Thursday, April 30, 2009

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The other day I enjoyed listening to Nathan Englander read and discuss Isaac Bashevis Singer's story "Disguised."

This is from Singer's introduction to his 1983 Collected Stories:

Fiction in general should never become analytic. As a matter of fact, the writer of fiction should not even try to dabble in psychology and its various isms. Genuine literature informs while it entertains. It manages to be both clear and profound. It has the magical power of merging causality with purpose, doubt with faith, the passions of the flesh with the yearnings of the soul. It is unique and general, national and universal, realistic and mystical. While it tolerates commentary by others, it should never try to explain itself. These obvious truths must be emphasized, because false criticism and pseudo-originality have created a state of literary amnesia in our generation. The zeal for messages has made many writers forget that storytelling is the raison d'etre of artistic prose.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Newspapers Doing the Splits

I've done a few posts linking to articles about the future of newspapers, magazines, and books, in the age of the Internet, but none of them had quite the perspective of this one, which was written by my wife's cousin, a newspaper editor in Scranton. Here's his thesis:

It's REALLY difficult to have any one institution, one group of workers, divide their focus between two radically different models and succeed at both. Specifically, it's really difficult to produce a great newspaper and a great community web site at the same time. They demand fundamentally different things and force choices that slight one medium or the other.

In short, newspapers are doing the splits as they try to keep one foot in each of two diverging worlds.

His piece does a nice job of laying out, in concrete terms, how "the splits" divide a paper's resources and weaken its efforts.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gourevitch on Torture

Philip Gourevitch, in a discussion on the New Yorker website, counters Dick Cheney's argument about torture's effectiveness:

It’s effective to assassinate people. They’re dead and they’re no longer a problem. The effectiveness debate is a false debate.… And I think slowly what’s changing is that we are starting to realize that when we commit torture, it’s something we are doing to us. When you look back five years ago at the Abu Ghraib pictures, everybody said, why are our soldiers doing that to those people? But the important question, too, is why are we doing that to our solders, turning them into torturers? Why are we doing that to our nation? Why are we doing this to our laws? Why is this what we are doing to our political institutions and to our standing in the world? And I think that that’s a debate that Dick Cheney knows perfectly well he’s lost catastrophically and cannot win on any grounds.


An interesting piece about the future of books on the Internet: 

In our always-connected, everything-linked world, we sometimes forget that books are the dark matter of the information universe. While we now possess terabytes of data at our fingertips, we have nonetheless drifted further and further away from mankind's most valuable archive of knowledge: the tens of millions of books that have been published since Gutenberg's day.

That's because the modern infosphere is both organized and navigated through hyperlinked pages of digital text, with the most-linked pages rising to the top of Google Inc.'s all-powerful search-results page. This has led us toward some traditional forms of information, such as newspapers and magazines, as well as toward new forms, such as blogs and Wikipedia. But because books have largely been excluded from Google's index -- distant planets of unlinked analog text -- that vast trove of knowledge can't compete with its hyperlinked rivals.

But there is good reason to believe that this strange imbalance will prove to be a momentary blip, and that the blip's moment may be just about over.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Bigger Fan

This is nothing new (it's almost two years old), but it is a nice little anecdote about David Foster Wallace's personal kindness. Rebecca Curtis, in the midst of a piece about the excellence of George Saunders's "Sea Oak," tells a story about writing DFW in January 2007 to ask him to provide a blurb for her book (incidentally, what chutzpah!):

Eight months ago, I wrote a letter to David Foster Wallace, on the thin premise that he teaches at my alma mater, in an attempt to get him to blurb my book. I was desperate. My publishers had hinted that if I didn't get a blurb soon, I was cooked. They'd sent me a list of writers, all of whose work I loathed, and urged me to contact them, praise them, and beg for blurbs. I felt I must keep my dignity. So I deleted the email with the list, and told my publishers I'd sent long letters to the writers but they never wrote back. Wallace (whose fiction is fabulous) is notoriously reclusive, and does not respond to missives. I wrote and swore to never demean him by going on about how much I like his work. Instead, I said that George Saunders, who'd been my teacher in the MFA program at Syracuse, is a fan. I said George teaches his stories, and mentioned a few remarks George makes when teaching them. Wallace answered that week (no blurb). He said, "I am 47,000,000 times a bigger fan of Saunders than he of me—trust me on this."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reading and Writing Fiction

At the NY Times, Charles McGrath reviews a couple new books from the era of the writing workshop.

