August 31, 2014
Image: "Women Workers, Take Up Your Rifles!" (1918) by Lev Brodoty.
In celebration of American Labor Day and of Jessa and I having separate but equally limited Internet access until Tuesday evening—odds are I'll be drunk when you read this—I have some logistical and informational announcements:
1) Bookslut needs new blood—ideal candidates will prevail among the undead, but we're open to mortals. All sections of the magazine are fair game—features are interviews, reviews are reviews (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry), and we're always open to new column ideas. If you're interested, email Jessa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2) Wizeo, a crowdfunding-for-charity startup that hosts 15-minute video chats with influential people ("Wizzes," which is the first and last time I'm going to quote that) in various fields, is featuring back-to-back literary types this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday. For a donation of any amount (any amount!) that will go to a specific charity, you can watch/participate.
On Tuesday at 8 pm EST, Ladette Randolph, the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares and author of the forthcoming memoir Leaving the Pink House (University of Iowa Press, September 2014), will advise emerging writers, impart general wisdom. Questions already submitted include: "What makes some works more or less likely to be published in Ploughshares?" and "What do you think of YA? Is it literature?" (Dramatic pause.)
Once more, with feeling, on Wednesday: same time, same place, different author. This time it's Alden Jones, who Michael Carroll interviewed for Bookslut in June. (Remember: you, too, could interview luminaries for Bookslut.) Jones has written a travel memoir, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia (University of Wisconsin, 2013), and a collection of short stories, Unaccompanied Minors, prompting the "How much is autobiographical?!?!" question, as well as "Do you keep a journal when you travel? How does it affect your work?"
August 29, 2014
Image: "Saint Jerome" (1606) by Caravaggio.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation about the apparently emerging "books in translation" genre with EJ Van Lanen, who founded the eBooks-in-translation company Frisch & Co. (which is great/I've written about before), basically about how ridiculous it is that having originally been published in a language other than English relegates a contemporary book to a genre, the overarching problems of which I do not need to explain, and it's ridiculous not only because technically people like, you know, Proust should fall into it. It seems like this is changing, thanks partially to bestselling Scandinavians, partially to Murakami, and partially to everyone wanting to seem interesting and worldly. Thank God for the fall of the American empire. There's a great little profile of two Spanish->English translators, Edith Grossman and Natasha Wimmer, in Newsweek.
As I read more translated stuff, I find I'm often running into the same sort of "translation voice," characterized by an apparent skepticism of semi-colons and wide-eyed lack of contractions, as if all people who aren't anglophone write the same way. Dangerous, I say. Anyway, it's been said before, obviously, but damn, The Savage Detectives makes me feel like I'd trust Natasha Wimmer with my life. Her brilliance is especially obvious when you try to read Knausgaard, who is seeming, more and more, to have been a little shafted by his translator.
Wimmer moved to Mexico City while translating the book. She rented an apartment near one of the protagonists’ favorite coffee shops—it is a very geographically minded book, explains Wimmer, so understanding the neighborhood’s layout was important—and met with student fans of Bolaño to discuss the meaning of the book’s slang.
Still, when she was three-quarters of the way through translating the novel, Wimmer decided to start over; she felt as if her sentence breaks were too different from Bolaño’s.
And she has amazing hair, too.
-For all you upstarts compiling "Top 13 Foreign Words That Are Untranslatable in English" articles, the Wikipedia entry for "Untranslatability"would like to politely interject:
Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be "untranslatable" is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this. Therefore, untranslatability or difficulty of translation does not always carry deep linguistic relativity implications; denotation can virtually always be translated, given enough circumlocution, although connotation may be ineffable or inefficient to convey.
-The New York Review of Books has a long piece about Khmer people who feel "denied their 'right to the precise term for what was done to us'" in the wake of the UN-backed tribunal's conviction of the last two Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity—and not "genocide." It's an interesting mini-history of the word in Cambodian culture vs. the precise meaning established by the 1948 Genocide Convention, and very follow-able/introductory if you don't know much about the Khmer Rouge. Plus Cambodian Folk Stories from the Gatiloke.
-And two things about lying in bed. 1) If only they'd had laptops in 1909. 2):
Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.
August 28, 2014
What are books anymore, even? I'm reading something because a publication asked me to review it, and it's just so fucking lame. I'm trying to finish it as quickly as possible so its lameness doesn't seep into the intricately woven fabric of my intellectual life, staining it permanently, but God, 300+ pages of the same two ideas presented unimaginatively is almost more depressing than a straight-up, your-mom-must-run-a-publishing-company-bad book; at least there you have something to actively rail against. If we want this literature thing to work out, we have to all do our part, and that means pausing and thinking very seriously about whether your successful Internet writing career will translate into a good book, which is a physical object, something that takes up space both literally and within the grand scope of human knowledge. I do not mean: will it sell? I mean: do the people need to read your writing in an expensive-to-produce form that is weighty with historical and intellectual significances, which imply the also-literally-weighty object has taken more time and thought to produce than just another WordPress site and is, thus, probably more worthy of consideration than a rant-y blog post some precocious 24-year-old wrote in a couple of hours? Or will you gather a bunch of your most decent journal entries together under a great title, thus marring all future potential uses of that great title with connotational lameness, and be like, "I published a book!"? If you have read great books and purport to respect and venerate them, then why would you do this? Why?
I really resent being told by swathes and swathes of people—and not just people, but people who ostensibly like books and read them—that a book is good, only to obtain it and find myself confronted with free-market capitalism funneled into something completely unremarkable, and I also really resent the alienation that goes along with that, when everyone is talking about a book and you finally read it and are like, "This? Really? Is something wrong with me?" I find myself thinking that it's not hard to see why people retreat into academia, and then I thirdly resent being made to wish I could fully express my exclusive, snobbish tendencies, because exclusive snobbery is much worse than this lameness, this lameness that seduces you with its simple sentences and uncomplicated, why-can't-everyone-just-get-along ideas. Lame people need shit to read, too, sure, but instead of giving it to them, maybe we could decrease the number of lame people if we encouraged everyone to read books that feel like they need to exist, that do not espouse complacency implicitly in their lameness of form or explicitly in their lameness of content. Also, let's be clear: "At least they're reading!"* might work for at-risk youth; it doesn't really work for upper-middle class liberal arts graduates working in the media, for people who already understand that reading is valuable and then coast along with not-challenging nothing-books. Quit doing that. Yes, I'm "reader-shaming," which is a neo-liberal absurdity I both can and cannot believe someone tried to coin, but I don't mean it along genre lines—it can't be all James Joyce all the time. I just mean, like, don't read(/write) books that are empty, that say the same things everyone else says in the same way everyone else says them.
Also, quit taking selfies.
*Tangential: "Who Reads Mein Kampf?" is not about the dangers of 21st-century literature of mediocrity, but it is a great piece about the more than 600 Amazon reviews of Mein Kampf, which, despite my fervor, I fully acknowledge is a book more damaging to society than boring Internet people are.
August 27, 2014
In the August issue of Bookslut, Kate Loftus-O’Brien reviews Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House. With such an ambitious novel – extended time, limited space – Makkai is a writer to watch. To get to know her work better, here are more words by Rebecca Makkai:
Her first novel, The Borrowers – about a librarian who kidnaps / is kidnapped by a ten-year-old boy she helped smuggle books past his homophobic mother – has a rather strong opening:
I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it’s hard to tell.
Back at the library, amid the books and books on ancient Egypt, the picture the children loved most showed the god of death weighing a dead man’s heart against a feather. There is this consolation, then, at least: one day, I will know my guilt.
Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower
Lucy has an almost religious belief in the power of literature. She thinks that if she can get books into Ian's hands that nudge him toward questioning the authority of his evangelical parents, that this broadening of his outlook "might well be what would save his life." What about you? What matters most to you in a book? When you read, is there anything in particular you're looking for?
I don't think, at this point in my life, that I'm looking to be saved from anything particular -- but there is a certain salvation to be had from recognizing the commonality of experience, especially with an author very far removed from your own world. It's one thing to read a contemporary American writer talking about something we all agree on, like Isn't it embarrassing how people revert to cliche when they flirt? but then you read Madame Bovary, and here's Flaubert, one hundred and thirty years dead, making the same point with startling familiarity. And there's a reassurance in that, this reminder that we're not alone in the universe. I like to think it's the same feeling early humans would have when they stumbled upon cave paintings left by earlier tribes: "Dude, there are other people! And they hunt mammoths just like us!" That's the feeling I'm after, on whatever level, when I pick up a book: I want to sit there wondering how the author got inside my brain.
