I was on the phone with my pal the novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who was telling me something of his editor’s reaction to his latest novel, The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories, a book whose manuscript I read early and loved. What Bruce said his editor had told him—“The language is problematic”—appalled us both. Problematic? In life, maybe; but literature? The Marvel Universe contains all manner of graphic grotesqueries ornate and lyrical and funny and winsome, and urgently germane: “Life was a streaming series now. Like a boy king born of incest, its mad, violent content ruled. Yet the chaotic cultural moment wouldn’t last; in the natural order of things, all shows got defunded. Everything would be canceled.... Platoons of canceled men and women were mowed down en masse like amphibious soldiers taking a beachhead. The cancelers chased the canceled down Internet-torched streets, chased themselves by righteous, next-gen Cancelots. Statutes of limitation were revoked; legions were canceled from birth.”
It was after his conversation with his editor that Wagner, 66, canceled his agreement with his publisher, the Berkeley, California–based Counterpoint Press. (So far, Wagner has not returned his advance.) Wagner had the feeling, common to many contemporary writers, that his editor was under the thumb of the publisher’s “sensitivity readers.” I have writer friends who have been subject to three such quibblers: an L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. representative, a P.O.C. representative, and a B.S. (Body Sensitivity) representative.
Among the words Counterpoint Press found problematic, there was one in particular whose prohibition has to be, even in our Emily Post–Goebbels age, a woke Waterloo.
Reader, can you guess what this word was?
One of Wagner’s characters calls herself “fat.”
O wokest of woke!
A fictional character, yes. You read that right. Joan, who has spent her life trying to gain weight and attention online, weighs more than 500 pounds (her goal is 1,000), and she has playfully named her social-media self “the Fat Joan” in homage to “the Fat Jew,” which the popular Instagram personality and plus-size model Josh Ostrovsky calls himself.
“The cancelers chased the canceled down Internet-torched streets, chased themselves by righteous, next-gen Cancelots.”
“Not even a character,” Wagner’s editor said, according to Wagner, can call herself “f-t,” not even in jest. (Neither Counterpoint, which has published authors including Donald Barthelme, Lionel Shriver, Gore Vidal, Lillian Ross, and James Salter, nor Wagner’s editor responded to my e-mail requests for comment.)
“My entire body of work,” Wagner told me, “would be thrown into a furnace if it were to be read and judged by sensitivity readers.” Other readers of Wagner—sensitive to other considerations—include Salman Rushdie, who has praised him as “a visionary posing as a farceur,” and Dani Shapiro, who compared Wagner’s The Empty Chair to Thomas Merton. I’m with them.
Since the publication of his first novel, Force Majeure, in 1991, Wagner has indisputably secured the title Hollywood Novelist of his Generation, but I think even that undersells him. To characterize his best work—and The Marvel Universe may be his best work—as Hollywood fiction seems to me about as useful as calling The Great Gatsby a Long Island novel. Wagner writes American novels. They’re set in Hollywood for the same reason Thornton Wilder set Our Town in Grover’s Corners.
“This is the way we were,” the stage manager says near the top of Wilder’s great play, “in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
In the case of The Marvel Universe, the living and dying include a Black man wrongly convicted of murder, a schizophrenic little girl obsessed with Wolverine, a canceled television show-runner, and a hustler claiming to be the love child of Elon Musk, all of them sick with different strains of the same addiction. After reading the book Wagner calls “a novel virus,” I’d like to suggest all of us living and dying at the end of this second decade of the third millennium hightail it to the nearest rehab, support group, A.A., O.A., N.A., CoDA—anything for whatever ails you, because, whether you know it or not, something does ail you—and get yourself a higher power, maybe even the marvelous universe itself. It’s that kind of book, glisteningly mad, a Götterdämmerung, and Wagner (Bruce, not Richard) a Paul Revere for (what’s left of) our sanity.
And because we have gone insane, Wagner has decided not to send this most sane and excellent book to press.
I e-mailed Wagner’s agent, Andrew Wylie, about his client’s contretemps with his publisher. “I do think there’s a disturbing trend toward censorship in the book industry,” Wylie replied.
After the (fictional, remember) Fat Joan was canceled by Counterpoint, Wagner canceled the idea of going with any publisher. Not only would it be too slow—it would take, at minimum, a year to release what was very much written to be read today, right now—but print-publishing this particular novel seemed old-fashioned, given its subject matter. Wagner would publish the entirety of The Marvel Universe online, releasing it into the public domain. “In this time now,” he told me, “which I don’t see as apocalyptic but weirdly democratic, I wanted the experience of doing the anathema for someone of my age with 10 books behind me: to release a book on the Internet in the public domain. It’s liberating.” As his Web site states, “All or part of the work may be printed or excerpted without the author’s permission. The same applies to any iteration or adaption of the novel in all media. It is the author’s wish that the original text remains unaltered. In any event, ‘The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories, A Novel,’ will live in its intended, unexpurgated form on this website. Those seeking veracity can find it here.”
Indeed they can.
Go to brucewagner.la to read The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories
Sam Wasson is the author of six books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood