October 30, 2014
Image: Woman Writing in the Court of Shah Abbas
Taylor's most known book remains Angel, which was adapted by François Ozon in 2007. I still remember the one note I've made after having seen Angel (it went something along the lines: “Angel might be about a woman who writes romance novels but does it really have to be as cheesy and predictable as those novels?”) and in retrospect, I guess the biggest flaw of the movie is that it hasn't made me curious enough to find out more about the book it's based upon or about the book's author. So maybe we do need those recurring articles deploring the fact that her work is underrated.
François Ozon on adapting Angel (spoiler alert: his main concern was making Angel likeable):
My main challenge was to make Angel likeable. In Elizabeth Taylor's book, the character is often grotesque. The author takes a rather sardonic view of Angel, her books and her behavior. Taylor acknowledges her ability to write and her drive to become famous, but ridicules her constantly, describing her as bizarre and unattractive. I didn't think we'd want to spend two hours with such an utterly negative character on screen, whereas in the book the cruelty works. I felt it was important that Angel be charming and endearing despite her more obnoxious, even nasty, characteristics. Scarlett O'Hara immediately came to mind. She is truly a character you love and hate at the same time. I wanted Angel to be aware of her powers of seduction and use them, particularly with her publisher and Nora. My Angel is more manipulative than Elizabeth Taylor's. But in a playful, amusing way, not perverse. In the beginning, everyone criticizes her: her teacher, her mother, her aunt, the publisher's wife. We can deduce that Angel and her work are misunderstood. This inspires sympathy for her and piques our curiosity, especially when she's writing. I wanted to draw the audience in before revealing, later in the film, that what's she writing might not actually be great literature.
As Will Mawhood writes, Taylor has a rather uninteresting biography. However, that did not stop Nicola Beauman from digging deeper in hopes of finding something more sensational for her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.
Nicola Beauman must, then, have come to Taylor's life hoping against hope there was more to it than met the eye, for all that she is a diehard fan of the novels. After all, Taylor had instructed that her letters be destroyed after her death; perhaps she had something to hide. As it turns out, she was right to hope. In her later years, her subject was certainly the very model of middle-class conformity, a rope of pearls always at her neck.
But her early life was strange and muddled to a degree that, reading about it, one's hunch about propriety hardens into belief: routine didn't only help her work, it helped her. There was something rebellious and disordered in Taylor, something that, though Beauman never states this explicitly, it is possible she rather feared.
Rachel Cooke, The original Elizabeth Taylor | The Guardian
Yet another reason for which we need to be reminded Taylor's work has been underrated is her dismissal as a women's writer. The origins of the concept of écriture feminine sound like the stuff of myths -- now it's used merely to deny the value of a writer. Ecriture feminine is now delicate, flowery writing, not gender neutral, and definitely not universal. Unlike masculine writing, which is always universal. "She writes like a man" is still considered by some critics as the highest compliment they can bestow on a female writer. These are usually the same critics who claim they don't see gender, that they only care about good writing. But those of us who insist upon the inclusion of more female writers in literary publications, lists, etc. also care about good writing. That's the whole point. We discover a good female writer and at the same time discover her work is underrated or entirely overlooked. So we start compiling lists devoted exclusively to female writers - which is great for discovering writers we haven't heard of. What's not so great is that these lists still keep female writers in the margins. "Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits?" Not if in 2015 one goes back to worshiping His Masculine Holiness Philip Roth and the like.
It all goes back to critics writing for mainstream publications. It’s up to them to take a close look at their reading habits and make the necessary adjustments. Inclusion, though, is only the first step. There are definitely some (male) critics who need to learn how not to write about female writers. Mallory Ortberg at The Toast offers some advice for such critics.
To file under “how not to write about female writers” as well: a Washington Post review of Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. (In the August issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee talks about the book in “These Artful Jezebels”: On American Spies.) The review is deconstructed at Jezebel and what stands out is how easy it is to discredit a woman’s work. Just question her credibility. The lack of credibility / expertise must be one the most common and toxic accusations thrown at women who write nonfiction. And as Karen Abbott points out in her Letter to the Editor (as republished by Jezebel), the same standards don’t seem to apply to male writers.
Finally, we can’t talk about écriture feminine and its reception in recent years without at least mentioning Kate Zambreno’s Heroines.
“Much has been said lately about how women are reviewed less in the big literary sections,” Zambreno writes in Heroines, “but not about HOW they are reviewed.” I’m not sure that the “how” has not been addressed, but nevertheless, point taken. Because this hybrid work of nonfiction—call it a critical memoir, if you like—is about the way we talk about women who write, it seems as important, in a critical examination of the book, to look at its reception as it is to look at the text itself. And because some of the reviews have served essentially to trivialize and dismiss a book whose subject is in fact the historical, systematized trivialization and dismissal of work by women writers, it seems all the more urgent to question those responses.
