February 28, 2011
February 26, 2011
From my weekend reading, a passage about East Berlin television:
The tape is still running. It switches to another program called "In the Mood" (Gut Aufgelegt) with cheery introductory music. A beautiful blue-eyed brunette in a 1960s pinched-waisted dress is in a record shop. She approaches the camera.
"Record sellers have been getting strange requests from customers lately," she says, "for 'Lipsi' music. I have a question: just what is 'Lipsi'? Brockhaus [the music encyclopaedist] would say, 'I have no idea and if it isn't in any of my twenty volumes, it doesn't exist.' But the record seller would tell you, 'Lipsi -- that's all my customers are asking for! It's an epidemic!' A young couple might say, 'Lipsi -- it's the simplest thing. The dance itself is in 6/4 time and you just take her in your left arm like this'" -- she extends her arm -- "well... it's easy, look."...
I'm curious and stop packing. The screen shows a couple in a dance hall: he clean-cut in a suit, and she in a dress and stilettos. And, together, they do the strangest dance I have ever seen.
At first the man and the woman face the same way like Greek dancers, he behind her, her hand in his. They move from side to side with one another, then raise their forearms and bend apart, alarmingly, like teapots. The camera cuts to their feet, which, without warning, break into the complex footsies of an Irish jig. Then the pair turn to one another in a waltz grip before separating again and giving a little jump in the air. This is followed by a Russian-type movement with hands on hips. All the while they smile huge fixed smiles as if they needn't give a single thought to what their feet are doing. Then they start with the Greek teapot maneuver again...
I wind the tape back. I want to pinpoint, in all these movements, what it is that makes the dance so curious. "Lipsi" is colloquial for "Leipzig" but it wasn't just the regime's overt attempt to manufacture a trend for the masses, as if it had come from that hip city. I watch the stiff couple closely. The woman seems to be missing an incisor -- an odd choice for a dance model. Then I concentrate on their movements, and I get it: in not one of this panoply of gestures do the dancers' hips move. Their torsos remain straight -- neither bending towards one another, nor swivelling from side to side. The makers of this dance had plundered every tradition they could find and painstakingly extracted only the sexless moves. The Lipsi step was the East's answer to Elvis and decadent foreign rock n roll. And here it was: a dance invented by committee, a bizarre hipless camel of a thing.
February 25, 2011
When W. Somerset Maugham wrote Cakes and Ale, it was an instant smash success. Not only because the book is a genius piece of satiric fiction -- it is -- but because it became fun to try to pick out which real life people and writers the characters were based on. There was a thinly disguised Thomas Hardy in there. The easiest to figure out was perhaps literary figure Hugh Walpole, named Alroy Kear in the book, who came off as a buffoon. Even though everyone knew it was him, it gave Maugham a level of denialability -- writing to him, “I certainly never intended Alroy Kear to be a portrait of you. He is made up of a dozen people.” -- because Maugham at least thought to change the character's fucking name.
Tell Me More goes into the controversy behind Kathryn Stockett's bestselling book The Help. She's being sued by her brother's family maid, who claims the main character is based -- cruelly -- on herself. And it's hard to deny the similarities, given the fact that Kathryn didn't even change the character's goddamn name. On the NPR show, an attorney and two memoirists discuss the legality of the situation, and what a writer is supposed to do when everyone obviously draws on personal experience when writing their books.
I have been keeping Dezső Kosztolányi's Kornel Esti in my bag, just in case I want to pull it out and obnoxiously read passages aloud to my friends. Because I'm in Germany, it's generally this section, about the narrator's trip to the German coast:
I got off first at a small spa, to wash the dust off. I didn't have to ask anyone where the sea was. There were elegant pillars at precise ten-yard intervals in the clean, swept streets, bearing white enamel signs showing a pointing hand with the words "To the sea" beneath. The stranger could not have given clearer directions. I reached the sea. There, however, I was rather taken aback. On the pebble beach, a yard from the water, another pillar drew my attention; it was identical to the rest, but the white enamel sign was rather larger and bore the words: "The Sea."
My (ecstatic) review of Kornel Esti is running at NPR:
The doppelganger is an unsettling figure in literature. This person has your face, your eyes, the way you part your hair, the cut of your jib — and he has used those same components to build an entirely different life. Where you demurred, he seduced. When you stayed home, he ventured forth. What you repressed, he expressed, making him less an evil twin and more a Jungian shadow.
Kornel Esti — the titular character in the late Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi's third novel to be translated into English — may as well be his mirror image, but he is everything that the nameless narrator isn't. He is the bold, reckless counterpart to the narrator, the one who exhorted him as a child to skip school, play with matches, bite his nursemaid. Now, in middle age, Esti is full of stories of wild adventures across Europe, but he lacks the discipline to write them down. The narrator, who has spent his life sensibly, building a career and a simple writing style, has found himself with nothing to say. "One man isn't enough to write and live at the same time. Those who've tried it have all broken down sooner or later," the narrator explains. So they make a deal: Esti's life in the narrator's words.
February 24, 2011
SJ Fowler has been killing it at 3AM Magazine with Maintenant, his interviews with poets from different countries, modes of practice, etc. This week, Fowler talks with Frédéric Forte, a member of the Oulipo group: I would say first that the Oulipo is not a ‘movement’, it’s a group of people, not trying to persuade they’re good and the others are bad, but just working, generations after generations, on the potentialities of literature. This maybe could plainly explain the longevity of the group.
I don’t know if the Oulipo is ‘vital’ for French poetry, maybe it would be pretentious for me, as an Oulipian, to say it. All I know is: it’s alive and it’s part of the thing. The Oulipian logic brings poetry in new, different directions (as others approaches do in their own ways). The important point is to keep poetry as diverse and alive as possible.
According to Sandra Simonds, being poor, a poet, and a mother is *not*--despite appearances--a life of romantic inspiration and bliss: Recently, I read on a poet’s blog that a professor had quit her job in academia because “real” artists cannot stand the confines of academia. This poet who quit her job, she is not a poor mother. (via HTMLGIANT)
Explaining the appeal of Ted Kooser: "He's not hip, in a country where everyone wants to be a hipster," says writer Reg Saner, the retired professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder who was dubbed the city's "poet laureate" by a weekly newspaper in 1999. "He's almost deliberately yanking the chain of these people who think they are, or perhaps really are, avant garde."
On running a poetry/performance group in Dubai: The event's popularity has been growing, but Shoufani insists it will remain informal and underground. "Some of the things we say I would not go public with," she says. The works cover religion, politics, feminism and sex, and often include some off-colour language.
Not one, but two film adaptations--one in 3-D!--of Paradise Lost may grace us next year.
I've worked in the demotivation industry for more than seven years now, which is awesome, because sometimes my boss comes up with something like this:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And Robert Frost took the one less traveled. Of course, he also heckled his rivals and started fires to disrupt their poetry readings. But that makes for a terrible motivational poster. Unless you're a petty pyromaniac. In which case, here you go.
Not to brag, but between these guys and Bookslut, I seriously have the best jobs that anyone has ever had.
We're proud to announce the first Bookslut reading of 2011. We'll have more on this soon, but if you're in Portland, mark your calendars for March 5, when Jamie Iredell (The Book of Freaks) and Mike Young (Look! Look! Feathers) will read at Ampersand Vintage. Will you be able to buy beer and wine? No. Will you be able to get free beer and wine? YES.
Bookslut is co-sponsoring the reading with the legendary Future Tense Books, which is owned and operated by the great Kevin Sampsell, who is basically the Pope of Portland Literature. A rare moment of sincerity: I can't express how grateful we are to Kevin for organizing this, and for his support over the years. He's a good friend and an amazing author, editor, and publisher. We'll have more on this reading soon, but trust us, you don't want to miss it.
Bookslut is on Facebook now! If you "like" us, you'll get updates about the magazine, the blog, literature, culture, upcoming readings, possible book giveaways and contests, and other cool projects we're working on.
I promise we didn't join Facebook just to see what our ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends are doing now. (Oh, hey, Angela! You look great! Your husband seems nice. I'm sure he'll find a job soon; he seems to be really good at video games. Best wishes!)
Wonkette has more on "literary detective" Jack Cashill, who was last heard from claiming President Obama's books were ghostwritten by Bill Ayers. Now he suggests that Obama is the son of either an amateur pornographer or Jimi Hendrix. Man, I want to be a literary detective! It sounds like it combines my two favorite hobbies, reading and making shit up. Let me give it a try. Margaret Atwood is Justin Bieber's mother! Philip Roth secretly dated Oral Roberts! Norman Mailer once stabbed his...uh...OK, nevermind, that one's actually true. But still.
Bookslut contributor Daniel Nester's books are now available on Amazon for one penny. He does not know how to feel about that.
“Don’t know what’s worse,” novelist Tobias Seamon writes on my Facebook, “that it’s being sold for 1 cent or that it’s ranked 1,693,336 at that price.”
Anyone else incredibly disappointed by the New York Review of Books response to the Vida statistics?
In reply, I can only hope readers will appreciate the quality of the work by women we publish.
Wendy Lesser revisits Isaac Asimov and finds he holds up well, even after all the things about the "future" he got wrong, and all the scientific inconsistencies. Science fiction isn't just predictive.
As I approached the end of this novel, I found myself agitatedly turning pages in the way I always do in the last hundred pages of a Henry James novel (even, I’ll confess, a Henry James novel I have read before). And, as in a James novel, the propulsive force is a desire to find out how things turn out for these deeply knowing but finally helpless characters, who are up against moral dilemmas they can’t easily solve, and who are impeded in their attempted solutions by people who are socially and economically more powerful than they are.
And to wrap up our series of conversations at PBS about the Vida statistics, I check in with Peter Stothard, editor of Times Literary Supplement and Joshua Cohen of the Boston Review, to ask about gender disparity in criticism. I also chose five great books by women that did not get major review coverage upon their release. Among them:
Someone in the comments complained the list skews a little dark. That might have been my insomnia writing the list. Ask me for another after I've gotten some rest.
We're starting a new series over at the Smart Set, highlighting books from the back list. With the Oscars this weekend, and with still so few movies being directed by women, the series starts with Molly Haskell's fierce (and sadly still relevant despite being published in 1974) From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. The book has this wonderful second wave feminism tone, and I've always loved Haskell's frankness. (Her memoir Love and Other Infectious Diseases is one of the best books to have a cover so ugly I'm sure it puts readers off.) But take, for example, her explanation for the rise of women directors and critics:
Perhaps it is but one of the more common and less endearing manifestations of the eternal adolescence that hangs on in the American male — who, by the time he is mature and confident enough to appreciate a woman, is almost ready to retire from the arena. There are a few good years in which he can both appreciate and operate, but not enough (particularly with the current defections from heterosexuality) to satisfy the female population, which may be why more and more women are turning to each other, or to themselves.
February 23, 2011
James fucking Franco takes a break from getting his Ph.D., preparing to host the Oscars, shooting like 17 movies that everybody will love, and satisfying your girlfriend sexually in ways you could never even dream of, to talk to friend-of-Bookslut Travis Nichols.
Actually, my approach to poetry this semester under Ellen Bryant Voigt is going to be dealing with examining the difference between lyric poems and narrative poems through a cinematic framework. For me, like I said, I’ve only been studying contemporary poetry seriously for, I guess, two and a half years now, so I still feel like I’m just learning the lay of the land. I don’t know the extent of it yet. We’re using this kind of cinematic frame that I’m much more familiar with to approach poetry.
