August 31, 2012
Shulamith Firestone, a widely quoted feminist writer who published her arresting first book, “The Dialectic of Sex,” at 25, only to withdraw from public life soon afterward, was found dead on Tuesday in her apartment in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. She was 67.
August 30, 2012
Going to call my first book tour the "Appetite of the Ladies for Words of Wisdom from Henry James" tour.
We are pleased to announce that one of the greatest medieval English books, containing the unique copies of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is now available online. Colour images of the entire manuscript have been published by The Cotton Nero A. X Project, hosted by the University of Calgary.
Francine Pascal, or someone paid to pretend to be Francine Pascal, is interviewed at the Guardian about Sweet Valley High. From her home in Cannes. Built as it were by an army of ghost writers. I mean, this is in it:
Sweet Valley Confidential, published last year and imagining the Wakefields 10 years after graduation, was the first Sweet Valley novel Pascal wrote entirely herself.
Roxane Gay covered that crazy fucking book for us last year. But I would just like to restate. She has a house in Cannes. She only wrote her first Sweet Valley book last year. Aspiring writers: Aspire.
Heti’s bigger concerns, however, are framed within the narratives of self-help and religion. Stories about Sheila’s futile attempts at life and writing are interwoven with passages about Jungian analysis and Bible stories. These narratives lend shape to Sheila’s story but dilute its affective power. As a result, How Should a Person Be? registers as a curiously complacent text, resolutely turned inward towards itself, and absolutely unaware about the world insofar as the world does not revolve around Sheila and the people she knows. The “I” in How Should a Person Be? doesn’t extend outward, it merely reflects itself.
Popmatters is running a thoughtful, critical review of How Should a Person Be?, and I am glad for it. I wanted to write one of my long rampages about the supposed ugliness of the novel, but never really came up with anything coherent. (I wrote a bit about being the ugly girl here, and mostly everything I tried to write about Heti's book ended up being a rewrite of that, so I gave up.) But the reviewer, Subashini Navaratnam, does take a look at that aspect, and she's very smart on the issue. But then Navaratnam has done some very good work with Popmatters, and she's always a delight to read.
August 29, 2012
In our latest issue, we published a pretty negative review of Samuel R Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. It was the sex that turned off our reviewer, as it's unrelenting and does not have much of a plot to attach itself to.
As a counterpoint, James Warner has written a piece about sex in Delany's work, and with it comes a heartfelt defense of promiscuity by Delany:
“We do a little better when we sexualize our own manner of having sex – learn to find our own way of having sex sexy. Call it a healthy narcissism, if you will. This alone allows us to relax with our own sexuality. Paradoxically, this also allows us to vary it and accommodate it, as far as we wish, to other people. I don’t see how this can be accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners and a fair amount of communication with them, at that, about what their sexual reactions to us are.”
If you ever wanted a primer on how not to behave online as a writer, this looks like a pretty good one. (Be kind to your fans and your critics, don't whine in public when your book hits a paltry #2 on the bestseller list, don't respond to reviews written by people with an online presence.)
I would like to say as a reader, though, thank you for having a public spiral. It was entertaining for seven whole minutes.
August 28, 2012
I met a Belgian writer in Sarajevo, as one does, and we had dinner one night. We had been talking about Trieste, so I mentioned that I met with the great Trieste historian, writer, playwright Claudio Magris while in the city, and the writer's eyes lit up. "Danube is..." he started to say. "I know!" "It's just..." "I know!" It is one of those books, like Geert Mak's In Europe, where if you are a certain kind of reader, whenever you meet someone who shares your love for that book you immediately want to declare Best Friends Forever and give them a hug.
I am busy transcribing my full interview with Magris for the new issue of Bookslut, but in the meantime, there's an excerpt of our conversation at Kirkus. It involves his latest novel, Blindly, which is based, barely, on the historical happenings on the island of Goli otok. But also it involves the lost masterpiece of Borges, the dividing line between fiction and nonfiction, and the role history plays in novels.
When now you try not to discuss the political problem but to tell the story of how a man had lived in his or her experience of this problem, you must plunge in this abyss of disorder where the rational thread is already lost. Trying to find it without any coquetry with the disorder but remain with the disorder of the life. This great Italian writer La Capria has written the greatest novels of the 20th century are failed novels. He doesn’t mean that as a negative, but novels that must assume within themselves the necessity of shipwreck, the impossibility of representing a harmonious relationship between the individual and the disaster of the disorder of the world.
Do not go see a comic book movie about a city under siege while you are a tourist in a city that was once under siege. I was repulsed by the latest Batman movie, but for a very specific reason. Shouldn't a person who is writing about something know as much as possible about that thing? This has been bothering me a lot lately. The stakes are so low in this Batman film. The city is cut off from the rest of the world, and yet you never see a citizen unless they are being dragged hilariously in their fur coats (the rich never go anywhere without their furs, darling) in front of a tribunal. You don't connect to the city, because no one on the film thought it important to show for even one minute what it would have been like to live in a city cut off from the world. (Was there food? Where did it come from with all those bridges blown? Did people continue going to their jobs? If not, what did they do all day? Matthew Modine's wife looked awfully well put together during the siege -- was there running water? Was it running all of the time? I was bothered.)
When I got back to my little Sarajevo rental I put on a movie about the Red Army Faction, because I thought it might do a better job at representing terror. Instead, I found that almost all reference to the fact that many of their targets were former Nazis who were now in positions in power in West Germany was erased from the film. Were they worried that made the revolutionaries and murderers too sympathetic? Were they worried that turned the victims into Bane, and we would cheer when they were shot in the head? Nazis are so very often shown as comic book villains, maybe the director thought we wouldn't be able to bring any nuance to our viewing.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment is that there really was not one scene in the film that matches whatever is going on in this 3 minute video interview with Ulrike Meinhof that I stumbled upon. It was shot soon before she joined up with Andreas Baader, and you can see the beginnings of her decision to put down her pen as a journalist and take up a gun as a revolutionary. When talking endlessly seems useless and futile. The exhaustion.
So much for the suspension of disbelief, I guess. Or taking the book or film for what it is rather than what I want it to be. People have been throwing that one around lately in the discussion about How To Properly Review Books, a rule from John Updike. I guess my reaction to that is, why should I take reviewing advice from a novelist whose books I never liked?
In 1971, Beauvoir took the lead in her countrywomen’s struggle for reproductive rights. She wrote a declaration, “The Manifesto of 343,” that exposed her and her fellow-signers—some of France’s leading female artists, actors, writers, jurists, and filmmakers—to criminal prosecution. (It also exposed them to degrading ridicule of a now-familiar sort. Forty years before Rush Limbaugh aired his repulsive fantasies about Sandra Fluke, the declaration was nicknamed “The Manifesto of the 343 Sluts.”)
Did you read that horrible thing that ran the day of Maeve Binchy's funeral? Written by a mother who said that Binchy's writing would have been better had she been a mother?
Maeve Binchy’s warmth and interest in other people included their families, but I can’t help but feel that her detailed portraits of ordinary life might not have been so predicated on the relationships between men and women had she had a child.
