Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What a Story Can Be

Some wisdom from the great George Saunders, at the end of this interview:

I like the idea that a story—well, that we don’t really know what it is, exactly. And that this is actually the purpose of every story: to find one more active, breathing example of what a story can be.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Newsweek's Revival, and a Mind-Boggling Fact

For no apparent reason, several months ago we started receiving Newsweek magazine. It seemed pathetically thin of substance, and I was under the impression that it was on its last legs.

Then I heard that erstwhile New Yorker editor Tina Brown had taken over and had been charged with bringing the magazine back to life.

Now I'm wondering if part of her strategy is to try to hook as many New Yorker subscribers as she can.

Newsweek's cover story this week is by Peter J. Boyer, a great journalist who's long been associated with the New Yorker. And the magazine features illustrations of some of its contributors by Grafilu, who also did the distinctive portraits of last summer's 20 Under 40 fiction writers in the New Yorker.

It's not a bad strategy, if indeed it is Brown's strategy: start by throwing free magazines at New Yorker subscribers; then improve the magazine's content and make it more New Yorker-ish, in appearance, contributors, and article topics.

Case in point: an interesting article about Henry Louis Gates (himself a sometime New Yorker contributor), who's got a new PBS special airing soon called Black in Latin America.

I found this little tidbit blogworthy:

Black in Latin America was inspired by one mind-boggling fact. Of the 11 million Africans who survived the middle passage between 1502 and 1866, only 450,000 arrived in North America. The rest landed south of the border in places like Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and Brazil, which have their own, largely unexplored histories and legacies of race and racism.

Startling, isn't it?

Anyway, now that Corresponding Fractions has taken notice of Newsweek's revival and added to the buzz, I believe Tina Brown's marketing strategy is complete!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inverted Capitalism

Bill Moyers interviews David Simon. I've seen this type of argument made before (John McWhorter says some similar things in this piece), but Simon puts it especially vividly here:

Bill Moyers: I did a documentary about the South Bronx called The Fire Next Door and what I learned very early is that the drug trade is an inverted form of capitalism.

David Simon: Absolutely. In some ways it’s the most destructive form of welfare that we’ve established, the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. It’s basically like opening up a Bethlehem Steel in the middle of the South Bronx or in West Baltimore and saying, “You guys are all steelworkers.” Just say no? That’s our answer to that? And by the way, if it was chewing up white folk, it wouldn’t have gone on for as long as it did.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bechdel Test for Gender Bias

My wife was reading Tad Friend's recent New Yorker article about Anna Faris last night, and she quoted this interesting passage to me:

The Bechdel Test, established in 1985 by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace, is a way of examining movies for gender bias. The test poses three questions: Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?

Bechdel, incidentally, is the author of Fun Home, one of my all-time favorite books. She's also an old college buddy of Kathleen Finneran, the author of The Tender Land, which may be my absolute favorite book of all time.

In any case, I found the idea and the simplicity of this test striking. It occurred to me that none of the books I teach to my freshmen would pass: The Odyssey, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Huck Finn, or Romeo and Juliet. (Not to mention O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

It's startling to realize not only how many movies, but also how much of classic literature fails to pass this test.

Must give this issue more thought.

Marx, Brother

The opening of Terry Eagleton's stimulating essay "In Praise of Marx":

Praising Karl Marx might seem as perverse as putting in a good word for the Boston Strangler. Were not Marx's ideas responsible for despotism, mass murder, labor camps, economic catastrophe, and the loss of liberty for millions of men and women? Was not one of his devoted disciples a paranoid Georgian peasant by the name of Stalin, and another a brutal Chinese dictator who may well have had the blood of some 30 million of his people on his hands?

The truth is that Marx was no more responsible for the monstrous oppression of the communist world than Jesus was responsible for the Inquisition. For one thing, Marx would have scorned the idea that socialism could take root in desperately impoverished, chronically backward societies like Russia and China. If it did, then the result would simply be what he called "generalized scarcity," by which he means that everyone would now be deprived, not just the poor. It would mean a recycling of "the old filthy business"—or, in less tasteful translation, "the same old crap." Marxism is a theory of how well-heeled capitalist nations might use their immense resources to achieve justice and prosperity for their people. It is not a program by which nations bereft of material resources, a flourishing civic culture, a democratic heritage, a well-evolved technology, enlightened liberal traditions, and a skilled, educated work force might catapult themselves into the modern age.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Wire and Winter's Bone

On a related note to the previous post, I think an interesting comparison can be made between The Wire and the recent film Winter's Bone. That movie is also about an economically depressed area (the rural Missouri Ozarks) and centers on characters whose lives are shadowed by the drug trade. One difference is that all the characters in the film are white.