Bookslut columnist Amitava Kumar (Denis Dutton Is Dead) interviews Arundhati Roy for Guernica.
The thing is you have to understand, Amitava, that the people who say such things are a certain section of society who think they are the universe. It is the jitterbugging elite which considers itself the whole country. Just go outside and nobody will say that to you. Go to Orissa, go to the people who are under attack, and nobody will think that there is anything remotely controversial about what I write. You know, I keep saying this, the most successful secession movement in India is the secession of the middle and upper classes to outer space. They have their own universe, their own andolan, their own Jessica Lal, their own media, their own controversies, and they’re disconnected from everything else. For them, what I write comes like an outrage. Ki yaar yeh kyaa bol rahi hai? [What the hell is she saying?] They don’t realize that they are the ones who have painted themselves into a corner.
Comic book writer, editor, and pioneer Dwayne McDuffie has died. He was 49.
Minneapolis, one of the world's great literary cities, celebrates John Berryman, one of history's great poets. Berryman, incidentally, is the subject of two insanely great rock songs, "Stuck Between Stations" by The Hold Steady, and "John Allyn Smith Sails" by Okkervil River, as well as one of my favorite poems, W. S. Merwin's "Berryman." All of us could learn from Berryman's advice to Merwin, which I go back to pretty much every week:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write
Peruvian writer Santiago Roncalgiano has just written the first chapter of a collaborative online novel, 15 chapters long, of which chapters 10 and 15 will be written by other famous authors. A chapter 5-15 pages in length will be chosen and then posted, after which potential writers can submit another next chapter.
Evelio Rosero, author of The Armies, spoke at a literary festival here at Bogotá (Festival de la palabra). I had corresponded with him via e-mail before, but in person it's totally different: there's nowhere to hide. It didn't help matters that I'd heard he´s a recluse who writes pretty much all day (with separate rooms for different genres). I went up to him anyway, and then thought what the hell am I going to say to him, and so I walked away. Then I drank some beer named after a Colombian grammarian, Don Rufino. My Spanish immediately improved.
How come Chilean poet Nicanor Parra never won a Nobel? Some assert his complicated relationship with Swedish translator Sun Axelsson made public may have killed his chances. At least that's what this Chilean newspaper says in an almost-obit article about Axelsson, who passed away in January.
FSG has released a Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry:
From Rubén Darío’s quest to renew the Spanish language to César Vallejo’s linking of religion and politics, from Jorge Luis Borges’s cosmopolitanism to Pablo Neruda’s placement of poetry as uncompromising speaker for the downtrodden, and from Alejandra Pizarnik’s agonies of the self to the look that Humberto Ak’abal takes at things indigenous, it is through verse that the hemisphere’s cantankerous collective soul in an age of overhaul might best be understood.
That might be the most inaccurate blurb I've ever read. Cosmopolitan poetry? "The hemisphere's cantankerous collective soul"? Are you fucking serious?
Finally, in Bolaño news, Mariana Callejas -- fictionalized as María Canelas in By Night in Chile -- has been released from jail. She was imprisoned for conspiring to kill an ally of Salvador Allende. While the secret service (DINA) plotted deaths in her basement, she held literary gatherings -- that really happened. Those interested in the realpolitik in las belles lettres should also check out Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas in which Bolaño appears (they were friends). There´s also a Spanish film adaptation of the novel, in which Bolaño is transformed into a nerdy Mexican college student. (They also added a nada que ver lesbian sex scene, just for kicks.)
A teacher self-published a novel that included some of her students as characters. Also in the book: drug use, sexual fantasies, and comparisons of the kids to contestants of a show called Mr. Gay UK. She then distributed copies of the book to her class. Um, you know how this story ends. (via)
An ongoing trial in Tel Aviv is set to determine who will have stewardship of several boxes of Kafka’s original writings, including primary drafts of his published works, currently stored in Zurich and Tel Aviv.
Judith Butler's thorough examination of the Kafka archive custody battle is the best thing I've read on the case so far.
February 22, 2011
I just started Cate Kennedy's The World Beneath this morning, but I'm pulled in by her depiction of disappointment with how life turned out. It's rather like the New York Times review of Deb Olin Unferth's memoir Revolution -- at one point you're running to another country to join a revolution, but ten years later you're living a quiet life of little consequence, wondering what the hell happened.
In 1987, Unferth felt certain she was at the cusp of a powerful personal transformation. It never happened. Where does one go from there?
In a lot of ways, The World Beneath seems eager to answer this question. In this interview, Kennedy talks about that angle:
"There are people for whom a good thing happens and nothing is ever as good again," she says. "We carry that thing and it becomes calcified and simplistic."
the father of the October Revolution
Lenin-Ulianov and the father of Dada
Tristan Tzara never met
they did not read each other’s works
they edited different newspapers
perhaps resulting in a loss
for Dadaists and Bolsheviks
Literary bloggers are strong independent voices who are above the whole apparatus of newspaper book reviewing. They read and critique for the love of it, their impartiality is unquestioned ... ooh, and they get up to a 6% kickback off Amazon when you click through on one of their links. I'm just saying...
It turns out that some book blogs are tidy businesses now, with unique visitors in the high tens. or low hundreds, of thousands per month.
Really? We're still doing this stupid nonsense?
The theme of the 2011 is 'colour'. Michael Rosen and China Miéville discuss the theme in a video here alongside a delicious looking plate of cupcake muffiny-type items. I'm sure that their discussion is fascinating, but seriously: have you ever been in an academic office with such attractive baked goods? I just really want them to eat one of those goddamn cakes.
Anyway, the shortlisted books in all their multicoloured glory are here:
The Booker Prize type's decision to have a special all-Beryl Bainbridge shortlist this year - the author died after being nominated five times but she never won - should remind us all that, whether or not you care for her books, she was a total badass.
The Best of Beryl can be voted for here.
February 21, 2011
To be young is to be a believer—all that passion has to be aimed at something or you just combust. And to be punk is most definitely to be sincere, and one of the most sincere things about punk culture is the awareness of and comfort with its own built-in disposability. Zines and DIY albums are meant to be produced cheaply and quickly, consumed immediately, and then tossed. Of course there are many people who collect and preserve these things as artifacts, but the status-as-artifact is totally incidental, and may be antithetical to the ethic that produced the item in the first place.
The New York Times has picked up the story of a lawsuit brought on by a negative book review. No verdict yet, but should be a week from now.
Bookslut continues its series examining the reality behind the Vida statistics on gender disparity in publishing. Below, writer Drew Johnson discusses why so few editors are claiming responsibility, and about trying to correct his own reading ratio.
I read all the VIDA coverage and debate while feverish. I had thoughts. I had opinions. That the opinions were based only on anecdotal experience considered at above 100 degrees seemed no reason not to give them the authority of print. Nor was the conviction that the editors of the major publications were not filled with malice and did not twirl their moustaches in sexist delight based on anything more than my tendency to be reasonably generous.
Still, reasonable generosity has its limits and the ratios that VIDA announced were far beyond them. I cannot believe in the moustache-twirling. Anecdotally, there just aren’t many moustaches in evidence.
And I had been thinking about this for a while. Mainly because I noticed my own dismal gender gap in my annual reading round-up about three years ago. I keep an exhaustive list which makes it hard to pretend that I must have read a lot of other books by women that have slipped my mind.
I've been trying to correct it. With mixed results. Last year's tally wound up being the not terribly impressive 21 out of 89 (21 by women and 68 by men). The year before that it was 25 out of 93. Something would not give. Something habitual.
So this year, I've decided to really keep a lid on things and the running breakdown is 6 out of 13.
Since these were my VIDA totals, I’ve projected what I think of as my own stubborn habits onto the editors I’ve never met. This portrait of vice then, is in my image. But yours too, I suspect.
Without any evidence to support it, I'd say what has offended some editors is the idea that they should be judged before a certain kind of inner circle of priority has been removed. That seems unfair to them. They don't want to be judged by the fact that their core stable of writers is so very white and male. The Atlantic doesn't want all those Christopher Hitchens columns to count against them -- they have to publish those, you see? It's just the elective slots they should be judged by. And the Hitchens pieces are very good, which makes this all more complicated.
Everyone who has run afoul of VIDA's report, sets aside a certain amount of their available slots, articles, whatever, to the things they prioritize. Only after that inner circle of favored favorites has been satisfied do things like gender, race, etc. get any attention. It’s not just a question of who they know, but a question of who they follow, what they’re interested in and who writes about that. For reasons I’ll mention later, but that they’ve created without realizing it, they’ve found that even when they haven’t known the writer in question for twenty-five years, the topics they’re most interested in are being addressed by promising young men.
So, if there are, say, 200 slots available, only after I've assigned a slot (or several slots) to all the writers with whom I've developed relationships, the writers they recommend to me, the books I'm interested in having reviewed, the old classmates that ask me for a favor, and... you get the idea. After all that, there are, say, 40 slots left. Then, and only then, all the other criteria kick in. Of those 40, let's say 20 go to various minorities and when I look at the numbers I only measure my altruism after those 160 slots have been taken out of the equation. If I remove the 160 slots I've given my network of people, I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job.
In the case of my reading, if you take away all the stuff about Central Asia and Shakespeare 2009 looks like a pretty good year for the ladies. Hey, I did a good job! (asterisk)
What VIDA did was remove that fig leaf.
Now, I don't mean this to sound like an outsider resenting insiders argument (although, to some extent it is) but I think this lever, this mechanism is closer to what's operating here than just sexism by itself. I think if you look at the worst offenders, say, The New York Review of Books, you're looking at an older stable of writers, older editor, and therefore a greater number of existing relationships that have to be satisfied with a smaller number of slots.
And since the number of slots at most publications has been steadily decreasing without a commensurate decrease in the aging editor rolodexes -- although death will hustle that along eventually -- the unintentional pre/post sexism actually increases. And it should be noted that economic pressures are shrinking the publications faster than death can slender-ize the rolodexes.
But back to this notion of priority. Most of us feel responsible for sexism and racism in a vague, somewhere-out-there manner, but not in a I-must-radically-re-order-my-core-priorities manner. Of course, at some extreme, this devolves into a "well, you don't really believe in interracial marriage if your wife is white" kind of measure of people's commitment to changing things, but if you don't reduce it to those extremes, I think it's a situation that mimics our larger difficulty in figuring out how much of the pie to share and how to share it out.
And here, as with most things, Americans are willing to countenance a lot of pie set aside before they start sharing it out to those who are not part of their favored few. We’ve put a lot of effort into -- in all sections of society and all along the political spectrum -- a lot of rhetoric that all amounts to what Graham Greene said much more baldly in The Heart of the Matter: "In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a few thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of those few we love."
After my child gets the best, we can worry about your child. After all of the luxuries I have long since considered necessities, I will worry about your underfunded minority school district.
But back to the editors and the priorities that their priorities create among women writers, in a chicken and egg sort of way. What is left over when the slots are being actively considered as belonging to women, is, as Jessa has noted, likely to be “women's topics.” If not topics that are considered “women’s topics” then at least topics that the woman have first-hand experience of. Because women are good at writing about their own experiences, right?
Women who don't write about those topics, who dare to merely think and write about something through which they did not live, wind up falling into a last and least-served category. A kind of why-would-you-do-that category that elicits a shrug from a lot of women as well as men. So women wind up having to be women in order to get a whack at any of the 20 remaining slots.