Here's an interesting and, I would imagine, true statement:

Creative writing programs are themselves vocational training of a sort, [Mark McGurl] points out, and most of the people teaching in them are themselves holders of advanced degrees in creative writing. Probably a majority of American writers make a considerable part of their living not by writing, in fact, but by teaching others how to write and how to teach writing.

But McGrath's attempts to draw out worrisome trends from the rise of creative writing programs seem suspect to me: 

... few of even the most ardent teachers of creative writing believe it can really be taught. Probably the best that can be expected is that the programs identify and nurture talent that is already there. The downside, though no one seems terribly worried about it, is that with new programs springing up every year, a lot of costly nurturing of nontalent takes place as well.


What this means is that we are conceivably approaching a state in which there are more writers in America than there are readers and, even more alarming perhaps, in which writing detaches itself from the marketplace and becomes, as it was back in the 17th century, a profession practiced only by teachers and by those who can afford to do it for nothing.

McGrath seems a little too caught up in the ideas of talent and the marketplace. I teach creative writing in two different (though similar) contexts: a summer program for seventh graders, and an elective course for high school seniors. Besides the obvious fact that these jobs keep me employed, I teach these courses and these students not in order to train producers of writing for the marketplace, but instead for two reasons:

1) It's fun—the courses give students a chance (and an excuse) to savor language, to play with words, and to create something beautiful, exciting, or funny with them.

2) For the reason that Mark Salzman arrived at while teaching creative writing to a group of juvenile delinquents, an experience he describes in an essay in The American Scholar, later part of a book called True Notebooks

Giving narrative coherence to experience is inherently meaningful work. It doesn’t make life possible the way food or shelter does, but it makes life worth living.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Galaxy Far Far Away?

From the New Yorker's News Desk:

Maureen Dowd ran into George Lucas and asked if it had been fair of her to compare Dick Cheney to Darth Vader:
Lucas explained politely as I listened contritely. Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader. “George Bush is Darth Vader,” he said. “Cheney is the emperor.”
Bush as Vader is ludicrous. The comparison betrays a failure on Lucas’s part to understand the resonance of his own characters, which explains a lot, especially about Episodes I & VI. Other than being the father of twins, Anakin Skywalker, born a slave, with extraordinary abilities (the “best pilot in the galaxy”), has almost nothing in common with Bush, born to privilege and not much of an advertisement for the notion of a natural aristocracy. Is Jenna going to be Luke and bring him back from the Dark Side? If we are going to play this game, Bush has more in common with Count Dooku, the Jedi dropout turned warmonger, or, better yet, Jar Jar Binks, who, after a buffoonish youth, improbably rises to a prominent political position and obliviously fronts for the soon-to-be emperor in getting the “Star Wars” equivalent of the Patriot Act passed. Of course, all this can be taken too far (Condoleezza Rice as Asajj Ventress?), but one thing is clear: Donald Rumsfeld is Grand Moff Tarkin.

Friday, April 17, 2009

No Country for Old Men

No Country For Old Men Pictures, Images and Photos

Michael Chabon calls the novel "halfhearted" and says that even lovers of McCarthy must set it aside. Anthony Lane compares it to Elmore Leonard's crime novels, but (wittily, I'll admit) writes that "if I want Leonard, I’ll take him neat, rather than slow-filtered, drop by drop, through a layer of Faulkner, then laced with the Book of Jeremiah." James Wood calls it "an unimportant, stripped-down thriller."

They're right, mostly, though Wood is wrong when, in praising the novel’s dialogue, he writes that it is “so good that we can confidently expect the Hollywood version to excise it.” The Coen brothers didn’t excise it, of course (then again, I guess they aren’t Hollywood, properly speaking).

Maybe that's the thing to admire about this book, which is one of McCarthy's lesser efforts: it is rendered so clearly that the Coen brothers could make a great movie out of it. Everything that’s in the movie is in the book: the dread, the landscape, the dialogue, the weirdness. The film is a testament to the Coens’ attention to detail and skill in realizing a cinematic vision. It must be said too that the parts they cut from the novel—a female hitchhiker that Llewelyn has some heart-to-hearts with before he is killed; the greater part of the half-baked epilogue that tries to develop Sheriff Bell’s character further and lend the story greater signficance—are not great losses. But it’s also a testament to McCarthy’s abilities to create these indelible images, characters, and events.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Atul Gawande's fascinating and disturbing piece about solitary confinement begins with a brilliant account of how human beings are social creatures, who need interactions with others to live.

Its penultimate section concludes with these assertions about America and torture:

This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantánamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Strunk & White vs. Huddleston & Pullum

In a comment to an earlier post about Geoffrey K. Pullum's scathing screed about The Elements of Style, Brendan writes of Pullum, "this guy is wound a little too tight when he starts feeling 'grammatical angst.'" 

