In Our Magazines
- Life of a Clown
- The "Living and Sustaining a Creative Life" Roundtable
- An Interview with Chloe Arijdis
- An Interview with Lance Olsen
- An Interview with Julie Peakman
April 15, 2014
Image: Leonora Carrington, Le chant des oiseaux
In the April issue of Bookslut, Nicholas Vajifdar reviews Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies, which was reissued by HarperCollins earlier this year. Jane Bowles is almost as famous for her undeserved obscurity as she is for the strength of her body of work. A Google search for her name turns up results from blogs titled things like “Writers No One Reads;” The Daily Beast’s piece on Two Serious Ladies starts off with the claim “You’ve likely never heard of Jane Bowles...” Despite the scarcity of her output, what work Jane Bowles did produce (which, aside from Two Serious Ladies, amounted to a few short stories and a play, In the Summer House) earned her great admiration from her contemporaries Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and John Ashbery, and continues to awe readers to this day.
For those who would like to know more about this unsung modernist writer, here are some brief essays:
“All of Jane Bowles’s writing has about it an otherness that feels expressive of a child’s perceptions. Her vision lands on people and places and finds them funny—a child’s version of funniness.”
-- “Lost and Found: Alice Elliott Dark” | Tin House
Alice Elliott Dark dissects Jane Bowles’ short story “A Stick of Green Candy” in this 2002 essay republished on the web through Tin House’s Lost and Found series.
“Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, was a revelation -- a work of genius, unique, subversive. These terms are overused, and usually misused, but are true of this audacious, brilliantly written novel, this masquerade, comedy, tragedy, with its anarchic, singular views of sexuality, marriage, femininity, masculinity, American culture, exoticism.”
-- Lynne Tillman, “Nothing is Lost or Found: Desperately Seeking Paul and Jane Bowles” | Joyland
Lynne Tillman writes about reaching out to Paul Bowles in search of work for an anthology she was editing; in return, however, she received friendship, and a chance to look deeper into the lives of the Bowleses than she previously would have thought possible.
“She agonized over the simplest decisions: where to go for dinner, what to eat, etc. Her fear and pain, so unfathomable, were seemingly two-fold. There was the fear of freedom, but also the fear of never claiming it.”
-- Christiane Craig, “‘Locked in Each Other’s Arms’: Jane Bowles’s Fiction of Psychic Dependency” | The Quarterly Conversation
Christiane Craig takes a close look at the motifs and anxieties that pervaded Bowles’ life and work.
Finally, Jon Carlson has a piece in rain taxi on visiting Jane Bowles’s grave in Malaga.
April 14, 2014
Image by Caravaggio, murdering fuckhead
We made a change to the Daphne shortlist. We removed David Irving's Destruction in Dresden in favor of Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death.
I have a... standard, let's call it. I believe that it's important to separate the art from the artist, but only when they are dead. When artists are raping or beating their wives and still up and around, I am of the opinion that you should not give them your money or support. Part of it is because of this here. Do I want that artist that I happen to like who murdered his wife and got away with it to have more money to do things with and enjoy his life? Do I want to express my value to him in the form of cash? No, not really. And it's not like someone like Woody Allen needs my money at this point, but it's the principle of the thing. My money is finite, I'll give it to someone who isn't an asshole.
Because of all that, letting Destruction in Dresden onto the shortlist, given that its author is a Holocaust denying fuckhead (alleged! He sues!) and is still alive, was a difficult decision to make. And I never quite felt okay with it, as much as I admire the book. After a couple conversations, and then bringing it to a vote with the nonfiction panelists, we decided to remove the book after all. And replace it with a Mitford, whose family knows all about being fuckheads, but okay. (That's a really nice top you've got on, Unity, where'd you get it? It's so cute, oh my god, really? Really, Unity Mitford?) Jessica was a tough babe, she'll be fine.
I still think there's an interesting conversation to be had around Destruction in Dresden, but maybe we'll do it without the book in play. Stan Carey, one of our panelists, recommended Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which also discusses how we turn other people into something less than human, and don't regret wiping them out.
As a result of all this, the Daphne Awards, which would have been announced May-ish, will probably have to be pushed back a little, we had a new book to order and distribute. (And read. And debate.) We'll keep you posted.
April 12, 2014
It turns out that it wasn't just pagan holidays and so on that the Christians tried to co-opt. (Saturnalia=Christmas, Ostara=Easter, St. Valentine's Day with that day you whip yourself and turn into a wolf or whatever.) Way back when Medieval was shading into Renaissance, some people had the idea to create a Christian version of astrology.
