Saturday, October 31, 2009

something about verandas

Colson Whitehead describes his what-to-write-next dartboard for The New York Times.

I recently published a novel, and now it’s time to get back to work. If you’re anything like me, figuring out what to write next can be a real hassle. A flashy and experimental brain-bender, or a pointillist examination of the dissolution of a typical American family? ­Generation-spanning door-stopper or claustrophobic psychological sketch? Buncha novellas with a minor character in common? To make things easier, I modified my dartboard a few years ago. Now, when I’m overwhelmed by the untold stories out there, I head down to the basement, throw a dart and see where it lands. Try it for yourself!

As a side note, Whitehead's appearance at the LA Public Library earlier this year was one of the most entertaining readings I've ever seen. He's got the funny.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

thoughts upon returning from a hike

1) If you're a middle-aged white man, we're the only two on the trail, and you don't make eye contact, I *will* think you're a serial killer.

2) I have mad respect for the girl who took the time to apply full-on Amy Winehouse eye makeup before heading out to hike.

3) Sometimes I worry that I run like Phoebe in that one episode of Friends.

checking into the doctoral motel

Louis Menand on "The Ph.D. Problem":

Up to half of all doctoral students in English drop out before getting their degrees (something that appears to be the case in doctoral education generally), and only about half of the rest end up with the jobs they entered graduate school to get—that is, tenured professorships. Over the three decades since the branch was grabbed, a kind of protective shell has grown up around this process, a culture of “realism,” in which exogenous constraints are internalized, and the very conditions that make doctoral education problematic are turned into elements of that education. Students are told from the very start, almost from the minute they apply to graduate school, that they are effectively entering a lottery. This has to have an effect on professional self-conception.

I wonder if Menand feels responsible for contributing to my professional self-conception as one of my grad school professors. (Not at Harvard, folks.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

sunday short stack

"To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, October 24, 2009

52 books in 52 weeks

29. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

The narrative voice in this epic history of 18th century Jamaican slavery is fiercely hypnotic from page one. The story is told in a linguistically compelling dialect; it reminded me a bit of the "Sloosh'a's Crossin'" chapter in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The plot is dramatic and, at times, brutally violent, but there is something about the telling that comes a little too close to historical romance for me - not in the "romantic" sense, but in the lengthy, overly descriptive tendency toward repetition.

30. You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

Oh, Jonathan. What are you doing to me? I love your novels - I've pushed Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude on dozens of readers, but what the heck was this? That poor pathetic girl was not an engaging protagonist, and if you're going to have a kangaroo kidnapping subplot (and I would have lobbied against this), I need details to make it at all credible or absurd. I, too, would like to write a novel landscaped with all my favorite LA eastside spots, so perhaps I can just appreciate it for that.

31. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

If you like The Turn of the Screw, you will love The Little Stranger. Waters's post-WWII ghost story very skillfully captures the historical detail and sense of place that make for a creepy haunted house narrative. What takes the novel beyond conventional imitation is the richness of Waters's characters. The not-quite-successful country doctor, his likely closeted paramour, her fading gentry mother, and even the adolescent scullery maid are all fully drawn. They easily carry the weight of trying to do something new with a long-established genre.

32. Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

Perhaps the best part of this book was having cocktails with Dan Chaon after his Vroman's appearance while I was in the middle of reading it, but I digress. Chaon deserves the accolades he's been receiving. This novel is both parts literary and cinematic - his descriptions stretch the boundaries of how common objects are usually perceived. He brings his scenes to life in a way that is vividly visual. The complicated plot is woven well between the three alternating narratives, and the denouement does not disappoint.

Friday, October 23, 2009

is hip-hop a cat?

Das Racist respond to Sasha Frere-Jones's claim that hip-hop is dead.

Before a handful of (white) internet commenters wild on me saying “Sasha Frere-Jones is not a racist,” let me clarify that I’m not saying he’s consciously and intentionally trying to assert his superiority. I’m just trying to point out that his language is typical of that (white) journalistic voice which presupposes the (white) journalist’s authority.

Perhaps it’s first worth examining further why “periodization” is such a “dicey proposition” to begin with, regardless of how early or late. Concepts like “periods” and even “genre” are loose collections of tropes that have no inherent meaning but rather contextual meanings that are only useful to the extent to which they can help organize texts. The point at which they actually serve to define texts is when they can enter a lens of scrutiny so intense as to render them meaningless.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

her voice is full of money

What can be learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns?

To start with, his popular reputation as a careless spendthrift is untrue. Fitzgerald was always trying to follow conservative financial principles. Until 1937 he kept a ledger—as if he were a grocer—a meticulous record of his earnings from each short story, play, and novel he sold. The 1929 ledger recorded items as small as royalties of $5.10 from the American edition of The Great Gatsby and $0.34 from the English edition. No one could call Fitzgerald frugal, but he was always trying to save money—at least until his wife Zelda’s illness, starting in 1929, put any idea of saving out of the question. The ordinary person saves to protect against some distant rainy day. Fitzgerald had no interest in that. To him saving meant freedom to work on his novels without interruptions caused by the economic necessity of writing short stories. The short stories were his main source of revenue.