I posted a link to the piece on Twitter, with some sort of sophisticated commentary ("Jesus fucking Christ" I think was what I said), and I got a lot of responses. One was an email from a woman who was in a position, at an age let's say, where she had to start deciding whether she wanted a child. And she was ambivalent, and that ambivalence sprang from the fact that her career was just finally starting to sprout. I asked if I could use her email as a Kind Reader column, because it got my head working, and she assented. So thank you for that, you know who you are.
So at the Kind Reader, it's mothers and sons, prams in the hall, and the stupid, stupid commentary that comes out of motherhood debates.
The reason why it's so difficult to think through your decision is because people keep pretending like there is one way this motherhood thing could go, when in reality there are millions. For every woman writer who just never got around to finishing that novel after having a kid, there is a woman who became a writer only because of her children (Astrid Lindgren), a woman who produced prodigiously despite her children (Penelope Fitzgerald), a woman who had children and then left them in the care of others to focus on work (Muriel Spark), and who knows how many women who decided not to have children for the sake of their careers, only to watch those careers never materialize.
There is no way to know how things will go beforehand. It is one of those great unknowns. And if you're trying to nurture this tiny, fragile thing into being, and I am of course referring to your career as an artist, it's no wonder you're not in the mood for wild experimentation.
August 27, 2012
4. A friend and I were on Skype, complaining about the new season of So You Think You Can Dance. (Yes. Shut up, I know. I like reality shows, though, with people who have to have actual skills and talent.) The new season was littered with cutesy little girls, tiny and fragile and giggly and moronic. There was a shortage of women, who danced like they have actually done and felt things, rather than just mimicking what someone told them to do. I am bored watching little girls dance. It's like our culture's fondness for child prodigies, playing the piano or the violin, technically brilliant but soulless. Give me an aging virtuoso any goddamn day.
When James Wood reviewed How Should a Person Be? he questioned Sheila Heti's emotional age, and people criticized him for that. But I think he was dead on. When I found out that Heti was older than me, I was a little horrified. She writes like someone in her mid-20s. It's hard to say exactly what makes her writing seem this way. Maybe it's the Dear Diary writing style, the lack of interest in the outside world, the way she finds every late night faux-philosophical conversation with her friends so fascinating she recreates them for us in transcription. It reads like watching a little girl dance.
The larger question remains of why this book bothered me so. I don't really hate books very often. If a book is annoying me, I stop reading it. Plus, I have stopped reading too much contemporary fiction. For various reasons, but mostly because I feel so incredibly out of step with what's popular and considered to be good that it was, well, let's just say it's more frustrating and alienating than trying to explain to a woman who only speaks Serbian how you want your hair cut. For a while I was reading Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction to figure out why my taste is so far from the mainstream, but then I realized that doing things like reading decades old French sociological theory about cultural preferences was perhaps the reason why my taste is so far from the mainstream.
The last book I hated was Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?, which also got a lot of praise. I could instantly tell why I hated that book. It seemed so representative of this overly-therapeutized (not a word!) culture we live in, where all of our failings in love and life can be blamed to the way our mother didn't do a very good job. Also it was humorless and dull and, I think, mis-represented Winnicott, a writer I happen to love. And clearly Bechdel found herself fascinating, in that overly memoirized (not a word!) way that we all do now, and it was annoying that everyone with responded with, "We think you are, too!"
But the Heti is sneakier. Part of it is the self-help aspect. The way she compares herself without blinking to Moses. The way the book gets historical fact flat-out wrong. The selfishness and the lack of awareness of the real world, and the certainty of it all. The girlishness. The, god help me, tweeness of it all. And then, behind all of that, a tone of cynical "just kidding!" to protect itself from criticism. None of this is necessarily frustrating in and of itself, at least not in an intense way. It should have just been a "not for me" book that I set aside after two pages.
But I can say it's not good for the soul to be merely the crank, the curmudgeon, and the contrarian. I think the people who say they only want to write and read positive reviews are full of shit, but one can't only respond to culture with stamped feet and clenched fists. Even if, on occasion, it is good fun.
August 24, 2012
A women's refuge has slammed the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy as "an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman".
Well. My main worry with 50 Shades of Grey is that a certain type of gentleman, the kind of gentleman who watches porn to take notes on what he should be doing ("oh, women like to be choked? I always suspected...") (I am pretty sure I am stealing that joke from Shalom) will read those books and think, women secretly desire to be tossed around a little. I'm not concerned for the women so much as the man, who when he brings out his riding crop and surprises a woman with a smack across the ass will turn around and punch him in the nose.
Sexual and domestic violence is of course very serious (I feel ridiculous having to write that). But really, I'm not sure that the kind of man who has an urge to sexually torture women need an instruction manual.
Clare Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need, a charity for victims of domestic violence, said she had been waiting for "a feminist icon to savage this misogynistic crap, but nobody did", so she decided she needed to speak out herself.
Well, didn't Angela Carter call out this type of stuff decades ago? And there was Eva Illouz's response and Marina Warner's, but I'm pretty sure everyone else was busy thinking it was an insubstantial problem that was not going to lead to strings of violence. You know, people who saw that video games did not actually lead directly to killing.
Oh, and the Telegraph's review of the 50 Shades audio book is pretty funny.
Battoe’s monotonous, whiny, joyless voice throws it down a hole. You feel she should be talking about unicorns, or maybe kittens with mittens, not dry humping.
August 23, 2012
What he absolutely can’t accept is that having ‘diagnosed’ a religious feeling (i.e. having established a physical or psychological cause for it), we’re bound then to the view that science has ‘solved’ it or indeed finished with it.
"The novel, in a way, reproduces the way we learned about the war," said Gamerro. "We first had the fantastic war, the unreal war created by the media where a little Argentinian propeller plane could attack the Hermes aircraft carrier and sink it: those things were fed to us through the media. And then suddenly we lost the war, quite surprisingly since we had been winning it until that very moment. Then the soldiers started coming back, and almost immediately books of testimonies were being published. And we thought, oh so this was the reality of the war. Now of course I disagree: both versions were the realities of the war. The reality was also the fictions about the war. I wanted to recreate in this fictional world the different levels on which this war existed."
Tough read, but worth it: Rebecca Solnit travels to Japan and writes about the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquakes.
August 22, 2012
I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland. We are the people that all those anorexic vampires with their little black miniskirts and their black leather jackets come to with their video cameras to document Rust Belt chic. MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling. But we don’t go bowling, we go to the library, but they don’t want to shoot that. So, that’s it. We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.
That's Joyce Brabner, the wife of Harvey Pekar, from 1992. It's included in a piece about Rust Belt Chic (via), about it being the hot new Creative Class locale. It reminds one of Marilynne Robinson's line from When I Was a Child I Read Books:
"I find," she writes, "that the hardest work in the world -- it may in fact be impossible -- is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling."
3. I'm just saying -- because I was watching you there and I thought, This stupid fucking no-nothing slut needs her brains scrambled by the cock of Israel. Her throat has never been bruised down its back by him -- is all I was thinking when I saw you ordering your sandwich. Tuna fish, lady? Do you have no dignity? Is your body a limp half-body? Or is it impossible to have any dignity unless you are getting reamed nightly by Israel?...
I want your cock...
fucked by Israel...
the magnificent cock of Israel...
