn't gotten at before, especially the idea of conflicting concepts of safety.

Coda: Time for Anxiety: "Pillar of Salt" by Shirley Jackson, September 2022
I don't want to leave you with "Difficult Peace"! Let's finish up with one of the original enthusiasms of The Mumpsimus: weird short stories. In this post, I explore one of the stories that has most affected me over my life, "Pillar of Salt", which I first read when pretty young, and which has stuck with me ever since. Shirley Jackson is in my personal pantheon of Greats, so it's appropriate that we finish up this little excursion with one of her best tales.


I am tremendously grateful to you, the audience. I would not have written most of these blog posts if I didn't have a sense that maybe somebody out there — maybe just one person! — would want to read them. (I write fiction regardless of audience. Nonfiction is for an audience.) Thanks to The Mumpsimus, too, I've met all sorts of wonderful people and made some of the best friends of my life. It's been an astonishing experience.

I'm going to continue writing at my Patreon page, but I've decided this is the end of The Mumpsimus. The Patreon will continue, with me writing as I feel like it about whatever grabs my attention, but I'm not going to think of it as an extension of The Mumpsimus anymore. Patreon is a different sort of platform from Blogger, and I want to play around with it more (as time allows) and without feeling tied to the past.

The Mumpsimus is — was — a blog. It's a blog that lasted 20 years. It's fine to put a cap on that. I've brought over the public Patreon posts that were Mumpsimussy, but this is the last one that will be cross-posted. I'm stopping all updating of the blog. It will suffer whatever the electronic fates have in store for it: linkrot, image death, digital anomalies. Impermanence cannot be resisted; sometimes it can even be beautiful. 

I will continue to persist in mistaken expressions and practices, but not with The Mumpsimus.

If I may quote myself from the second Mumpsimus post: "Who knows what will come of all this?"

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