Elisa Gabbert, The Madwoman and The Critic | Open Letters Monthly
October 29, 2014
Poems to Quote to Express Vindictive Ambiguity, Explicit Cruelty, and/or Some Sense of Bitterness, Resentment, and/or Ill Will Towards or In the General Direction of a (Former) Lover. Excluding Those by Sylvia Plath but not Anne Sexton
1. "I am trying to break your heart" by Kevin Young
2. "I think I should have loved you presently" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
3. "A Song: Strephon, Your Breach of Faith and Trust" by Laetitia Pilkington
4. "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" by Anne Sexton
5. "In Paris With You" by James Fenton
6. "The Reservoir" by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
7. "For My Lover, Returning to his Wife" by Anne Sexton
8. "The Old Playhouse" by Kamala Das
October 28, 2014
An Anecdote About Reading, Courtship Display
Image: Marx, from here.
Over the weekend, I went to a pie party, which was unfortunately not sexual at all but rather a party at which less figurative pies, sweet and savory (still literal), were baked and offered graciously to a small group of expat masters ('?) students studying English literature in Berlin and friends of expat masters ('?) students studying English literature in Berlin. If not a particularly relevant location to the works of Beckett, at least a city known for the wide range of themed potlucks lighting the windows in its affordable, high-ceilinged housing. People started talking about Marx—well, it was Heidegger conjunct Marx—because they always start talking about Marx, or Heidegger, but Party Heidegger is not a surefire assertion of the intellectual superiority of all involved in a conversation about him; Party Marx requires less large-scale stance taking, so any interpretation of his work can more easily serve as a signifier of One Who Lends A Nuanced Appreciation To The Great Theories of History, at least for people like the ones at this party, who have only sort of known what they were talking about for 2-3 years, if that. Heidegger is more fun because the stakes are higher, shouting and declaiming more likely, while with Marx it's all detail-oriented nitpickery, once you get past the "Do you think, basically, the right things?" (Or: "Are you an idiot?") In other words, to say the pie party wasn't sexual at all is incorrect, because at one point there was a circle jerk.
Until someone tried to take a large-scale stance, that is. Don't worry: I'm not going to comment specifically on the Marxism they were discussing, because as this anecdote will show, such an endeavor is folly, by which I mean to be sarcastically dismissive of a certain kind of educated twentysomething dick-measuring contest but not sarcastically dismissive of everything the educated twentysomething dick-measurers were saying/espousing. (Besides I wasn't paying attention until people stopped being polite and started getting real.) Rather: I'm just going to describe an uncomfortable portion of the evening, because it's somewhat related to both 1) the French minister of culture saying she hasn't read a book in two years and 2) the current debate over YA literature, on which my short takes are: 1) Make time, and 2) Omg, really? Still? With the time you people spend talking about those books you could be reading fucking Proust, or skimming Proust, or reading or skimming the fucking Wikipedia entry for In Search of Lost Time or À la recherche du temps perdu, depending on who you're talking to and how pretentious/smart you want to sound when talking to that relative person, and developing a counterargument beyond or at least a nuanced version of "Well I've read 'grown-up' stuff, too!" If I read one more fucking puerile headline—though admittedly probably written by a lame likely-former-classmate-of-mine intern—employ the word "grown-up", I don't know—the point is not the independent clause there. (In other words, "2) Make time.")
ANYWAY, the scene: dim lighting, some kind of music, casual references to German philosophers flurrying above unfinished slices of apple ginger tart, wine that is not great. Into a conversation about Marx/ism between one young literary dude and another young literary dude bursts a third young literary dude with a bold declaration, possibly at least partially to assert sexual viability: Marx/ism is a failure, an egregious, murderous, demonstrated failure, and we should not be wasting our time discussing him/it because what is important is forging ahead with the new. Third young literary dude does not have a startup (yet), but his assertion gave first and second young literary dudes a concerned pause similar to that which follows the sentence "I'm an entrepreneur." First and second young literary dudes make skeptical eye contact, perhaps one or both of them a small noise of displeasure; perhaps one or both of them glances in the direction of the female witness in order to assert sexual viability, establish some team-like feelings that may earn him a more private literal dick-figurative measuring session. "Can you believe that guy?" etc. Nevertheless, third young literary dude is extended some frowning peace offerings: "Oh, we're just talking about the [whatever—something specific in whatever text]. Have you read it?"
"No," says third young literary dude, a look of fear flashing through his eyes before squaring his shoulders and deepening his voice. "I don't see the point."
The takeaway: everyone is stupid, including me, for I didn't have the good sense to leave before people stopped being interesting and started playing video games, though I will say I slept with none of them.
October 27, 2014
Not only am I going to say, "Don't forget that the Daphne Awards party is next week at Melville House!" but I am also going to give you some new and exciting news: AbeBooks is sponsoring a giveaway of the winning books on on the night of.
In the meantime, RSVP to the Facebook event or just mentally prepare or something.