It's easy to see that particular books fall between the cracks for just these reasons. One of these I'm reading and admiring (that will help my numbers out this year) is Karen Greenberg's The Least Worst Place, a really different look at the procedural infighting in Guantanamo's early days. One not suffused with an it-was-always-going-to-happen-that-way take on Guantanamo. The book was put out by an academic press and must have been a challenge to market. It's a not-as-grim look at a grim topic written by a woman without first-hand experience of the events in question. That the book cover is not black (serious, male) or pastel (obvious) but orange seems to speak to their feeling that this was a book that would be overlooked because it lacked the clear handles. I only found out about it because Dahlia Lithwick mentioned it on Slate. And it's an important book, a different book, I think.
Likewise, what bothers me as a corollary of the VIDA statistics, something derived from them in a way I don’t pretend to understand is how strange it seems to me that no woman has ever recommended I read Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. From my male perspective, this seems as though it should be as unlikely as no irritating 20-something geek male ever insisting upon Gravity's Rainbow. The Stead is one of the greatest novels ever written, it can make Dostoyevsky look like a skittish kitten, and no woman has ever said to me, this, read this.
I don’t think they’re saying it to other women, either. Too few people I encounter since reading the Stead seem to think of it as a book they ought to have read, more or less what the canon amounts to, at this point.
I want to have something clever and insightful to say about why that might be, about canon-building, etc. but I'm just left astonished. I think I can safely say that if this novel belonged clearly to any other “group” it would be mentioned first by that group. That Stead was an expatriate Australian ostensibly writing about the United States reduces her knee-jerk constituency for this book to women alone. And something kept it from being put forward in the '70s as a great neglected achievement of a woman writer, rather than, say, The Yellow Wallpaper. Something has kept it from being mentioned alongside the established saints: Woolf and Dickinson and Wharton. I would like to know why. I think it would explain something. At least to me.
In fact, the women writers I know of who've championed Christina Stead's great novel are Vivian Gornick and Elizabeth Hardwick. Katha Pollitt and Marjorie Williams read the book for Slate and asked many of these same questions. Likely there are others. But the male champions have been much more visible: Randall Jarrell's introduction to the re-issue, Jonathan Franzen's recent essay and general championing of the book, James Wood, Robert Lowell. To me, this suggests something out of joint, some division that works against women writers and critics as deeply as the absent-minded priorities of the no-moustached editors.
I’m not sure why I think this follows, but I don’t want to let it go. Give me the benefit of the doubt. No, wait. On second thought, don’t.
Drew Johnson’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Swink, and StoryQuarterly and was cited in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009.
February 18, 2011
Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear doesn't just tell the story of how one man faked scientific studies to sell the idea that autism is caused by vaccines, but also how really smart, discerning people were sold on the idea. Review at Slate.
Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, was accused of allowing her political viewpoint and feminism cloud her scientific study. She responds in a blog-post, asking the scientific world to get rid of the "straw-feminist" argument.
Haidt’s depiction of the way in which scientific thinking can be distorted by “sacred values”, and his portrayal of Lawrence Summers [following his speech "suggesting that women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking"] as the victim of censorious political correctness, evoke two familiar protagonists in the sex differences debate. There’s the hero, who doesn’t let political values get in the way of the search for scientific truth. And then, there’s the villain of the piece.
I still remember the moment I first saw a Sally Mann photograph. It was in a Texas gallery, I was there with a boyfriend. A twelve year old girl in a white dress, with a group of equally young friends, stared into the camera confrontationally, cigarette dangling out of her mouth. I've kept up with her work over the years, and that of her daughter Jessie Mann. I mentioned them both in my article about artists, muses, and models at the Smart Set, "Women in Art," and I'm constantly flipping through Mann's new collection The Flesh and the Spirit.
Mann (the elder) is on NPR discussing this book and her work photographing her husband of 40 years, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.
February 17, 2011
Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin's Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing is out, and you can read their introductions at UbuWeb. Goldsmith's "Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?" is a remarkably clear explanation of the material conditions, and stakes, of writing today: From the looks of it, most writing proceeds as if the Internet never happened. Age-old bouts of fraudulence, plagiarism, and hoaxes still scandalize the literary world in ways that would make, say, the art, music, computing, or science worlds chuckle with disbelief. It’s hard to imagine the James Frey or J. T. LeRoy scandals upsetting anybody familiar with the sophisticated, purposely fraudulent provocations of Jeff Koons or the rephotographing of advertisements by Richard Prince, who was awarded with a Guggenheim Museum retrospective for his plagiaristic tendencies. (via Harriet)
Robin Elizabeth Sampson interviews the excellent Brian Spears (of The Rumpus) about his book, A Witness in Exile: [The best part of the book's publication has been] Walking away from the contest model of publishing answers both of these questions. I understand that it’s part of the current fabric of poetry publication, but I think it’s so tremendously flawed that I don’t want to be a part of it. I’d rather never publish another book than pay another reading fee.
Who says there was "nothing new" in the Wikileaks document dump? There was, for example, the raw material for these centos: These centos are based on the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks beginning on November 28th, 2010. 251,287 cables from 271 US embassies around the world were released. These centos are in no way accurate transcripts of these cables. Rather these poems quote from, distort, and re-purpose what was the largest leak of classified documents in US history.
Zach Houston offers typed (!) poems on any topic while you wait: Erin announced that she liked "owls," but her friends thought she said "towels" and instructed Houston accordingly, who began his lightening-speed hunt-and-peck typing before the women could finish their sentences.
A short history of fact-checking poets at the New Yorker: Clashes between New Yorker poets and facts have been constant. "The checking department says it should be 'strait' not straits,'" Katharine S. White wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in 1945, about the first line of "Large Bad Picture." "But if you prefer the sound of the latter I don't think we need to be too literal." Bishop, we learn in the new volume of correspondence between the poet and The New Yorker, yielded to most editorial requests, and this time was no different.
Elliott Colla close-reads the poetry of Egypt's #Jan25 revolution: The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before. And the knowledge that one belongs to a movement bound by a positive collective ethos is powerful in its own right — especially in the face of a regime that has always sought to morally denigrate all political opposition.
Wonkette considers "literary detective" Jack Cashill, who claims that Barack Obama's books were secretly written by Bill Ayers, "the Brett Favre of terrorism." (I wish Cashill would explain that comparison. Bill Ayers texts his penis of dissent to the sports journalist that is America? I don't get it.) Anyway, that's not all -- Obama is an admitted fan of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, which is awful because wait for it:
To Cashill, this is an unforgivable horror, as Hughes and Wright were both “communists.” This is an especially important point, because great American poet Langston Hughes—like many artists and intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century—did indeed flirt with the Communism as a sort of clueless intellectual parlor game. What this means is that he literally ran a gulag, for pleasure. ... But perhaps we should evaluate every writer on this dumb ideological criteria. For instance: anyone who doesn’t support the Holy Roman Empire should never read Dante, and so on.
One of the hardest parts about reading about the Powell's layoffs is realizing just how damn nice these people are. Sarah Mirk talks to four of the Powell's workers who lost their jobs last week, including Morgan Reese:
The new book market is going to get a lot different, it's probably going to get a lot smaller and more specialized and turn more toward small press and personal works. Smaller press can take more risks on what kind of material they print — it doesn't have to be the next Nicholas Sparks book or have publishers think, "This will be a great movie." ... I'm not worried about the future of books, I'm excited about it.
When he's not busy inventing confusing salt and pepper shakers, Bookslut contributor Ben Greenman (The Nobel Reprise) is writing musicals about doomed musicals. And yet he still won't answer my emails asking him to cowrite the Bookslut musical with me. Why, Ben? Why?
Damon Linker writes a great review of Jesse Bering's The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life and the new trend of scientists trying to write philosophy.The primer on why literature in translation matters goes something like this:
- Our worldview, and our literature, suffocates when it exists in a closed-loop, nourished only by its own reflection.
- There’s some good shit out there.
In an oft-cited statistic, only 3% of what’s published in the U.S. is in translation. Because that includes filler like technical manuals, the proportion of translated literature is even smaller. And given that the statistic includes perennials like War and Peace, the number of contemporary fiction and poetry is smaller still.
While there are many vibrant champions elevating great books in translation, it is all the more depleting to see even the support systems for translated literature bending to diminishing biases. The National Endowment for the Arts, for example, offers significant funding each year to translators for specific projects; among many other works, this has made possible the publication of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 in English.
Perhaps it will not surprise you that a miniscule proportion of these projects go toward translating work authored by women. Of the most recent round of twenty funded projects, only three are books by women. (One of the twenty is an anthology of Korean stories, and presumably won't have all male authors ... will it?) Lest this be a fluke, I did a little digging. The gender ratio of fellowships for translated literature in 2010? 3:13. The year before that? 1:12.
In total, in the past three rounds of NEA fellowships, seven supported projects that brought literature by female authors into English, and forty-two went toward books by male authors. (It's worth noting that the people funded for these projects -- the translators -- have a much more balanced representation.)
Meanwhile, Dalkey Archive -- one of the best publishers of world literature -- was called out in The New Republic for a 90/10 gender split in the author list of its recent catalogue; 30% of contributors to its Best European Fiction 2011 anthology are female. Dalkey has said that these are unrepresentative numbers. But, alas, the exception persists: of 31 forthcoming titles listed on Dalkey’s website, four are authored by women. Likewise with Archipelago Books, another great press for literature in translation. Of its 63 "current books," six are by female authors (three by the same author). Open Letter Books has 25 titles to its name, with six female authors (and one anthology).
What, you may ask, the hell? And why does this matter? We know we need more literature translated into English across the board. Why quibble about gender at this point?
To be fair, the NEA, translators, and publishers depend on what -- and who -- gets published around the world. Gender disparities elsewhere are likely to be mirrored in what gets translated. But given how little work makes into translation at all, it’s hard to argue with the fact that there is a vast amount of choice arrayed before those who pick among translation projects, deciding what stories and what voices matter most.
Here’s the thing: today’s expectations determine where go. If we consider the near erasure of women’s voices in global literatures to be a non-issue now, it will continue to be so, no matter how much space translated literature carves out for itself in the cultural sphere. At the same time, the language that elevates translated literature -- that of diversity, discovery, and difference -- is pushed to hypocrisy when it actually doesn’t notice the dearth of participation of a group that makes up over half of the world’s population.
Anna Clark is a writer from Detroit who is on a Fulbright fellowship in Kenya in 2011. She edits the literary and culture website, Isak.
Never again shall I attack one of your novels in the magazine. . . . The truth [is] that it is superlatively well done, provided one admits that method of doing such a thing at all. Really the datum seems to me to belong rather of the region of fancy, but the treatment to that of the most elaborate realism. One can easily imagine the story cut out and made into a bright, short, sparkling thing of a hundred pages, which would have been an absolute success. But you have worked it up by dint of descriptions and psychologic commentaries into near 500—charmingly done for those who have the leisure and the peculiar mood to enjoy that amount of miniature work—but perilously near to turning away the great majority of readers who crave more matter and less art.
I asked some of the participants of the conversation going on here and PBS about the Vida statistics to weigh in with their favorite women authors and the last books they had read. Not the publishers. Every time I ask the publishers what they're reading, they look at me wearily and remind me they haven't been able to read anything they're not publishing since they started their business. So! From Christian Wiman of Poetry Magazine, the last five books read:
That This by Susan Howe
Blue Hour by Carolyn Forche
William James's Selected Letters (with that wonderful intro by Elizabeth Hardwick)
Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila
The Odes of Horace translated by David Ferry
From JC Gabel of the Chicagoan:
Unfortunately, my reading habits with regards to women are not balanced evenly: it definitely skews way more male. Probably 80/20. Not sure why? I read a lot of nonfiction. Perhaps that's it. I try to finish two to three books a week, on average... at least one book of literature, either short stories or a novel, usually makes its way in for "fun reading."