Another difference is that the film is told entirely from the perspective of a character who herself is not directly involved in the drug trade but who has to negotiate that world in order to protect her family, her younger brother and sister.

But the most interesting difference to me is the way that law enforcement officers are portrayed in the film. They're basically peripheral, for one thing. And their roles are even more ambiguous than those of the cops in The Wire. There's a bail bondsman who's sympathetic but ultimately the enforcer of a vicious system. There's a craven sheriff who's either ineffectual or corrupt.

Mostly, the story is about the protagonist, a heroic and brave teenage girl. The film presents nuanced, interesting portraits of her uncle, an addict who's been involved in the meth trade; and, like The Wire, it also presents even some of the most villainous characters in a fairly complicated light.

My point, though, is that at no time are we encouraged to see this as a story about the forces of justice and law tackling the evils of those involved in the drug trade. The film is not interested in that. I wonder if such a movie has ever been made about black characters whose lives are lived in the shadow of the drug trade.

Maybe Boyz in the Hood?

Black American Lives and THE WIRE

A friend of mine who's also a reader of this blog sent me a question today. He just finished watching the fifth season of The Wire. He went back and read this post, written after I had watched the first two seasons and a few episodes of the third. In the post, I reflect on how the show's focus on crime and punishment narrows the range of black American lives considered in the show.

My friend wondered if I thought the later episodes and seasons of The Wire address this issue:

Do you feel the show successfully presented a broader range of black American lives in the later seasons than the narrower range of criminals and crime-fighters which you identified in the first few seasons?

I guess my answer would be yes and no. Season Four brings in all of the schoolkids and widens the scope a bit. The character of Cutty also provides an interesting example of someone who forges a life outside of the world of crime and punishment. Bunny Colvin becomes a very interesting example of a middle-class black character who struggles heroically, at times quixotically, to change the world for the better.

In the end, though, the show is still about crime and punishment. We root for the cops to defeat the bad guys. Now, it must be said that the show does an incredible job of blurring the lines: showing us the corruption and dysfunction of the cops—even some of the ones we might admire most—and showing us the humanity of the bad guys. The Wire is a remarkable work of art, one that can actually make us feel more empathy for a character after he brutally beats another character to death. (I'm thinking of Chris Partlow's killing of Michael's stepfather.) And the film's cast of characters does include an impressive number of what Zora Neale Hurston called "average, struggling, non-morbid Negroes." Many of these characters are committed to the apprehension of black criminals—but there are white criminals as well, some of whom operate on a much wider scale than the black criminals. (I'm thinking of Vondas and the Greek, of course.)

So yes, I think the later seasons do add important and interesting nuance to the show's portrayal of black Americans' lives. And yet, at the same time, I still think everything I said in my earlier post is true.

I still need to watch David Simon's earlier mini-series The Corner, which other readers of this blog have urged me to look at in the context of this question. And Simon's most recent show Treme would probably also be interesting to watch with this issue in mind. My understanding is that it's not about crime and punishment at all.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Where the Sidewalk Ends

File this under South Side Curiosities. Seeking to enjoy today's lovely weather, I took a bike ride over to the intersection of Oregon and Miami, where there's a strange rupture in the continuity of the street—of Oregon, that is.

I don't understand why the street does this. Did it originally end up where the wall is, and then later get extended? But if so, why didn't they just continue the street itself, putting in some dirt to make a smooth transition down the hill?

A couple of neighborhood kids came up to me while I was taking pictures. I explained why I found this street odd.

One kid solemnly told me that it had been like this as long as he could remember.

The other kid said, "One part is a high street, the other is a low street."

Here are some views from the upper part, looking to the south.

What is the purpose of the fence and the gates?

If anyone knows the story of this rupture in the street, please fill me in.

Why Literature Matters

I liked this essay by Joseph Wood, and especially this passage:

After all, humans contradict themselves, behave in morally troubling ways, think circularly or contingently, and resist a singular pinning. If we judge poems not on their abilities to capture human experience, but rather on their ability to perpetuate and frontload a singular aesthetic or political theory, then we rob ourselves of the right to be unknown to ourselves. We rob ourselves of the ability to try to find what is necessary in our own lives and to articulate that through the artificial and highly flawed artistic mode of poetry. Literature matters to most people not because it reinforces a dominant ideology or singular politic, but because it reflects tension and uncertainty.