August 2009 Archives

View of The New Yorker from Naivasha

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I used to love The New Yorker.  I remember feeling outraged the first time I saw Katie Rophie's name credited on a "Talk of the Town" squib because The New Yorker was my community, and I didn't want the author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism to be a part of it.

Sure, The New Yorker was brain candy compared to The New York Review of Books, and, yes, living overseas in China, I began to find some of The New Yorker's content less-than-compelling.  Still, Jane Mayer, Seymour Hersh, Philip Gourevitch, Elizabeth Kolbert - and the many brilliant short stories - ensured that it was reliably worth reading.

Perhaps Lauren Weisberger's worshipful references to The New Yorker in The Devil Wears Prada were the turning point - or perhaps they were only the trigger that made me notice a change that had already occurred - but I've transitioned from a reader of every scrap of text in the magazine, to a picker-and-chooser of articles - and, finally, this morning to a disappointed former acolyte.

Sitting in Naivasha, surveying a drought-suffering landscape - including dwindling wildlife forced into ever-closer proximity with humans - I read the "Talk of the Town" from the May 4, 2009 issue (one of the hard copies I toted with me to Kenya).  The section included stories about: Texans discussing succession after the provocation of an income tax raise; career counseling for laid-off Wall Streeters retooling for work in start-ups; Dolly Parton's NYC experiences; a paean to provincialism masquerading as an update on the reconstruction of the City Island Nautical museum after a fire; and a breezy piece about Peter Brant's new art gallery, and Jeff Koon's installation of his pieces in it.  An assortment of articles more clearly documenting the mass lack of perspective on the part of a self-congratulatory "general interest" (so long as it's generally within a narrow range) audience doesn't exist.

Katie Rophie, The New Yorker is all yours.  It isn't my community anymore. 

A biography reader's lament

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Too_Close_to_the_Sun2.jpgI don't write biographies - reading them is enough of a strain on my leisure time - but even I know that, in the absence of new information, writing a biography of someone whose life has already been so documented is not advised.

So I am now doubly dumbfounded at Sara Wheeler's choice to write Too Close to the Sun.  As I noted in a previous post, Finch Hatton didn't leave enough of a record of his life - in writing or in accomplishments - to enable a biographer much scope . . . never mind leaving enough room for two biographers to maneuver.

In my prior post, I had incorrectly assumed that, prior to Too Close to the Sun, Denys Finch Hatton hadn't been subjected to the biography treatment.  I'd been wrong.  Not only was a previous biography in existence (if not in print), but Silence Will Speak, by Errol Trzebinski, covered exactly the same ground as Too Close to the Sun.
   
Silence_Will_Speak2.jpg
Despite the paucity of the historical record, however, Wheeler had an opening to apply a critical perspective to Finch Hatton's life - an opportunity which she squandered.  Both she and Trzebinski, decades after the man's charred remains were laid to rest, appear to be enthralled to Finch Hatton's supposed charms.  Although both women duly note that Finch Hatton had a solitary streak and was subject to depression; that he left Karen Blixen notes apologizing for his foul moods; that he had earned among the Africans the nickname "Makanyaga" (which means "to tread upon" - was he, perhaps, rude to the help?); that he was dismissive of his brother Toby; and that the word "immature" seemed appropriate - both biographers pass lightly over these facts, refusing in-depth analysis and anchoring their works in the realm of hagiography. 

That they should have done so is disappointing because a reassessment of Finch Hatton casts Karen Blixen in a fresh, more sympathetic light.  Rather than being a possessive woman who ruined her relationship by smothering Finch Hatton - as Trzebinski portrays her - or as being a selfish monster living in a fantasy world of self-deceiving lies - in Wheeler's version - Blixen could, in fact, have simly been a woman passionately in love with a man who was never able deeply to commit.

While one worshipful (of Finch Hatton), bitchy (to Blixen) biography seems justifiable, two is a bit rich, even accounting for Finch Hatton's aristocratic lineage.  As much as Wheeler no doubt needed some occupation for her time, rewriting Trzebinski's biography has led to a waste of mine.

(Pictures courtesy of Shopping.com Australia and Amazon)
Kate_Hepburn&Bogart_in_African_Queen.jpgI think I've seen The African Queen.  If I did, it was something on the order of 20 years ago.  My father would've rented the video.  I have a memory of Katherine Hepburn cutting her hair - a scene that doesn't occur in the book (if, in fact, the movie I'm thinking of is African Queen and not, say, The Snows of Kilimanjaro).  In any event, I think it's time for a remake, not just because it's a terrific story about ingenuity, the awakening of consciousness, and exposure to new geography, but also to remind ourselves that, in our current state of gender relations, we are falling sadly short of reasonable projections based on a 1935 baseline.