October 24, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
My beautiful friend in Philadelphia sent me an email with a beautiful line in it. Re: "Ben Lerner isn't terrible":
"Most everything today is anxious, and so little beauty finds its way into anxiety."
-The NYT Magazine piece about trans men at Wellesley and other women's colleges is a something I enjoyed reading because it was very uncertain and in-depth and has a cracking good ending, of which creative nonfiction teachers could take note. It's a spotlight on the difficulties of determining what should be included in an inherently exclusive system (that is also appreciated because it is in some ways inclusive), and the focus on Wellesley and women's colleges magnifies the potential conflict of interests between feminism and trans activism in a way that doesn't immediately make you think, "Fuck, are these feminists fucking serious?" the way that New Yorker piece about "the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism" did. (Is "transgenderism" a word? Sounds offensive, or at least stupid.) It's strange to read pieces like these in mainstream publications if you're used to reading about them on relatively obscure feminist websites/forums/etc., where the tone is (necessarily?) one of furious, indignant confidence.
-You know how models from Eastern Europe are seduced and shuttled to America with promises of fame and glamorously earned fortune? Now they're being seduced and shuttled to China, too. I haven't watched the documentary, but maybe it's something to (hate?-)watch. (The article itself is whatever; I'm just into the possibly nuanced take it's possibly exposing to its audience.)
"I didn’t get the sense they were being exploited, except in the fact that the implied promise is so great and it clearly isn’t being delivered. When you’re told you’re going to go abroard [sic] and be a model, what springs to mind is not being jammed in a big bus and being driven around to have mysterious people make remarks about your body in a language you don’t understand. That doesn’t seem to be what it says on the tin."
-I think the conclusions the writer comes to are a bit point-missing, but this essay about Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace and the will to keep going is an affirmation of my love for both of them.
-An essay about the "cult of personality" and the misconceptions it creates in development work, emphasis on Cambodia and sex slavery. The writer, Laura Agustín, has a great blog ("The Naked Anthropologist") about "migration, sex work, trafficking, and the rescue industry." Spoiler alert: she does not like Nick Kristof.
October 23, 2014
October 22, 2014
The new issue of Spolia is the long-planned and -awaited Henry James tribute. Have you guys heard of Henry James? To be introduced through this would be to introduced in reverse, and I think it would work. It costs $5; it comes in a PDF and other kind of e-form that I don't understand how to use. Regardless: it's fucking impressive. Buy it here.
-Eimear McBride (yeah) with short fiction after "The Private Life"; it's so good, says the girl who loves Ben Lerner:
Hot in his hand so. Hello. Nice to meet have a seat. Am I late? Not, no. Plump in his proffered -sinus chubby with cigs- low flat seat ahead.
Do you mind if I? No, not a bit. Click and turn. Dictaphone. Can I say at the outset that I think what you’ve done is not like anything else. Thanks. But grilled flesh, she thinks she can smell it and it soon might be her own.
To forestall, vivid up she into seen and smiles at his eggish pingueculae flirting away to the roots of her eyes. She lights to it. Must. Gives as if in his cavern of questions she’ll sprawl in the nip dishing toes through private pools. And does intend she? Does she? Well. Sales will wait and see.
-Poems by Jenny McPhee
-Some male writers
-Jessa Crispin on Washington Square, "the only book that James chose not to include in his collected work":
There is a certain type of spinster life that is represented in novels and movies, the glamorous life of the unattached. There is Paris, there is society, there is the freedom to decide what to do with one’s own wallet. There is a steadfast wisdom, born from watching others fling themselves to and fro in the name of love, seeing the madness from the outside. But there is also the sad, bitter, turned-inwards old women, the women who never overcame their disappointments or resentments and now their faces are pinched into a permanent scowl.
But James abandons Catherine on the brink of her becoming. She’s gone from this un- to a creature with the potential for something. We see the things she has said no to, we have not yet seen the things she will say yes to. We do not know the type of life she will choose to have.
But we also do not know if a life alone would be better than a life with the scoundrel.
October 21, 2014
What We're Reading
by Will Mawhood
Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough
I picked up Let Our Fame Be Great in a rather wonderful bookshop in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the hope of getting a sharp perspective on the wonderful, weird place I had found myself in. I was initially disappointed to find that the "Caucasus" in the subtitle referred not to the independent states of the South Caucasus, but the land on the other side of the mountains: Russia’s troubled, and predominantly Muslim, North Caucasus region (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia…). This was not somewhere I had even considered going, or knew anything about, apart from being vaguely aware that horrific things happened there on a near-daily basis.
As I found out, this is possibly one of the world’s most staggeringly complex places: a predominantly mountainous and inaccessible region, so remote as to be fortress-like, where almost every valley seems to have its own language and culture. Bullough is an excellent guide, able to unpick the differences between the many, many groups residing in these mountains, and always ready to detail, with an enthralled eye, their customs and peculiarities. (We learn, for example, that the Circassians are very big on firing into the air at weddings, despite the occasional fatality resulting from bullets falling back to earth.)