Until the Hollywood years (1937–40), Fitz­gerald handwrote his income tax returns. During the Hollywood years, the returns were prepared by accountants and typed. He, of course, kept his ledgers by hand. Regardless of how they were transcribed, the returns and the ledgers reveal a great deal about Fitzgerald—how he lived and how he struggled.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

sunday short stack

"Writing is like sex: a lot of trial and error."
- Winston Churchill

Saturday, October 17, 2009

art isn't a surface activity

Jeanette Winterson writes in praise of the crack-up.

The stories are well known; Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear and went mad. Sylvia Plath gassed herself. Anne Sexton committed suicide. Emily Dickinson was manic-depressive. Virginia Woolf worked through alternating bouts of madness and depression for most of her life. The mad, bad and dangerous wild boys of high art and popular culture make great copy—whether it's Caravaggio on the run for murder after one of his rages, or Allen Ginsberg, naked and drunk, howling through Manhattan. The women—Plath, Frida Kahlo, Maria Callas, Janis Joplin—imploding like dark stars, are the stuff of obsession.

The collision of creativity and mental instability is so marked that the tortured artist has become a cliché. But with depression rising fast right across the population—and twice as fast among women as men—it is worth trying to separate the cliché from the truth it masks, and to ask whether the connection between creativity and depression can help us think again about the bigger picture.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

sunday short stack

"The telephone is a good way to talk to people without having to offer them a drink." - Fran Lebowitz

Saturday, October 10, 2009

drama is everywhere

I love the internet for the sheer fact that, on any given day, you can stumble upon something like a post by Jim Shepard on the subject of fiction based on non-fiction.

The first worry writers have when they consider working with something like historical events has to do with the issue of authority: as in, where do I get off writing about that? Well, here’s the good and the bad news: where do you get off writing about anything? Where do you get off writing about someone of a different gender? A different person? Where do you get off writing about yourself, from twenty years ago?

Writers shouldn’t lose sight of the essential chutzpah involved in trying to imagine any other kind of sensibility. And that they should take heart from that chutzpah, as well. The whole project of literature – the entire project of the arts — is about the exercise of the empathetic imagination. Why were we given something as amazing as imagination, if we’re not going to use it?

Friday, October 09, 2009

whatever makes you happy

"I Cut Like a Buffalo" is by far my favorite track off the Dead Weather album. Now the Jack White-directed video is out.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

landscape of the dispossessed FTW

Herta Müller - "who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed" - has won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature. You can read an excerpt from her latest book Atemschaukel (or as it's known in English Everything I Own I Carry With Me) here.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

sunday short stack

"The bear must deal with 20 obstacles, and each one of them involves pears, because the bear adores pears." - Sufi proverb

Saturday, October 03, 2009

a double shot of virginia woolf

New Scientist excerpts correspondence between Virginia Woolf and science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. She was a fan. (via io9)

Dear Mr. Stapledon,

I would have thanked you for your book before, but I have been very busy and have only just had time to read it. I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part - all the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at.

Many thanks for giving me a copy,
yours sincerely,
Virginia Woolf

Friday, October 02, 2009

to smooth out all traces of that crab-like and crooked path

Virginia Woolf on criticism and Hemingway:

And here, indeed, we may conveniently pause and sum up what point we have reached in our critical progress. Mr. Hemingway is not an advanced writer in the sense that he is looking at life from a new angle. What he sees is a tolerably familiar sight. Common objects like beer bottles and journalists figure largely in the foreground. But he is a skilled and conscientious writer. He has an aim and makes for it without fear or circumlocution. We have, therefore, to take his measure against somebody of substance, and not merely line him, for form’s sake, beside the indistinct bulk of some ephemeral shape largely stuffed with straw. Reluctantly we reach this decision, for this process of measurement is one of the most difficult of a critic’s tasks. He has to decide which are the most salient points of the book he has just read; to distinguish accurately to what kind they belong, and then, holding them against whatever model is chosen for comparison, to bring out their deficiency or their adequacy.

Recalling The Sun Also Rises, certain scenes rise in memory: the bullfight, the character of the Englishman, Harris; here a little landscape which seems to grow behind the people naturally; here a long, lean phrase which goes curling round a situation like the lash of a whip. Now and again this phrase evokes a character brilliantly, more often a scene. Of character, there is little that remains firmly and solidly elucidated. Something indeed seems wrong with the people. If we place them (the comparison is bad) against Tchekov’s people, they are flat as cardboard. If we place them (the comparison is better) against Maupassant’s people they are crude as a photograph. If we place them (the comparison may be illegitimate) against real people, the people we liken them to are of an unreal type. They are people one may have seen showing off at some café; talking a rapid, high-pitched slang, because slang is the speech of the herd, seemingly much at their ease, and yet if we look at them a little from the shadow not at their ease at all, and, indeed, terribly afraid of being themselves, or they would say things simply in their natural voices. So it would seem that the thing that is faked is character; Mr. Hemingway leans against the flanks of that particular bull after the horns have passed.