Rebecca Makkai interviewed by Reese Kwon, An interview with Rebecca Makkai | Bookslut
It was fun to play with those extremes: the delusional, monster kidnapper and his victim, versus the two misfit companions helping each other escape. Lucy isn’t sure where she falls on that spectrum, but, being the librarian she is, she sees her whole life through a sort of narrative lens and wants to define herself on those terms.
Nabokov’s influence actually helped me through a difficult pass in the writing of this story; I’d gotten Lucy and Ian on the road, but after they got past Chicago the story abruptly lost steam. I dug back into Lolita and saw what I’d forgotten, and what the old master had done so effortlessly: he had them followed. I embraced “Mr. Shades” as a nod to Lolita‘s Quilty plotline—but even if it hadn’t fit my larger thematic motives, I’d still have stolen the idea, because it was such a good, basic one. I’m pretty sure I literally hit myself on the head when I saw it. As soon as Lucy and Ian got a follower, too, I had a triangle—and that’s when plots (and life) get interesting.
Of course there’s a whole heaping dose of The Wizard of Oz in there, too, and there’s even some Ulysses, buried so deep that only the true-of-English-major-heart will find it.
Q. Why do you think the librarian’s stereotypical forlorn spinster image still persists?
I have absolutely no idea, because most of the librarians I know are loud and rebellious individuals.
On the potential difficulties of writing political fiction:
I don’t find it difficult so much as unavoidable. It’s funny, even when I think I’m writing a very apolitical piece (because it’s not directly about politics or revolution), it will end up being about race or class. You’d think I’d be a loudly political person in real life, but really I limit myself to voting and occasionally talking back to NPR when I’m alone in the car. And maybe that’s just what my stories will always be about, whether I want it or not – in the way that a Roth story is always about sex and a John Irving story is always about dismemberment and bears.
I think that whether I’m writing about a revolution or a bomb shelter or a public library, what I’m drawn to is the power structure – who’s in charge, who’s being oppressed, who’s working their way up that ladder. There’s a lot of drama inherent in that, and it’s not so much that I have a political ax to grind as that this is where I tend to find the story.
I do think that if someone sets out to write fiction just to prove a certain political point, though, it becomes unbearable. It’s why I can’t stand Tolstoy. I think politics can be the subject, but not the point.
Rebecca Makkai interviewed by Sabra Wineteer, The Millions Interview: Rebecca Makkai | The Millions
On limited perception and playing with viewpoints in The Hundred-Year House:
There’s someone in every story who knows the most about what’s going on. It might be the narrator or a major character, or it might actually be the reader. Sometimes that’s because the narrator’s understanding is limited (Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a fabulous example), and sometimes it’s because the reader is the only one who has access to multiple points of view. I wanted to play with that, and I also wanted us to be the only ones with access to multiple time periods. It’s something we’re denied in real life: I’m typing this in a coffee shop in a building that’s nearly 200 years old, and I have so much information at my fingertips (I mean, there’s Wi-Fi!), but one thing I absolutely cannot see is what was happening right here in 1918 or 1867, or even yesterday. In real life, not only are we never truly able to know each other, we’re never able to know anything but the present moment. Experiencing art (reading, watching a movie) is one of the only ways we can simulate this kind of understanding, this synthesis of different viewpoints or different times. It was fun writing in the 3rd person. My first novel was in 1st; after that, 3rd felt like flying. An early reader described the viewpoint as “Olympian,” and I loved that idea and tried to amplify it. Especially towards the end of the 1929 section, we’re sort of soaring through time and space.
Rebecca Makkai interviewed by Margaret Zamos-Monteith, An Interview with Rebecca Makkai, Author of The Hundred-Year House | Dead Darlings
In Gossip, the short story Rebecca Makkai read for This American Life, the writer amplifies this game of viewpoints. What the characters know and don’t know, what the viewers in the story see and don’t see – that’s the essence of Gossip. Moreover, there’s something almost alchemical about this piece of writing as Rebecca Makkai takes trash (reality TV) and turns it into something very close to gold.
August 26, 2014
If you happen to be a relative of the famous you are granted certain concessions and privileges, although you understand that your claim or the claim of others on behalf of you must first be recognised. Imposters are frowned upon. The question is, how does one decide in the first place which of the famous are imposters?
After death is best; time, sprung free of the trap, exercises itself day and night in long division, subtraction, blinding itself in the poor light of the grave where the little worms patrol the corridors carrying torches past each darkened room.
The remainders are framed in gold.
Now there was once a woman painter who became famous after her death when bearded men plunged swords in each other's hearts to possess one of her paintings or to donate one, suitably inscribed and recorded, to the local gallery which was dark brown, opening and closing with a faulty catch, like a broom cupboard where in spring and summer the dust is elbowed away and the shapes of paint are temporarily revived, with the sun warming the creaking damp joints of colour, the drip-dry bones of light blazing.
Now after the death of the painter, after her biography had been written, the memoirs of her friends printed and her work appraised as successful communication, a tunnel through dense mountain walls where the penalties of work are loneliness, suffocation, drowning in underground streams, pit-blindness, those who recognised her work and were grateful for human routes at any costs, for burdened ants who never swerve, decide to extend their interest.
'Has she any relatives?' they asked.
'None,' was the answer.
Then suddenly they heard of Wilfred, the nephew, the eccentric beachcomber with the encyclopaedic knowledge of flora, fauna, conchology.
They were amazed and excited.
'Why didn't someone tell us before?' they cried. 'To think that Wilfred has been living all this time in a remote northern seaside town, and not a word has been breathed that he was a relative of the famous!'
Few people knew.
-From "A Relative of the Famous" by Janet Frame
The woman next to me in this cafe is on her cell phone speaking a typically beautiful French, saying voilà, voilà. She's probably talking about plumbing, but wouldn't it be great if she were talking about the nature of artistic celebrity?
August 25, 2014
Image: "Dogs Fighting" by Paul de Vos
Post-Weekend Recommended Reading
Today's theme is snippy intellectual disagreements, sometimes Twitter-related:
-Big LOLs to everyone who came up with the same lame "Did no one edit this?!" joke in response to Hamilton Nolan's "Against Editors" piece at Gawker. Especially you, Sasha Weiss, clearly flustered from a mawkish, four-tweet paean to Elena Ferrante, writer of a series that "burrows deeper beneath the surface of life" than Knausgaard's. Cool metaphor! Never was support for Nolan's "writing and editing are two completely different skills" argument stronger than when you earnestly tweeted the word "palimpsest."
If you believe that having four editors edit a story produces a better story than having one editor edit a story, I submit that you have the small mind of a middle manager, and should be employed not in journalism but in something more appropriate for your numbers-based outlook on life, like carpet sales.
You go, Ham No-No. (Yes? No? Help! I don't have an editor!) (While you're at it, get that pause comma between "manager" and "and" the fuck out of there.)
-I've got a short story, "Smart People Talk About Sex II," up at the Quietus. It includes the phrase "pungent glob of lukewarm moisture," which, full disclosure, is a marketing strategy I've already tweeted.
-Mary Beard—I love her. Some might object to so much of this piece focusing on what she looks like, given that one of its central theses is that she's too busy gesticulating wildly about ancient Rome to give a shit, but no—it's a great profile.
-More in passive-aggressive Twitter linking and editorial strategy nit-picking: After the New Republic published a piece about the fourth-annual "World Domination Summit" ("a festival that's sort of like Burning Man meets South by Southwest, but for independently-minded professionals"), better-magazine Jacobin called them out for lazy modifiers ("Yes, lefty-socialist. Righty-socialism was never a good look for humanity.") and lazier citation of "In the Name of Love," Miya Tokumitsu's essay on the fallacy of "Do what you love!" (DWYL), which Jacobin published in January. ("We do appreciate @tnr directly citing a Jacobin article, then linking to the Slate reprint. We have enough elderly liberal readers as is.") It's good reason to (re)visit Tokumitsu's essay at Jacobin—not Slate.
August 22, 2014
Image: From the "Floating Heads" installation at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum. Photo by Shaun Killen.
Weekend Recommended Reading
The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death. We had ingested the impossibly tender things entire, the first intact head I had ever consumed, let alone of an animal that decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play.