Okay, god, enough, shut up, we get it.
It took me ages to figure out why I found the extensive sex scenes let's say... unconvincing. Unconvincing on the level of a fourteen year old girl who is still using cherry flavored chapstick as "lipgloss" saying the word "cock." Was it just the endless repetition of the words fuck and cock and suck and cum? Being banged out repeatedly like that will give them emphasis? Or something else?
Now. I know that sexual degradation is a phase some of us females go through, particularly when we are trying to sort out our lives and identities. What is that line by Robert Graves? Something about how why is it that when a woman goes through an identity crisis, it is so frequently played out on a Dionysian stage? I did not pack my copy of The White Goddess. And so here we have Sheila Heti playing the role of Sheila Heti going through a sexual identity crisis with a man named Israel. And she spends a lot of time trying to convince us this is interesting.
All of the cocks and fucks are hollow. Which should be interesting in itself. Because sex like that, while yes enslaving and annihilating is ultimately hollow. Maybe that is the point of sex like that, the annihilation and the hollowing out. But both Sheila Heti the author and Sheila Heti the banged are taking notes during the banging. I'm not convinced it counts as sexual degradation if it's a performance for a wider audience, if you're doing it for the "experience."
Heti tries to overwhelm the reader with the porn talk, but I can't find the point to any of it. The most generous explanation I could come up with is that it's a comment on our oversexualized culture, but even that is a cliche ten years old.
The closest I could come to understanding was when revisiting Kathy Acker. Now, that is some porn talk. That is cock and fuck and cunt and sucking and spitting and up on stage until your eyes start to blur in self-defense. But while Acker's writing feels completely embodied, Heti seems to float above, giggling and scribbling down narration. Because just as you were beginning to get dizzy from Acker's prose, she cut through the mess of bodies with a laser of a line. "You can do sex that way, a woman can -- faking -- but the problem is that at least half of you is screaming. Another problem is that you have to hide this screaming." Nothing ever comes from Heti's sex talk. Certainly no insight.
And it was let's a say a comparable book of Acker's that I turned to to after reading Heti's. Acker's is In Memoriam to Identity, and it's about fucking and trying to figure out who you are. It's about an identity crisis played out on a Dionysian stage. And while that book cuts into me deeply every time I read it, Heti did not even leave a scratch. And it's similar in prose style, in that it's lacking a stylistic prettiness. Acker: "When I was a girl, the strongest feeling in me was to go out, that's how I put it. As far out as I could go, in any way, concerning anything." Meanwhile, Heti starts writing about doing drugs and I just could not give a fuck. I wanted her to get it together in this book, and either embrace the nihilism or submerge herself into the actual feelings. Instead of standing around, taking snapshots like some poverty tourist. "This is a photo of sex!" "This is a photo of doing drugs!" "This is a photo of being poor!"
So yes, I had Pulp's "Common People" running through my head a few times. I should have had the Afghan Whigs, you know?
I'll end this with a passage from Gail Hareven's The Confessions of Noa Weber, another amazing book about identity and sexual degradation. Mostly because after rereading the chapter about Israel in Heti's book, I need my brain scrubbed a little:
Sex in itself is nonsense. By the age of close to thirty, with a reasonably attractive man a woman is supposed to know how to enjoy herself, and coming is trivial, so that what distinguished one time from another was only the proximity of despair. Pleasure touches quickly on despair, removes its muzzle and sends it racing towards you, especially when you have sent your soul to perch on the ceiling while you abandon your flesh to its pleasures.
August 21, 2012
2.5 Can we talk about the tone of How Should a Person Be? for a moment? I thought about adding this to the other post, but decided against, but now I'm deciding for. Post-brandy.
The whole thing is written in this jokey, "don't take me seriously" tone, which makes it flame-proof. Any criticism, Heti can hide behind a "oh my god, I wasn't being serious" response. It plays at self-revelation and then immediately ducks behind a jokey exterior. So I know I'm not supposed to take the celebrity/performance thing seriously, I know I'm supposed to know that Heti knows more than she's letting on (god, my head), and yet I feel like these passages are totally sincere. There is so little substance in Heti's writing. It's not like one can go diving for hidden meaning into a pool two inches deep.
So I am taking as sincere her wish to be a celebrity, her "sexual degradation" (ugh), her reality show sing-song voice, because it's the only thing that makes sense in the context of the entire book. I tried, for a little while, to read the whole book as a satire about our culture, our art world, our self-help infected brains. You know, Joseph Heller's Something Happened is a satiric take on its culture. How Should a Person Be? is not.
Paul Theroux tries his hand at raising geese, despite the fact that geese are known to be total fuckers. (Not as bad as swans, though, maybe. I saw two swans at Sanssouci torturing a rather large dog, beating him with their wings and hissing and sniping and the poor dog was pissing himself. Bring back swan eating, that is what I say.)
The eminent US fantasy magazine Weird Tales's decision to publish an extract from a young adult novel featuring a minority white race called the Pearls that is dominated by the black race of the Coals, which has been widely described as racist, has been attacked by readers, reviewers and authors.
Author's swiftly gave the very expected "I am not a racist" response, but that has not calmed the fury.
Twitter is to blame for Patrick Ness not being a literary genius. (Oops, see what I did? I totally "misappropriated, misquoted or badly paraphrased" what he said.)
Plus, the debate about whether book reviews are too nice has shifted to whether book reviews are too mean. Which is a debate we've been having for more than a century, but I'm totally sure this round will really destroy the problem at its root.
Plus, from all the outrage about the New York Times review of Alix Ohlin's book, I kinda expected the opening line to be something like, "Alix Ohlin is a whore." I haven't read Ohlin's books, but "Ohlin’s narrative technique: when in doubt, impregnate or kill" is a funny line. It's only too bad the rest of the review is not very interesting. There is, after all, no forgiving the use of there are "two species of novelists" as an opening. It kind of invalidates anything you have to say that follows.
2. There's a line from How Should a Person Be? that has been quoted in most of the reviews so far: "How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity." It comes at the beginning, and it sets up this performative quality to the rest of the book. Because at no point does she say what she would like to be a celebrity for, and the way she addresses the reader, in this earnestly casual way, it best reminds one of a reality show participant. Not one of the reality shows where you have to have skill or talent. One where you just have to live in a house and go into the "confessional" to spill your secrets.
Or, one where it's just her, and the cameras are following her around, and she's doing her shopping at the market, having coffee with her friends, saying "oh my god" a lot. And maybe it's the type of show where she's seen the Kardashians or whatever, and thought to herself that if she were ever on camera, she would at least buy organic vegetables, and make sure everyone knew she was buying organic vegetables, because that is important and everyone would just start doing it because they wanted to be more like her.
I admired all the great personalities down through time, like Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde. They seemed to be so perfectly themselves in every way. I didn't think, Those are great souls, but I did think, Those are some great personalities for our age.
Okay, let's forget for a moment that when she says "down through time" the furthest back she can go is the late 19th century. We are on page two here (in the Kindle edition at least) and she's setting up this very surface level text. I was already feeling incredibly frustrated. Does she not know that even Oscar Wilde wasn't Oscar Wilde? He was not "so perfectly" himself. He was performing, but it was a more aware, purposeful, and interesting performance than Heti's.