The North Caucasus’s recent history has, though, mainly been defined by its relationship with its sprawling neighbor to the north. Russia has traditionally viewed its inhabitants in a way that will be very familiar from Western colonialism: seeing them at best as charmingly free-spirited and uninhibited, at worst as savages deserving only of brutality.
Bullough’s greatest achievement is to tell stories that have hitherto been muffled, both as a result of the region’s inaccessibility, and due to the deliberate silencing policy of the Soviet regime—and, increasingly, of Putin’s bullish modern Russia. So we learn about the Circassians, the original inhabitants of the eastern coast of the Black Sea, almost completely wiped out by the Russian army in the mid-19th century, their descendants scattered far and wide; the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus mountains, deported en masse to Kazakhstan by Stalin in the 1940s on trumped-up charges of banditry; and the endless, horrible cycle of violence that is Chechnya. Bullough is clearly passionate about the subject, and is at times unashamedly partisan—at one point comparing Russia’s decision to send troops into Chechnya to contemporary Germany doing the same thing to western Poland—but he clearly knows Russian culture and literature inside-out and appreciates the best of what it has taken from and brought to the region. A fine book (so far), and a profoundly alive one considering how desperate much of the contents are.
October 20, 2014
October 17, 2014
Image: "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist" by Lucas Cranach the Elder. No reason.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-Maybe it's because I'm in the melodramatic throes of radical relocation (Jessa says it's because of Pluto; the perks of working for Bookslut are hypothetical astrological sources for anything that might be happening in your life), but the Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakeable Love for New York run-up campaign seems to be speaking to me, even though the essays have seemed to come down on the side of "New York—terrible, but I just do!" Jon-Jon Goulian's essay about Transient Wade from Columbia is a good personal essay; don't write personal essays unless they're good, OK?
-I read some pieces from the Lena Dunham book because some paperbacks showed up at the bookstore, to be prominently displayed for immediate purchase. Sounds like a memoir written by someone whose parents kept the house stocked with New Yorkers while driving home the importance of individuality. I don't understand how she integrates so many incredibly specific (and often funny and insightful, don't get me wrong) anecdotes and still manages to remain voiceless, but here we are, earning back that advance. Why is everything just, like, so acceptable? For the record, I do not think "people are buying it, so..." is an appropriate conclusion to come to in realms outside, say, shades of lipstick. Blue lipstick never hurt anyone. Except when it contains carcinogens or was tested on animals.
-Here's a little thing about the weird death mask of Chopin's hand. Spoiler alert: there's also one of his face, but it was very disappointing.
-An analysis of the public apology at Aeon, through a legal lens but definitely applicable to, say, male literary figures espousing oblivious misogyny. By which I mean a legitimate question: what do we want them to do after they do something stupid? E.g., Grisham, who just seems pathetic.
-Oh, I'm supposed to give you something long and multifaceted to savor in your sun-drenched weekend breakfast nook. I think this weekend you should reread something you didn't really "get" because it has difficult language.
-Tom Whalen's "Why I Hate the Prose Poem," from Twitter.
October 16, 2014
I was not really in love; I simply enjoyed the company of women during my lonely travels in the South. Although Flannery was both conventional and religious, we eventually became so close that she, while the car was parked, allowed me to kiss her. At that moment, her disease revealed itself in a new way: there was no strength in her lips. I hit her teeth with my kiss, and since then I've thought of it as a kiss of death.
October 15, 2014
Image by Chang Chao-Tang
In the October issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst writes about Last Words from Montmartre by the (queer) Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin. Reading this conjured up a mental image – a memory actually – of Shiang-chyi in What Time Is It There? / Ni na bian ji dian, wandering through the streets of Paris, ending up in the bed of a woman but failing to connect. It might be just a statement about the lasting impression that Tsai Ming-liang cinema can leave or it could be an alarming sign that I have paid no attention to Taiwanese literature. As a first step toward giving Taiwanese writers the due attention, let’s take a closer look at the work of Qiu Miaojin.
Over at Guernica, there’s an excerpt from Last Words from Montmartre. It is the twentieth letter, from June 17 and it recounts the day the narrator and her lover Xu bought their pet Bunny: “Xu sat down in an open seat next to me and played with the rabbit in his little paper box….Watching the two of them, I resolved that they were my companions for life and that I would fight for them on the treacherous journey of life, until death.” Those “[h]ints of the meta” that Lightsey Darst mentions are also visible in this excerpt: “Oh…if one were to call this book an unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right. I am confused about whether it’s a matter of our love trying to capture me, or to capture her, or of us trying to capture our love.”
The sense of love that the narrator from Last Words exhibits seems to be shared, to a certain extent, by Meng-Sheng in Notes of a Crocodile, who is involved in a gay relationship that would best be described as cruel. The intensity, the obsession, the temptation to self-destruct from Last Words – it’s all there, in Notes of a Crocodile as well.
“The second you see each other, you start to fight. Would you call that love or vengeance?”