-I just finished 10:04, the new Ben Lerner, which is opened by the great sentences above, and to be completely honest, if I were you what I would do this weekend is pre-order it and then sit cross-legged in front of your mail receptacle, box or flap-in-door or, funnier, public PO box, until September 2, consuming only baby octopuses as an anticipatory homage. (If you haven't read Leaving the Atocha Station, it's kind of important that you read it first, 10:04 sort of containing and subverting, as well as making near-explicit reference to, it, so that is an acceptable activity in lieu of the unethical consumption of intelligent cephalopods.) It—10:04—almost certainly falls under the genre umbrella of what Jessa calls "floating heads," and I'm almost certainly so deeply in love with it because I have a lot in common with Lerner (and, thus, his protagonist(s)) w/r/t educational background, intellectual and professional pursuits, etc., but whatever: things would be better if we didn't have bodily annoyances to deal with, so many people do this kind of book wrong, and Ben Lerner is all the superlative adjectives. I'm not going to sling any book review bullshit, about it being a "complex meditation on time" or a "funny, completely modern reflection writing, genre, New York, x theme, y theme, and z theme," but seriously, it is formally fucking transcendental and feels right, especially if you hated My Struggle or Taipei but can't shake your begrudging respect for their literary projects. More TK.
-Vogue has a totally unremarkable and boring piece up about Elena Ferrante. Summary: She's super good at writing female friendships—duh—and they did the interview over email, so, no, revelations re: Ferrante's gender are not contained within.
-Freddie deBoer on online social liberalism, with a deft first-person plural in the clutch, at The Dish:
On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there’s no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition...People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room.
-Xiaolu Guo has an essay at Aeon on Western influence and the rise of "wealthy socialism" in China.
As for me, I'm switching off between Zone, the 521-page, one-sentence debut from (the very slick) Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Prizes by Janet Frame. After "floating heads," "books by wrongly institutionalized female geniuses" is one of my favorite genres.
August 21, 2014
While toiling over what to write about today, time passing quickly and soundlessly, like a smooth-calved middle-aged man on some kind of stupid, overpriced road bike, I clicked over to Twitter—for inspiration—and was pleasantly surprised to see Jessa has a piece up at the New York Times. First thing to note is that she has somehow escaped the NYT's artless, paragraph-happy non-news editorial strategy and sounds original and witty, instead of like a po-faced drinker of iced lattes, which we can only attribute to her being "an intellectual or whatever." The second thing to note is that the piece is about tarot, which my afternoon companion did with a disappointed scoff and an "Oh. I mean, fine, but it would have been better if it were about literature."
The piece is, of course, about that, that (often, ahem, gendered) snobby dismissal of tarot as unintellectual, and it acknowledges the lameness of many tarot books/readers while also maintaining a faith in tarot's power—which is not that it can predict the future, Jesus Christ.
...if you take apart one of these tarot books, you’ll be left with nothing. Some soggy material full of mystical woo-woo language and soft ideas about karma and the spirit realm. Or self-help clichés, “no one will love you until you learn to love yourself” nonsense. The writers seemed incapable of distilling the experience I had had, and instead just wanted to tell me how to foretell the future or figure out why that guy left me.
I didn’t believe that the tarot cards were a way of the gods getting messages across (they can use Facebook, like everyone else). And I didn’t want to repair my psyche — I was unconvinced that it was broken....But I kept coming back to the power of that reading. What she was really doing was telling me a story about my life.
When you mention tarot (or astrology) to, for instance, a bright young literary man, his first reaction is always a sort of lean-back-in-surprise(-but-not-too-much-surprise-because-you're-pretty) thing, followed by, "You don't believe in that, do you?" My answer is always honest—"No, but it's fun to think about"—within the parameters of the bright young literary man's apparently limited worldview: I don't "believe in" tarot, or my horoscope, or whatever, not in the sense that I think they predict the future, speak volumes about my immutable character, etc. I do agree with Jessa, though, that there is value in using the cards (and their associated mythologies, stories, etc.) to show you alternative interpretations for your life. Letting those "mystical woo-woo" types define tarot—which, full disclosure, I'm not, like, super into; I can just get around it in the occasional fun and reflective setting—would maybe be like letting 50 Shades of Grey define novels. I'm suspicious when bright young literary men wave their hands at great portions of human thought/experience; is that not what literature is supposed to be about?
If nothing else, you can at least raise your glass to Jessa's brazen not quoting of Joan Didion. And read The Castle of Crossed Destinies, about which Calvino said, when he was asked whether his use of the tarot as a symbol for chance reflected a use of chance in how he wrote the book:
My tarot book, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, is the most calculated of all I have written. Nothing in it is left to chance. I don’t believe chance can play a role in my literature.
Image: Photo of Theresa Duncan and Baron von Luxxury
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. - Susan Sontag, On Photography
If photographs are a reminder of a person’s vulnerability and mortality, after their death they also become proof. Proof of their existence. Moreover, photographs become the narrative of someone’s life. An incomplete one, but a narrative nonetheless. In the Disappearance issue of Spolia, Kurt Hartwig writes about such an album – filled with photographs and stories – that becomes a little girl’s connection to her dead parents.
Initially, the intention was to gather a few links and organize them thematically -- loss, mourning, memory. But like Sophia, the little girl in Hartwig’s story, I was reminded of the digital version of an album filled with stories and photos and got a little lost in there. So this entire post became all about Theresa Duncan.
I had never heard of Theresa Duncan till I stumbled upon a post on someone’s tumblr and hadn’t given this any thought until now. Following her suicide in 2007, all the traces she has left online as well as the memorial pages dedicated to her by friends and family have become her story. Probably the best word to describe Theresa Duncan is “storyteller.” This word encompasses all the activities she was known for: independent game designer, filmmaker, critic, blogger.
Looking at her blog now, titled The Wit of the Staircase, it’s rather difficult to understand its popularity. One has to dig deep to find those few posts that are more than just quotes and photos. Did the appeal of her blog reside in the fact that it showed that a creative life, filled with books, films and music (and the occasional frivolities) was not only possible, but it was also legitimate? More sensationalist, pseudo-socio-psychological interpretations could be offered, but let’s leave that to the “fast thinkers.”
Theresa Duncan has also left behind a large number of journals, glimpses of which can be caught on the tumblr kept by her mother, Memories of Theresa.
For someone who values the written word, their personal library can become an extension of their identity. This seems to be true of Theresa Duncan, too. Cary Loren writes about the books, writers and artists Theresa Duncan kept close to her heart.
August 19, 2014
We posted yesterday's interview with Catherine Lacey at a weird time, mostly because I'm a procrastinator and there are secret and mysterious server issues to which you are not privy, so today I'm just going to underline that you should read it. Hi, hello? You should read it, and you should do so knowing that it was conducted and published before I knew the New Yorker had glowingly reviewed Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine's debut novel, around which the interview centers. Sure, this glowing New Yorker review took place last Thursday, so maybe I should have caught it, but what do you think this is? I'm not a slave to the New Yorker, except sometimes. (To be fair, the review is also about 60% plot summary, which, I don't know, come on, guys.)
More importantly: read the brilliant Grantland piece about the Ferguson race riots—this is 2014—and then possibly read the Vanity Fair unique-perspective post about the "paramilitary posturing" there.
August 18, 2014
What We're Reading
This novel takes the setting of a pancake house as an occasion to ruminate on pancakes, their place in the heart of a man, and how the comfort they promise gives way to the disgusting way they feel in a gut before they're digested. This logic gets followed, in the mind of a psychologist narrator undergoing a breakdown, and as the book does not stop for chapter breaks I followed along with every step and felt the same insane and giddy out-of-body experience being described, as these feelings that seem so rooted in the body's urges were deconstructed. I laughed out loud in delight and in the end felt older, as the stuff of childhood was made to seem deeply unappealing so as to necessitate major life changes.
Image: Illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland.
An Interview with Catherine Lacey
I first heard (about) Catherine Lacey when she was on Brad Listi's Otherppl (née Other People) podcast, and I guess I sort of developed a crush on her. She talked about the sort of things that give people (the media) pause (being from Mississippi, selling her eggs, moving to New Zealand to work on a farm somewhat randomly), but she talked about them as if they were no big deal—as if she didn't necessarily consider her life and the choices she's made in it potential click bait—or even just material—and that was, I'm sad/weirded out to say, refreshing. She seemed to strike a balance between examining the ambiguity of the world and reacting to it, in particularly click-baity issues of gender (which we talk about) and in issues of art (which we also talk about); it made me want to read her debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. I won't retread ground covered in the review in the August issue of Bookslut, but I thought the book was challenging and exciting and original, which felt like a great excuse for me to talk to her about female travel narratives, nervous breakdowns, and the aforementioned ambiguity.