Ford Madox Ford, writing about Oscar Wilde's visits to Ford's grandfather:
Mr. Wilde was a quiet individual who came every Saturday, for years, to tea... Wilde would sit in a high-backed armchair, stretching out one hand a little towards the blaze of the wood fire on the hearth and talking of the dullest possible things to Ford Madox Brown, who... sat on the other side of the fire in another high-backed chair and, stretching out towards the flames his other hand, disagreed usually with Mr. Wilde on subjects like that of the Home Rule for Ireland Bill or the Conversion of the Consolidated Debt... As he said later, [he continued these visits] out of liking for the only house in London where he did not have to stand on his head.
Now, I'm not chastising Heti for not knowing literary trivia. But throughout her book is this sort of Wikipedia-level knowledge that she spouts off, and nothing annoys me more in a writer than a lack of curiosity. Time and again, she's only curious about herself, not in the world around her. And she assumes that because she thinks she knows something, that it is the truth.
There's another scene, where she and her friend get angry at a man who has been to Africa and wanted to use his writing to draw attention to the injustice he saw there. Now, I was as exasperated with What is the What as a lot of people, that a privileged white writer was appropriating the voice of this poor African man. But whatever. It's ultimately a harmless book (which is not saying much for the quality of the text, but whatever), and at the end of the day, that act ranks higher than dozens of more memoirs. It's like Angelina Jolie tromping around the world with her UN hat on. It's annoying, but at least she is doing something. But Sheila and her friend Margaux eviscerate the man who went to Africa.
All the white men I know are going to Africa. They want to tell the stories of African women. They are so serious. They lectured me about my lack of morality... What have I got on them? Only a natural empathy that no one could guess at by the way I have been living. They come at life from the outside, those white boys who went to Africa. To have to wear on the outside one's curiosity, one's pity, one's guilt...
It's the "They come at life from the outside" and the "natural empathy" that enraged me. I'm not sure how suddenly going to Africa becomes an ignoble act, and having a "natural empathy" that is not expressed towards the outside world becomes superior. It's like that bizarre substratum of feminism that pathologizes male behavior as a sickness because it's so external (what are they running from?!) and women's nature as of the goddess and the earth and naturally superior. (This stuff exists, look it up.) And it's nonsense. Going to Africa, to me, is always going to be at least as worthy an act as sitting around, thinking about your feelings and just sort of having empathy.
So. I got off track here, I was going to write about the sex. I will try again tomorrow I suppose.
August 20, 2012
Okay, get ready. The murder trial of Jeffrey MacDonald was the subject of the book Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss. The lawsuit MacDonald brought against McGinniss was the subject of Janet Malcolm's book, The Journalist and the Murderer. And now the whole big mess -- the investigation, the trial, the lawsuit, the books of both McGinniss and Malcolm -- is the subject of a new book by Errol Morris, A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. The Observer tries to sort it all out for us.
There was an article a little while ago about the German translation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and it was a little creepy, the way it went on about how it was a fitting allegory for Germany's place in the European Union.
It turns out it gets creepier. My friend Katy passed along a story about the publisher, and his troubles finding decent translators for the project. The profile is in German, and so Katy did a little fast translation of the creepiest bit:
"(Kai) John (the publisher) looked for translators on the internet, and after several had backed out for political reasons, found three ladies who translated the huge novel into German. John calls the translators his 'girls'. He's proud of the job they've all done together." Katy's note: The article fails to mention the "ladies'/girls'" names.
Dinosaur Comics, as usual, is basically writing my memoir for me. "Hah hah hah I'll just live in a box."
Dear Austin, TX: I am coming to your shores (I know you are landlocked) for the month of October for a variety of reasons. If you have a place to sublet to me, I would be eternally grateful.
August 19, 2012
1. It happens ever so often that a person you're following on Twitter descends into what I refer to as "envy bait." Twitter is a performance, and occasionally that performance becomes this magical, swirly world of champagne cocktails, Paris hotel rooms, strings of pearls, and world famous friends that all love you intensely, and it's important to retweet their messages of love so that everyone knows this. It's different in tone from a person celebrating good fortune, and it's different from enthusiasm and a life well lived. A life well lived doesn't need to do it in front of an audience to prove its value. Envy bait carries a gaping shadow underneath it, a toothy "Don't you wish your life were so fabulous? Well, it's not" edge.
I've never really understood why someone would want to be envied. When you're envied against your will, it's completely destructive. I understand wanting to project a shiny, flat surface. I have been rereading Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and she is all shiny, flat surface there, referring endlessly to "my husband" (who hilariously never gets a name), and offering pithy but learned remarks to everything she sees. She has, from what I can tell, no emotions during the entirety of her trip through Yugoslavia. (Other than maybe annoyance with the German tourists she encounters.)
In reality, during that time she was writing desperate, fevered letters to her lover back home, and her marriage was falling apart. But what she wasn't doing was "ah yes, the plum brandy flowed as we walked through the gardens at midnight" blah blah blah. She had the opportunity to as she relayed stories of fine dinners and good conversation. The intent behind the disguise was completely different. She was disguising her reality because she had more important things to do, like relaying the entire history of the Serbian people.
There's a section that comes later on in How Should a Person Be? that served as the rather obvious key to what had been bothering me about the book before. Heti had not been, it seemed to me, presenting her sex life, her conversations with friends, her work as an honest appraisal of what was going on in her life at that time. Nor was it a shiny, flat surface that allowed for larger conversations to take place without distraction. It was envy bait. Sheila is in Miami with her friend at one point, having a good time at the hotel pool, but she only enjoys it because she's aware of being observed and being envied.
“I’m so happy with how we were making everyone jealous with how happy we were in the pool!”
With a little self-awareness, a little authorial authority, that could have been an interesting observation about why a person would need to be envied, about how that would feed them. But that neediness pervades the book and really the entire project of the book. It can't be simply a story of a girl trying to figure things out. Heti wants to answer the question of the title, How Should a Person Be? That's not being a writer. That is being a guru. That is being a guest on Oprah, bravely telling the story of how far one has come out of the depths, offering themselves as a beacon of hope from misery.
So in the next day or so, I'll try to expand a little on this, particularly in regards to the sex in the book. (And I know I'm doing this entirely for my own needs, that no one actually cares at this point. But scroll past it, motherfuckers, I need to figure out what bothered me about this book so I can stop thinking about it.)
August 18, 2012
Despite reading it two months ago, maybe longer, Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? keeps coming back into my brain. It's unfortunate, because I kept waiting for a smart critical examination of the book, which has not been forthcoming. I wanted someone else to do it. I am traveling after all, and when you're in a strange country that you are a little bit entranced with, you'd prefer to be out at the market, drinking plum brandy and watching the people go by, than spend hours thinking about and writing about a book that you had an intensely negative reaction to.
But the two negative reviews that I read did not really get at what I thought the major problems of the book were. There was James Wood's review in the New Yorker, and Katie Roiphe's review in Slate. And both seemed eager to categorize Heti's book into a category that I actually like, and do not think it belongs in, and then dismissing that whole category of writing. That being, the sort of gushy, confessional, squishy, female writing based deeply in the body. Jane Bowles. Chris Kraus. Kathy Acker. Michelle Tea. Kate Zambreno. I love a lot of those writers. I love a good unhinged narration.