That said, women writers I've been wowed by in the last few years: Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Claire Messud, and Jayne Anne Phillips. In Chicago, I really enjoy reading Lindsay Hunter, Kathleen Rooney and Nami Mun.
From Joshua Cohen of The Boston Review, last books read:
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision
Epstein, Making Innovation Work
KD Ewing and Sam Isaacharoff, Party Funding and Campaign Financing in International Perspective
Funding of Political Parties and Campaigns
Batzilis, Dinkelman, oster, thornton, and Zanera, "New Cellular Networks in Malawi"
Klonner, Nolen, and Marzolff, "Cell Phones and Labor Market Outcomes"
Jean Thomas, "Public Rights, Private Relations"
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center
McCarty, Poole, Rosenthal, Polarized America
Olson, "The Endowment Tax Puzzle"
Dougherty, "An Ambition for Altruism"
Lazar, "Responsibility, Risk, and Killing in Self-Defense"
Kahney, Inside Steve's Brain
February 16, 2011
But if you don't want to read the news about how all bookstores are about to close and be replaced by bunny rabbit slaughterhouses, you can always check out the Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator, the Lisa Simpson Book Club, or the Great Gatsby video game. Isn't that nice? Do you feel that warmth enveloping you? It's called denial, and don't you fucking knock it till you've tried it.
Michigan-based bookstore chain Borders today filed for bankruptcy, and announced it will shutter at least 200 of their stores (you can see which stores will be closed here). This news follows the recent announcement that indie giant Powell's Books will lay off 31 of its Portland, Oregon, employees. Also libraries are in trouble everywhere and women are still severely underrepresented in literary criticism. Jesus, this month sucks for book lovers. What's next? Maybe Congress will ban coffee and antidepressants.
Soulless category killer or not, though, I'm sentimental about Borders. My brother worked there about ten years ago, at the Alamo Quarry store in San Antonio (which seems to have survived, at least for now). He was in charge of the magazine section, which slowly became dominated by literary magazines and Godzilla fanzines. I think he even put up a Flann O'Brien endcap in the fiction section on St. Patrick's Day once, which I doubt he was supposed to do, but whatever. Good times.
At Guernica, Joel Whitney has a remarkable interview with US Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin:
I think if you don’t listen to poetry… everybody who reads poetry understands this without talking about it. But people who don’t read poetry don’t listen to it. They read it the way you read an article in the Times or something like that, basically for information. And poetry’s not there for information.
Over at PBS, I talk to Valerie Merians from Melville House, Martin Riker from Dalkey Archive Press, and Richard Nash from Cursor and Red Lemonade about the gender gap in indie literary publishing. Merians had a refreshingly big-picture focus:
“MIT molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins wrote an essay in 1975 entitled, ‘The high price of success in science,’ in which she says, ‘The intellectual processes involved in ‘real’ science are as natural (or unnatural) to women as they are to men. But ‘professional’ science was constructed by and for men (a certain type of man), and a woman who chooses to conquer this world at its higher echelons usually requires a major overhaul of self and world views.’
“I think this still applies to our culture as much as ever. The challenge remains for both women and men to create a culture whose structures don’t ask women to make ‘a major overhaul of self and world views.’
It is nice to start ominously like this: I knew that night as I sloshed through the driving rain that all was not well. I had a chilly sense of foreboding as though a monster dogged my steps. If I only had known then what awaited me when the big chimes in the tower should strike midnight, I would have collapsed with terror...
And related, I think, to my post below to Michael Schaub:
We must not nail ourselves down so firmly to our humors and dispositions. Our principle talent is the ability to apply ourselves to various practices. It is existing, but not living, to keep ourselves bound and obliged by necessity to a single course. The fairest souls are those that have the most variety and adaptability. Here is an honorable testimony to the elder Cato: He had a mind so equally versatile for all things that whatever he was doing, you would say that he was born for that one thing alone.
-- Montaigne, from "Of Three Kinds of Association"
In a correspondence that began last week, Bookslut managing editor Michael Schaub and I are discussing the gender disparity in literary criticism -- a disparity which was brought into sharp relief by the publication of some shocking statistics at the VIDA website. You can read the first four installments of our correspondence here, here, here, and here.
I was tickled at your question, and the idea of writing a letter: "Dear Men: This is what you should do. Love, Jessa." I mean, maybe I do get a vote. Maybe those years spent wearing men's clothing and being called Sir in Texas made me some sort of honorary dude, allowing me to speak to and for you.
But it seems like a bad idea. I have gotten some emails and some comments on the PBS piece from some mightily defensive men. It's obviously a raw nerve. I feel the need to say there is a difference in this debate between Men -- as construct, as ugh 'patriarchy' -- and Men, as in you. Or Christian Wiman. Or whoever the fuck else wants to get into this conversation. I feel defensive, too. Some of my best friends are men!
Look, I've read enough feminist theory that it's really hard to have this conversation without delving into that language. Patriarchy. Gender construct. White male privilege. That language closes doors, though. It makes man (singular) retreat into men (plural). Although with some people, you're going to get that response no matter how reasoned or temperate your language is. Women are also sending me angry emails, because I mentioned that many times women writers are forced to write about "women's issues" like marriage, childrearing, etc etc. And how dare I insult women who want to write about such things! How dare I denigrate their work. So listen, ladies (always a good way to get the respectful audience of women, calling them"ladies" -- that is a tip for you men out there), write about whatever you like. But if you want to count how many articles were written in the Atlantic by women, and then subtract how many of those are about "women's topics," the numbers get much, much smaller.
So I was trying to figure out what this debate is actually about and what I want out of it. Because when I started to get really shitty emails from men that said, essentially, now this is not something I've thought about before or researched, but let me tell you how wrong you are, I wanted to pick up my marbles and go home. That is my standard response to conflict a lot of the times. Or I decide to just shut the other person down, because it seems immediately obvious that anything I say is going to go into a twisted little filter in their heads, and I'm wasting my breath.
I decided, then, instead of writing a response to men in general (hi, patriarchy!) I would just write my response to you. You who I trust because if for no other reason, you would show up at events when I needed volunteers for my Planned Parenthood department. (And, oh yeah, years of friendship and you listening to me whine about my life and your work at Bookslut and etc.)
This is what I think: at some point, we have to figure out what we want from the culture. I think critics need to be especially aware, because we rain down judgments based on those wants and desires, and if something doesn't align, we feel justified in trashing the thing. Some people really favor realism, others value prose and structure. Over the years I've figured out that what I need most is an expansive worldview. But none of these things have anything to do with male or female, fiction or nonfiction, genre or literary. Honestly. And if we have these expectations that override our values, then we're not doing our job. If someone thinks that women only write domestic work, and the domestic novel has no value to that person, then they are going to miss out on Dubravka Ugresic. If I think contemporary fiction is stuck in a rut of descriptive wallowing in how fucked we all are -- and I do! -- then I miss out on a lot of novels. Hence the last four months of my reading, which was 98% nonfiction. And when I do read a novel, I tend to hate it, but not on its own merits but from my expectations. We have to dismantle our expectations once we realize they are not serving us. And the only way to do that, I think, is to force ourselves to branch out a little.
I was reading a book, released this year, by a man, over the weekend.
And in this book, the main character, a man, is a genius on a hero's
journey, basically. And there are three women characters in the
entirety of the book. One is the narrator's mother, who is portrayed
as a saint. The next is the wife, who is the whore. The final is the
post-divorce girlfriend, who is a saint. So that didn't help me branch
out any, but one can't give up just because one writer has a narrow
Later, I was talking to a friend, who is a woman and who is a writer. And we were discussing the New Yorker's numbers and the unlikelihood that we would ever be asked to write for them. She said something startling: "I think it would mean more to be published in the New Yorker, if I had any respect for the New Yorker whatsoever." My response was a quick, oh right. How many times have you read a piece of fiction or a poem in the New Yorker that cut you open? Or a devastating piece of criticism? And obviously, this goes back to what we value, because maybe you really value James Wood, but I haven't read a full issue of New Yorker in years, because it doesn't provide me with what I'm looking for. By now, I've figured out how to find what I'm looking for. Most of the time. And I know where not to look. (Which makes the London Review of Books's numbers so much more devastating, because I read essays in there all the time that I think are perfect. Even by women, but the last ones I remember by women were about food, memoir, and teenage girls.)
You and I are in a good position. We get to collect and write and publish things that we value. And that of course gives us a responsibility. I've been thinking about this a lot, since I took the fiction editing position at the Chicagoan. What we put into the culture matters, because reading that novel this weekend gave me the Ugh. That tiny pinprick of despair. Oh this again. The genius is the man, and the girlfriend is there to selflessly devote herself to his healing process, not to like have any needs. Certainly not to be a genius herself. And sometimes too many of those moments, all added up together, end up making me feel adrift and alone. That's why this conversation matters to me, and why I try to keep my Bookslut stable full. Because I am selfish. I personally want the antidote to all of that, and I get that by reading great writing, by both men and women.
I do believe in responsibility, and I believe that if you see something lacking from the world, it's your duty to put it there. Or at least try. Because the thing about these statistics is they are not an excuse not to do the fucking work. Do the work! Educate yourself, refine your writing, find likeminded souls -- or at least let them find you, examine your weaknesses, invest your time and money in something other than yourself. Because the same friend who does not believe she'll ever be published in the New Yorker has resigned herself to dying with twenty unpublished manuscripts. That isn't stopping her from doing the work, though. "I'll write an iron-clad will," she tells me. And my response? I have to start a publishing company so I can publish her book. Because it's brilliant and needs to be in the world. And who knows -- if I can figure out a way to do it, that is exactly what I'm going to do.
I am tired of having this debate, and I bet you are, too. But any final thoughts before we find something else to talk about? (Oh god, please, let's find something else to talk about.)
February 15, 2011So, fellow writers who are female, we have a problem when it comes to getting published and getting reviewed. That’s what I’ve heard (again) from VIDA and Slate and The New Republic and many other sources. I’m going to leave the necessary--and I hope productive and game-changing--search for explanations to others. The question that concerns me now is: What are we going to do about it? Let me put it another way: If you’re a writer who’s female, what should you do with the information that the publishing deck is stacked against you? Here are some ruthlessly pragmatic suggestions. Take them or leave them.
- Don’t internalize the problem. It is not your fault that women get published and reviewed less often than men do. It says nothing about the quality of your work. It says nothing about how hard you work. It may have a materially negative effect on your career. You get to choose whether you will let it shake your confidence or make you give up writing altogether. Don’t let it, not if writing matters to you.
- Decide how you define yourself and make that your reference point. Don’t be bullied by other people’s attempts to pigeonhole you. I’m sick of thinking about my gender as much as I have since the VIDA stats came out. I am a writer. I am also a woman. Both are essential facts about me. But I don’t like the phrase “woman writer.” (Have you ever heard someone talked about as a “man writer”? No.) Save your labels. I’m a writer.
- Remember that writing is a tough game. I find it perversely comforting to recognize that the writing life is a confidence-rattling, white-knuckled, cash-strapped, unpredictable ride for a whole lot of people, many of whom have XY chromosomes. Think it’s hard for a woman to get published in The New Yorker? It’s hard for almost everybody to get published in The New Yorker. It’s a lucky and/or well-connected and/or very talented few who grace those pages. Some, if not enough, are female. Maybe you’ll be one of them. Why not? It can happen. To hell with the odds. You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you?