One of the things I thought was most interesting about the book was the way you dealt with gender. It's certainly a factor in Elyria's interactions—the lone female hitchhiker warnings are the most obvious example of this—but I think a lot of (feminist) writers would have made a lot more of that angle. Did you set out to do anything particular with gender, or was this a byproduct? Had/Have you read the periodic calls for more (and less cliché) female road/travel literature, and do you feel like you're contributing to fixing that, whether you're actively trying to or not?
Catherine Lacey: I didn't intend to write specifically about gender or to contribute a female protagonist to the road trip narrative; however, I am very much aware of how women are hyper-perceived, misrepresented, and manipulated every goddamn day, and I can't leave that part of myself in bed while I get up to write. So now that I'm long past writing Nobody and I can back up and have a good look at it, I do hope it can adequately answer what Vanessa Veselka calls for in that American Reader essay, though it's not for me to decide.
Also, I didn't read the Veselka essay until after I'd gone on many-a solo trip and written this book, but this paragraph in particular feels ultra-relevant:
...my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, 'stealing' a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the US, or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women. In a country with the richest road narratives in the modern world, women have none. Sure, there is the crazy she-murderer and the occasional Daisy Duke, but beyond that, zip.
Elyria's being female doesn't feel fundamental, though, even as the people she meets are trying to file her under gender-normative labels, most frequently "potential rape victim" or "wife."
I did an interview with Sasha Frere-Jones a few weeks ago, and he said he thought the character could have been a 50-year-old man instead of a 28-year-old woman and the story wouldn't even have to change much. This wasn't a goal while I was writing it, but I tend to agree. I don't really know if this helps, hurts, or does nothing to the role gender plays in the story.
I don't really know, either. When the people Elyria meets stereotype her, she tends to go along with it, or silently accept it and just move on; it's like it just rolls off her, the hey-you're-a-woman stuff, which highlights another thing I really liked: the intense interiority, the disconnect between the subject and the people around her trying to get her to share that interiority with them. Um...what am I getting at? I think: Was it hard to resist conclusiveness, decision, definition? Is ambiguity a priority for you?
Books that lack ambiguity or mystery bore me. People who avoid confronting ambiguity are even worse and are to be avoided at all costs or challenged relentlessly. Unless a person has deluded herself with one of the many worldviews that preach hard realities and absolutes, then she best get comfortable with ambiguity. For some, the concept of ambiguity is something they want to avoid in literature or film or music or their relationships or their day-to-day existence—I emphatically do not write for those people, unless they are open to challenging their relationship to ambiguity.
This reminds me of your piece for BuzzFeed about being psychologized through your characters—you try to delineate which parts of Elyria are you and which parts are her and end up concluding that it's impossible to do. It's all ambiguous boths and neithers, and with Elyria that's so frustrating; everyone wants to crack her code, and she's like, "There's no code!"
Elyria seems to believe that no one can oppress or categorize her more than she can oppress and categorize herself. She has an independence that has grown to the point of hermetically sealing her off from the rest of the world. In a way, this has led her into a struggle with the amount of instability in her life. No one has a code that can be cracked for someone else to understand them, yet we still attempt to understand others and be understood by others. Writing a character that rails against this idea is a good way to explore that concept.
I've read you (and reviewers) describe Nobody as a "story about a woman's mental dissolve," but do you see her as "crazy"? She makes a lot of sense to me. Well, she both makes a lot of sense and doesn't make sense. The desire for her husband to shoot her with a "microscopic bullet that would make [her] make sense again, a bullet that could send the proper wants through her body"—that makes sense.
I don't believe Elyria is crazy, but I do think it's clear she's going through a kind of dissolve, which isn't quite the same thing. The word "crazy" [would] separate her from the everyday person, and I don't think [hers is] such a rare experience—to feel completely adrift, to want more solitude than is actually healthy. Though Elyria is resourceful and scrappy and fearless in a deeply fearful way, she lacks the ability to take care of herself or console herself or loosen her strong hold on dread. She doesn't really know how to turn off the faucet of dread that we all sometimes wash our hands in.
I know plenty of intelligent people with irrational fears. Or smart people with deep anxieties. Probably everyone knows people like that. I think Elyria is kind of like this. Recognizable, but missing something.
The Veselka essay, again, makes an interesting point:
A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her.
I think Elyria is actually in the act of becoming, though we don't see her fully transform.
She's also always drawing a distinction between what is "regular" or "usual" and something else, so she ends up defining herself by what she's not—it's very slippery. Do you find the sense of there being a "normal" or "regular" way to be valid at all, or is it a (dangerous) delusion? Does Elyria believe that's where "meaning" is, in the "normal" she can't access?
I’m not entirely sure, but at some point in the narrative Elyria notices or wonders if other people might not experience the world in the feverish, unbearable way that she does. She thinks that makes her different or weird—which is a state that I think we all slip into sometimes. We wonder, Am I wrong? Am I doing life correctly? I think lots of people have moments (or long moments) during which we ask ourselves these questions. Most of us come back to the realization that everyone goes through times like these, despite the fact that we can't confirm for 100% sure that other people are sharing our experiences. But I wasn't trying to show the complete arc of this very human experience. I just wanted to dig into the uncomfortable part, to break down that state as fully as possible so I could better understand it.
Did you find yourself looking to other books for examples or help?
The one book that probably had the biggest effect on the structure was Alice in Wonderland. I read it on a solo camping trip while a tropical storm walloped my tent. I was writing the first draft and it was as if someone had just handed me the structure to the book I was already writing. Woman goes on journey, meets a lot of people, is kind of changed and kind of just the same. I used it like a map.
I read Leaving the Atocha Station after I was done writing Nobody, and I loved it so much and saw why it had been recommended to me. The same thing happened with Renata Adler's Pitch Dark and Speedboat.
I don't know about these emphatic non-Lerner women. I see a lot of similarities between Lerner and Adler and Jenny Offill and Thomas Bernhard and Plath—all writers I love. States of unravelment (I may have made this word up) are somewhat ungendered (maybe this one, too). If you're having a hard time with the frailty of existence (and in some ways all breakdowns, "dissolves," or unravelments are about exactly that), then it doesn't matter what gender you identify with. It may change the experience a little, but the bone of it is the same.
August 15, 2014
Image: The caption on this one reads: "'Guernica' is a painting by Pablo Picasso depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Here I have made it a happy birthday party complete with pony rides!" No.
It's my birthday today! I was going to write a poem called "It's my birthday today" and post it here, but then I didn't want to anymore, so I didn't. It's my birthday today, and I do not have to share my grapes with anyone.
That was going to be in the poem.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-If your girlfriend's birthday is also today, but she isn't Sylvia Plath, you could get her Birthday Stories (edited by *~*~*Murakami*~*~*), either as a standalone, we-haven't-been-dating-that-long gesture or as a cute thematic extra to go with the KitchenAid mixer or cashmere sweater or whatever it is people get each other. People like getting books because it makes them think you think they're smart. I have gotten this book before; "The Birthday Present" by Andrea Lee is in it:
Flavio hadn’t meant to inspire action when he suggested that Ariel give her husband Roberto una fanciulla—a young girl—for his fifty-fifth birthday. He’d meant only to irritate, as usual. Flavio is Roberto’s best friend, a sixty-year-old Calabrian film producer who five or six years ago gave up trying to seduce Ariel, and settled for the alternative intimacy of tormenting her subtly whenever they meet. Ariel is a tall, fresh-faced woman of thirty-seven, an officer’s child who grew up on Army based around the world, and whose classic American beauty has an air of crisp serviceability that—she is well aware—is a major flaw. […]
-Do not get your girlfriend "a young girl." Even if she asks!
-Today is also Napoleon's birthday. Don't forget that, in addition to being a short megalomaniacal tyrant, he also wrote a romance novel:
Hicks, a historian at the Fondation Napoleon in Paris, spent years trying to piece together the manuscript and says some of the leaves were wrongly identified because Napoleon's handwriting, rich in blots and crossings out, was so diabolical.
In "diabolical" handwriting.