I think Brendan's on to something. The picture above offers a nice comparison between Strunk and White's little volume and the one that Pullum wrote on grammar, with Rodney Huddleston. 

I guess after writing 1,860 pages that "outline and illustrate the principles that govern the construction of words and sentences...without recommending or condemning particular usage choices," one might get a little testy about a 128-page pamphlet that recommends and condemns at will and has been selling nonstop since 1959.

I'm glad my department owns a copy of Pullum and Huddleston's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. That $161.42 price tag is a bit steep for my personal budget.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fiction Podcasts

For almost two years now, the New Yorker has featured monthly fiction podcasts on their website. Each month, a writer who publishes fiction in the magazine selects a story from the archives, reads it, and discusses it with Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman.

It's often a pleasure to hear these writers' voices, to listen to the way they emphasize words and shape the language of the stories. Their comments about the stories are also interesting, though usually not too strenuous. 

I tend to like the shorter ones—20-25 minutes. Here are five I'd recommend:

Very short, very powerful. Ford's voice is interesting.

This story lulls you then opens a trap door. 

It's a pleasure to listen to Hemon's Bosnian accent reading Malamud's unfancy prose.

I like Shteyngart after hearing him read and discuss this story, which put me in a distant and mostly pleasant place. 

An eerie story, eerily read as well, in which Welty ventriloquizes the murderer of Medgar Evers. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Strunk and White

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, a takedown of The Elements of Style as its fiftieth birthday approaches.

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Child of God

McCarthy’s early novels are not merely violent; they are almost gaudily so. They trade in necrophilia, perversion, and baby murder, and reading them one is struck repeatedly by the way he displays the bloody-minded glee of the horror writer, the gross-out artist.
—Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

In an earlier
post, I tried to understand Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian by comparing it to other works of literature—Huck Finn, On the Road, Waiting for Godot, etc.

McCarthy’s novel
Child of God is like The Andy Griffith Show mixed with Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, with dashes of The Stranger and Lars and the Real Girl (if the sex doll were, instead, a murdered corpse).

This short novel, less ambitious than
Suttree or Blood Meridian, is a fast and gorgeous read nonetheless. There’s a great scene at a county fair shooting gallery when Ballard, a crack shot, wins some stuffed animals, which he pathetically carries with him throughout much of the novel. In another great scene, a smith tries to teach Ballard how to beat an axehead sharp. He shows him how to heat the metal properly, the different colors of flame to use at various stages, where to hammer and how to temper it when finished. This arcane yet fascinating tutorial goes on for several pages, at the end of which the smith asks Lester, “Reckon you could do it now from watchin?”

“Do what,” Ballard asks flatly. 

As a teacher, I found this painfully funny moment all too familiar.

“Some people you can’t do nothin with,” the high sheriff of Sevier County says late in the novel, speaking of those who have been looting during a flood of Biblical proportions. It’s a tempting philosophy, probably even more so for a sheriff than for a teacher. In telling the story of Lester Ballard, the alienated young man who becomes a murderous cave-dwelling necrophile, the novel implicitly asks us if we agree. There’s not much to like about Ballard, yet he is “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” His troubled life puts the novel’s title to the test. Is it bitter irony, pure and simple? Or is it a challenge to find something divine even in the most reprehensible example of humanity? Or, conversely, to see Ballard’s meanness as merely one end of a spectrum of behavior that, unfortunately, is all too human? 

And to what extent has the meanness of Ballard’s community helped produce his own? There's no Aunt Bea here, no Andy Taylor to dispense small-town wisdom and compassion. Back in 1899, says one old-timer, there was a sheriff named Tom Davis, who stood up to the White Caps, a group of vigilantes gone wild. But in the present time of the novel, the most dignified character we see is probably the smith, who takes the time to do his job right and to show Ballard how it's done. In a sense, his pride in his craft (he tells Ballard, "It's like a lot of things....Do the least part of it wrong and ye'd just as well to do it all wrong.") seems a kind of metaphor for McCarthy's own writerly ethic. As for everybody else in the community, they're a rough bunch that has never liked Ballard or any of his ancestors. "I never knew such a place for meanness," says one townsperson.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spare a Square

So far, the most horrifying moment in Child of God, Cormac McCarthy's 1973 tale of alienation and necrophilia, is this:

All that remained of the outhouse were a few soft shards of planking grown with a virid moss and lying collapsed in a shallow hole where weeds sprouted in outsized mutations. Ballard passed by and went behind the barn where he trod a clearing in the clumps of jimson and nightshade and squatted and shat. A bird sang among the hot and dusty bracken. Bird flew. He wiped himself with a stick and rose and pulled his trousers up from the ground.