- Pick your mentors and role models wisely. Sisterhood can be a wonderful thing, but a supportive and productive working writer-editor/publisher relationship is going to be built around individual personalities, not gender per se. You’ll recognize encouragement and good advice when you encounter it. Don’t assume that all female writers and editors will automatically help you; also don’t assume that all male writers and editors are intent on keeping you down. Be alert for evidence of bias, though, and be prepared to contest it. You deserve equal consideration as a writer; you don’t deserve to get published just because you’re female. Think about the published writers you admire who are also female and take heart from their example. They did it, ergo it can be done.
- Get out there. I’ve seen a lot of talk, some of it persuasive, that women aren’t pitching ideas and submitting their work to journal editors and publishers as much as men are. I will tell you from personal experience that many women do send their work out. I can also tell you, from my time spent living and working with men who write, it’s not true they all handle rejection better than women do. Nobody, and I mean nobody, loves to have a pitch or a short story or a novel manuscript or book proposal shot down. It’s hell. It hurts. If your project just sits in the drawer or on the computer, though, you’re sealing its fate. Some constructive self-analysis comes into play here. If you aren’t submitting your work, why not? Does it need another revision or is fear holding you back? Do you need to do more research to figure out where to try to place it? If you are sending it out, be prepared to keep sending it out. Do it in the most professional and well-informed way you can. Build a network and use it. Do whatever you need to do, short of substance abuse or stalking editors who say no to you, to put rejection in its place. Don’t let it stop you in your tracks. If the conventional outlets aren’t responding, maybe you can find an unconventional route to publication. I can’t promise that self-publication will vault you to literary superstardom but it’s increasingly attractive. (Don’t give up on the rewards of the traditional system too soon, though.) The gatekeepers won’t let you in if you don’t knock on the gate.
Jennifer Howard is a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education and a former staffer at The New York Review of Books and a former contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World. Her work has been published The Washington Post, The Boston Review, Slate, Salon, Bookforum and other publications.
It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
Naturally, about a murder.
February 14, 2011
The editors of Vol. 1 Brooklyn select their favorite literary romances. Discussed: goth teenagers, Shel Silverstein's moving tale of carelessly exploiting those you claim to love the most, Roman martyrs, and John Updike's balls.
Austin writer James Hynes's brilliant novel Next should have won every book award of 2010, but hey, at least it won Salon's first Good Sex Award. And honestly, wouldn't you rather tell people you won the Good Sex Award than, say, a Pulitzer? I'd put that on my fucking business cards. I'd change my middle name. Congratulations, Mr. Hynes! (And everyone should read this book. Don't make me tell you again.)
Happy whatsits. I am busy writing a valentine for Dezső Kosztolányi, whose Kornel Esti is so good I would like somehow for it to merge into my bloodstream. My love for you, oh dead Hungarian, will never fade. Etc etc.
I'm reading Grant Achatz's memoir Life, on the Line, which is so dorkily charming. It's refreshingly unrelated to the world of memoir, written as if he had never read another memoir in his life. And probably he hasn't. He seems really busy. It has this breezy quality, like everything that occurred to him as he was writing it had to go into the book. There's zero pretension (of that nature), zero calculation. I mean these things as compliments.
Funny, then, to read Janet Maslin's review of Joyce Carol Oates's memoir, A Widow's Story, which is apparently primarily artifice. It's a memoir, yes, related to life experience, but Oates carefully left out any information that would have distracted from the tone, the emotion, the central story of the book -- including remarrying 11 months after her first husband's death. It raises a lot of questions about the construction of memoir from life, and give Maslin credit for handling these really tricky issues while only making charges against Oates the writer, and not Oates the woman or wife.
How delicately must we tread around this situation? Ms. Oates can say (and has said, on the rare occasions when interviewers have had the nerve to ask her about it) that people whose long, sustaining marriages end often choose to remarry. Fair enough. And who would begrudge her this respite from the anguish that “A Widow’s Story” describes? But it is less fair for “A Widow’s Story” to dissemble while masquerading as a work of raw courage and honesty. A book long and rambling enough to contemplate an answering-machine recording could have found time to mention a whole new spouse.
February 13, 2011
In a correspondence that began last week, Bookslut founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief Jessa Crispin and I are discussing the gender disparity in literary criticism -- a disparity which was brought into sharp relief by the publication of some shocking statistics at the VIDA website. You can read the first three installments of our correspondence here, here, and here.
Why is this letter so hard to write? Over the past day, I've been staring at the screen, on and off, for hours. I don't mean to sound disrespectful here, Jessa, my editor and friend, but I blame you. We'd been talking about having a correspondence for a while, but I really wish we'd gone with the topic I suggested: the weather. "Dear Jessa, it's been pretty mild here, though it's starting to rain. Wait, no. No. That's just my neighbor's wind chimes. Yep, it's been pretty mild here..." The topic you suggested -- the stunning gender disparity in the world of literary criticism -- is interesting, but it's just so fraught. Do we have to talk about this? Answer me this: is it raining in Berlin?
I'm joking, but I do spend a lot of time and energy avoiding awkward conversations. It's one of my biggest faults. Maybe it's because a lot of what I've learned, and a lot of what this reminds me of, makes me angry. Some women think men are, as a rule, oblivious to the problems facing women in today's society. I can't argue with that -- it's not an unreasonable perception -- but I wonder if it's a matter of degree. When the VIDA statistics came out, I was shocked, then annoyed at myself for being shocked. How could I have been surprised at the numbers when I know how underrepresented women are in every other industry, every other sphere of life? The majority of American citizens are women. And currently, 17% of the members of the United States Congress are female, 12% of American state governors are female. Numbers like that make some of the publications on the VIDA list look radically enlightened by comparison.
It's not that I didn't know, but I think I fell into a trap of illogic when I considered women in publishing. Bookslut, as we've discussed, gets an even split of male and female applicants. Of the literary publicists I correspond with regularly, the vast majority are women. The friends I've made through the site -- fellow journalists, bookstore employees, librarians, readers -- are mostly women. Many of the authors I love are women; the literary editor I admire the most, Reagan Arthur, is a woman. So how did I not know it was so bad in my own backyard?
My answer to that is a phrase I've been hearing constantly over the past week, as editors and publishers get asked about how this all could have happened: "I don't know." I hate saying "I don't know." And I hate admitting my own blind spots, my own obliviousness. I've been voting for feminist candidates for office for 15 years. Maybe I thought that was enough. But I should have remembered how I felt several years ago, when my mother -- an English teacher and former school principal -- was fired from the parochial school she ran because she had just gotten divorced. She was widely considered to be the best principal in the city, but a divorced woman -- it just sends the wrong message, you know? And I should have remembered how I felt when you first told me about the magazine editor who lashed out at you with a misogynistic, hateful, sociopathic rant. As I recall, my reaction to that last one was just an offer to kick the guy's ass (the offer still stands, incidentally, though now I have a feeling I'm going to have to stand in line behind several thousand Bookslut readers, 99% of whom are undoubtedly better-prepared to deliver an ass-kicking than me). Then I guess I forgot about it. I don't know why. Maybe I thought it was just one isolated asshole, one idiot who was going to get what's coming to him soon. But did he? I don't know, but I doubt it.
You ask what I'm going to do, now that I've realized how bad things are, now that I've realized my recent book reviews favored men over women. And my answer...I mean, it's in progress, you know? I don't know if I have an easy response to that. As a reader, I instinctively turn to books that make sense to me, that help me understand things, at that point in time in my life. And over the last year, I've turned inward. I've retreated, for personal reasons too complicated to go into here. I can't say I'm ready to change my reading habits, but it's not even really relevant to this discussion -- as a critic, my responsibility is to look outside of myself, to reflect, I'd argue, the diversity of literature being published in the world right now. So what am I going to do? I'm going to be more aware, less afraid, more conscious. I'm going to try to be less self-obsessed -- which for a critic, or for this critic, anyway, isn't always easy. And I'm going to try to be less defensive, which is maybe the hardest part of the whole thing.
I want to talk about defensiveness, because it's how many of the editors and publishers have reacted to the VIDA statistics. And God help me, I understand. Maybe this is a rare moment of optimism on my part -- and as a man, it's admittedly easy to choose to be optimistic about this -- but I can't bring myself to believe that most of the editors whose publications were named by VIDA are sexist. The standard defense has been, as you point out, "Most of our submissions are from men; we don't get enough submissions from women." And while my experience has been different -- Bookslut has never had a problem getting submissions from female writers -- I don't doubt them at all. I'm not saying that excuses the gender disparity at these publications -- I still feel you kind of have to work at it to get a publication as male-dominated as the New York Review of Books or the London Review of Books, as much as I love both of those publications. Bookslut, perhaps, is lucky in that we're an explicitly feminist publication; women don't, I hope, feel reluctant to submit to us (and again, our numbers back that up). But the NYRB and LRB aren't exactly known for right-wing politics or Neanderthal attitudes towards feminism. So how did their numbers get so skewed? I have no clue.
So while I'm not inclined to give anyone a pass, exactly, I do understand the defensiveness. No man wants to be accused of sexism, any more than any white person wants to be accused of racism. And it didn't take me long to get defensive about the subject -- while the reaction to my last letter to you was mostly positive, I did get a fair number of hostile responses, and it's hard not to instinctively raise your fists when someone throws a punch at you, even if you had it coming.
This has been a tricky subject for me, because it involves a psychological element that I can't relate to. Men are supposed to be more aggressive, we're told, unafraid to resubmit pieces after being rejected, willing to keep pitching ideas even after they've been turned down. And that's not me. I'm shy by nature, terrified of rejection, unsure of myself. I almost never pitch ideas to other publications. The few times I've submitted a pitch that's been turned down, my reaction hasn't been to get back on the horse. It's been embarrassment and a weird kind of guilt, like I need to send flowers to the magazine's office and an apology card so they know how bad I feel about having wasted their time with my dumb idea. When I edit pieces for Bookslut, I notice -- and remove, when appropriate -- authorial hedges ("I think," "In my opinion," etc.) from reviews. The conventional wisdom is that these are associated mostly with women -- men have the privilege of averring, as confidently stating opinions as fact. But I do it too; it's one of the things I have to watch out for the most in my own writing. (At least I think it is. I don't know. I could be wrong.)
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that I know what it feels like to be a woman. And while I relate to the aggression deficit problem, I know it's not the point: I'm not aggressive, but I could be, and I wouldn't be judged harshly for it. I have the option. All men do; most women, as it stands, do not. I say all this not to dispute the generally agreed-upon perception that women have been conditioned to be less aggressive than men, but just to offer this: the sexes, as a billion crappy stand-up comedians have pointed out, are never going to understand each other. But the differences aren't quite as simple as we've all been led to believe.
Which means, I'd argue, that there's hope. If there weren't, after all, we wouldn't be having this conversation. What I don't know is what shape that hope will take, and where we go from here. My first thought is that men have to learn to be less defensive when it comes to issues like this, and we have to pay more attention, and we have to -- for the sake of logic, if nothing else -- admit that we're members of a privileged class. And as for what women have to do, allow me to "mansplain." Get ready to take notes; I'm going to solve this for all you women right now.