To me, the Heti book, which reviewers keep calling "wise" for some reason, as if they are using a word they are not completely sure the meaning of, wants to claim the territory of the philosophical. But while shooting for philosophy, what she nails is self-help. And that bad self-help that tells you you need to wait three days before returning a man's phone call, or that you can find all the wisdom (that word again) of the world intuitively resides inside of you already. (It doesn't. I can tell you now, it does not.)
So if you'll indulge me, I'm going to write a series of shorter reactions to the book on the blog, rather than trying to approach a longer critical approach somewhere else. That way I can still get my drinking in! I'll try to keep the vitriol to a minimum.
August 17, 2012
There is a stack of Tiger's Wifes at the Sarajevo bookstore. I am of course deadly curious as to how it is selling in Sarajevo, but I did not ask the teller. (There is also a stack of Franzen's Freedom. In the corner. Under some stuff.) All the English books are jumbled together, no barriers between Freud, Stephen King (but only the Dark Tower books), an entire row of Doris Lessing, and other seemingly random picks. The jumble was nice. I grabbed a bunch, having run out of things to read other than a 900 page biography of Napoleon that I am seriously wondering why the fuck I packed. But the lack of organizational control made me think of this interview with Igor Štiks, who, being from Bosnia, writing in Croatia, living between Scotland and Serbia, would drive American bookstores' OCD need to niche-ify and categorize writers absolutely crazy.
The nineteenth-century idea that literature could be neatly compartmentalised into 'national' literatures was always a problematic one but increasingly so in a world of intensive migration. However, old habits die hard, and the old institutions – academia, literary circles, university departments, cultural ministries and such – suffer from inertia. This is why we are now privy to fruitless debates about 'French' and 'francophone' literature, 'British' and 'commonwealth' literature, local and 'immigrant' literature, which to me is a waste of time but something that won't disappear so easily.
Google made another foray into producing original content Monday when it announced its plans to buy the Frommer’s brand of travel guides from John Wiley & Sons to augment its local and travel search results.
I find this odd. (Also, why does Google Maps refuse to acknowledge that Sarajevo at all exists? It is a featureless blob in their view. Maybe the Frommer's guide to Bosnia will remedy that? Actually, I just looked, there is no such thing.)
There's an interesting article on the slew of forgotten modern classics that are coming out, and with so many publishers and imprints devoted to publishing on that -- Neversink, NYRB, Persephone, that Nancy Pearl project, etc etc -- DJ Taylor has a lot of material to choose from.
Two of the books he selects to examine and see if they fit the title "classic" are very good indeed: Persephone's reissue of Elizabeth Jenkins's Harriet and Evan S. Connell's Mrs Bridge. (Why doesn't Connell ever take? Despite several waves of rehabilitation efforts? His Bridge books in particular are exquisite, and I never understood how, ahem, lesser writers dealing in small town, suburban mores get all of the praise.)
August 16, 2012
Before that, however, and in a unique way, Christopher Tolkien agreed to speak with Le Monde about this legacy, a patrimony which has been his life's work, but which has also become the source of a certain "intellectual despair." For the posterity of J.R.R. Tolkien is both the story of an extraordinary literary transmission from a father to a son, and the story of a misunderstanding. The most well-known works, the ones that have hidden the rest, were only an epiphenomenon in the eyes of their author. A tiny corner of Tolkien's vast world, which he even gave up, at least in part.
Christopher Tolkien spoke with Le Monde in a wide ranging interview, and Sedulia Scott translated the article into English. The most interesting parts by far have to do with being the heir to such a massive literary estate.
When we talk about writers with bad reputations, writers who behaved badly, why does no one bring up Orwell? Alexander Cockburn wrote the introduction to the unauthorized "sequel" to Animal Farm, John Reed's Snowball's Chance. And in it he deals with the fact that:
Orwell carefully and secretly remitted to Celia Kirwan, an agent of the IRD or Information Research Department, a list of the names of persons on the left who he deemed security risks, as Communists or fellow travelers. The IRD was lodged in the British Foreign Office but in fact overseen by the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6.
And on that list were an awful lot of blacks and Jews.
August 15, 2012
Marquise de Brinvillier was a degenerate; under the influence of Sainte Croix she became a monster. With his aid she poisoned her own father, then her two brothers, and finally her sister; her father she killed for reasons of revenge, the others so as to obtain their inheritance. As the histories of other poisoners show, this kind of crime can become an irresistible passion: such poisoners have then killed people whose life or death must have been a matter of perfect indifference to them. So it was that the sudden death of several paupers in the Hotel Dieu subsequently gave rise to the suspicion that the bread which the Marquise distributed there weekly as evidence of her piety had been poisoned. It is certain, however, that she poisoned the pigeon pies which she set before her guests on one occasion: the Chevalier de Guet and several others fell victim to that hellish repast.
Sometimes when your life gets super strange, it is time to pull out Tales of Hoffmann.
A great university publisher, MIT Press, turns 50, and is profiled at Publishers Weekly. We've been covering a lot of their books lately, along with their imprints like ZONE and Semiotext(e). (Their book on medieval art I particularly loved, and wrote about in the Smart Set*.)
* After almost five years of writing a twice monthly column for The Smart Set, I've decided to take a leave of absence. I really love writing for them, and I hope to go back to it before too long. But columns can become a bit of a grind, as anyone who writes one knows. Soon you're just sort of filling things in by template and feeling a little stuck, writing-wise.
So I just needed a little time off to do some other things. Related: much more open for writing gigs in the next couple months, if any editors out there are interested.
For months now, the alarm has been resounding throughout the insular and competitive world of antiquarian books: beware of volumes bearing the stamp of the storied Girolamini Library in Naples. They could be hot.
The library’s former director, Marino Massimo De Caro, was arrested in May, accused of systematically despoiling the library he had been charged with keeping safe, stealing books and selling them on the open market or directly to collectors. And sharp sleuthing on the part of a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta has raised questions about Mr. De Caro and the sale of other, possibly forged, books.
The funniest thing about this story is that on my browser in the sidebar is an ad for "Buy Museum Quality and Rare Books, Prints and Maps." Check your provenance, buyers!
August 14, 2012
Oh, Germany. I was getting homesick for you earlier today, after I read the news story about how you were becoming one big Pixar film. I mean, a wild boar and a fox help kangaroos escape from the zoo? So fucking adorable I wanted to cry.
But now you're getting all Ayn Randy, and I just can't deal with that. Atlas Shrugged is getting a new German translation, and people are saying all sorts of crazy shit.
In the novel, the brightest and most productive citizens (i.e., the Germans) deeply resent having to support the weaker members of society and rebel, leaving society in tatters, a fate that could befall the continent if Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German parliament refuse to bolster the European Union's straggling economies.
Oh please just shut up.
South African police are investigating the death of Zimbabwean writer and freelance journalist Heidi Holland, who was found hanged in the garden of her Johannesburg home on 11 August. There were no signs of foul play.