Dude wiped himself with a stick!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Dylan on Obama

In this worthwhile little interview, Dylan on Obama and Dreams from My Father:

He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage - cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


There's a character in Suttree who lives in an old home near the river and watches from an upper window so that he can call down "a dull mutter of invective and sullen oaths" on Suttree and whoever else walks from the river to Knoxville proper via a garden shortcut. He's crippled, reportedly a former reverend, and has been castrated by his own hand—"Trimmed himself. With a razor. Just sliced em off," according to one character.

After a long absence from his shantyboat during which he takes up with a prostitute named Joyce, Suttree returns to his former digs, and he hears the old man as he passes by his house:
Ah he's back, God spare his blackened soul, another hero home from the whores. Come to cool his heels in the river with the rest of the sewage. Sunday means nothing to him. Infidel. Back for the fishing are ye? God himself dont look too close at what lies on that river bottom. Fit enough for the likes of you. Ay. He knows it's Sunday for he's drunker than normal. It'll take more than helping old blind men cross the street to save you from the hell you'll soon inhabit.
Near the end of the novel, McCarthy refers to this man as "old broken Thersites." I didn't know what that meant, so I looked it up. Thersites, it turns out, is a minor character in the Iliad who criticizes Agamemnon and Achilles. I came across this interesting passage from literary critic Kenneth Burke, who sees in Thersites a literary strategy that McCarthy is clearly employing through this "crazy reverend":
If an audience is likely to feel that it is being crowded into a position, if there is any likelihood that the requirements of dramatic "efficiency" would lead to the blunt ignoring of a possible protest from at least some significant portion of the onlookers, the author must get this objection stated in the work itself. But the objection should be voiced in a way that in the same breath disposes of it. 
A perfect example of this stratagem is the role of Thersites in The Iliad. For any Greeks who were likely to resent the stupidity of the Trojan War, the text itself provided a spokesman who voiced their resistance. And he was none other than the abominable Thersites, for whom no "right-minded" member of the Greek audience was likely to feel sympathy.
McCarthy has the "eunuch" inveigh against Suttree and criticize him in the most moralistically religious terms, but in putting this vicious critique in the mouth of such a despicable and pathetic character, he undercuts that criticism and suggests that it misses the point.

Anyway, I thought the idea of Thersites was interesting—the idea of an author bringing in a voice or a perspective that needs to be acknowledged but that the author also wants to undercut. (I suppose this idea is also related to Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia—the novel as a site for a variety of competing voices.) 

Can you think of any other examples of Thersitism?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

It's in D-Bag

At a new online journal called Wag's Revue, a piece that traces the etymology of douchebag and opposes it to hipster. It turns out to be a pretty thoughtful and nuanced essay. Here the author, Robert Moor, who begins by acknowledging that he himself has on occasion been judged a douchebag, thinks about the term in relation to The Office:

Though television is chockablock with douchebags and people calling each other douchebags, and thus is a ripe hunting ground for examples, the douchebag posture is for me perhaps best typified by Andy Bernard (as played by Ed Helms) from the NBC version of The Office. You can read him from his smirk—that unique mixture of unflinching entitlement, measured success, and undue sense of self-worth. When he opens his mouth, his words only confirm what his posture telegraphed. "I went to Cornell. Ever heard of it? Yeah, I graduated in four years..."

But that's just me. Someone else might say that Ryan is the biggest douchebag on the The Office, while someone else might say it's Michael. (The show, it turns out, is positively rife with douches.) Part of what makes the show so successful is that each character represents a different facet (indeed, archetype) of the mainstream—the preppy mediocrity, the arrogant 20-something, the desperate corporate clown—which correlate to figures in our lives. As to which of those people you perceive as a douchebag, well, that depends on who you are. A true hipster might look at The Office and declare that they are all douchebags, none more than Jim, because he alone had the potential to be something else. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Historical Perspective on Tom Waits

Here's an interesting bit from David Smay's book about Swordfishtrombones:

In 2007 it's difficult to remember that the man who put out Orphans used to be lumped together with Billy Joel. Longtime Waits fans may howl at this comparison, but the early audience for The Heart of Saturday Night when it came out in 1974 probably already owned Piano Man (1973) and Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973). Like Joel, Tom was marketed as a tough but tender piano balladeer with a talent for Tin Pan Alley melodies. Like Springsteen, Tom was sold as a rough but romantic street poet with a pronounced Dylan influence.