Again, I'm joking, not because I want to make light of a serious issue, but because it's my first instinct when I have no good answer. Look, you're one of the most admired literary critics in the world. Women and men look up to you. In your last letter, you write that "the thing is so complicated that surely any action you take has to help." You encourage women not to quit, to keep submitting, to keep working harder. So what would you encourage men to do? I'm not talking about the no-hopers, people like the editor who attacked you -- there's no advice, I'm afraid, that can help people like that; they really just need the shit kicked out of them. But the men who do care, who aren't sexist -- the majority of men in the literary world, I'd argue -- what do we do now? Once we get over the defensiveness, the guilt, the disbelief, what's the responsibility of men, now that we know that the problem is only getting worse, now that the whole literary world is watching?
February 11, 2011
“These are for abnormal people, for perverts,” said Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara, angrily throwing two comic books to the floor during an interview.
Japan wants to get the depiction of minors in sexual situations in comic books and DVDs and everything else under control.
It's time for your regular literary podcast round-up.
- RTE looks into why George Moore has been so overlooked, despite his connection to and influence on Yeats and Joyce. His Albert Nobbs is being adapted into a film with Glenn Close, screenplay by John Banville, so maybe it's time for a revival. Banville talks to RTE (MP3 Link) about his life and work.
- I have to admit, when I first heard of the Good Men Project, my initial reaction was: yuck. There are too many organizations who have previously equated being a good man with keeping his woman in her place. (See: Promise Keepers, Rabbi Boteach, etc.) But it isn't scary at all. As far as I can tell. (God, so cynical.) But the founder shows up to talk to the Fogged Clarity podcast, to explain what he means by a "good man." (Interview must be listened to in conjunction with this, natch.)
- And if that's all just too fucking cheery for you, the Guardian is discussing life, death, and philosophy this week.
PBS Need to Know has the first of the series of conversations we're running regarding the Vida statistics. First up: the literary magazine world, as represented by Christian Wiman of Poetry and JC Gabel from Stop Smiling and the upcoming launch of the biannual literary magazine The Chicagoan. I wanted to talk to Gabel as he was coming from the perspective of the new venture, and I wanted to see if this is something he was considering when assembling his staff and putting together the debut issue. (Full disclosure: the reason I knew about the magazine's launch is because I've signed on as a contributor and section editor.) Especially as Gabel was coming off of what he termed a "too male oriented" publication. I asked him what makes something too male oriented.
He wrote back, “Too many over-indulgent sports stories. Too many scantily clad young nubile things profiled, usually promoting an unwatchable film. Too many stories about grumpy, hard-boiled writer types, many of whom happen to be old white men. Not enough of a female voice throughout the pacing of a magazine: how the stories flow, front to back.”
But both Wiman and Gabel were candid about their reaction to the statistics, if a little resigned to the situation. "We don't know" came up more than once. The conversations will continue.
February 10, 2011
There aren't enough stories about poets stealing life-sized cutouts of beloved Harlem Renaissance figures. Fortunately, Daniel Nester has rounded up several accounts of recent goings-on at Busboys & Poets.
What happens when you send a poet to Antarctica? "I was looking through a microscope at plankton that had been infected with viruses. It was so incredibly beautiful. I thought, this I can write about."
If Charles Simic's post, "Where Is Poetry Going?" is to be believed, then I am a poet for like the whole week after New Year's: Compared to the other arts, poets spend most of their time scratching their heads in the dark. That’s why the travel they prefer is going to the kitchen to see if there is any baked ham and cold beer left in the fridge.
Lee Chang-dong discusses his new film, Poetry, and, well, poetry: At the time that this film was released in France, many critics and reporters asked exactly that question, saying that in France poetry has died. They wanted to know if it was still alive in Korea, because I said that it was dying. Do people in other countries still read poetry? Even though there are not a lot of people who read and write it, there are still people that do. Film is still alive, “Avatar” is a good example of that. But some certain types of films are dying, and these are the kinds of films that I make and want to see. These are the kind that are dying.
Richard Marshall reports on the Blakean Beat punk New Yorker, Patti Smith: But perhaps we should listen to Smith’s voice as a voice reporting the belief in the existence of an impossible voice. Here the mystical significance of Blake’s poetics, and the way the Beats and Rimbaud suggest voices from elsewhere, as records of occult sounds and understandings that break through into the physical world from elsewhere, bears down on what is heard. It picks up the old traditions of the artist as seer, prophet or shaman. It is also an East Coast Puritan weirdness that Smith’s voice emerges out of, and the disturbances can creep fearfully out of existential terror.
A manifesto for INTERNET POETRY, a guerilla poetry tumblr launching on 2/22: print is dead: publishers are dead: academia is dead: borders is dead: literary journals are dead: ezra pound is literally dead: windows 95, 98, and XP are dead: millenium edition was only released on a small number of computers: myspace is dead: dial-up and dsl are dead: realplayer is dead: winamp has been dead for years
Starting this week on the blog, Michael Schaub and I discuss the gender disparity in literary criticism -- a disparity which was brought into sharp relief by the publication of some shocking statistics at the VIDA website. You can read the first two installments of our correspondence here and here.
I know enough German to have a word for how this entire Vida thing makes me feel: Seelengevögelt. Direct translation? Soul-fucked.
As I was thinking about your question about the responsibility of the critic in this situation, yet another person pointed me in the direction of Ruth Franklin's piece on the Vida stats in the New Republic. It's not our fault! the article cries. It's the publishers who are sexist, not the review section! It is a remarkable abdication of responsibility. But what would responsibility look like, exactly? I know my own blind-spots in the work that I read -- work by minority writers, genre, male contemporary fiction, science books -- and I try to compensate by asking people to cover that ground on Bookslut for us. Do I think that is the responsibility of every editor of a review section? Yes, absolutely. If you see a big, gaping hole in your coverage, the sensible thing to do seems to be, find someone who knows what should go there. Maybe stop asking that one critic who is always exceptionally critical of women's work and who uses questionable logic and language -- this person is not always male -- to review books by women. You wouldn't ask Marty Peretz to review the new anthology of Middle Eastern literature, after all. (I hope.)
The responsibility for every critic and every writer, though, is thorny. And it gets unexpectedly personal, fast. As you may have noticed as you were tallying up your numbers. Because I believe a critic is best when they're working in a territory they're knowledgeable and passionate about. We all know, after all, how quickly things go wrong when a critic who has never opened a comic book before in his life suddenly gets assigned a stack of graphic novels. "What do you know?! These things aren't just for kids anymore!" But that doesn't mean a critic shouldn't always be expanding that territory. And women are not a genre, or their own special medium, even if some critics treat them like they are. Maybe the responsibility of the critic is to simply look at what he or she is deficient in. To add up those numbers, and instead of yelling that this is the publishers' doing, admit you've been favoring a specific demographic. And next time you reach for the stack of books by the bed, you'll give it a second thought and try something new. Because all establishing quotas and blaming others ever does is build resentment. It may lead to short term solutions -- we may see special issues "Look at how many fucking women we fit in these 100 pages this month!" in the near future -- but I don't think it's the way to solve this problem in the long run.
And speaking of personal responsibility: After talking with editor after editor, a pattern started to emerge. "We don't get enough submissions by women." At each publication I talked to, women were submitting an average of 35% of manuscripts, poems, articles, and pitches. Most of the editors I talked to were not the callous, misogynist, cigar-chomping bastards they've been portrayed as since the Vida stats came out. Then again, this might be influenced by who I talked to: Poetry Magazine, The Chicagoan, Boston Review, Red Lemonade, Melville House, Dalkey Archive Press, The TLS -- although his response was quite cranky. (I'll link to these conversations as they go up on the PBS website.) The disparity is greater at some other institutions, who didn't answer my e-mails. As I was writing up my interview with Poetry Magazine editor Christian Wiman, an e-mail came in with the fall list for FSG. There were only three women on that entire list. I asked FSG if they wanted to have a chat, but I never heard back.
The refrain of "we want more submissions from women" started to gnaw at me. Because I never pitch work. That makes me part of this problem. I have a working relationship with certain publications, and I'm content with staying with them. And most of them approached me initially, rather than me showing up on their doorstep with my CV saying, "Hi! Publish me, I'm good." And I wonder why that is. God, could it be because I'm under-confident in my writing? I don't want to talk about it! Okay, yes. Maybe. Fuck off. And it's easier for me to take an idea to the same editors I've been working with for years, rather than try to work for somewhere new, with a higher profile and better pay rate. Even when I'm discussing projects I'm working on with other friends, I disparage the work, saying, "This is probably a stupid idea," or, "Someone has probably already done this somewhere."
There's something about the culture at some of these places listed at Vida that make me think I would never in a million years be accepted there, and after taking a sampling of some female writer friends, I'm not the only one. Take the Atlantic, for example. Their rates of publishing women were not as devastatingly horrible as, say, The New York Review of Books. (What the fuck, NYRB?) But the women they are perhaps best known for publishing are Caitlin Flanagan, who writes about how abortion is bad, sex is bad, staying at home with the kids is awesome, doing her husband's laundry gives her purpose. Also Sandra Tsing Loh, who writes about her infidelity, the breakup of her marriage, being a bad mother. There is absolutely nothing about The Atlantic that screams out to me: We are totally respectful of women and their various viewpoints, and we'd be interested in publishing the work of a single, globetrotting, pro-choice feminist who does not under any circumstance want to write about her relationships, her femininity, or her sex life.
But as I'm writing this, I'm aware that this is partly my issue. That if I were bolder, more confident in my writing, had a genius idea for a story, or maybe were a man, I would look at the Atlantic and see that they had a lack in exactly the space I want to write about. I would see that missing voice as an opportunity, not as a Stay Out: No Girls Allowed sign.
Because I've been knocked on my ass by overt sexism before. The editor of an internationally renowned literary magazine once accused me to my face of sleeping my way to the top. I had been recommended to him for a job, and apparently the fellow writer who recommended me did so vigorously, and defended me against the accusation of hack-work. "And the only reason I could think of that he would do so, was if you were really good in bed. You guys must be fucking like bunnies." I have this burned on my brain, a bad night out in New York City. I had the job at that point. Did I then bust my ass on the job, thinking "I'll show you, motherfucker," and then gleefully take his money? No. I resigned almost immediately. And sometimes that night swarms up on me when I'm trying to get work done. Oh right, people think I'm a joke. And I'm not convinced that my story is totally unique, that women don't go through shit like that all the time. The wear and tear begins to shred your ego at some point.
I'm trying to say it's complicated. And this is why I feel Seelengevögelt. The issue can be so enormous and overwhelming, and people start yelling at each other and blaming one another, which is usually a pretty good sign that things are not going to change. But maybe I should look at it the other way -- the thing is so complicated that surely any action you take has to help. Whether that's getting drunk enough to send off that pitch to the Atlantic, or reviewing a book by a woman next issue, or working for that editing job where you can assign work in a conscious, aware way. It's easy for a woman writer to declare that editors should spend more time soliciting work directly from women. It's harder for that female writer to go through the drag of rejections and keep submitting unsolicited pieces anyway, or take on extra work as an editor so she can spend her time trying to coax writing out of reluctant women writers.
This letter has gone on too long, and gotten weirdly personal. Sorry about that! You know as middle-of-the-country people we are uncomfortable with all of that. But I'm curious: after seeing your own tally, do you know now what you're going to do?
If you are an editor, critic, blogger, publisher, writer, or reader, and you'd like to contribute a comment or a longer post on the Vida statistics, please email me. I've talked to several people, and we'll be getting their contributions up soon, but I'm interested in bringing in voices I didn't automatically think of.