C.S. Forester's heroine, as depicted in his excellent book from that year, is strong in body and quick in mind.  She combines "powerful arms" and a "powerful wrist" with "[t]hose big breasts of hers" and "the ripe femininity of her body."  While she's steering the boat through rapids, "her mind [is] a lightning-calculating machine juggling with currents and eddies."  She is "the captain of a raiding cruiser," adventure makes her "really alive for the first time in her life," and she "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing."  She is emboldened by success:

There was a thrill of achievement.  Rose knew that in bringing the African Queen down those rapids she had really accomplished something, something which in her present mood she ranked far above any successful baking of bread, or even (it is to be feared) any winning of infidel souls to righteousness.  For once in her joyless life she could feel pleased with herself, and it was a sensation intoxicating in its novelty.  Her body seethed with life.
(p. 107.)  Her beaux, Charlie Allnut, meanwhile has a "slight body" (or, four pages later, a "slender body") and is "not sufficiently self-analytical to appreciate that most of the troubles in his life resulted from attempts to avoid trouble."  (p. 54.)  Although he's a skilled mechanic, he suffers from extreme anxiety and a lack of confidence - "mercurial spirits [that] could hardly help rising rising under the influence of Rose's persistent optimism. . . . [I]f she had not been with him . . . [he] might . . . not [have] rais[ed] a finger to help himself."  (p. 126.)

This delightful pair bring out the best in each other and - although "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided" - they are a lovely (imagined) illustration of the possibilities for human accomplishment and satisfaction that emerge when men aren't intimidated by strong women, and women aren't put off by inadequate hygiene and malarial swamps. 

I must have seen this movie, and it must have had an inordinate influence on me . . . I wish it had been required viewing for my male age mates.

(Picture courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Stereotyping by the book

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Liar_Cover.jpgAfter my recent blog post about the near-universal dissatisfaction authors feel about their book covers - and the specific issues that arise in the case of books about "ethnic," non-white, or non-Western topics - the case of Justine Larbalestier's Liar caught my eye. 

As Publisher's Weekly documents, this young adult novel about an African American girl was originally slated to go on sale with a cover featuring the face of a white girl with straight locks.  Protests from the author, and the blogosphere, ensued.  "Justine's right about this one," says Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing.  Publishing houses "white-wash[] cover[s]," alleges Doctorow, because "black covers don't sell."

Fair enough.  But is the new cover for Liar (pictured left) actually a "Victory!" as Doctorow claims?  What is liberating or socially enlightened about juxtoposing a black woman with the word "liar"?  And, as a white woman, isn't Larbalestier open to criticism for reinforcing racist stereotypes about the untrustworthiness and dishonesty of black people?  Would a black author have named her book about an African American teen with "complex psychological makeup" (to quote PW) "Liar"?

Ultimately, my point isn't to criticize Larbalestier, whose desire to see cover art that accurately reflects the content of her book is entirely understandable and laudable.  Rather, the point I'm after is the complex interaction between intentions, marketing and consumer perceptions.  Here, the initial marketing judgment (white girl on the cover) looked racist to the author and may have been deceptive to consumers, while the second-attempt, "best intentions" cover (black girl) satisfies the author, and accurately alerts consumers that the book's protagonist is black - but I can't see this cover as pro-black.

Which is to say, whatever the solution to this thorny problem of book jackets, knee-jerk, PC-prescriptions don't seem to be it.

More Rye wrangling

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Whatever one might think about the continuing utility of meat space libraries and tangible newspapers, these entities sure write decent amicus briefs.  NYT, AP, Tribune, Gannett, along with the American Library Association, have weighed in on Fredrik Colting's appeal of Judge Batts' order banning his book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which uses J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as a point of departure. 

The amicus briefs are great reading - you can download them both here - if you enjoy watching a judge get spanked in a figurative, verbose and decidedly legalistic way.  "What was Judge Batts thinking?" is all you can wonder when you finish all 89 pages of the two briefs.  "Boy, she really messed up the law on this one," you say, rolling your eyes. 

The persuasive and passionate fervor of these amicus briefs may relate to the wellsprings of empathy their authors ought to have for Colting - depths of personal engagement analagous to Thurgood Marshall's personal connection to Brown v. Board, or Sarah Weddington's personal stake in Roe v.  Wade - or the rogue's sympathy for the hanged man. 

