28 November 2009

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson

I must admit some surprise that the best book I've read about judgement, taste, and aesthetics is a book about Céline Dion. Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is not only thoughtful and well-informed, it is also compelling in every sense of the word. (It's part of the ever-surprising and wonderfully odd 33 1/3 series from Continuum Books.)

I don't know where I first heard about Wilson's book -- probably via Bookforum -- but it's gotten plenty of press, including a mention by James Franco at the Oscars and an interview of Wilson by Stephen Colbert. The concept of the book is seductive: Wilson, a Canadian music critic and avowed Céline-hater, spends a year trying to figure out why she is so popular and what his hatred of her says about himself. I kept away from the book for a little while because I thought it couldn't possibly live up to its premise, and that in all likelihood it was more stunt than analysis. Nonetheless, the premise kept attracting me, because I am fascinated by the concept of taste and I, too, find Dion's music to be the sonic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

What makes Wilson's approach so effective and insightful is that it avoids the fanboy defensiveness marring everything from internet discussions to scholarly studies such as Peter Swirski's From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Wilson isn't grinding axes or settling scores; he's more interested in exploration than proclamation, more inclined toward maps than manifestos. The result is one of the few books I know that is as likely to expand its readers' view of the world as it is to provide the choir with an appealing sermon.

16 November 2009

Writing Advice from Cormac McCarthy

The Wall Street Journal just ran an excellent interview with the seldom-interviewed Cormac McCarthy, and I thought this advice was particularly sound:
WSJ: The last five years have seemed very productive for you. Have there been fallow periods in your writing?

CM: I don't think there's any rich period or fallow period. That's just a perception you get from what's published. Your busiest day might be watching some ants carrying bread crumbs. Someone asked Flannery O'Connor why she wrote, and she said, "Because I was good at it." And I think that's the right answer. If you're good at something it's very hard not to do it. In talking to older people who've had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, "The most significant thing in my life is that I've been extraordinarily lucky." And when you hear that you know you're hearing the truth. It doesn't diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.

I was struck, too, by this:
CM: I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.
Oh, Cormac! Aspire! I've spent up to six years on a single story! The possibilities for suicidal ideation as an obsessive short story writer are vastly greater than those of an obsessive novelist -- imagine years spent on twenty pages rather than hundreds! And then the struggle to just get, say, 5 cents a word for that story, if you can get paid at all! Cormac, baby, stop being such a wuss!

It's also clear that Mr. McCarthy has never encountered Big Fat Fantasy:
WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?

CM: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

The interview is long and fascinating, well worth the time to read it.

12 November 2009

Cat and Finch

Ms. P. Martha Moog thought about reading Finch, but decided against it when she discovered that the eponymous protagonist is not, in fact, a delectable bird. She very much liked the gun on the cover, though, and so dragged the book and one of our home decorations over the couch to spend some time with them. (She fancies herself a gun moll, I'm afraid. I keep having to confiscate her collection of Derringers.)

09 November 2009

"Revelations" in Sunday Salon

My latest story, "Revelations", is now live at the Sunday Salon webzine.

I'm particularly happy with this for a few reasons -- first because my friend Nita Noveno, one of the editors, asked me to contribute, and it's always nice to be asked to contribute to something, but also, and especially, because the Sunday Salon website reaches toward some of my own ideals for ways literature and the world can encounter each other. It's a site worth exploring and supporting.

Here's an excerpt from the story to entice you (or warn you away)--
Olly and I spent much of our time together, though, because Olly liked to hear the stories I told her. At first, I told her stories about the things our parents were doing out in the world -- fighting evil witches and dastardly kings, working as spies for the government, flying in warplanes and bombing remote regions of the Earth. Olly didn't seem to understand these stories, but she liked them. As she got older, though, she asked for stories about other people. I told her about Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. She especially liked the story of how Wonder Woman discovered that Superman was insane and used her powers to tie him up and then smash his head in with a boulder. "She had to hit him again and again, didn't she?" Olly asked. "Yes," I said. "He was very strong, and she had to smash his head in over and over and over again to kill him." We laughed a lot at that, and then Olly began to sing, and soon I joined her:

She smashed his head in
over and over and over again
and over and over and over again
and over and over and over again!