"Yes, he had used me to create a poem — but it was a poem."
Lisa Catherine Harper reads her ex-boyfriend's poems about her, fifteen years after their breakup.
The Paris Review will serialize the English translation of The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño, starting with their next issue. (The novel is currently only available in Spanish.) The new issue also has interviews with Janet Malcolm and Ann Beattie, which is awesome. George would be proud.
February 9, 2011
Starting this week on the blog, Jessa and I discuss the gender disparity in literary criticism -- a disparity which was brought into sharp relief by the publication of some shocking statistics at the VIDA website. You can read the first installment of our correspondence here.
Dear Jessa Crispin,
The Germans have a word for pretty much everything, right? I'm not sure how much of the language you've picked up since you moved to Berlin, but it seems like for every obscure emotion possible, there is a word in German that I cannot pronounce. Like "that feeling you get when you think you're late for an important meeting, but then you realize that you're actually not late, and you're relieved but then you get worried that you might be too early, also, you are wearing gray slacks." The word for that in German is "Zeitlinderungsorgengrauehose." It's true! I assume.
But the word I'm looking for is that feeling you get when you realize you've been assuming something completely wrong, and without any rational basis. I'll get to that in a minute.
First, I have to admit: I was shocked by the VIDA statistics. Then I was shocked that I was shocked. It's like reading a story about a member of Congress being indicted for fraud. "How could a public servant betray the trust like -- oh, right. Right. This does not happen infrequently. Totally forgot." I'm not totally oblivious; I realize that when it comes to questions about misogyny in American business, the answer is generally "It's actually a lot worse than you think." But my God, the picture's bleak. I have some vague, ill-informed guesses as to why, but it's self-accounting time first.
Let me answer your question. Despite the statistics, I am not horrified and repulsed by women writers, even though I am a man! And, I mean, I am a man. I am more masculine than Clint Eastwood on a hunting trip with Mickey Hargitay. Ignore the fact that as I'm writing this, I am listening to a band called Bunnygrunt, there is a snoring pug in my lap and I am drinking herbal tea (it's mango!). But look, reading To Kill a Mockingbird in middle school and Song of Solomon in high school made me want to be a writer. The bookshelf I have for books by my favorite authors is stocked with Mary Robison, Joan Didion, A. L. Kennedy, Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, Ann Beattie, Julie Orringer. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am completely and totally free of any bias when it comes to the authors I choose to read.
Which brings me, of course, to my assumption, the one that turns out to be completely wrong. It's true about those authors; they're all among my favorites. (This sounds like something, right? A sentence beginning with "Some of my best friends are" and ending badly?) But I looked at my own statistics for last year, the 30 books I reviewed for NPR and Bookslut. Of those books, 73% were written or edited by men. I'd assumed it was something like 50-50. I was way, way off. Last year, I read mostly literary fiction and American history -- and a random selection of books in those field would likely usually produce something close to an even split. I don't choose books based on the gender of the author, though! Do I? And if so, why now, when 10 years ago, it was the opposite?
Again: shocked that I'm shocked. I mean, I read the damn books, I wrote about them, you'd think I wouldn't be surprised. And I can't figure out why it turned out that way. Which brings me to this question, Jessa, friend of mine who knows that I am not a sexist! We know that our responsibility as editors is to publish a magazine that does not privilege men over women. (I can't believe I just wrote that. It makes me think of John Hodgman on the George W. Bush administration: "They privileged gut instinct over complexity and bookish rumination. They probably hated anyone who used the word 'privilege' as a verb.") But what's our responsibility as critics? Is it to review the books that, for whatever reason, we're drawn to at that point in our lives, regardless of the author's sex? Or is to reflect, deliberately and accurately, the scope of literature by the books we choose to review?
With the dearth we've got in raised consciousnesses these days, there's a niche for people willing to remind everybody that women are still treated badly in the west and, as far as we know, everywhere else (leave out the damn statistics though). But after thrashing about a little with this, Sara's off to her aerobics class.
Somehow I forgot that scary Sam Brownback is now the governor of my home state. I must have blocked it out. Because for a minute it was a surprise to read that Kansas eliminated its arts commission. (Didn't just slash the funding -- eliminated it.)
And David Smooke points out the obvious: when politicians talk about cutting arts funding to use the money to create jobs, they forget that artists work, too. So do administrators and teachers. Or they did, until you eliminated their funding.
February 8, 2011
By now, you've probably read the Vida statistics on the disparity between how many women are published or reviewed in various publications and review sections versus men. It's causing a ruckus. But unfortunately, the conversation appears to be stopping at defensiveness or blaming other parts of the industry, or "we're dealing with this internally, we have no comment."
Bookslut and PBS Need to Know will be delving into this further later this week, as I'm talking with editors, publishers, reviewers, publicists, and bloggers about why this disparity exists, and trying to root out some of their own unconscious biases. But fair's fair, right? If I'm going to be pointing fingers, I should at least examine my own motivations. So Michael Schaub and I will be discussing why we review the books we review, and why we read the books we read, on this blog. Starting today:
Dear Michael Schaub:
Last night I was out having dinner with a friend, and I brought up the subject of the Vida statistics, those startling pie charts that show just how large the disparity in gender is at the ranks of American and British magazines and review sections. This was something that we all probably know, yes? That fewer women get published, that most critics are men, that women are relegated to write about "women's issues" (read as: reproduction, domesticity, personal essays about heartbreak and childrearing) while men get to write about the serious stuff (read as: everything else).
I had spent the day chatting with a few editors about the statistics, and the result of those conversations will be running here and on PBS. But then at dinner, my friend, a magazine writer -- male, who gets to write about archaeology and science and war and the Romans -- started talking about how it's the duty of the editors to fix this problem. And I found myself defending the gender disparity. "It's more complicated than everyone who makes these decisions is just a sexist jerk," and he deftly dismantled my arguments about why women aren't in editing positions (opting out to raise children, not enough mentoring, lack of aggressive ambition). It was an odd position to be in, defending the decisions made at the New Yorker that creates an environment where only barely more than a quarter of their writers are female. I wasn't sure why I was making this argument. I only know that I was losing, and I had to defend myself with, "I am not an apologist for institutionalized misogyny!"
The headline above the pie charts declares that "Numbers Don't Lie!" True, they don't, but pie charts aren't exactly a great narrative. And as I talked to some of the editors, and started thinking about this problem myself, it seemed like there were a lot of aspects to this that can't fit into a chart: lack of female editors, lack of women in positions of power in corporations in general, lack of mentors for women, a society that does not encourage women to be aggressive, fewer writing apprenticeships for women who want to write about "serious issues," nepotism among male editors who want to give work to their male friends, on and on. Added to that is the impossible to quantify unconscious bias that exists in each of us when we're making decisions throughout the day. Those of us who are in positions of power to grant a platform for others -- editors, writers, publishers -- have established patterns, established groups of contributors and colleagues, and it's very difficult for an outsider to break through those.
So what does this have to do with Bookslut? My friend said Bookslut obviously has a reputation for being empowering for women, which caused me to laugh and say that made it sound like we write about our menstrual blood. But we do put up a few barriers that our male contributors have to get used to. Like, admitting they write for a website that has "slut" in the title. (They have to get comfortable using the word, I imagine. Or, hopefully for some of them, less comfortable.) Our website is pink! It's a vagina-friendly color. And still, when we put out that last call for new contributors, I think the split between men and women was 50/50. Which makes me wonder, if we were called something boring and gender-neutral, if we used red or blue or beige as our color palette, would the divide be greater? And without thinking about it, I think we took on an even split of new male and female contributors.
But still. I want to dig around in people's unconscious biases, including my own. I did a little breakdown. In 2010, I reviewed 41 books for the Smart Set and NPR, my two most usual stomping grounds. 68% of those books were either written or co-written by women. My own reading habits skew very heavily towards women, especially for fiction. With nonfiction, it's probably more evenly split, but I'm probably more drawn to the "softer" side of nonfiction: art, culture, philosophy, history. I read less science than I probably should. I read exactly as much memoir as I should, which is, hardly at all. With contemporary fiction, the split is much more obvious: it is hard for me to remember the last novel I read by a man. Is that odd? (Oh right, Aurorarama, which was months ago.) With reprints, or classic work, I read male writers. I still cannot stop reading Henry James, for example. But what is my bias based in? And I'm not saying, yay me, I will save the world with reverse sexism. I really do wonder why I've mostly dropped contemporary male writers from my reading list, because it most certainly did not used to be this way. I used to read mostly male writers, especially back when Bookslut began. Slowly that has eroded, though.
So, Michael Schaub, managing editor of the gods and friend of mine, what say you? You know, as a male person, you are supposed to go all "ewww gross!" when you see a novel by a lady, it has been statistically proven. Is that the case?
February 7, 2011
There is a new issue of Bookslut! And it is a big one -- forty damn articles! -- so I'm going to get right to it.
This month, we're proud to publish some incredible features. Alizah Salario reflects on women and cultural criticism (see, mainstream magazines? We publish women writers! It can be done!). In a fascinating study, Daniel Nester and Steve Black prove that the common assumptions about literary journals being short-lived are wrong. And we've got essays from the A-team that is Elizabeth Bachner, Ben Greenman, and Barbara J. King. We've got a great lineup of interviews this month, with authors Paul Murray, Gina Frangello, Nikesh Shukla, Bradford Morrow, Brad Meltzer, Emma Straub, Christopher Salerno, Colleen Lookingbill, Anjali Banerjee, and Evan Lavender-Smith.
We're happy to introduce two new columnists. Acclaimed author Amitava Kumar (Nobody Does the Right Thing) joins the Bookslut roster with his new column, Denis Dutton Is Dead. And Kevin Frazier introduces Star-Crossed, a column focusing on authors who share the same month of birth, this issue. And of course the regular lineup is back, with one of the strongest lineups of columns we've had in a while.
Enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading!
Guernica talks to Benny Brunner, director of the new documentary The Great Book Robbery, about the 1948 looting of 70,000 Palestinian books and manuscripts by Israeli troops.
Also, cultural loss is very difficult to quantify. I think it was a political decision very early on—I don’t know why—to focus on the loss of villages as opposed to the loss in the urban centers and the destruction of Palestinian communities there. Instead they highlighted traditional village customs such as the way people dressed in the village, the embroidery, the music they listened to, and their culture, which is very different from what was going in Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, and Jerusalem. What these events do prove is that in Jerusalem you had big private libraries where people collected many, many valuable books. There was clearly a very lively cultural scene in Palestine. That was lost in 1948 and this loss isn’t emphasized.
Related: Simon Schama on the looting in Egypt. (Thanks to Andrew for the link.)
These days as soon as I finish reading a book that I love, I tend to search around for material online, interviews with the author, excerpts, that sort of thing. About half the time, though, there's not much to be found, other than maybe a 400 word review that is mostly just synopsis.
Hopefully I'll eventually find something for Marella Caracciolo Chia's The Light In Between, which is the account of the brief love affair between Princess Vittoria Colonna and Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni. The affair was cut short when Boccioni died shortly after meeting Vittoria. (Yes, it's the kind of book you'll cry over, or at least stare out the window and sigh a lot when it's over. God, when did I turn into such a girl.) The fact that it's not sappy or sentimental, though, says much about the talent of Chia and her translator Howard Curtis.
The World Affairs Journal profiles former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel, and his return to writing after leaving office.