August 14, 2014
Image: "Glass and Reflections" (1929) by Jaromír Funke
Today's theme is self-reflexive and calmly disorienting short pieces featuring Czech characters and meditations on storytelling, w/r/t memory and the passage of time. As with the inexorable crumble from present to memory to oblivion, there is nothing you can do about it. I've just read two:
1) "The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping" by the German writer Francis Nenik is what I would call "formally innovative" if language weren't being slowly co-opted by meaninglessness. What I will say is that this is a confounding little book that humanizes the fade into artistic obscurity in a way that is both heart-breaking and very smart, and bonus points for a) smudging the distinction between fiction and non-, b) what seems like a tricky bit of translation magic (see: "formally innovative") by Katy Derbyshire, and c) design-wise, a balance of beauty and cuteness. It's pocket-sized, 64 pages, and published by the Berlin-based company Readux, who make great-looking little books of individual stories/essays/novellas/uncategorizables, often in translation. You can find them in bookstores in New York and Chicago (and the LRB Bookshop, and other places), on the Readux website, or as eBooks.
2) In the Australian journal Seizure today, "The Record" by Vijay Khurana:
Grygory Vrevca was dead for three years, from when Mina was four until she entered school. Ana Vrevca waited until she thought her daughter was old enough to understand the concept of death, then told her that Grygory had exsanguinated after falling through a window. She did this not because she thought it would be better for the child to have an image of a dead and honest father than of a living criminal one, but because she had read it in so many stories that she assumed it was expected of prisoners’ wives to kill off their husbands. On Mina’s first day of school, however, Grygory came suddenly and violently back to life. Within hours, Mina had achieved notoriety as the daughter of one of her country’s most infamous criminals. ‘Your father,’ her teacher asked or perhaps stated as he read the roll, ‘is the famous bank robber?’ Mina didn’t know if it had been a question or not. She had an instinctive feeling that this was the first test of her school life, and whether or not she passed would set a precedent more powerful than any adult could explain. She nodded.
Sometimes, when you're writing about things like this, it's easy to forget that they have a lot of humor in them, in addition to weighty and significant thematic concerns, and that is, in fact, part of what the story's about, memory being an unstable platform on which to base things. There's some formal innovation in there, too.
August 13, 2014
Image: I've been there! The postcard is from this Etsy store.
There's a new writer's residency in Fayetteville, West Virginia, which is, as we say, "just up the road" from the scenic New River Gorge Bridge, which is what's depicted on this here postcard and the West Virginia state quarter. (I mention that because yesterday I was talking to my Australian boyfriend about the bridge and tried to use its being on the state quarter as shorthand for its relevance; I soon realized that meant nothing to him, had to explain what the state quarter program was, and then had to explain what a quarter was. Do not take it for granted that the state quarter program is really bizarre. Also that not many countries have 25-cent coins.) I would not do this writer's residency because I am from West Virginia and don't care to participate in initiatives designed to make me appreciate it—you don't tell me!, etc.—and because I cannot recall a time when I have yearned for the "natural beauty" and fresh-aired calm of the out-of-doors, which would be its chief draws. However, I could see someone really doing great work there; it really is beautiful and not distracting, and I do agree that West Virginia is underrepresented in literature, though I think the issue is much more complicated than "The stereotypes are tired," which is what the people who started the residency ultimately want to espouse with the project.
(Scott McClanahan, also from West Virginia, gets it right a lot of the time; I did an interview with him a few weeks ago for Dazed Digital.)
Anyway, you can decide for yourselves! Check it out; it's free room and no steaks, but that will give you more opportunity to sample the local cuisine. And there's a fucking great pizza place in that town.
August 12, 2014
In August's issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee writes about Dangerous Women, an anthology of original fiction edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. The women in Martin’s Game of Thrones certainly need a lot of strength to navigate a world that works against them. But in their search for power, they either resort to manipulation or to male patterns. It is rather unfortunate that the demand for more heroines, for more strong female characters in movies, TV shows and books has resulted in characters that are all about showing that women can be just as ruthless as their male counterparts. Ideally, fictional or non-fictional “dangerous women” would translate into “women who disrupt the status quo, the patriarchy.”
When I was first invited into the anthology entitled Dangerous Women it was then known by a different title — Femme Fatales. Which has a particular and rather negative connotation. Various dictionaries describe such a person as a seductive woman who will ultimately bring disaster to any man who gets involved with her or a woman who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations. It’s a very noir attitude summed up by generations of male detectives stating — “From the minute she walked in I could tell the dame was trouble.” And I confess I wrote that story though the woman in question is a revolutionary and a freedom fighter so she damages the man in pursuit of a good cause.
Melinda Snodgrass, "Deadlier Than the Male" | Tor/Forge Blog
It’s not surprising that the first choice for a title was Femmes Fatales. For a long time, la femme fatale was the only type of woman who would spell out “danger.” Not just for one man, as the narrow view of the men writing them might suggest, but also for traditional gender roles and therefore, for what’s at the heart of the patriarchal, heteronormative system: the nuclear family.
Of the three types of noir women, the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family. She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence. As Janey Place points out, "She is not often won over and pacified by love for the hero, as is the strong heroine of the forties who is significantly less sexual than the film noir woman." She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family.
John Blaser, “The Femme Fatale” in No Place For a Woman: The Family in Film Noir | Film Noir Studies
Among the writers featured in Dangerous Women is also Megan Abbott, who is no stranger to such characters. In the Black Magic issue of Spolia, the “queenpin of noir,” as Jenny McPhee calls her, writes about a 17th century witch trial that creates fertile ground for questions on female power. An excerpt from Sometimes My Arms Bend Back can be read here, and here Megan Abbott talks about her relation to the supernatural.
Watching the HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, one could not shake off the feeling that the trial of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich was a modern witch trial. One expected words like “Devil worshippers” to be uttered at any moment. Catechism: Poems For Pussy Riot is a collection of poems in honor of the group. For more on Pussy Riot, in their own words, there’s also Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom, published by The Feminist Press.
For a reminder that all the privileges (fragile as they are) girls and women enjoy today have been the result of girls and women before them causing trouble, we should take a journey back into history with Carol Dyhouse and her Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.
Girl Trouble should be accompanied by Warriors Don’t Cry, the memoir of Melba Patillo Beals and by I Am Malala, the story of Malala Yousafzai. As Carol Dyhouse says, “education is the ground-rock for progress for women.”
August 11, 2014
I tell whoever will listen that problem is capitalism and white men and that incrementalism is a crock: all the problems of our society are constitutive and that nothing short of total systemic overhaul—revolutionary change—will remedy them, so isn’t now the time to buy a gun, to take up arms against an oppressive government, because that’s what Karl Marx said, after all, to rally the proletariat so we can rise to the historical inevitably that will be the total destruction of class?
And then, like you, the next day, I hop in my used Honda Civic Hybrid, drive to Whole Foods to buy the good Chilean organic blueberries and donate—as we do every year—$5 to public radio, stopping to complain about how the arts are still under attack in America, thanks to the goddamn Republicans in Congress. Though neither of us really likes Obama. Or party politics at all. Mostly we’re just prone to screeds that elicit laughter and raised eyebrows. And then we go home. Even though we deeply believe what we believe...
I write this to you because I wonder if we can ever overcome what we are: prototypical comfortable liberals with radical pretensions. Or, as David Brooks called your generation after it settled down and had kids: bourgeois bohemians. I want to be a revolutionary, but I love Amazon Prime.
—Rachel Wilkinson on feeling radical and acting not, for Identity Theory.
Image: "Jolie Madame" (1973) by Audrey Flack
I read a book as a PDF on my computer this weekend, which is a very unpleasant experience that I don't recommend. I've been waffling on the issue of eReader purchase for awhile; I've read one book on a Kindle, and it (the Kindle, not the book) was intoxicatingly good. So fast! So light! So not inspiring of any to-underline-or-not-to-underline dilemma!
I feel guilty about this—yes, there are other eReaders, but they are more expensive, and I don't know how to buy electronics, someone help me. To be fair (and transparent), I mostly want one so that I can read for free—out-of-copyrights and review copies—so it's not necessarily a gateway purchase to more monetary support for anyone, Amazon or mainstream publishing houses or already-very-wealthy authors or struggling self-published authors or totally worthy independent presses/bookstores. That's right—screw all of you! I'm hoarding my money so that I can one day buy a bicycle that doesn't have a mud-guard attached to it with packing tape! And, like, pay my student loans!