Holland, who was 64, was the author of the 2008 book Dinner with Mugabe, which was based on her interviews with Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, and people close to him over more than 30 years.
I fear this is going to be one of those "haha, Freud was not 100% accurate about this one thing so we can discredit all of his contributions in totality" things. There are a lot of those things.
Did you watch the meteor shower? My father always used to wake us up at 2 in the morning to drag us on the lawn to watch the meteor showers. Who cares if it's a school night, this is important. There's always those first minutes, when you set off to watch the shower, when you're waiting for the first one, and you're worried it's just not going to happen. That they will always be at the corner of your eye and they will disappear by the time you turn your head. That everyone will see a spectacular display, but you. You will somehow miss it. Your eye will always be looking at the wrong quadrant. And then one blows past your vision, and finally, relief.
The Best of Journalism newsletter sent a link to Annie Dillard's piece "Seeing" (PDF), which is an excerpt from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It's about selective seeing, and training yourself to see, and how your expertise or particular focus will change what you see, especially dealing with nature.
William James pops up as an epigraph to a late chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. What kind of effect did marrying Annie Dillard have on the later Emerson and James books?
I imagine future biographers will be particularly frustrated by that answer. Care to elaborate?
You may have heard that Helen Gurley Brown passed away at the age of 90. I read Sex and the Single Girl when it was reissued a while back, and was surprised at how much fun it is. I mean, it's a romp, but it doesn't give you that sugar shock that so much bad chick lit gives you.
The 2009 New Yorker profile of Brown is available for free online, and it still makes it sound like she had the most fun of any of us.
“Bad Girls Go Everywhere” is the story of a woman who, mostly to her credit and greatly to her profit and glory, never knew how to blush, and who exhorted her readers to follow her example of self-invention in a buoyant, dishy, emphatic style that includes words like “pippy-poo.” Brown told her readers in 1962, “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen."
August 13, 2012
So who actually first said, "It is not enough to succeed, one's best friend must fail"? It's been attributed to Gore Vidal a whole lot lately, but he might not be the originator. The Quote Investigator is on it.
We’ve written before about how complicated the process of lending an e-book is, and how much of this is a result of conflicting DRM locks and platforms, as well as a reluctance on the part of publishers to allow their books to be loaned. But authors can also be a roadblock when it comes to lending, and we’ve just had a classic example of how that can happen with the brouhaha over LendInk, a service that allowed readers to connect with others in order to share e-books. The site has effectively been put out of business by a virtual lynch mob of authors claiming it breached their rights, even though what it was doing was perfectly legal.
We have to talk about what a horrible title Three Strong Women is. Eventually, after toting it around for a few days I ripped the cover off of the galley so I would not have to work so hard to conceal the title. Perhaps it reads better in French (a more direct translation of the title would be "powerful," but that's still not quite good), but in English it comes with the connotations of that horrible "Strong Female Character" bullshit, as all that really means is a female who likes cupcakes and kills zombies/vampires/rapists while wearing a tight tank top. (Feminism! It's our theme today.)
But! The book is very good. Very good. It's basically three barely linked novellas, about Senegalese women in or trying to get to France. It's reviewed favorably at the New York Times this week, and the reviewer highlights the middle section as the clear best of the three. She's right. Those 100 pages or so -- focused on a man who brought his wife to France from Senegal, only to fail in business and descend into a spiral of envy and bitterness and delusion -- makes the price of it worth it.
Jean H. Baker on the first wave of feminists, the suffragists, from her book Sisters: The Lives of American Suffragists:
"We conflate them into one middle-class overweight white woman with a severe look, hair unflatteringly pulled behind her ears, dressed in a high-necked black dress with a lace collar and cameo pin for decoration."
It's Lucy Stone's birthday today, and I was just reading about these women's British counterparts in A People's History of London. The British ones blew more shit up, and that makes it a little harder to like them. Especially since it coincided with a viewing of the Baader Meinhof Komplex. Of course, blowing shit up always looks more romantic a hundred years on.
August 12, 2012
Comic book artist Joe Kubert, who started a New Jersey school of cartooning that cemented his legacy as an industry great, has died, his son David Kubert confirms. He was 85.
Martyn Pedler interviewed Kubert for Bookslut in 2010.
August 10, 2012
Oh, such memories this brings back. Shamefully. An interview with one of Sweet Valley High's ghostwriters.
Although Graham Greene was 83 years old when I interviewed him at his home in the South of France, he poured our first drinks of the day — a couple of very large vodkas, and then a couple more — at 10.30 am.
Authors! They are all drunken louts who like to get spanked! (Actually...) Marvel at the immorality of the literary and the wise!
My literary companion in Cairo is Gustave Flaubert, who, before penning “Madame Bovary,” traveled to Egypt in 1850 and recorded his impressions in a series of letters to his friends. Like me, the 28-year-old Flaubert was indecisive in his opinion of the ancient Pharaonic ruins. At times, he regarded the old tombs and temples with humble awe, but at other times he expressed disappointment at the realities of his tourist itinerary. “The Egyptian temples bore me profoundly,” he wrote home at one point. “Oh necessity! To do what you are supposed to do; to be always, according to the circumstances (and despite the aversion of the moment), what a young man, or a tourist, or an artist is supposed to be!”
Greetings from Sarajevo. I'm (re)reading Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon while journeying through, and it reminded me of this piece by Rolf Potts that I always liked, about traveling through Egypt with Flaubert as a companion, and Flaubert in Egypt as a makeshift travel guide. I'm trying to decide who would make a better or more irritating travel companion. Both would probably be high maintenance. West is clever and learned, but then she spouts off strange declarative sentences about how all Slavs are, or all Jews are, or all Serbs are, and you just want to poke her in the side and hiss, "Really, Rebecca?" But then probably you would have to spend a lot of time trying to drag Flaubert out of whorehouses, and that would put a damper on the trip.
(Traveling with me is a nightmare, so I should not talk.)
Humor writer/essayist David Rakoff has died from cancer, confirmed by his brother, comedian Simon Rakoff, via Facebook. He was 47.
August 9, 2012
What are you to do if you are still lonely, despite the boyfriend who is hopelessly devoted to you? Sometimes it happens. There are periods when your friendship circle is all drought, and no relationship is encompassing/smothering enough to make up the difference.
Over at Kind Reader, I recommend some Mavis Gallant, specifically The Cost of Living for the situation.
Now, I think it's smart of you to have figured out that you should not go to this man in your life with all your loneliness gathered up in your arms, only to drop it at his feet and demand, "Fix it." Sometimes we do that, consciously or not, and it's not good for anyone involved. In Mavis Gallant's short story "Autumn Day," collected in The Cost of Living, a young bride follows her soldier husband to Salzburg after the war, only to find herself terribly alone and unable to make friends. And as Cissy goes to her husband again and again for comfort the only thing he can think of to say is that things will be better when they move into the new place. "I don't know where the notion came from," she thinks, "but Walt truly believed, if I was silent, or pale, or forlorn, that an apartment would make everything right."
August 8, 2012
It may seem unfair to pick on the book’s front matter. But in this case it reveals deeper, more fundamental flaws in the narrative’s ambitions, style and storytelling. Glibness, hyperbole, the writer’s overfondness for what he may imagine is cleverness — these undermine what might have been a serious work describing an era.