What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Returning now to work on the aforementioned J.M. Coetzee essay, which is once again insisting on going in unexpected directions requiring more reading. (Paul de Man's "Autobiography as De-Facement" this morning. I know you're jealous.) No more blogging till it's done. Bad me.

07 November 2009

Music and Oblivion

It's a sunny, cool Saturday morning up here in the wilds of New Hampshire, and I was filled with the desire to share some music this morning, but wasn't sure what. My recent discovery and obsession, Ted Hawkins? Couldn't choose just one song. The most amusing song I've heard this week, Marion Harris's "I'm a Jazz Vampire"? Tempting, tempting...

But then a finished copy of Alan DeNiro's novel Total Oblivion, More or Less arrived in my mailbox, sporting its fabulous cover, and Booklist gave it a starred review, and for various reasons that will become apparent the minute you read a synopsis of the book, I couldn't get a certain Andrew Bird song out of my head, and then found this lovely video someone had created for it, and my choice of music to share with you this morning was pretty much made for me. Enjoy--

06 November 2009

Jury, Meet Peers

Lizzie Skurnick:
"I just want to say," I said as the meeting closed, "that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it's disgusting." (I wasn't built for the board room.) "But we can't be doing it because we're sexist," an estimable colleague replied huffily. "After all, we're both men and women here."

But that's the problem with sexism. It doesn't happen because people -- male or female -- think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man's wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he'd be a better manager. It's not that women shouldn't be up for the big awards. It's just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like men . . . I don't know . . . deserve them.
(Be sure to read the whole essay; it's a smart and sharp attack on a problem that we should be past at this point.)

The good people at Publisher's Weekly are probably speaking what they think is the truth when they say, about their all-male list of 10 "best" books of the year, that "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz." I believe them when they say, "It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."

But being disturbed is not enough. What they have done is shameful.

This is not just some blogger's list of favorite books of the year. This is the publishing industry's trade journal telling the world what ten books from 2009 deserve most acclaim and attention. This list will affect how books are stocked in stores and it will affect what books are bought by libraries. The fact that the list only includes male writers contributes to a problem.

The editors who created this list have chosen to perpetuate sexism. They have deliberately and knowingly made it easier for male writers to have access to sales and publicity at the expense of women writers. Their list perpetuates the idea that the best, most serious, and most consequential books are written by men, and that idea will continue to have an effect out in the world.

Our society has made plenty of great strides over the past centuries and decades in terms of reducing institutional sexism, but moments such as this highlight just how entrenched the patriarchy is. Yes, patriarchy. Male dominated, male identified, male centered. It's insidious, and it is self perpetuating.

There is no objective, essential "best". There is stuff we like and stuff we don't -- texts we have developed techniques for appreciating and texts that we do not, for myriad reasons, appreciate. There are texts about which we have built large critical apparatuses for justifying as "great". Perceptions of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other broad social categories mix with our experiences as readers, our educations, etc., to produce the judgments we make. Though we may struggle to create vivid and convincing justifications for our judgments, there are still mysteries to any evaluation that strives for nuance. But even so, we can expand our awareness, question our gut instincts, analyze our justifications, wonder why we are doing what we do and saying what we say. To assume that we can simply "not pay attention" to some of the central forces structuring our perception of reality is naive. We might be powerless to change them, but we might also be in a position to avoid perpetuating them and adding strength to them. We don't have any choice about whether the society we're born into is racist, sexist, heterosexist, whatever. But we do have some choice about how we relate to that society, how we work within it, what we pay attention to, and how we choose to make our choices.

I'm not ranting from a position of innocence -- most of the writers I most deeply value are men (many of whom are white, middle class, born within the last 150 years, and not from the U.S.). I have some hunches for why this is, hunches related to early reading experiences, prejudices about language and its relationship to reality, etc. Personal taste and judgment are too complex to explain simply or conclusively. Individual readers are strange creatures, full of prejudices and whims and blind spots and allergies. Individually, I expect there are weird particulars other than race, class, and gender that affect our taste more profoundly, more forcefully than those social categories themselves (if those social categories could ever be isolated, which I am skeptical of anyway -- any discussion of them is provisional and strategic). But when we move beyond the individual, as lists try to do, we're moving into the realm of systems and social structures -- means of distribution and consumption, gravitational forces that shape and warp how we talk about the realities we perceive, the tides we choose to sail with or against. And that talk itself then goes on to shape some more realities and turn some tides.