I think the reason people are getting so defensive about that letter from Amazon is that, amidst what the New York Times very sassily pointed out was "fresh" and a creepily Orwellian misinterpretation of Orwell, it also pokes at some valid points. There are huge benefits to eBooks, the main ones being ease of access and cost-effectiveness of production and consumption. It's great when a poor person can afford to buy a new book that all the smart-ass reviewers (who got it for free) are raving about. It's one thing to lecture upper-middle class douchebags about parting with their precious pennies to support publishing via $25 for a new hardcover; it's another to be like, "Hey, I know you're eating toast for dinner AGAIN...but that's why you need to treat yourself! With my $25 hardcover! If you buy it for $9.99 from Amazon, I mean, thanks so much, like, I really appreciate it, but did you know publishing is dying? Love ya, mean it!" $25 is a lot of money. $19.99 is a lot of money. $14.99 is a lot of money. Conscious consumerism is good, but it's also sometimes unrealistic to pressure individuals with it when there are large entities who should be feeling way more fucking pressure. I mean, Walmart, blah blah blah. I don't mean to sound like someone who lives in Europe, but maybe the government could help.
ANYWAY: I'm sorry, I buried the lede. The book I read this weekend was a novella called Family Heirlooms by a Brazilian writer, Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares.
1) This woman's name is Zulmira. Hi?
2) The book is great, even if you have to read it on your computer, and it inspires no dilemmas, because it only comes as an eBook that you can buy directly from Frisch & Co. for $2.99. (Frisch & Co, in case you're wondering, is a very cool eBook company that does English-language translations of contemporary literature, founded by one of the co-founders of Open Letter.)
3) Zulmira is a bad ass.
At this point in her growing intimacy with LIFE...Maria Bráulia Munhoz was naturally no longer the silly little twit she had been as a newly-wed. And so when [her husband] said to her (increasingly about everything and nothing) that a judge passes judgment secundum aequitatem, according to what he feels is right, she would lower her head modestly as usual—but not as a sign of respect, as her husband presumed, rather of dissembling—because the Latin sounded to her (despite the care the judge took each time to translate it straight away, for his wife's enlightenment) to have a strangely lascivious quality to it; because around that time the curtain of Maria Bráulia's tar-black nights was already beginning to crackle with what would soon be the great fire that was spreading across hours and hours of her existence, in which it was already possible to make out, lit up in the bright and joyful colours of those flames, the delightful person of the jeweller, Marcel de Souza Armand.
I mean, what a paragraph. The whole thing is like that. So cutting! So funny! So timely with a recurring metaphor! Portuguese->English translators, posthaste!
August 8, 2014
What We're Reading
The book I give the most, regardless the occasion or the recipient, is The House on Mango Street. After a recent count, I know that I have given it to five people, once insisting that the intended reader take it straight from my own shelf. To endorse a book with such zeal, as if it were my own, makes me sometimes feel like a middle school English teacher whose unabated enthusiasm leaves listeners skeptical or picking at their hangnails. I don’t make rapturous claims, but simply say that in the summer, in the shade of a porch or next to a body of water, this enchanting novel can make an afternoon pass exactly as you want. It’s hard to determine in which genre Sandra Cisneros’s collection of fortyfive vignettes belongs—an ineffability I find wholly appealing. As her first publication out of graduate school, Cisneros wrote an accessible text, full of saturated images and a strong central narrator, Esperanza, who captures all of characters that make up her Chicago neighborhood. The innocence of Esperanza’s voice might make The House on Mango Street seem like a lowbrow or juvenile choice for anyone committed to literature; however, I have yet to hear of any complaints.
Image: Still from "Die Bewerbung" ("The Interview") by Harun Farocki (1996)
Weekend Recommended Reading
-This morning I found A Dictionary of Superstitions abandoned on a table in the bookstore where I work. While you should keep in mind that it is merely a dictionary of superstitions, not the dictionary of superstitions, nothing in life being certain, unfortunately, I doubt very seriously that the person who left it is living in such a way that she couldn’t use a bit of extra guidance.
Regarding Fridays, the general consensus seems to be to never do anything on them:
FRIDAY, born on 1846 Denham Proverbs II n. A child born on a Friday is doomed to misfortune.
FRIDAY butter and eggs
1923 [Trowbridge, Wilts.] Harm will come to the child if you put Friday churned butter, or Friday laid eggs into its christening cake.
FRIDAY, courting on
1851 [Lancs.] A man must never ‘go a courting’ on a Friday. If an unlucky fellow is caught...he is followed home by a band of musicians playing on pokers, tongs, pan-lids, &c. 1890 T.C. Smith & J. Shortt History of Ribchester [Lancs.] No 'chap' might meet his 'woman' on a Friday evening. That was 'jinglin neet'. If he did, he would be sure to set all the old frying pans and kettles in motion, as if a thousand bees were aswarm.
If someone could email me and explain how Friday went from no-"chaps"-allowed to hey-do-you-want-to-go-to-a-bar-or-something-I-guess-if-you-want, that would be interesting. And speaking of bees, they "dislike bad behavior." According to Pliny (AD 77), "it is particularly recommended...that the person who takes the honey should be well washed and clean: bees have a particular aversion, too, to a thief and a menstruous woman." Updates as they're made available.
-The German filmmaker and political/media theorist Harun Farocki died last week, and The New Inquiry has posted a long interview with him that's good whether you know a lot or nothing about him. I asked my smart friend who has a PhD in German film/literature/I’m-not-totally-sure-but-he-knows-a-lot to recommend a clip or two, and he said you should watch this and/or this.
-Josephine Livingstone, a hip, young medievalist (!!!), has a great review of the new(ly released) Tolkein translation of Beowulf in Prospect, about how "Tolkien’s oeuvre has become a cipher for the look and feel of 'medievalness'," how he "loved medieval poetry so much that he swallowed it up."
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. This is the final in that series.
Now that most magazines seem to have a blog for every staff writer, and a lot of magazines started as blogs, and now that every book publisher feels obligated to have a blog, it’s perhaps worthwhile to remember how rare blogs were in the early ‘00s, and how dismissed they were at the time.
When literary and/or cultural blogs were mentioned at all by mainstream media, they were dismissed. These blogs were too “undisciplined,” because neither the length nor subjects of the posts were uniform; they sometimes incorporated sound clips and pictures. These sites were too “obscure,” because they dared to discuss books, writers, and modes not currently in the headlines. Litblogs were too “idiosyncratic,” which basically meant they weren’t beholden to standard AP style nor did they aspire to be New Yorker essays.
All of this boiled down to this: Litblogs were too personal. The prose was often conversational, experimental, wild, or a combination thereof. Litblogs admitted to the bias inherent in all criticism, and did not pretend to a false objectivity. As a result of being honest, as a result of engaging culture on the terms of life as lived by the critic engaging it, litblogs were dismissed when they weren’t being ignored.
This was the world Jessa Crispin entered into, just a few months after 9/11. A friend, living in Austin at the time, urged me to read Bookslut. Jessa hooked me in immediately. For a while, it was practically just Jessa. Blunt, acerbic, impassioned, often furious, sometimes unfair, and always committed, Jessa’s voice rang out. She cared deeply about books, and she wanted her readers to care about what she cared about.
What she cared about was life itself and its larger questions: How do we live compassionately in the world? How can we be true to our best desires while also belonging to something larger than ourselves? How can books help us survive, and how do they—and language itself—fail us? What do we do when a book’s beautiful language clashes with its abhorrent politics? Jessa puzzled through these questions, using as filters her heart, brain, concerns, and shifting tastes. In short, she was the undisciplined, idiosyncratic, and obscure blogger that print media took her for.
Funny thing is, print media and lit-crit are now trying to catch up to Jessa’s vision, even as Jessa’s plowing forward. Her interests, always wide-ranging, have become even more so over the years. She globe-hops literally—seriously, how many countries has she lived in?—but also internally. Eastern European culture, mysticism, feminism, reimaginations of love and marriage, the pleasures and pains of Sassy Magazine, long-term travel, William James—it’s all there in Jessa’s writing.
She lays herself bare, bravely. Her lit-blogging compatriots have increasingly clothed themselves, folded themselves up into the mainstream program, compartmentalized, professionalized. Lizzie Skurnick now runs a reprint press; Maud Newton writes regularly for the New York Times; Mark Sarvas published a novel, and Laila Lalami published two; none of them blog much anymore. Scott Esposito’s keeping it going but even he runs a bonafide literary journal now.
