'Never Be Daunted'

Hes not a stalker, just a smart guy from a small university who makes it a habit to befriend the worlds greatest artists

Yet, you will acknowledge, playfully if quite painfully, in your most recent book of fiction that although "the majority of the minority of the literary critics who have read Axelrod's work have all overlooked the political nature of it, that oversight is due to the fact everyone ignored him anyway." You will be hurt when one reviewer of that book (that would be, um, me) notes that your work has been "flying under the radar" of most readers of contemporary fiction, and you're hurt not so much because he is wrong, but because he is in fact being generous. "My work hasn't been flying beneath the radar," you explain. "When it comes to my fiction, the radar has been turned off."

So what do you do? You keep plugging: in 2006, you publish a new book on how to adapt classic works of fiction to the screen (I Read It at the Movies: go to Amazon.com); though you are going through all manner of personal sturm und drang, you write a whole new novel over the summer, (this one a potboiler for money: you're tired of writing for critical plaudits); and you put together, on a tight budget, a dazzling lecture series called the John Fowles Literary Forum for Chapman U's John Fowles Center for Creative Writing that will begin Feb. 12 and run through April 23. You follow Bill Gorton's drunken advice in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: "Never be daunted. Secret of my success. Never been daunted." That's Professor Mark Axelrod all over.

II. How the John Fowles Center Got to Be Called The John Fowles Center, or, The Axelrodian Thing.

The fact that Chapman University, located as it is in the modest academic backwater of Orange, California, has something called the John Fowles Center for Creative Writing, named after a major British writer (very recently deceased) who spent most of his adult life isolated in the tiny seaport village of Lyme Regis, England, writing novels like The French Lieutenant's Womanand The Magusfairly screams out for an explanation. And the explanation is Mark Axelrod. Back in his twenties, after dropping out of dental school and not signing the screenwriting contract that could have meant his entrée into big Hollywood money, Axelrod shuffled up to Carmel, where he took up shelter in a converted garage with a tiny bed and a space heater, got a job in an art gallery, and worked, bohemianly, on a new novel. It was sort of Play Misty for Me romantic, there being a woman up there to pursue and all, but after awhile Axelrod realized this wasn't working out either, and so he did the quixotic, Axelrodian thing: he wrote a long letter to a famous writer he'd never met asking for career advice, choosing this particular famous writer for no other reason than that they happened to share the same birthday (March 31). John Fowles turned out to be the opposite Aquarian, and he seemed to find Axelrod's career plight endearing enough, and the calendrical coincidence sufficient enough, to write a response. So a correspondence was joined. Amazing, and a lesson to all those who tend to let the main chance slip away. Their letters tapered off, eventually, but in the 1990s, Axelrod went to England and finally met up with the novelist in Lyme Regis, where, on the strength of Axelrod's post-Beckett-meeting credentials and that dauntless personality, Fowles agreed to lend his prestigious name to a new creative writing center located in a Southern California he otherwise had absolutely no use for (cf. his bitterly dismissive treatment in the novel Daniel Martin). Soon afterwards, Fowles visited Chapman to receive an honorary doctorate and to bless the new center, and Axelrod scrambled for funding, eventually securing it from Chapman and the National Endowment for the Arts.

III. Why the John Fowles Literary Forum Is Cool

A decade has now passed, and the JFC is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Since its founding, the lecture series Axelrod puts together has hosted all manner of writers, though the ones who stand out are the ones who exemplify the literary movements Axelrod has had his hand in, either as a practitioner or as a critic: American experimental fiction and contemporary Latin American writing. On the North American experimental side, Raymond Federman (who, in books like Double or Nothing, contributed to the "death of the novel" controversy in the 1960s and '70s) has been a regular guest, along with Steve Katz (The Exaggerations of Peter Prince, Weir & Pouce). Mark Amerika, the art provocateur who, among many other things, writes interactive "Internet fiction," raised a royal ruckus among the JFC's audience a few years ago. And last year the center hosted a touching tribute to Axelrod's friend Ronald Sukenick (the author of Up, 98.6, and the mostly forgotten but great The Death of the Novel and Other Stories), who died in 2004.

If you go to college these days, writers like these aren't exactly cluttering up your syllabus, and the general cultural discourse has pretty much marginalized white guys from the 1960s who self-consciously foreground the creative process in their writing. (Take, for example, Axelrod's own exuberant but mostly unread Bombay, California, his novel about writing a Hollywood screenplay, which is written in the form of a screenplay and comments on itself throughout.) This sort of metafiction had its heyday back in the 1950s and 1960s, and by many accounts it exhausted its aesthetic frisson and the goodwill of its readers by getting self-indulgent and hermetically sealed off from the world. Though there's something to be said for that criticism, two of the most imaginatively daring youngish writers in America—Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace—clearly cut their teeth on the American metafiction of people like Sukenick (and John Barth and Vonnegut) and, in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or Infinite Jesthave given a new warmth and intimacy (not to mention a new hipness quotient) to the practice of metafiction. Axelrod, bless him, is helping keep the fathers of that tradition alive.

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