This is where the comedy turns into a tragedy: No matter how moral, humble, and immune to the temptations of power you are, once you’ve had it, it’s impossible to ever be free of it. It comes to define you as much in its absence as in its presence. The more you have achieved, the higher you have reached, the stronger its grip on you will be. You cannot keep it, at least not in a democracy, and yet psychologically you cannot entirely give it up. For the rest of your life, you are going to be defined not by what you do but by what you did. You are condemned to be an ex-chancellor, ex-secretary, ex-president.
But not ex-playwright.
February 4, 2011
There's a wonderful piece in Eurozine by Lydia Cacho about the consequences of being an investigative journalist in corrupt nations: the post traumatic stress disorder, the paranoia, the celebrity, the exhilaration.
For every time our body rebels and says "not again!" to another 15-hour flight, eating badly, sleeping worse, in order to repeat the story told a thousand times over, a little inner voice replies: "You are alive, you have to do it." When others insist that we are heroes or heroines, we are genuinely reluctant to believe them. I've never known of a single colleague who has been tortured, or who lives with the threat of death and persecution for their work, in such a confused state of mind that they believe that working in the defence of individual and collective freedoms is an act of heroism. We know full well that it is nothing more than an exercise in survival and shared dignity. We also understand, for we are constantly reminded of it, that the world demands its heroes to be examples who defend human rights with their voices, their words and their culture – those rights that prompt us to demand access to water, food, land, justice and, ultimately, the right to lead a happy life, free of violence. So it is we can proceed anew to the forum of the survivors: like optimistic chroniclers, we document the tragedy and nourish the possibility that all this will disappear if we persevere together in making it so.
(Every joy has its fault, and breaks apart of its own accord. If you want me to love you, do not laugh too loud. It is in a hushed voice that one delights, under winter’s ash, this heart that, like the banked fire, smolders and sings.)
February 3, 2011
Studio 360's Kurt Andersen Tamim Al-Barghouti, an Egyptian poet based out of DC: He said that under Mubarak, freedom of expression wasn’t exactly forbidden — but people never knew when the government was going to crack down. “Mubarak had this motto: ‘you say what you want and we do what we want.’”
Poets and publishers, attend! How do you keep a book in print for more than 20 editions? Bind in bonus porn: Bound in at the back of the 1714 edition [of The Works of the Earls of Rochester and Roscommon], van Hensbergen found, was a section called the Cabinet of Love. It contained three poems, "the organising principle of which," van Hensbergen says, "appears to be the dildo".
SJ Fowler interviews concrete/visual poet Anatol Knotek: I think that visual poetry, after a surge in the 50s and 60s, stagnated somehow (with some exceptions) by the end of the 20th Century. Thanks to the Web a lively community has been formed in recent years. Due to the fact I consider “Visual Poetry” as a hypernym, the styles and expressions of individual artists differ very much, but I believe that all have the common goal to take this art form to the next level. The new chances provided by social networking, the innovative possibilities of computers and the Internet in general open up new dimensions for the artists and especially the visual poets. (Also see his interview last week with Holly Pester.)
Mike Chasar explicates the poem at the end of the Stallone/Rourke/Statham/Willis/Li/Lundgren/Austin vehicle, The Expendables: That is, the formal drama of Statham's poem argues that, to be a real man, it's not enough to be big and strong.
Anne K. Yoder has a great essay on Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz: In the late ‘70s, the young Wojnarowicz photographed a series of portraits of a man–a friend, perhaps–wearing a paper cut-out mask of Rimbaud’s face. This Rimbaud skulks through the settings of Wojnarowicz’s New York, alone. He sits in a graffiti-covered subway car, loiters outside movie houses, wanders under piers and through abandoned buildings, with a needle in his arm, with a gun to his head, in a passionate embrace, pissing in a toilet. Wojnarowicz’s photo series Rimbaud in New York 1978-9 distills the rawness, pain, and deprivation of living on the street to a beauty of mythic proportions.
Great news! O Magazine is going to have a poetry issue next month. Greater news! Edited by Maria Shriver, it will include . . . poems and thoughts on poetry from actors, athletes, musicians, and writers, including Demi Moore and Mike Tyson.
But what makes Deus Ex Machina one of the best novels about American culture in years is Altschul's perfect understanding of the syntax and structure of reality TV.
It's darkly funny in parts, but mostly it's terrifying in its urgency and plausibility, and it's impossible to look at television the same way after you've read it. You're forced to wonder whether reality TV — whether our country itself — could ever become the nightmare it is in Altschul's stunning, sad novel: 300 million people, four major networks, no rules.
New Shalom Auslander column:
I’m missing something. Those other writers know something I don’t. I need help. I need guidance.
I need, I decided, Harold Bloom.
I don’t know why it was Harold specifically. It’s not just the jowls. It’s not just the Yale/Shakespeare thing. I’m ashamed to admit that while I don’t like gods, I feel at times that I need one; that day, faced with a story I wanted to begin but was certain I couldn’t, I needed Harold Bloom.
There is a squabble going on between Russia and the United States over which country rightly owns the Schneerson Library, "a collection of 12,000 books and 50,000 religious documents assembled by the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement over two centuries prior to World War II." It's in Russia, the United States claims it belongs to them, and now Russia is withholding loans from its other art and culture collections until this gets cleared up. The New York Times article is super-vague, though, on why each country thinks it has a claim to these books. This article on the original court case clears it up some.
Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy? Not that I would mind, but you understand my point. As an African American, I understand this sort of backhanded compliment. You see, we are articulate. This is not an insult on the face of it, but the subtext is that our intelligence is a surprise, as if being articulate is the same as being intelligent anyway. I mention this only to dismiss the subject of race here. The culture’s defense against this kind of attack has been to germinate competition between groups with like complaints and desires.
February 2, 2011
Next Friday, over 100 people will participate in a 24-hour live reading of Moby-Dick in Portland, Oregon. No word yet on whether Queequeg, literary cat extraordinaire and the housemate of The Portland Mercury's Alison Hallett, will be in attendance.
Poet Mark Strand convinced a Manchurian-born, Russian-American, socialist ex-NBA player to ditch coaching and pursue poetry. Meet Tom Meschery. (via)
A chance encounter with University of Washington poetry chair Mark Strand — who would later become the poet laureate of the United States — set Meschery on the course toward becoming a poet. “I never grew up thinking poetry was effeminate. My father was 6-3, a great bear of a man, and he would read poetry and weep. He would cry over it. From a young age I appreciated poetry,” says Meschery. “My teammates found my interest in poetry to be odd, however, I had a strong temper so they didn’t push it.”
Posted in honor of the Portland Trail Blazers, who I watched upset (my dearly beloved) San Antonio Spurs last night. (It turns out Blazers fans are super nice, and the Rose Garden is awesome.)
(Also, I'm going to make one more attempt to get you all on board the Spurs train. San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich? Kevin Sampsell, who works at Powell's, reports he has some pretty decent taste in literature.)
Bookslut contributor Jim Behrle on the newly announced, and depressing, statistics on the lack of women writers published in magazines in 2010: "It is also OK for men to engage on women's issues and call out injustices where ever they see them." xo.
Yann Martel (Life of Pi, That Stuffed Animal Holocaust Book We Should Probably All Agree to Never Speak of Again) will no longer send Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every two weeks. Apparently, after 100 books, Harper wasn't impressed with the lit-stalking:
Martel received only seven replies and none of them ... were personal. “One hundred is a nice round number and a good number to end on,” Martel wrote in his final letter to Harper. “(The number of times you personally have written back to me is also a nice round number, by the way: 0. That’s zero, naught, nada, zilch.)”
Where I come from, when a stranger mails you a book every two weeks and angrily demands a response, you write him back, dammit. I don't care if you are the prime minister of a large country during an era of economic upheaval and geopolitical uncertainty. Tell the novelist what you thought about The Old Man and the Sea.
I have to say: Vendome makes some beautiful books. Two of my favorites from last year -- John E. Bowlt's stunning Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life, & Culture of the Russian Silver Age and Peter Webb's Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini -- were released by Vendome, and I reviewed their book Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice at the Smart Set. I had been reading their new book Paris Between the Wars: Art, Life and Culture, and I realized I wanted something that picked up where it left off. I dug around until I found Alan Riding's new book And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Occupied Paris.
It's a very engaging work, and he is deft at handling really tricky issues about the influence of politics on art, and how we judge an artist's work because of the choices they made in life. It's a very current debate: currently there's a controversy raging about whether or not to honor Céline, who was a literary giant and also a horrible anti-Semite. Over at PBS Need to Know, I talk with Alan Riding about some of these issues.
I found it difficult not to agree with the essayist Jean Guéhenno, who on November 30, 1940, wrote in his private journal:
The species of the man of letters is not one of the greatest of human species. Incapable of surviving for long in hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print. He can stand it no longer. He quarrels only about his importance, the size of the print in which his name appears, its ranking in the table of contents. It goes without saying that he is full of good reasons. ‘French literature must continue.’ He believes that he is French literature and thought and that they will die without him.
February 1, 2011
Timothy Schaffert on the lesbian ghosts of Red Cloud, Nebraska.
Depending on your guide, you’ll be told, should you ask, that Cather wasn’t a lesbian, but rather was in a “Boston marriage” with editor Edith Lewis, the woman she lived with for over thirty years. As a gay man originally of small-town Nebraska (I grew up on a farm about an hour’s drive from Red Cloud), I could be aggravated by this, but nonetheless I enjoy it—it feels like a refusal that embraces, in a creaky Midwest tradition of silent anxiety.
Note to self: ask Jessa if Lincoln, Kansas, has any lesbian ghosts. It's only like a two hour drive from Red Cloud.
In this article, "Anonymous Was a Woman," I was startled to read the following:
He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men, and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth's beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory is a benediction.
This passage is often said to be by Ralph Waldo Emerson or Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, it was written by Bessie A. Stanley of Lincoln, Kansas, in 1905. She earned $250 as the first-prize winner in a contest sponsored by the magazine Modern Women.
Lincoln fucking Kansas! Someone else came from there! That is exciting news. (It is my hometown. Five people live there. Okay, 1200, whatever. It's nice that place lets others have contact with the outside world, too.)
Another little round up of literary podcasts, for your downloaded listening pleasure:
Mahendra Singh, who recently turned Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark into a graphic novel, talks about nonsense literature and the task of illustrating a poem about a creature no one knows what should look like, among other things. He also does a lovely little reading from the poem.
The myth of the Chuck Palahniuk reading is mighty: people who attend these things end up vomiting or fainting, others dress in costume and worship. And if you'd like to attend a reading, but fear the bodily fluids that might stain your nice outfit if you go, the Agony Column can help you out. Their podcast series has one of his readings, including the recording of an uncollected Palahniuk story called "Knock Knock."
I'm hesitant to read Kristin Hersh's memoir Rat Girl because, as I explained to a friend last night, nothing ruins a good crush like a bad memoir. But Hersh is at the Guardian podcast -- and I can definitely do Hersh audio -- talking about her memoir and the move into writing, and she does a little performance.
There's an alarming story by Juliet Shaw on the No Sleep Til Brooklands blog. She agreed to speak to a Daily Mail journalist about a lifestyle article, which she hoped would help promote her freelance business. Instead, she ended up having to study the laws of defamation after they made up quotations and fabricated facts about her life to suit their storyline.
(The saddest part is her introduction that implies that because it's the Daily Mail, she should have known... But lordy, you do think that they must employ a journalist or two over there somewhere, and don't just run the thing solely with fabulists and those afflicted with personality disorders.)