Quite simply, the differences between writing a legal brief and an unauthorized sequel (or parody, or whatever Colting's work is) are less significant than one might imagine.  Both use pre-existing works - in Colting's case, Catcher; in the attorneys' cases, caselaw - from which they borrow, to a greater or lesser extent, in order to fashion a story line that positions the original in the service of the author's agenda.  What else, in the end, is a legal brief, but a pastiche, a collage, a derivative work? 

Colting's misfortune is that his original work is protected by copyright law; the attorneys, on the other hand, owe their children's college tuition to the exemption from copyright of caselaw - and other works written by the US government.  But does that circumstance change the moral valence of the activity?  Colting engaged in fundamentally the identical process as the attorneys who wrote the amicus briefs - just using a different source material.  Does that make Colting bad?  (And before you interject that anything lawyers do can't be "good," think whether Judge Batts' decision should've been different - as it would have had to have been - if Colting had parodied a work that wasn't protected by copyright - 60 Years Later: Another Midsummer Night's Dream, for example.)

The process of active engagement with texts - arguing with them, bowlderizing them, cutting them up and reconfiguring them, reimagining them, twisting their meaning or amplifying their subtext - is a side-effect of being a thinking animal.  The law, in its wisdom, recognizes such behavior as "fair use."  Limiting the texts with which we can engage as thinking beings is both unwise and unfair - it's also impractical.

Of course, lack of awareness can stymie any insight, and active engagement with texts doesn't necessarily put one on the side of the angels on this issue: after all, J.D. Salinger's attorneys will use the same process to write an opposing brief.  Let's hope the Second Circuit Court of Appeals doesn't sympathize with the devil.
What, exactly, does a reading list say about about a person?  I wouldn't have thought a reading list would be as revealing as, say, a person's habitual dietary intake or fashion preferences.  I don't know what feeds this visceral assumption: maybe the fact that another word for "reading list" is "syllabus"?

But try this:

  • Most mornings, she ate a single-egg, cheese omelet, along with half an avocado and half a papaya for breakfast.
  • She alternated between wearing cardigans over collared shirts and cotton Indian kurtas.
  • In an eight week period during the summer of 2009, she read The New York Review of Books, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, poems from Staying Alive, and White Mischief.
My opinion is either of the first two sentences is more revealing about the person's character than the third. 

As often happens, however, my opinion seems to be in the minority.  Though we have yet to see - so far as I am aware - a trend of biographies that unlock the secrets of the subject through the prism of their diet or their sartorial history (with exceptions, perhaps, for chefs like Julia Child and fashion designers like Coco Chanel respectively), we seem to be witnessing a spate of biographies that examine disparate subjects through the lens of his reading list. 

I have already blogged about Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life.  Now we have Thomas Wright's Built of Books:  How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde.  Both these books appear to share some similarities: in both cases, the libraries of their subjects were dispersed and unreconstructable - leaving both ventures, therefore, to wander into the speculative a bit more than might be advisable for a book-length project of non-fiction.  Moreover, as the subtitles of both books make clear, these authors seem to think they can make the case that books moulded these great men and that their reading lists therefore deserve at least part of the credit, or blame, for the men's accomplishments or crimes.

The notion seems rickety to me.  As Michael Shae makes clear in his review of Built of Books, much of Wilde's reading took place in the course of his "thorough classical education."  But thousands of men who read Greek and Latin didn't go on to seduce young men and write The Picture of Dorian Gray

Similarly, Ryback catalogs Hitler's taste for reading military strategy, along with an assortment of lowbrow entertainment: right-wing pseudo-academic propaganda, pseudo-mystical polemics, and the usual smattering of porn, romance, and pulp.  But this reading list doesn't explain why Hitler is responsible for the deaths of millions of people, while at least as many Republicans with comparable reading tastes are law-abiding, responsible citizens (if not the type you'd want to be determining your child's reading material at school).

Ultimately, I'm wading through a biography to learn what precisely allowed Wilde to use his classical education as a springboard to reach his creative apex, or what in Hilter's character responded so tragically to the malign influence of bad reading material.  The reading list itself ought to be the periphery, not the center.  It's a part of the backdrop - Victorian England; Germany between-the-Wars.  That the reading list has become the focus of attention suggests an admission of defeat by the biographer: he doesn't have the answer I want to know.

It also suggests a fascination with books presaging - if not their extinction, then - their lessening influence: what were people like, back when they read books?