“Didn’t Hsia Yü have a poem called ‘Sweet Revenge’? I only mention it because I thought you might have heard of it. It’s like the title of the poem. Because mutual love means vengeance, and because it’s vengeance, you’re going to fight, and because you’re fighting, it’s mutual love. It’s a combination of those three things. It’s like if the intensity of lust reaches a certain level of frustration, and the fixation of that lust isn’t cast off by release or eradication, the void of nothingness isn’t removed, and it never attains the lightness of air. Much the opposite, it only increases suicidal despair and attachment to the object of lust. At that point, the body thoroughly assimilates it through the death wish. In the very beginning, I was self-destructive. My lust was simply assimilated, and never found its way out. That’s the scariest thing. There was one day when it suddenly flared up, and I grabbed a pair of scissors and began stabbing myself. That was something that happened before Meng-Sheng and I broke up. Before that, I learned to lower the scissors and give part of my destructiveness to Meng-Sheng. There was no cure. I still longed to be with him. The love I had stored burned away, and all that remained was a fire that he could put out. It brought about all kinds of connections.”
Qiu Miaojin, Excerpt: Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile (translated by Bonnie Huie) | Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Eileen Myles on Last Words from Montmartre:
I’d put Last Words in a category that includes much of Kathy Acker and Henry Miller. Stein, too. Their goals were very different, but what they made was art with a demonstration in mind more than narrative pleasure. These writers confound some readers (and all readers sometimes) because theirs are not really modern texts at all, but ritual ones. And as Musil proposed, in his own struggle to understand the relationship between modern art and magic, ritual songs and poems arise differently:“The form of the ritual text is the same as the ritual act.” In Last Words, from page 1 till the end of Qiu’s book (and life), it’s all being. Even being being ended. Having felt “the juices” of an eternal love for a brief time, Qiu chose to only engage that eternal love (not the lover). She’s existing in a heightened once. Is this even a book, I wondered at one point. Not because it was unreadable but because its flowery will is so very hard to bear. It’s a deeply personal text. Yet it bears reading and rereading an abundance of times. That’s the effect of ritual art. Of cult. Always again. Like spring. Having failed in the attempt to have an eternal love, she now only addresses the eternal, thus revealing herself. It’s a little divine. These are not letters she mails to “Xu,” because, as she explains, that would only incur further wounding. She sends them to us.
Eileen Myles, Missive Impossible | Bookforum
In Stigmatic Bodies: The Corporeal Qiu Miaojin, Fran Martin focuses on Qiu’s early writing (the two short stories “Platonic Hair” and “Zero Degree”) and offers a wider context – how Qiu’s writing was reflective of the shifts in views on gender and sexuality in the late '80s / early '90s Taiwan.
October 14, 2014
Random Unrelated (Though Is Anything? Etc.) Recommendations
-Choire Sicha's Bookforum review of the Rich Kids of Instagram book, which I am NOT linking for purchase or even italicizing. Thanks to the Rich Kids for putting it on the Internet even though that is not the nature of paywalled content. What is paywall to Rich Kids.
-Not that Guardian piece in which Will Self walks along the Berlin Wall. He's pompous and wields his vocabulary ineffectively, which is NOT to say all vocabulary is bad, Jesus. Also, why was he even there? A very tenuous linking of public figure and timely historical event. Can we get Choire instead?
-Cool-named Rainbow Chan's cool mix for The Lifted Brow, which is a great magazine you should read and I don't just say that because they published me once. Australia! They also have good coffee.
October 13, 2014
At the bookstore yesterday, my friend was working on a paper. I asked her what it was about.
"Globalization," she said. She is Swedish.
"What about it?" I asked.
...So now she stood, with Ahmed beside her, and listened to how if she went to bed early having taken this medicine, she would be less nervous in the morning.
Kate thought that this would not be true: what was waiting for her, the moment she gave it a chance, was not going to be patted and pushed out of sight by sedatives. She was going to have to return to London, to be alone somewhere for two months, and to look, in solitude, at her life. Of course, she had been invited to various countries by various men and women whose good friend she had become—friendship in the style of this way of living, casual, non-demanding, tolerant, friendship that was in fact all negation. It did not criticize. It did not make demands. It took no notice of national or racial differences, which, inside these enchanted circles, seemed only for the purpose of agreeable titillation. And it was, sexually, democratic. Hearts did not get broken. Of course not, careers were more important than love, or sex: probably this was the sexuality of the future; romantic love, yearning, desperation of any kind would be banished into a neurotic past. Such friends, such past or future lovers, could part in Buenos Aires after intensive daily contact, not exchange another word for months or years, or even think of each other; and meet again in Reykjavik with discreet and carefully measured pleasure for another bout of adjusted intimacy. Rather like actors and actresses in a play, who suffer or enjoy such intense closeness for a short time, and then scatter, to meet again, wearing different costumes, ten years later.