Ullman's most recent novel By Blood was set in that city/time, but now I'm kind of wishing she'd write a nonfiction book to make us all forget about Talbot's offering.
What fascinated me was his inconceivable vitality. I met him in his late seventies and knew him for the last decade of his life. My own father's and my mother's last period was very difficult – just standard difficult old age. But he had a fantastic old age – full of life, full of jokes, full of humour, going to concerts every night, receiving people from all over the world, continuing to be intellectually active. I think what initially attracted me was that he gave the vision that there was another way to be – old age had no terrors. If you were with him you thought: here is an old man who loves every second of his life.
He's also the subject of an article at More Intelligent Life, this time the focus being his pretty intense posthumous career. He's now had more books published since his death than during his lifetime.
Since I left Chicago, Rahm Emanuel took it over, and I've never really known how to feel about this. My friends back in Chicago complain. He cut the entire literary budget from the cultural center, and city really seems to feel different, and there is a significant brain drain as people leave the city because they can't find jobs. Maybe it was always this bad, and we were just blinded by love for Daley? It is possible. I liked the guy.
Eliza Griswold interviews Emanuel about Chicago's many problems, including its "decrepit" subway system, the sinkholes, the etc etc.
(Is it just me or is the story strangely slanted? The guy opposing Emanuel's plan doesn't get to say really *why* he's against it, he just gets to spout off some rhetoric about how it would be nice if our schools weren't falling apart. The questions she asks are super cushy "Can you explain your vision?" Barf. Not that it's an obviously bad problem, but it just seems weird. I care too much about a city I only inhabit about two weeks a year now.)
August 7, 2012
More of the Q&A with Garret Keizer, author of Privacy:
In your chapter about authors, I immediately thought about how we invade the privacy of our favorite authors. As you say, biographies have become spectacularly gossipy. I think Henry James's sexuality is up for debate more than his actual work is these days. But I have to admit, I read those biographies, too, even while preferring the older, the more literary-focused bios. I have to ask: when it comes to your favorite writers, do you have the same impulse? Is there anything you've learned about one of your favorites that you wish you hadn't?
Any blanket dismissal of your urge to “read those biographies” comes dangerously close to a blanket dismissal of the urge to read literary fiction itself. The urges share some common ground. We want glimpses into other lives to enrich our own, to measure our own, possibly even to improve our own. That said, I fear that a hankering after the juicy bits of an author’s life can have a contrary motivation. We immerse ourselves in the “issues” of other people’s lives as a diversion from dealing with our own, or as a way of convincing ourselves that our own issues aren’t so bad. I suppose envy is also a factor; we take a creepy comfort from seeing someone we admire brought low. As to your question about whether I have “the same impulse” to know everything there is to know about writers I admire, I’m sure I do, though I tend to resist it in the case of writers who are still alive and especially in the case of those whom I know personally.
Needless to say, a morbid curiosity about the lives of others is not confined to the lives of authors. Nor are authors always its innocent victims. Tell-all biographies are, after all, the work of authors.
I suppose that on some level I wish I didn’t know so much about Dr. Johnson’s association with his friend Hester Thrale, which includes a number of unattractive bits. You could say that my knowledge of these details deepens my appreciation for his struggles, but I would have known he was flawed even without them. We have these details through letters that Johnson wrote to Thrale and that she preserved. Had their situations been reversed, I think he would have destroyed the letters. I sympathize with Hester -- she bore a lot in her life, including Johnson -- but I also pity a man whose closest friendships were with future biographers. As Voltaire said: “What a heavy burden is a name that has become too famous.” Not that this is anything I need to worry about.
As a bit of a distraction: When I came across this line -- "Of more practical use to humankind than a unified theory of physics would be a unified theory of feminism." -- I stopped dead, I have to admit. Can I ask what you mean by this? (To me, the reason feminist theory's evolution has stalled out over the past ten years or so, which I would argue pretty strongly that it has, is because of its insistence that being female is a distinct, unified thing. Rather than focusing on finding the shared humanity and the diversity of femininity. So I want to see if I'm misunderstanding what you meant.)
Any man who presumes to comment on feminist theory has stepped onto thin ice, but since I’ve already put my feet there, I might as well test the ice. It seems to me that the value of any type of feminism has to be judged by how well it resonates with the lives of women, and that the most common types have failed to resonate completely. The type of theory you mention, which seems to view “the female” as “a distinct unified thing,” almost as a species apart, can disturb me as much as it apparently disturbs you. I can’t hear a phrase like “women’s art” without thinking of phrases like “Aryan science.”
At the same time, however, the type of feminism that seems to treat women as though they were little more than beardless men seems to ignore vast areas of female experience and sensibility. So we have this tension between an emphasis on “difference” and an emphasis on “equality.” Getting the two to tango somehow was all I meant by my remark about “a unified theory of feminism.” I was not implying a unified view of “the female” that trumps our every assumption about “the human.” Had I meant that, then “a unified theory of feminism” would be of little use to “humankind.” In such a case, I’d much prefer physics, as would the feminist theorists themselves, I imagine, since they’d be wanting to find their own planet to live on.
Over at Kirkus, I talk with Garret Keizer about his new book, Privacy, part of Picador's Big Ideas Small Books series. (The best one remains Jenny Diski's The Sixties, but the whole series is pretty good.)
The hackneyed argument that good people have nothing to fear from surveillance amounts to saying that all people are good—in other words, it implies that we need not fear that a spy will ever misuse the information he gathers—in which case, why do we need surveillance? As for blaming the victims of voyeurism for being too free with their public personae or too indiscreet in sharing their personal information with third parties, the assertion strikes me as very similar to blaming a rape victim for dressing too provocatively or for having had multiple lovers. Who are these potentates who presume to tell us how far we dare expose ourselves before we become subject to a public stripping with no one but ourselves to blame?
And, because the conversation went a big long, in a minute I'm going to post a few questions that had to be excerpted from the Kirkus conversation.
Robert Hughes, who has died aged 74 after a long illness, dismissed the notion of Crocodile Dundee as a representative Australian figure as "macho commedia dell'arte". All the same, Hughes as the Crocodile Dundee of art criticism is too good a parallel to reject: burly ocker from the outback, tinny in left hand, confronted by New York aesthete armed with stiletto, reaches with his right hand for his own massive bush knife, commenting slyly to his terrified assailant: "Now that's what I call a knife."
Yeah, I don't know about all that. But perhaps a good way to pay tribute to the man would be to watch "The Mona Lisa Curse" on Youtube. It's a powerful little documentary about the art market, and it is so very good.
August 6, 2012
Scientific American tries to establish the true Father of Psychology. I am, of course, linking to this because one of the candidates is William James.
James, on the other hand, didn’t believe that the mind was composed of so many elementary parts that you could easily measure and identify. Wundt, he wrote, was going about it all wrong—much as the person who analyzes the content of bricks in order to understand the nature of a house. But that, said James, tells you nothing at all about the house; not really. Instead, it is necessary to determine, first of all, what the house is for, and then, to see how it attains that purpose, as a whole. This approach is known as functionalism: a focus on the function as opposed to the structure of the mind.