The way to do that was to change the beasts of the zodiac into apostles or parables. Wilhelm Schickhardt's L'Astroscopium turns Aries, the Ram, into the sacrifice of Isaac. (The story of Isaac is mostly just a way to differentiate themselves from Carthage's Moloch anyway.) The twins of Gemini, which represent the trickster aspect of Mercury, become Jacob and Esau, which is only really interesting in PL Travers's telling.
Andreas Cesllarius gave each zodiac sign an apostle variation: as a Cancer, I would have been born under the sign of John the Apostle. John from the Book of John is not very interesting, but John from Revelations -- that I could be okay being born under the star of. Fiery death and the whore of Babylon and apocalyptic angels? Yes, please.
At any rate, it does make some sense: a lot of the Surrealists, who all seemed pro-Apocalypse, had a lot of Cancer in play. Including my favorite, Leonor Fini. Her Battle of the Angels is quite something. (Not to mention her Beast from the Sea.)
On another note, does anyone know where one can find some Will-Erich Peuckert in English? I'm going off the little that Culianu translated for his Eros and Magic. Would appreciate any leads.
April 11, 2014
Daphne Gottlieb has been one of my favorite writers since I read Final Girl.
there is nothing i can do
except open my throat
and say the word for girls
who are the ghosts of want:
We've been publishing her very regularly in Spolia, both in our issues and in chapbook form. You can find new work by her all over our store.
I joked on Twitter that Daphne Gottlieb was our Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the poet who was the most frequent contributor to Margaret Anderson's Little Review. From Nicholas Vajifdar's column about the Baroness:
Her thirteen years in Greenwich Village were her heyday. She spent them playing the part of The Baroness, a sort of Statute of Liberty come to life who also submitted poems to The Little Review. Early on she made The New York Times after a policeman arrested her for smoking and wearing men's clothes, under the immortal headline "She Wore Men's Clothes." Other stunts included wearing car blinkers on her hips and tin cans on her breasts, and bothering William Carlos Williams by following him around. Nevertheless both Williams and Pound were sufficiently charmed by her to namecheck the Baroness in their poems. Like many of the most aesthetically satisfying aristocrats, she was made, and not born, noble, and took to her role with the zeal of a method actor. Her face in photographs is inevitably one of affected disdain, like a Borgia smelling a peasant, all to conceal her enthusiasm for the part she was playing.
At any rate, you should read Daphne Gottlieb, buy her chapbook "Bess" (a beautiful piece of work, if I do say so myself as its publisher), and read the excerpt from her latest Spolia contribution, "Compliant."
April 9, 2014
Image: Ilka Gedő, Untitled Number Two
If you read enough about materialism, you start to wonder if you accidentally picked up an intelligent design book. The language is weirdly similar: we are all machines, we have no free will. It's just that in materialism, there is a scientific explanation for why this is so, rather than a religious one.
The materialist worldview has been pushed forward by the so-called "New Atheists" (somehow so much worse than the old ones!) like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. (Dawkins himself has for some reason decided to push a racist, sexist agenda as well, as if deciding the best way to defeat the biggest dicks of Christianity is to become the biggest dick of Science.) Andrew Ferguson does a better job of outlining this worldview:
The most famous, most succinct, and most pitiless summary of the manifest image’s fraudulence was written nearly 20 years ago by the geneticist Francis Crick: “ ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.” ...
If we repeatedly tell folks that their sense of free will or belief in objective morality is essentially an illusion, such knowledge has the potential to undermine civilization itself, Dennett believes. Civil order requires the general acceptance of personal responsibility, which is closely linked to the notion of free will. Better, said Dennett, if the public were told that “for general purposes” the self and free will and objective morality do indeed exist—that colors and sounds exist, too—“just not in the way they think.” They “exist in a special way,” which is to say, ultimately, not at all.
And this is a worldview. It is one way of viewing the world, but somehow, materialists have confused this with the Truth. Like Christians did! And yet this view of the world seems wholly derived from Christianity, if you know your history, of how Christianity didn't just attack paganism, but going back to the Reformation went after the human imagination as well.
That's why I wanted to do an issue of Spolia devoted to The Mind. To the idea that we are not just a pack of neurons, a "moist robot" as Dennett insists on calling human beings. That things like emotion and imagination (and free fucking will) are things to be valued, and are not just bad data. So to that end, here is an anti-materialist, pro-Mind reading list:
Science and Poetry by Mary Midgley
We have to start with Mary Midgley. She is perhaps the greatest and most humane critic of materialism we have. And she's still writing, into her 90s. This particular book argues that science should know its place, that science should not try to explain poetry. Or consciousness. They are different impulses, different worlds, and there is strength in that. But by trying to reduce everything down to a simplistic formula, we lose a large part of our humanity.
Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
I was talking to a writer, and we deviated onto the subject of the New Atheists, and how terrible their books are. And their worldview. Moist robots, etc. And how simplistic their understanding of religion is. "Who was the last non-believer who was actually able to use their outsider position to fully see and understand religion?" he asked, and I immediately answered: William James. An agnostic who understood the religious and poetic and philosophic impulse better than any dogmatic believer (Christian or science).
Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Ioan Culianu
His book chronicles both the rise of the scientific worldview and the attack of Christianity on imagery and imagination, but also how we misunderstand the scientific breakthroughs of the era. And the thinking of the great Renaissance scientists. It is the last time science melded thoroughly with faith, imagination, soul. He's very good at why that collaboration fell apart.
The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist
As much as I yammer on about this book, it is amazing to me you haven't read it yet. Or at least bought it in an attempt to get me to shut up. His book remains one of those world-changing books, you suddenly see things differently after reading it. The evolution of the mind, the effect hemisphere dominance has on culture, how big shifts in society's views (monotheism, Enlightenment, etc) happen.
Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil
Aphorisms about the self, about faith and belief, about history, that will split your brain open.
April 7, 2014
Image: Nudo e paesaggio fiorito by Guido Cadorin
We are doing some stuff that is different from the stuff that we have done in the past, isn't that exciting?
First off, we present to you our April issue. It is kind of bloody, which I didn't realize until I was finalizing it this morning. Book about war. Book about insanity. Book about death. Hooray! It's spring, we should cheer up.
(It is maybe that new Afghan Whigs album we are listening to on repeat, Do the Beast. Sets a weird tone.)
Under the heading of war/insanity/death, we introduce you to Patrick White, Nobel Prize winner, just in case you were not previously acquainted.
Then John Kelly kills a president. (But truly, his From Out of the City is something you should track down and read.) Jane Bowles shows up for tea, more death and destruction, even Peggy Shinner muses on mortality.
Go read the new issue. But wait one second, we have to talk about something else.
I want to announce that Corinna Pichl will be joining our wee little media empire, to serve as Executive Editor for Bookslut and Spolia. She will be helping stitch together both publications, and hopefully she will keep me from fucking up quite so much. She works as a translator here in Berlin, and I'm thrilled she'll be joining us. Everyone say hi to Corinna.
Okay, that's all. You can go now.
April 4, 2014
In the March issue of Bookslut, Coco Papy leads an illuminating roundtable discussion on making a living as an artist. Sharon Louden, editor of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, and artists Beth Lipman, Peter Drake, and Julie Heffernan join Papy in a conversation about the challenges artists face when entering “the real world,” the conflation of fame and success, the risks of including one’s personal life in one’s work, as well as other topics relevant to visual artists today. From Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to James Baldwin’s “The Creative Process” to Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, the question of how one can live as an artist is continually asked as the world of art is constantly changing.
For further reading on the difficulties of living as an artist in the digital age, here are a few articles:
“At one point I thought I would find another full-time job after finishing the book, but then I must have convinced myself that teaching yoga part time would better enable my writing. I also thought that I would immediately start another book, which I would sell, like the first, before I’d written half of it. In order to believe this I had to cut myself off from all kinds of practical realities; considering these realities seemed like planning for failure.”
-- Emily Gould, “How Much My Novel Cost Me” | Medium
Emily Gould’s essay chronicles the financial missteps she made while writing her novel and living as a blogger in New York, where diversions from writing are plentiful and costly.
“Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.”
-- Tim Kreider, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” | The New York Times
Writer and illustrator Tim Kreider’s op-ed warns artists against providing free labor in exchange for exposure in an age where people are increasingly unwilling to pay for content.
“Kickstarting a project demands that we transform ourselves from artists into marketers. Are these two selves compatible? We are forced to streamline our heterogeneous senses of self, the complicated pushes and pulls that make up our personalities, for the sake of attracting investors.”
-- Josh Macphee, “Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter?” | The Baffler
Josh MacPhee at The Baffler looks into the downsides of crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, but his essay is also an examination of what’s at stake when artists are forced to be their own promoters.
At the same time, Racialicious has a blog post about how Kickstarter is relevant to artists of color in ways that the NEA has failed to be.