-From The Summer Before the Dark, Our Lady of Excellent Passages, Doris Lessing
October 10, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Someone came in to the bookstore where I work today and asked if we had "Capital by Thomas Piketty." Remember when everyone was frantic about that? The good old days. We didn't have it.
-How many Prousts of our time are there? Modiano sounds a bit more whimsical, though still very French.
The Nobel academy was unable to reach Mr. Modiano before the announcement. During a halting, nearly hourlong news conference at Gallimard’s headquarters, Mr. Modiano said he learned he had won when his daughter called him as he was walking in the street. “I was a bit surprised, so I continued walking,” he said. He said winning the prize felt “unreal” and that he vividly remembered when Camus won the Nobel for literature in 1957. (Sartre won in 1964.) He also expressed puzzlement over being chosen. “I would like to know how they explained their choice,” he said.
-Bijan Stephen has "A Brief History of the Personal" [Ad] at Hazlitt.
It’s the self, commodified in yet another way: a personal is a meticulously crafted self-portrait that, like any good painting, reveals the future as much as it does the present—we’re seeing ourselves as we are while we reveal who we want to become, what we want to be seen as.
-I hate the trend against "feminist scrutiny" (ahem, cough), and bell hooks agrees with me. Kat Stoeffel is being vaguely snippily doubtful here: "Unoriginality, it seems, is still a greater artistic crime than deference to the patriarchy." But I think making shitty art is much easier to avoid—and thus more annoying—than deferring to the patriarchy, though at this point I think we can hold public figures to standards in both. One could argue that women making original (/good) art is fighting the patriarchy in itself, and if there are no standards—how can anything good happen?
-Here's a paragraph from an essay I'm working on:
I’ve already mentioned Gay’s inconsistencies regarding being an "example." She does not want "to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal" because "[p]eople who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose" and "get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up." This is another thing I want to agree with, but I don’t know if it’s avoidable; in espousing a kind of Fuck you! I do what I want! feminism, Bad Feminist has placed Gay on the very "Feminist Pedestal" she rejects. Her philosophy is a seductively permissive one—which is why, I imagine, so many people love the book.
-I also have an essay about the alt lit rape scandal up at Dazed Digital; if the title "Ten essential thoughts on rape in Alt Lit" sounds insensitive to you, it's a riff on the fact that I used to do a top-ten column for them. I don't know why people capitalize "alt lit," but whatever. I link to a hilarious and mostly irrelevant Camille Paglia article.
Words seem to bestow a lot of the power here, which makes sense in a literary community. I mean, they don’t work so well IRL – Katz said she was not consenting to sex in several ways, and Dierks didn’t listen to her. But online: we praise "conversation" and are "inspired" by "responses". Sure, no one really takes the Internet seriously, since we can just delete or ignore whatever we want on it. Like what we do to "make him finish faster", it’s our "at least", a compromise: men continue to do what they want with us, and after it’s already "happened", we get to feel like we’re making a difference by publishing many furious editorials about the injustices we face, because what else can we do, realistically, with what we’ve got to work with? Sarah Jean Alexander’s outing on Facebook suggests that words (or "GOSSIP", even) – rather than real-life actions: in-the-moment screaming, in-the-moment repeated and firm refusals, going to the hospital for a rape kit, or taking immediate legal action – are the best weapons women feel we have against the power structures we’re up against. This is, again, unfathomable to some people, but those people usually don’t know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, or they are willfully forgetting what that’s like.
October 9, 2014
"Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior." This is St. Vincent's Annie Clark on the lyrics of "Digital Witness." She continues: "We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress."
After having reviewed their book for the August issue of Bookslut, in the September issue, James Orbesen talks to one half of the Gold brothers, whose book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness returns upon what is now known as the Truman Show Delusion. Last week I mentioned the Japanese reality TV show Susunu! Denpa Shonen, whose first contestant, Nasubi, wasn't even aware that his struggle for survival wasn't watched just by the show's producers but also by an entire nation. On This American Life, the interview with Nasubi had as a prologue a short interview with Dr. Joel Gold. And what better way to introduce an episode about our culture's obsession with watching / being watched than a discussion on the Truman Show Delusion?
What The Truman Show had to say about broadcasting your life to a network of viewers was strangely prescient: Six years before Facebook existed, the movie told us we were as drawn to the idea of being the center of attention as we were horrified by the same prospect. In 1998, we may have been more concerned with the film’s commentary on what it meant to be a voyeur looking in on a captive, a person who had been purchased for entertainment purposes before being born and was then held in his meticulously crafted cage for more than 30 years. We used to worry about the Truman Burbanks, but now we worry we are the Truman Burbanks.
Tess Lynch, Reimagining 'The Truman Show' for Our Current-Day Delusions | Grantland
But before Truman Burbank, there was Ragle Gumm. Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint (a reference to Hamlet which points to a shift in perception) presents a constructed reality built to accommodate Ragle Gumm's fantasy. It is meant to protect him but also to exploit him, and ultimately, to keep him trapped.