Is it a coincidence that, as people read less, they are also less able to dissect human character with precision?     

Myopia in Fine Arts

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In Louis Menand's review of Mark McGurl's book, The Program Era (in The New Yorker), about the advent of creative-writing programs at universities and their impact on American literature, Menand poses the question, "Should creative writing be taught?" - a variation on the question that dogs the enterprise (as Menand well documents), "can creative writing be taught?"

Although, as a question of policy, asking "should creative writing be taught" may be a worthwhile inquiry when deciding how to allocate educational dollars, as a writer, I don't think the question of whether writing can be taught is relevant to whether writers should attend the programs.  As Menand makes clear (if inadvertently), no one really goes to creative-writing programs to learn to write.  They go:

  • to engage with their readers' world ("university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit - the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace . . . . Putting [writers] in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.");
  • to learn "craft" - e.g., discipline necessary for writing, general rules about sentence and paragraph structure, techniques for plotting, etc. - as opposed to how to learn how to have talent ("What is usually said is that you can't teach inspiration, but you can teach craft");
  • to have space and time to write without having to worry about earning a living ("[Wallace Stegner] founded the program at Stanford [in 1947] by persuading a wealthy oilman to fund a place where returning veterans who wanted to write could get away from their families and hang out");
  • and to be around like-minded people ("I just thought that [poetry] mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other's poems, seemed like a great place to be.").
A related reason, although one that Menand doesn't mention, is that people attend creative-writing programs in order to make connections, network with published writers, and find an agent.

From the perspective of an individual writer, I don't find any of these reasons - singly or in combination - satisfactory.  (Full disclosure: three years ago, I enrolled in a Humber College correspondence course for novelists, but I did so because D.M. Thomas, my literary mentor, suggested that the Humber program would be a good structure for our work together.  While my work with Thomas was phenomenally rewarding, I didn't see what value Humber College was bringing to the interaction.  Also, about fifteen years ago, I attended classes at the Gotham Writers Workshop, which may have influenced my reluctance to attend any writing workshop thereafter.)

Where Menand and I part ways is on the issue of navel gazing.  Menand argues that immersing writers in an environment saturated with issues pressing to writers and their readers is a positive methodology for incubating literature ("For, in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn't, workshops work").  I, on the other hand, think such immersion is a form of narrow-minded self-absorption that produces literature of a like nature.

The last thing I want to do with my non-writing hours is hash over my work with other writers.  My creative process isn't served by jumping up and down on the same nerves ad infinitum.  Rather, my creative process blossoms when I turn my conscious attention to unrelated matters and let my subconscious have a stab at whatever creative problem is puzzling me. 

Moreover, as a reader, I don't gravitate to books that cover familiar ground; I want to expand my world through my reading.  Perhaps for this reason, as a writer, I'm most interested in stories about people who are forgotten by, unknown or invisible to Menand's "world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace." 

Finally, I perceive risks in creative-writing programs that Menand either doesn't recognize or neglects to discuss.  First, literary feedback is more frequently destructive than it is helpful.  Like all processes that require personal chemistry for maximum effect - therapy, sex - the provision of constructive literary guidance can only come from a rare person.  When the relationship between writer and critic lacks that crucial, intangible connection, a writer can suffer a devastating withering of his or her desire to write.

Second, immersion in any topic for whatever reason produces myopia.  That's why specialists tend to be assholes.  And while it's almost de rigueur for writers to be assholes, if they're any good, they're not myopic.  For the individual writer, the struggle is always to encounter the greater breadth of human experience; and for the literature of a people, the achievement is always in its universality.

McGurl argues that "There has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period," and Menand agrees, citing John Barth in The New York Times Book Review ("Writing: Can It Be Taught?"), claiming that there's more good, contemporary fiction than anyone has time to read.

With due respect, such reasoning is sloppy.  That Americans lack time for all the good literature on the market doesn't prove that our literature is as good as it could be (if, for example, we were to expect our novelists to train in the world itself, rather than in an M.F.A. program).  Moreover, the fact of the post-war rise in the excellence of American literature - if it is a fact, and I'm skeptical - doesn't prove that university creative-writing programs were its cause.  (Factors that seem more important to me include the undoubted facts of: increasing rates of college attendance; more people with leisure time to write; great urbanization; and increasing interest in the voices of non-white and non-male authors.)

Indeed, McGurl and Menand are at odds with the most prestigious arbiter of literature in the world.  An American hasn't won the Nobel Prize in Literature for sixteen years, and last year the words "isolated," "insular" and "ignorance" were used by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, to describe the U.S. literary world.  Harsh words and potentially more hurtful than constructive - but to ignore or dismiss them only reinforces their accuracy.   