What We're Reading
Even if nonhuman animal studies seem to be pretty popular nowadays and build some genuine hype outside the animal rights groups that were initially advocating them, I still feel that there are pieces missing -- essential pieces, like the ones daring to critically examine the effects that human animals do have on other species. Like the uncomfortable pieces that question the human progress by revealing some uncomfortable insights on the things that were done in order to achieve this so-called progress. Things most of us would rather not know so that we could easily go on with our lives. And this is precisely the point where Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict by David A. Nibert comes to fill the void.
Linking domesecration (the systemic practice of violence in which social animals are enslaved and biologically manipulated, resulting in their objectification, subordination, and oppression) to some of the extremely violent developments throughout the history of humankind, Nibert’s book points in the direction of a vegan socialist alternative and it does so in a very graphic manner. But again, what happens to the nonhuman animals out there is not a piece of cake either. And as much as I dislike the notion of mandatory reading, this book comes pretty close to being one.
Miha most recently reviewed the Lisa Factora-Borchers edited anthology Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence for Bookslut
April 3, 2014
From the introduction:
Your brain is like a computer. How many times do we read this obnoxious statement in contemporary science and philosophy? Your brain is a computer, your body is a machine. You are just some parts, cobbled together, functioning until you do not.
Here is why you love: it is hormones and endorphins and a drive towards procreation. We have the brain scans to prove it.
Here is why you are sad: your serotonin levels are imbalanced, and we can remedy this with prescription medication.
Brain versus Mind. It seems like someone is always trying to compartmentalize us, first the religious trying to remove the body from the soul. Now it's the word "soul" that gets eyes rolling and gets you scolded for not being more serious.
So when we use the word Mind here, we are resisting the idea that we can be fully understood by some brain imagery, or by our endocrin system, or by our meat. That our brain, the mushy bits crammed into our skull, is not more important than our Mind. That we are bigger than the sum of our parts.
To talk about this idea, we have poets and scientists. Our contributors this month include Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion and Dana Becker, author of Through the Looking Glass: Women and Borderline Personality Disorder. We also have a Swedish modernist poet, a contemporary American poet, a Slovenian novelist, and others.
Down with Materialism. Up with the Mind.
Image: Closed Eyes by Odilon Redon
April 2, 2014Image: Umberto Boccioni, "States of Mind"
A guest post by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of, most recently, The End of San Francisco
My Amtrak Residency
”That’s so romantic” is something people said over and over again when I mentioned that I took the train cross-country for my last book tour. Actually, for my last several book tours, except for one airplane in an emergency, and that I regretted. I don’t take planes because they destroy me. When I say they destroy me, I mean the landing gives me a horrible ear and headache, which I know is pretty typical, except that my head feels like it’s splitting apart and then that progresses into a sinus headache that’s like a drill going through my head for weeks, and after that eventually subsides I fall into a deep, dark, physically-induced depression that goes on for months and I never know why until it ends and I realize oh, that was the plane.
I deal with a lot of debilitating chronic health issues, loosely termed fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue or whatever -- pain all over my body, exhaustion, migraines, intestinal bloating, hypersensitivity to scents, temperature, certain foods -- and then everything wraps around me until it’s difficult to function. Taking the train cross-country wrecks me, but it’s better than the other options if I travel by sleeper, so I can shut the door and control the environment as much as possible.
Strangely, I sleep kind of well with all the movement, as long as I bring a white noise generator and the electrical outlet in the room actually works, but the recycled air and the fumes from the fuel and the endless Febreeze-a-thon make me incapacitated for pretty much the whole time, so I’ve learned not to think that I’m going to do anything. Mostly I just stare into space, and zone out, and I’ve done this so often that it becomes more or less bearable. Sometimes I study the backsides of tiny towns, or the wreckage from places that barely even exist anymore, or a big new farmhouse built right beside an old crumbling one. The sky, yes there’s the sky, tumbling by in all shades of blue and gray, red, pink and yellow, and at night when you turn off the lights and try to see what you can see outside.
Sometimes I’m startled by the beauty, like the Wisconsin Dells, who knew about the Wisconsin Dells, so much water and the softness of greens and browns, tall birds walking through. Of course, everyone knows about the California coastline, and the train takes full advantage of that, perched on a cliff right over the ocean, that’s the one train to take if you take just one, from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, especially if you go through the beautiful parts right around sunset. But overall the long-range train experience is mostly numbing, which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Like I said, it destroys my health, but I’m not completely incapacitated, so it works better than the other options that aren’t really options.