In his essay on reality and paranoid delusions, Mike Jay, the author of A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, gives a historical background to the (obviously unconscious) practice of incorporating modern technologies and modern fears into one’s delusions.
In their instinctive grasp of technology’s implicit powers and threats, influencing machines can be convincingly futuristic and even astonishingly prescient. The very first recorded case, from 1810, was a Bedlam inmate named James Tilly Matthews who drew exquisite technical drawings of the machine that was controlling his mind. The ‘Air Loom’, as he called it, used the advanced science of his day — artificial gases and mesmeric rays — to direct invisible currents into his brain, where a magnet had been implanted to receive them. Matthews’s world of electrically charged beams and currents, sheer lunacy to his contemporaries, is now part of our cultural furniture.
Jay also offers this insight:
Rather than being estranged from the culture around them, psychotic subjects can be seen as consumed by it: unable to establish the boundaries of the self, they are at the mercy of their often heightened sensitivity to social threats.
Mike Jay, The Reality Show | Aeon
To come full circle on the links for the September issue of Bookslut, let's go back to Vanessa Manko's The Invention of Exile and its character’s “suspicious mind:”
[...] Austin never gives up his desperate attempts to reunite with Julia and his children. Fourteen years pass by and Austin becomes more and more preoccupied with becoming a US citizen, eventually driven to a sort of obsessive madness. His inventions and his letters become a self-made barrier between the rest of the world and him; they take over all of his thoughts and actions. Austin's mental preoccupation reaches a head shaking extreme when the reader first realizes that an FBI agent who at first seems like someone who actually is following Austin, is really an image conjured up by his own madness. In regards to his inventions and drawings, the "agent" tells Austin "it's like building a fortress only to realize you aren't protecting yourself from anything, you've simply locked yourself inside." Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and red tape that prevent him from returning to America continue to make it impossible for Austin to feel complete. A bartender refers to him as "the inventor who cannot invent himself out of Mexico."
Rebecca Silber, The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko | Bookslut
There's a fashion blog for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Germans are looking consistently sharp, unsurprisingly. If I had known it would be a chance to incorporate my vanity into my publishing endeavors, I might have gone.
October 8, 2014
Image: "My Wife, Nude..." (1945) by Salvador Dali.
A Good Female Character Who Is Also the Wife of a Genius And Manages To Appreciate It Without Letting It Subsume Her Own Personhood
The first time we'd embraced, a few months earlier, I'd been afraid that I would break him in two. After the massive, brushy torso of my first husband, I was unused to his brittle, hairless body. I didn't initiate him into sexual matters, but I had to teach him about intimacy. At the start of our relations, sex was a release for him, a concession to biology. A detail to be addressed lest his mental acuity suffer.
Earlier, she puts an apple in his mouth like he's a pig on a spit.
On my nights off, I waited for him outside the Café Reichsrat across from the university. It wasn't my sort of café, being more for talking than drinking. The talk was always of rebuilding the world, a project I saw no need for. On that night the meeting was to focus on preparations for a study trip to Königsberg. I was perfectly happy not to be going, as a conference on the "epistemology of the exact sciences" was no sort of tryst....
I was cooling my heels under the arcades when he finally emerged from the café, long after most of the others had left. I was thirsty, hungry, and planning to make a scene, just on principle.
-From The Goddess of Small Victories by Yannick Grannec, out to be bought from Other Press on October 14. I'm on page 45, so I reserve the right to withdraw these assessments, but so far I think: fun but not stupid! Particularly apt on genius man/"ordinary woman" (if not also very self-aware) relationship and on older woman/young, wisdom-seeking woman relationship! And I want to know what happens.
October 7, 2014
Some Books I Like
3. Between Parentheses by Roberto Bolaño
4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
5. The Half-Inch Himalayas by Agha Shahid Ali
6. Roget's International Thesaurus, 7th edition
8. Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser
October 6, 2014
Image: "Loving Care" (1993) by Janine Antoni.
Good whatever-time-of-day-it-is! I feel a deep and constant self-loathing for not posting links for you on Friday, bereft as I know you are of links, but the long and short (but mostly long—I can't help myself) of it is that I have been trying to write a Concise yet Definitive Explanation for/Response to the alt lit "rape" scandal, since my effortless cool, passionate youth, and history engaging with alt lit and Internet feminism combine to make me quite suited to this task, just like everyone else, but isn't it funny how Concise yet Definitive Truth in writing, as in life, is impossible and yet we are doomed to forever be seeking it until we go crazy or give up? ISN'T THAT HILARIOUS?
Anyway, enough about my prolonged and inevitable failures; hopefully you will be able to engage with them in all their "problematic" glory soon, like tonight or tomorrow. A new issue of Bookslut is here! I'm nosy, and so partial to Mairead Case's reading diary. I find what is hugely popular in countries that are not my own—but relatively unknown there—very interesting, and so I'm partial to Noah Charney's piece on Miha Mazzini, "the best selling novelist in Slovenian history." I went to a launch party last week at which several people told me in impressed tones that Deborah Levy was present, and so partial to John Wilmes's review of An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell.