Jessa’s tried that route. Well, sort of. Her “Kind Reader” advice column offered “lessons” from books to her letter writers but those lessons were often ambiguous and open-ended, reaching out into the world instead of to just more books. Her “Reading the Tarot” column branches into memoir and mysticism more than monographs. Spolia, the magazine Jessa started last year, is as weird, conflicted, mysterious, and necessary as her blogging is.
That’s the thing—after 12 years of this, Jessa’s still blogging regularly, still spilling her reading life into her actual life on the page for us. That’s amazing. Now that she seems to be giving it up for greener—or at least different—pastures, it’s high time we praise her for fighting the good fight, for remaining undisciplined, obscure, and idiosyncratic in an online lit world that, increasingly, seems anything but that. I owe her my deepest gratitude, and my awe. We all do.
August 7, 2014
I've been trawling the Bookslut blog archives for inspiration (and/or reassurance) and continue to be simultaneously struck/not-at-all surprised/guiltily relieved that we're talking about basically the same things we (they—I'm too young to have been a participant in the Golden Age of online literary culture, but if you want to have the Death Cab for Cutie conversation...) were talking about in 2003. On October 10 (of that year), Jessa linked to this ArtsJournal post by Terry Teachout about how the common middlebrow culture of his mid-century youth has died out at the hands of "information-age capitalism." Complete with quaint reference to "the rise of digital information technology"!:
Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice.
If you read last Friday's New York Times article about Capital and how increasing economic inequality has translated to an increasingly polarized, turn-of-the-century-esque high/low culture (but without the consolation of actual masterpieces; see also: Teachout's discussion of intellectuals denouncing "high art" as "cultural imperialism"), this will sound familiar.
But in literature and film we hear a perpetual lament for the midlist and the midsize movie, as the businesses slip into a topsy-turvy high-low economy of blockbusters and niches. The art world spins in an orbit of pure money. Museums chase dollars with crude commercialism aimed at the masses and the slavish cultivation of wealthy patrons. Symphonies and operas chase donors and squeeze workers (that is, artists) as the public drifts away...
In the hectic heyday of the middlebrow, intellectuals gazed back longingly at earlier dispensations when masterpieces were forged in conditions of inequality by lucky or well-born artists favored by rich or titled patrons.
Social inequality may be returning, but that doesn’t mean that the masterpieces will follow. The highbrows were co-opted or killed off by the middle, and the elitism they championed has been replaced by another kind, the kind that measures all value, cultural and otherwise, in money. It may be time to build a new ladder.
Somewhat tangential: The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism looks like something to read.
August 6, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog.
Jessa’s blog has been for over a decade the best of its kind and a goddamn vindication of the medium. I don’t remember precisely when I first began reading her stuff, but I remember the general mood informing my discovery: racing through the internet like a dope fiend looking for something good, something to pierce my youthful stupor and make me stand up and cry hail. It’s hard to remember now, but the internet circa 2003 seemed so full of promise, pregnant with infinity even, as the blogs marched up from the primeval ooze. Suddenly, for the first time in history anyone could write anything and anyone could read it —- if only people stumbled upon it. Deep waters! Heavy vibes! The din of history ringing in everyone’s ears!
Some even speculated that someday a real writer might emerge from this chaos -— the idea was wonderfully preposterous, it had a thrilling audacity to it, like a coup d’état or starting a rock band or getting a phone number from a beautiful stranger. And then, like the dumb protagonist of some realist novel, I realized how little gold there was in the midst of all this freedom. “When people are free to do as we please,” Eric Hoffer wrote, “they usually imitate each other.” Quality, I had thought at first, would be tough to spot, would take observation and time; the opposite was true.
And so when I found Jessa’s blog I became, like so many others, a daily reader, a thirsty one. A little oasis, a little clearing. Her devotion to the foreign, the dead, the weird, and the queer was so refreshing in a medium that seemed hell-bent on discussing only what others were already discussing. She was also a master proselytizer. The Master and His Emissary, Why Love Hurts, William James—these were just some of the conversions she effected in me with her clear and sympathetic prose. Finally, I should note my admiration for how she never made the specious choice between the personal and the world-historical; her writing has always been characterized not by the “balance of thinking and feeling” but by the knowledge that the two are one and the same. Long may she type.
Image: Fashion Cartoon: Two Parrots (1911) by Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel
Instead of reading another review of Bad Feminist, consider the new issue of Bookslut, which will make you want to go to Amsterdam:
Activists spread rumors that the water supply had been laced with LSD, and smoke bombs obscured the royal parade route, producing a police over-reaction and public relations disaster. The Provos went on to propose various new ideas for the city, including a plan to supply free bicycles and another to give women free contraceptives, both to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to further the idea that it was irresponsible to enter marriage as a virgin.
I doubt I’m alone in finding “human” puzzling as a term of approbation. “He came across as very human,” for example. Human beings have, no doubt, produced some admirable things, like the music of Bach and, well, I can’t really think of anything else at the moment. But whenever human beings behave in undeniably human ways, by engaging in mob violence or inventing wildly elaborate ideas to justify any sort of petty, mean act, we are told that these people are acting like -- animals. Apparently all that’s necessary to earn the epithet “human” is to have the placidity of a cow or a whale.
August 5, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. If you'd like to contribute something, email Charles.
All day long at work, I have a tab on my computer open on the Bookslut blog page. I do it because I just need to know it’s there, my secret security blanket. It reminds me that there is a community out there that challenges me to care about worthy things in complex and compassionate ways. It saves me from shutting down.
When Jessa wrote so beautifully about her admiration for Marion Milner, I felt immediately that A Life of One’s Own was exactly what I needed to read at that moment. How did our dear Bookslut know that I was desperately trying to find some kind of space that could reasonably be identified as my self? (And don’t even get me started on the magical timing of my Bookslut-induced Marina Warner phase.)
And then there was that time in her Bibliomancer column when Jessa gave a reader permission to be angry with her alcoholic boyfriend, and then told her to get down and do some self-excavation. It was such an accepting, nuanced, and softly demanding reply. What I was hearing was, “It’s ok, directing negative feelings outwards is helpful and human, just be aware of what you’re doing and I trust that you will get through it.” I am not sure that I have ever heard another person say such a thing. It was a massive relief.
And that just really sums up what this blog has meant to me: that it’s all ok, so let’s get through this together. The writers constantly force me, in this really smart, precise, and often hilarious way, to open up and be hopeful. I am deeply grateful. Thank you so much, Bookslut. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Image: Brassaï: Lesbian couple at The Monocle, c.1932
Especially since actress Laverne Cox made the cover of TIME magazine, there seems to have been a flood of trans-related stories in the media and for once, we’re hearing their voices -- loud and clear -- instead of the same straight cis male voices telling us what a transgender person is or looks like. Here is some suggested reading on trans-issues:
Michelle Goldberg examines the tensions between trans-exclusionary radical feminists, on one side, and transgender people and their trans-inclusive feminist allies, on the other side.
Of the radical feminists’ position, she [Sandy Stone, author of The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto] says, “It’s my personal belief, from speaking to some of these people at length, that it comes from having been subject to serious trauma at the hands of some man, or multiple men.” She adds, “You have to respect that. That’s their experience of the world.” But the pain of radical feminists, she insists, can’t trump trans rights. “If it were a perfect world, we would find ways to reach out and find ways of mutual healing,” she says.
Michelle Goldberg, "What Is a Woman?" | The New Yorker
Feminist activist and writer Laurie Penny rightly argues that trans-rights concern everybody. "If gender identity is fluid," she says, "then we have to question every assumption about gender and sex role we've had drummed into us since the moment the doctors handed us to our panting mothers and declared us a boy or a girl." She further proves that radical feminism can take different shapes:
A great many cis people experience gender dysphoria to some degree, and a great many women, in particular, experience the socially-imposed category of "womanhood" as oppressive. I'm one of them, and that's why I believe trans rights are so important to feminism - and why it's so dispiriting that some feminists have been actively fighting the inclusion of trans people in anti-patriarchal and LGBT politics. The notion that biology is not destiny has always been at the heart of radical feminism. Trans activists and feminists should be natural allies.
Laurie Penny, "What the 'transgender tipping point' really means" | New Statesman
Beatriz Preciado takes the universality of trans-issues even further in her book Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era.