A different kind of inauspicious start

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Much has been written about the importance of the beginning of a novel.  Notwithstanding the volume that's been written on this topic, the essential message rarely varies: 

Undoubtedly good advice, but in this thicket of mono-messaging writers may lose sight of another risk that lurks at the opening of a novel: captivating the reader's attention with the appalling limitedness of the writer's point-of-view.

Such was my experience reading the Prologue of Errol Trzebinski's Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and his Relationship with Karen Blixen.  First sentence: "It was dawn."  Not good, but not going to make me put the book down, either.  Trzebinski's first sentence sets the scene.  It's concise.  (Personally, I wouldn't start a book with the word "it," since "it" is supposed to refer to the foregoing noun, and by definition, at the first word of the first sentence of a novel, there's no foregoing noun - but whatever.)

No, the trouble in earnest started with this sentence, on the following page:  "The African sitting in the back of the truck reached forward to the woman and lightly touched her shoulder extending his other hand to point out what he had spotted, with his inherent native instinct, more swiftly than she."  My concern was not so much the omission of the comma after "shoulder" (although that bothered me, too), but the inclusion of the phrase "inherent native instinct."  Sorry, but the book was published in 1977 by The University of Chicago Press.  Hello editor?

The issues only multiplied from there.  Although I like to think of myself as someone who reserves judgment, I was fully turned off within the next two sentences, when Trzebinski describes a lionness feeding on the rotting carcass of an "obscenely prostrate bull giraffe" as "looking up from her vile feast."  (p. 2.)  I mean, really, it's one thing to be racist (e.g., Margaret Mitchell; still imminently readable), and quite another to be critical of the diet of wild animals.  What does Trzebinski want the lioness to eat?  Linguini alfredo?

Passages like these shift the nature of reading for me; I no longer continue to turn pages to find out what happens, but to see just how demented the author is.  With 309 pages of Silence Will Speak to go, however, I'm wishing silence had less to say.

Tortured conclusions

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Mark Danner deserves our gratitude.  In two articles in The New York Review of Books, "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites," and "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means," he has tarried where few of us would care even to glimpse.  In careful, thoughtful and measured prose, he has parsed the facts of US government torture - often of innocent people - and the ramifications of these actions.

His conclusion is that:

[t]he only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the "politics of fear" is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.

. . . .

What is needed is not more disclosures but a broadly persuasive judgment, delivered by people who can look at all the evidence, however highly classified, and can claim bipartisan respect on the order of the Watergate Select Committee or the 9/11 Commission, on whether or not torture made Americans safer.

This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture.

"The Red Cross Torture Report," p. 54.

With all gratitude to Danner for his work and thought on this most difficult of issues, and with due respect for his conclusions, I have to disagree.  Or, rather, I agree that we should have such an investigation, but I believe we can build a consensus - indeed, must build a consensus about torture - irrespective of its practicality.

At the outset, the lessons of history leave no doubt: torture does not produce reliable information.  Humans will say anything to stop themselves from suffering pain.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed no more murdered Daniel Pearl than Roxana Saberi was a spy.

But, nonetheless, let us do the failure analysis.  Let us examine precisely how useless was the information gathered through the US government's torture of terrorists and innocents alike.  Let our harvest be an acute documentation of just how much time the US government wasted, and just how many "false red-alerts" were issued, as a result of the lies extracted under duress from K.S.M. and others.  (See Danner, "US Torture.")

But though the failure analysis has its strategic uses, I believe that its role in building public consensus about torture should be minimal.  Refusing to engage in torture is a moral imperative, regardless of the number of US lives - or the lives of other humans - at stake.  The US needs to make a moral choice - not a pragmatic or strategic choice - not to engage in torture.  Nothing short of moral absolutism on this issue will suffice to restore US integrity (to say nothing of its reputation).  Curiously, this conviction - indeed, moral dimension - is absent from Danner's analysis.

Dick Cheney likes to assert that bravery is demonstrated by adopting "tough, mean, dirty, nasty" tactics against terrorist, tactics that require "the gloves . . . to come off," and by other such vague and vaguely Hollywood-cowboy-movie-dialogue methods.  But Cheney is exactly wrong.  When the American people maintain their integrity under fire - and demand that their government do the same - only then will they will have shown courage.

A condemnation of torture because it's useless - as opposed to because it's morally abhorrent - is an empty gesture.
    

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