Is it just me, or did everyone wait just a little bit longer this time than with Christopher Hitchens before they put out the inevitable, "Gore Vidal, such a dick" stories?
So it's August, and it's 100 degrees, and I keep putting books down to just kind of lie in my own sweat for a while or listen to the sounds of bad television in Serbian. And it's not like publishing is working this month anyway, as August is traditionally the month of next year's selection of cat calendars and little books of "inspiration." But we scavenged together the best of what's available to put together a new issue for you. Because it's not like we were fucking going outside in this heat and we had to do something to prevent our descent into madness.
First off, it's all rose petals and tragic cosmetic surgery as Elizabeth Bachner considers Decadence. Lizzie Stark introduces you to larping, which I'll wait for the fall to try, those costumes sound weighty. (Probably you already knew about larping, you savvy geeks, you.)
In reviews, we manage to dig up two new Samuel R. Delany books for you. One good, one bad. I always regretted that we didn't find a reviewer for Terry Castle's wonderful essay collection The Professor when it first came out, and we manage to correct our mistake in our Past Perfect section. And we get all revolutionary with Miha Buena's review of Rebel Cities.
In columns, Josh Zajdman wonders why the conversation about Henry James revolves around his sex life rather than his novels. Jenny McPhee considers some of the most influential failures of the 20th century. Leah Triplett watches reality television and reads some Maugham to help her understand the state of the art world. And our world traveler Kerri Arsenault goes home.
And there is more.
God damn Richard Nash, who sent me a link to the Small Demons page on W. Somerset Maugham. I have not really gotten work done since.
August 3, 2012
Barzun also wrote the book The Culture We Deserve, which could have been written today. He complains about how we as readers and listeners and even the people who are supposed to be the gatekeepers are all "gluttons who gorge and do not digest." Smart fella, that one. I thought of that when I read Jacob Silverman's essay about how writers are too fucking nice to one another these days. And that we all know way too much about Emma Straub. But like I commented to my friend recently, never saying a bad word about another writer makes you employable. Disliking things makes you decidedly not anymore.
I will say this: you're not allowed to say anything mean about Emma Straub. You will get shouted down, because she is universally beloved. It's like that silly Slate essay defending Sheila Heti from her critics (of which there were like two). You can't criticize Sheila Heti, we all already got together and decided she was going to be universally beloved. No matter what a stinker that book was. And why would you say anything mean about Emma Straub? It would be like insulting a kitten. She is harmless. I just miss writers who were full of harm. Who had bad intentions. And I don't just mean they might get drunk and grope you a little at AWP.
I am being menaced by a menacing city. And the first day I stayed in bed and cried. (And drank.) And the second day I said, all right motherfucker, let's go. Sometimes we need a push back. The whole world cannot be throwing rose petals at you all the time. What a goddamned bore.
Have you ever seen William James's portrait of his brother Henry? The fella and I happened across it at the Gardner when we were in Boston not too long ago, and it is a beautiful thing. William was always such a good painter and sketcher. Even his self-pitying self-portraits during his worst depression are pretty striking. (It is too bad I can't find more of his work online.)
In the New Republic archives, there's a piece by Jacques Barzun (who wrote a very good book about William James) about the influence James's art background had on his philosophy. I mean, probably you are only going to read it if you are a crazy person like I am. But just in case.
Kuhn wanted to free us from the illusion that knowledge is independent of history and of the sociality that marks us as humans, but he did not think that all beliefs that our history and sociality put before us are equally worthy. Indeed, he quickly moved away from the "shift happens" conception of paradigms as bundles of beliefs, emphasizing instead that they're examples of good scientific practice that researchers apply in their daily work.
I missed this when it was first published, but I'm glad to find it. David Weinberger writes about how Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has been misunderstood, and tries to place it back into context. Which Kuhn would have approved of.
Belgrade is doing my head in. You'll have to excuse any absences, it will probably be because I'm lying on the floor, trying to hold on.
Two things at the Awl. One is an examination of the beginning of Stephen King's career, and what it decidedly is not is one of those quibblings over our affection for the writer.
King is the kind of writer about whom everyone has some grand sweeping opinion, and the negative ones are all the same: He’s a hack, here is a terrible sentence, there is a cliché, a stock character. The peons all read the man and they do not want from literature what I want from literature, which is enrichment and philosophy and definitely more than a few references you’d have to pay college tuition to understand. You know the routine, everyone’s danced it a few times.
And the second is the always delightful Emma Garman's profile of chick lit writer/politician/tabloid queen Louise Mensch. A chick lit writer whose life strangely takes on the trajectory set out in the novels she writes.
I'm afraid there's no easy way to say this, but it appears that chick lit plots are escaping from the confines of their pages and becoming real, like some dystopian nightmare conceived by Ridley Scott. Observers of British political life will be aware that last year, Tory MP and Leveson Inquiry star Louise Mensch married her second husband, Red Hot Chili Peppers manager Peter Mensch, in a secret New York ceremony. Eerily, the blushing bride's debut novel, Career Girls—published in 1995 under her maiden name, Louise Bagshawe—features a plot in which a Jewish music mogul dumps his American wife, the mother of his three children, for a "willowy, blonde, coldly determined" Oxford graduate named Rowena.
August 1, 2012
One of the things that bugs me about the Western Literary Tradition is that the conventions of narrative in particular seem to confine the stories you can tell about characters to tropes of bone-headed action and old models of psychological realism. And as readers, too, we have been conditioned to understand characters as – and forgive me for saying it out loud – what the market says they should be. Namely, safe, clean, proper.
Every once in a while a messy character who manifests a REAL body emerges, for instance, Lisbeth Salander – and certainly commercial genre fiction is full of examples of real bodied sexual encounters or violence encounters – but for the most part, and particularly if you are a woman or minority author, your characters’ bodies have to fit a kind of norm inside a narrow set of narrative pre-ordained and sanctioned scripts.
While I agree with Lidia Yuknavitch about characters and bodies, I cringe at her example of Lisbeth Salander as an unconventional body. She's pretty conventional. She's the violated body. The rape survivor. Not just that, but she's following the Rape Revenge storyline, which is a conventional storyline that is mostly constructed by men. (Read Virginie Despentes on the subject. Or Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.) She's also following the body type of Geeky Male Fantasy pretty closely, the same body type that brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other Strong Female Characters created by men. This is not at all a complaint. But it's pretty ridiculous to claim that this character is somehow more "real" than others, when it just follows the prototype that is all over our culture.
Melville House has a great round-up of attacks from one writer on another, like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound's back and forth, Mark Twain's insane hatred for Jane Austen (I can relate), and then digs up a response by Mary McCarthy in the London Review of Books to TS Eliot's famous dismissal of Henry James. "He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it."
There is a new Anne Carson interview at Suicide Girls, and maybe like me your first thought was, "Suicide Girls still exists?" It does, apparently. It seemed like such an Austin, Texas thing that I guess I had a hard time believing it still existed after I left Austin, Texas.
She is there to talk about her new translation, Antagonick, so you can say you were really there for the Sophocles when someone catches you looking at pretty, tattooed girls not wearing any underwear.
Gore Vidal, the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization, died on Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2003, after years of living in Ravello, Italy. He was 86.