All of which is just me noodling around and trying to say the same basic thing: An institution with the power of Publisher's Weekly has more responsibility than an individual has, because the power that institution wields is greater than the power of most individuals (certain folks like Oprah excepted, although I can imagine people could argue that "Oprah" should be considered more of an institution than an individual).

Or, more basically, what I said above: The editors at Publisher's Weekly should be more than disturbed. They should be ashamed.

Here's a book to add to a best of the year list: A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter. I've got plenty of quibbles with the book, especially Showalter's dismissive attitude toward Gertrude Stein, but I'm also finding it (still reading; it's big) a rich source of information and delight. I've already begun seeking out writers I hadn't heard of until reading Showalter, and revisiting ones I had not paid enough attention to. Check out Katha Pollitt's review of Showalter at Slate or Rebecca Hussey's at The Quarterly Conversation or Sarah Churchwell's at The Guardian or Susan Salter Reynolds's at The L.A. Times.

Or watch Sarah Nelson, former editor-in-chief of Publisher's Weekly, interview Showalter.

I haven't read nearly as many books published this year as the editors at PW have, but I'm perfectly happy to propose A Jury of Her Peers as the best book of the year on a single criterion: It's the book we, the litterateurs and taste proclaimers, seem to need the most.

05 November 2009

Eric Schaller and the Art of Illustrating VanderMeer

New Hampshire is a small state, so we only have a few daily newspapers. We're most notorious for the Union Leader, but the state paper that's won a Pulitzer (among other awards) is the Concord Monitor.

And today the Illustrating VanderMeer exhibit that I helped put together at Plymouth State University got a big feature story in the Monitor, with a particular focus on New Hampshire's own Eric Schaller.

The web version has the full text, but I was blown away when I opened up the paper and saw it was almost the entire front page of the arts section:

And just a reminder that Jeff and Eric will both be in Plymouth on the evening of November 23 for a reading and discussion. Huge thanks to David Beronä and Jennifer Green at Plymouth State for their work in putting the exhibit together, and special thanks to the Public Relations department at the University as well for helping it continue to get great coverage.

And if you haven't yet bought Booklife or Finch, the only acceptable excuse around these here parts is, "I'm waiting to buy them at one of Jeff's events so he'll sign them for me and they can then become treasured family heirlooms." (Except that's not an excuse, either, because you need reading copies, copies you don't mind getting all grimy on the subway or warped from reading in the bathtub. And you need copies to give away to people, because you're going to read both books and want to share them, but you're not going to want to give away your own copies. So stock up while supplies last. Remember what happened to military-style rifles when President Obama got elected? Who were the happy people then? People who had ten WASR AK-47s that they'd only paid $350 for back when demand was low. Sure, their friends said, "Why do you need ten of those damn things?! How many can you shoot at once?!?" Well, where are those friends now? That's right, mewling and puking in the gutter. And you know what? It's going to happen soon with Jeff's books. Trust me. His books are assault weapons. High-end ones, not crappy WASR AKs. And not as heavy, regulated, or expensive. At least as much bang for the buck, I guarantee you. Easier to carry onto airplanes, too. Really, in almost every way imaginable, Jeff's books are better than assault weapons. You have no excuse not to hoard them. And now that I've given you your free advice for the evening, it's time for me to go watch Project Runway...)

02 November 2009


I had promised myself I would not blog again until I had finished x, y, and z, and while x and y are finished, z (an essay about J.M. Coetzee's memoir-novels) is beating me up and winning.

But I'm going to pause in the fight for a moment and break my self-promise because today I discovered Aaron Bady's astoundingly excellent blog Zunguzungu via a marvelous post Bady wrote at The Valve about Chinua Achebe and the African Writers Series (a post that previously appeared on Zunguzungu).