Also, don't forget that you have a mere one month to decide what kind of "crazy" your outfit will go for our Daphne Awards party, which I assume is the first thing you think about when you wake up and the second-to-last thing you think about when you go to sleep, the last thing being obviously misogyny in small, once-alternative literary scenes.
October 2, 2014
Three thoughts about A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
1. It is brilliant, and it is experimental, and I think the reason it is brilliant is that its experimentation is emphatically not hard. The language makes complete sense despite being agrammatical. (Aggrammatical? Also sort of implies "aggressive," which works, too.) Sorry I'm not directly quoting any foundations for these presuppositions; you know what I'm talking about. I spent all day writing a piece about rape and then I got an email from this girl saying she wasn't around when I needed her because I was "on balance hugely negative," which she finds "taxing." These two things are I'm sure at least tangentially related to Eimear McBride's nine-year struggle to publish this brilliant and not-even-hard book about a horrific female existence, but let's keep going.
2. Sort of weird (by which I mean: not) that the New Yorker and the New York Times and the Washington Post all thought the best person to discuss "what all the fuss is about" over this book would be a man. That condescending lede-cliche is a great example of how the Washington Post was particularly mistaken.
3. I forgot the third thing. What was the third thing? Oh:
I don't want to spoil anything, and I also want to convince those skeptical of unanimous praise that here their skepticism is wrong. So I'll just say the ending is brilliant in the same way the experimentation is brilliant: emphatically not hard, as in it's not surprising or original plot-wise, but it is the only ending that would make sense. It is a perfect ending.
October 1, 2014
The Artist's Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse by Adolph Menzel
In the September issue of Bookslut, Nic Grosso is in conversation with the Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik about her first book that has been translated into English: The Blue Room (Like sant som jeg er virkelig). The room in the title is the room where Johanne is locked in by her mother.
In literature, there are many famous rooms that trap characters within their four walls (Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, just to name a couple), and one of the most intriguing aspects to follow in these books is the question of limited space. How does the author manage that limited space? Does the reader stay in the room, trapped as well, feeling the claustrophobia? Or is the reader taken down memory lane alongside the trapped character?
Elaine Showalter tries to explain the public’s attraction to captivity stories, a genre that poses complicated ethical questions. (“We feel guilty being attracted to these stories, almost complicit in the exploitation of women.”)
What makes these books so powerful? They have some affinity with classic Gothic fiction, in which women are imprisoned in castles with a lush décor symbolic of female sexuality — crimson draperies, jeweled caskets, veiled portraits. Angela Carter’s 1979 novel “The Bloody Chamber” dwells lovingly on scented hothouse flowers, a ruby necklace, mirrors and marrons glacés. But the realistic cells of captivity narratives are small, barren, dirty and dark. Donoghue’s “Room,” described by Jack, the 5-year-old son of a woman abducted at 19, contains only a few objects — Wardrobe, Rug, Plant, Rocker — that Jack and Ma have made iconic and comforting through the power of imagination.
Elaine Showalter, Dark Places | The New York Times
In the late 18th century, following his participation in a duel, Xavier de Maistre was sentenced to forty two days in his room in Turin. That time in that space brought to life his Voyage autour de ma chambre / A Journey Around My Room. This little, light book undermines travel writing and remains a literary oddity worthy of being discovered.
In general, narratives set in a room are told in the first person, which is why the second-person narrative Un Homme qui dort / A Man Asleep, by Georges Perec really stands out and demands attention. Naturally, this choice only emphasizes the man’s growing indifference toward the outside world. In the 1974 film adaptation (by Bernard Queysanne and Perec), we see him withdraw in his room while a female voice-over announces:
Tu n'as envie de voir personne, ni de parler, ni de penser, ni de sortir, ni de bouger. C'est un jour comme celui-ci, un peu plus tard, un peu plus tôt, que tu découvres sans surprise que quelque chose ne va pas, que tu ne sais pas vivre, que tu ne le sauras jamais.
Georges Perec, Un homme qui dort
In Japan, the people who withdraw from society and lock themselves in their rooms are known as the hikikomori. The place to start is Saitō Tamaki’s Hikikomori: Adolescence without End. But for a better understanding, it would be helpful to take the issue out of the Japanese context and filter it through works like Perec’s Un homme qui dort.
In the cruelest experiment in reality TV history, in 1998 Japanese producers locked a man in a room with no clothes on and with no food. He would have to earn his food and other items necessary for survival by entering sweepstakes. Nasubi (or the Eggplant-Man), the first ever contestant in Susunu! Denpa Shonen, was not even aware his show was actually being broadcast and that an entire nation was mocking his struggle for survival. But here’s what might be difficult to understand for westerners: the door was never actually locked. Nasubi could have left at any moment.