I actually continue taking it [testosterone]. What I think is interesting about any molecule, not just testosterone, is that everything is a question of dosage. With this same molecule, some of my friends have become something very close to what looks like a cis male. In my case, I take very low doses, so that I may continue the way that I am for a little bit, maybe not much longer. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do next. Some people ask me, Do you want a gender reassignment? I don’t know -- probably, if I keep taking testosterone, there will be a point where I will probably say yes, but that’s not exactly my aim. I also thought about the project as a kind of collective adventure, in a sense, because I’m thinking about the body, not even just my own, as this kind of a living political fiction. That’s how I see the body, as a living political archive. You already have this archive. It’s not like you choose things that are more or less outside of yourself to add onto it. You realize that your body is really dense, stratified, and huge. There are connections and relationships that are already there. If you carefully look at it, you realize that your body archive is connected to the history of the city, the history of design, technologies, and goes back to the invention of agriculture like eighty thousand years ago. Your body is the body of the planet. When I add a few molecules of testosterone, in a huge living archive, well that’s just a minor detail. It’s a way of intensification in terms of a cognitive experience -- suddenly you are intensifying processes that are already going on in your body.
Beatriz Preciado interviewed by Ricky Tucker, "Pharmacopornography: An Interview with Beatriz Preciado" | The Paris Review
"Female Masculinity" emerged for me as a term that was implicit in many different discussions of gender, gender performativity, constructivism and so on but was never named as such. In my book I actually argue that despite an almost universal concurrence that femaleness does not automatically produce femininity and maleness does not produce masculinity, very few people seemed to be noticing or thinking through the material effects of disassociating sex and gender and this has been particularly true in the sphere of masculinity. Since femininity signifies in general as the effect of artifice, as the essence of "performativity" (if performativity can be said to have an essence), we have an easier time understanding it as transferable, mobile, fluid. But masculinity has an altogether different relation to performance, the real and the natural and it appears to be far more difficult to pry masculinity and maleness apart than femininity and femaleness.
Judith Halberstam interviewed by Annamarie Jagose, "Masculinity Without Men" | Genders
There is so much optimism surrounding trans-issues these days that it’s easy to forget that trans-people still face a lot of discrimination that endangers their lives. In a talk on violence against trans-people, Sass Rogando Sasot shows how the beliefs of our society and culture as to what makes a woman or a man hurt and even kill people who do not fit within the limits of their ascribed gender.
I identify and live my life as a woman, I look at myself in the mirror and I see a penis and a flat chest. How do I convince you that I am a woman? By feeling wrong about it? By hating the genitals I was born with as well as the body my puberty sculpted? By feeling trapped in this body? By transforming this body so that it can resemble the form of your woman? But is this body really wrong? What made it wrong? Who made it wrong? God? Scientists? Politicians? Theorists? Or me?
August 4, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. If you'd like to contribute something, email Charles.
It seems churlish to complain
For we perceived no Jessa rut;
Each Gimlet sentence sculpted clean
As dud blogs chased the chaste bookslut.
Reviews and apercus
Assaults on author's puffed up pride,
We cringed and gasped and laughed
And hoped to find you on our side.
When you loved the books we loved
Our taste seemed reinforced;
When you differed -- how you differed!
We felt twinges of remorse.
You made obscure examples seem
As though we knew them too,
The clubbable yet fierce repast
From an erudite ingénue.
Ok Crispin, walk through the door.
We will make our way somehow.
(Play taps) -- the endless internet
Lowers its collective brow.
Having read you many years I know
--Teasing, wry, maudlin or mad--
Never before this last blogging day
Would you publish verse this bad.
Now you'll depart with doggerel.
Time to recharge and restart.
Bookslut echoes on the web forever,
And ever in our hearts.
Mazel Tov, Jessa -- and thank you.
Image: Sarah Jessica Parker (2012?) by Danny Evans
On Friday Rebecca Mead outed Ira Glass as absurd for his tweet claiming King Lear is "not relatable," and she was right, but it was kind of an obvious rightness:
"But to demand that a work be "relatable" expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism."
Earlier, she compares Ira to "a resentful millennial filling out a teacher evaluation," and it’s a valid point—demanding relatability is lazy at best and insidious at worst. (I mean, sometimes you want it, and that’s fine—the problem is more the "demanding.")
What I think is more interesting/bad, though, is the presumptuous, poseur-y populism* that someone like Ira Glass is espousing when he uses the word "relatable" as the "yardstick by which he [judges] the merit of Shakespeare’s work." I like Ira Glass, generally; in fact, I like him in kind of the same way I like Shakespeare: he’s kind of boring but nevertheless important, and if I make an effort to not be bored by him then I can get something out of what he’s making, not least because historical precedent lends him a certain sparkle. (See also: The New Yorker.) But who is he kidding—to whom is Shakespeare not relatable? To Ira Glass? Ira Glass majored in semiotics at Brown and is the poster boy for a bourgeois pseudo-intellectualism that’s based on the idea that anyone can have an engaging, tellable story; he’s more than capable of understanding freshman-year English, and of cultivating empathy for narratives that differ from his own. (I’d argue that understanding is basically the same as relating, which is not what Mead is taking it to mean, but whatever: you wouldn’t say something is “relatable” if you found it at all challenging to understand, and that’s why she argues the word is so detrimental: it’s "hopelessly reductive...to reject any work because...it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy.") He can’t possibly mean Shakespeare isn’t relatable to him—because it is, as much as it can be to anyone (except Frederik)—and he can’t seriously just be acting like a brat. It seems more like he’s trying to act like a "regular guy," or speak on behalf of some image of a "regular guy" whose eyes glaze over as soon as the word "thou" gets thrown(e) around(e). Stars—they're just like us! No—I just can't relate to that.
*10 points for me.
August 3, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. If you'd like to contribute something, email Charles.
I had read, in a tiny paragraph buried in the back of Q Magazine, about 'blogs'. Short for web logs, they collected various bits of the internet together so you didn't have to find them yourself. I was 20 and had just started University where I received my first-ever email address, and this bewildering internet thing was suddenly open to me like it hadn't ever been before. I went to Google, probably cocked my head to one side and thought, what do I want to find blogs on? I liked books. I put 'book blog' into the skinny search bar and clicked on the one with the best name. I've read Bookslut every week since, usually every weekday once my internet access firmed up. I emailed Jessa about the death of Paula Danzinger, and she got back to me - and even put it on the blog. My eyes bugged out on stalks.
Turns out this internet doodad might be actually fucking interesting. Jessa and Bookslut would turn out to be pages in my passport, the ragtag document that got me out of the dank corridors of higher ed and the Sarlacc pit of my hometown and the general turmoil of being around and often sentient on this particular plane of existence. Cheers for that. I'll be hanging around seeing what's up next for her and wishing all these surrounding pixels all the very best.
Frankly, I don’t know how to do this – to write a thankful piece and make it feel as warm and sincere as possible. Usually but also seldom, I simplify things and stick to hugging people I’m thankful to as long a they are alive and also not some total strangers. And in this particular case, I would simply like to thank Jessa for the amazing job she did, creating and keeping a literary webzine and blog that embraces the “underdogs” of literature too and not only, those kind of “underdogs” who make you question the things as they are and make you feel uncomfortable with your own ideas the minute you start reading their stuff. Better yet, Bookslut and its blog keep on messing with the unmapped territories of our common imaginarium but without mapping them as an intended result or unwanted consequence. And I think this is its genuine charm, or at least it is to me. There was nothing instructional or didactical about Jessa’s Bookslut blog – just stingy hints, mercilessly and accurately delivered, hints that maybe, just maybe there are other books deserving your time and attention, apart from the ones delivered on the conveyor belt on a daily basis. I guess that making people curious, making them want to find out more and even understand things far beyond their comfort zone is a great start for any literary blog and it is even more important to manage to do this without imposing one’s taste, without designating one’s literary choices as being so far better than other’s. And this is precisely the touchy point where Bookslut blog played its cards right. And for all this I say: kudos Jessa!
August 1, 2014
by Maud Newton
Bookslut was the first book blog I discovered, and the first I obsessively reloaded throughout the day. It's impossible to overstate how new and vital Jessa Crispin's voice felt in 2002, or the enormity of her influence on the writing about books and culture that followed. I can't wait for her book, and we'll still have Spolia, and I know she's made sure to leave the blog in good hands, so I support her retirement, as long as we're all clear on where she belongs in the history books.