It's been a long time since I last encountered a blog where the excitement of discovery came from finding someone giving expression to inchoate thoughts I'd never quite found words for, but that happened again and again as I read through Bady's blog, especially the post "When Good People Write Bad Books" and this earlier Achebe post, referencing Norman Rush (whose Mating I adore, or, at least, I adored when I read it about ten years ago) to explore the idea of "great writers" and who has the authority to write about/represent particular cultures in writing -- the discussion in the comments section is as wonderful as the post. Indeed, in one of the comments, Bady sums up what I most respect in fiction far better than I ever have:
...what I find most interesting in Achebe is his attention not to questions of who is right and who is wrong (since every perspective is flawed and mediated) but his exploration of how official truths are produced, which TFA as novel becomes a vehicle for. Or, in Arrow of God, his interest in how official truths get subverted when they don’t “work” the way they’re supposed to. In both cases, it seems like he manages to make any conception of “representation” take on so much water, so fast, that you’re left, like Foucault reading criminology texts, scratching your head and trying to figure out how people come to believe the things they do, instead of trying to figure out what the correct belief should be.
It's not all about Africa and African lit -- Bady's interests are wide-ranging and eclectic -- but that's what first captured my interest and attention, so it's what I'm highlighting here. I was taken, too, with Bady's explanation of the blog's title:
In Tanzania, you learn that you’re an mzungu when children shout “zunguzungu!” and follow you around, and in California you learn to forget because they aren’t there to remind you. But you still are, so I’ve kept the name, even though I’m now writing about other things. And I won’t define what it means, because you can if you want, and words aren’t so easily corralled into order as it might sometimes seem, thank goodness. And anyway, it’s not such a bad thing to be, really. They were delighted to see me, and I was delighted to see them, if not for the same reasons.

I learned a long time ago that I’m a white guy from the United States, long before I ever left Appalachia. But being called an Mzungu–for out of the mouths of children!–can teach you different things, if you let it. Too many people take the name Mzungu as an insult; but it isn’t, not exactly. Tanzanians sometimes use it as a compliment for other Tanzanians; wewe kizungu sana! It isn’t that either, not quite. Race is physicial, but “kizungu” is tabia or utamaduni, words that get mistranslated as culture or civilization, but mean something deeper about how and why people relate to other people the way that they do. Some people like to be called “Western,” and some people don’t; some people have that option and some people don’t. But I’ve taken the name zunguzungu for this blog not as a claim but as a provocation, and a reminder for myself. I’m really not sure what it means, on the deepest level, and I want to remember that ignorance. It also means many different things, so I want to remember that too. But whatever “zunguzungu” is, I know that I am it; the task, then, is to make that “it” into something good.
I could keep quoting all night. I won't. I have a z to keep working on before I let myself return to this here province. Meanwhile, you should be reading Aaron Bady.

(Oh, you want to know what I think of Coetzee's Summertime? Well, since I'm here already... It's magnificent and thought-provoking, of course, because I think Coetzee is just about the best living writer in the English language, at least among the living writers of English I know. It's been billed as the third in a trilogy of memoir-novels begun with Boyhood and continued with Youth, but though the "John Coetzee" of those books seems to be roughly the same creature as the "John Coetzee" of Summertime, the book itself is more of a piece with Dairy of a Bad Year [a book I think I underestimated when I first read it] and Elizabeth Costello in the ways it forces readers to become active, even self-aware participants in the meaning-making in a more insistant way than many other books -- indeed, it seems to me that Coetzee is using the fame he gained from winning a second Booker Prize and then a Nobel to question the whole idea of the writer as role model and authority -- an idea he's been questioning pretty much his entire career, but the changed and extraordinary circumstances of his life now give him some particularly powerful tools [in the form of readers' expectations and desires] to work with. I don't think it is a coincidence that Disgrace was his last novel to have a traditional narrative structure [it being the work that got him his second Booker, and the first I have with the word "bestseller" emblazoned on the cover]. I also think Summertime shows how vital the conversations and essays in Doubling the Point are to understanding a lot of what Coetzee is up to, even now, nearly twenty years after that book was put together. Confession and complicity remain powerful concerns for him. More -- hopefully, much more -- on this subject anon...)