Anyway, when someone says “Oh, that sounds so romantic,” I mention that there’s no way to take a train directly cross-country, and the trip from Seattle to Chicago is already 48 hours, and you’ll almost never make your connection because the train always arrives late in Chicago, and most long-range Amtrak trains only run once a day. So then the total trip to get to the East Coast becomes a minimum of four days. And, even though the long-range trains are usually hours and hours late, the later it becomes the more rigid the conductors get about not letting anyone off the train for fresh air unless they’re departing. Sometimes the train even skips designated smoke stops, which is unfortunately still what they call the places where you can get out for a few minutes, even though there are some of us who want smoke, and some of us who want air (and maybe even some who want both), and in any case, if the train is already five hours late will it really matter if we add on another five minutes?
On Amtrak, a delay of three or four hours is pretty much on-time, and a 15-hour delay isn’t out of the ordinary. I remember once, on the way back to California, sitting in the train on some steep incline in the middle of nowhere for five or six hours, half of that time with all the ventilation off in the hot sun. A 24-hour train ride might sound long, but try adding on 20 hours while you’re in transit and it becomes excruciating. While the conductor will make all sorts of excuses about these disastrous delays, I’ve learned that the vast majority of the time they occur because the freight lines own the train tracks, so if Amtrak isn’t on time, the freight companies have the right-of-way. This means that sometimes you can be sitting on the train in the middle of nowhere, while coal train after coal train speeds by. Oh, the priorities in this country! Yes, Amtrak is subsidized, but not to make it efficient or pleasant or practical -- certainly the trains in this country receive only a tiny fraction of the funding for highways.
A car will almost always be faster than a long-range train, often twice as fast -- sometimes when you’re on the train you can even watch cars speeding by -- shouldn’t it be the other way around? Plus, if you need a sleeper, that’s generally way more expensive than a plane, often more expensive than first-class. The sleepers are generally populated by seniors, families with young children, and people who can’t take planes for one reason or another. Some of these people romanticize the travel, for sure, but what else are you going to do when it takes a minimum of three days to go on a journey that would be a five-hour plane -- or, a smooth overnight train if we just had dedicated passenger train tracks and high-speed rail.
If there’s anything that all the buzz about the Amtrak residency for writers should call our attention to, it’s the lack of funding for writers in this country. I’m still depressed that thousands of people have applied for the hallowed privilege of being stuck on a train for who-knows-how-many-hours. Some of these people are well-known writers, extolling the virtues of train travel online with the hopes of snatching a barely-discernible prize. With coverage from the New Yorker to CNN to the Chicago Tribune to NPR to PBS to the Paris Review to Huffington Post and on and on down the list from the old guard to the new guard and back, this has to be the biggest publicity bonanza Amtrak has experienced in ages. It’s almost like they’re glamorizing the worst parts of the journey: you’re stuck in a tiny room for hours on end with nothing to do -- perfect! You don’t even have to pay us for this torture.
As Evan Kindley writes in a skeptical piece in n + 1, “there is something disturbing about the spectacle of so many writers and intellectuals banding together to help launch a viral promotional campaign.” Amtrak has recently faced controversy over terms in the application that imply the company owns the rights to anything applicants send them, but the overwhelming tone of most of the coverage remains somewhere between jubilant and mesmerized. I’m worried that this media trance will make train travel worse—now that literati are so excited about this outmoded method of transportation, Amtrak doesn’t even need to make improvements, right? Just imagine the privilege of all that time to yourself. If someone uses an Amtrak residency to do an exposé on the hideous state of train travel in this country, then maybe it will be worth it. I just want Amtrak to pay me back for all the trains I’ve already taken.
April 1, 2014
I continue my Reading the Tarot series over at Ohio Edit with the Six of Coins card, a card about charity and figuring out what you truly value and asking others for help.
If you are the beggar (and we are all, all of the time, the beggar in front of someone), who are you holding your hand out to for help? And what behavior are those people going to reward?
The stories you read, the movies and television you watch, do they value you for who you are? Or only for your sexual availability? The people who pay you money, do they pay you for work you think is important? Or are you simply doing what needs to be done to receive your paycheck? What are you being valued for? Will your friends be happy for you if you suddenly decide your value system deviates from them? If you decide to start fucking with your gender or your definition of success or your idea of what a relationship looks like, will they still invite you over for dinner? Or will you suddenly start making them uncomfortable?
March 25, 2014Image: Josephine Baker
Jenny McPhee’s Bombshell column this month focuses on literature about young American women in search of an education -- whether in academia, love, or life -- in Paris. The aspects of Paris that appealed to young Americans -- its history as a destination for artists and intellectuals, its promises of adventure and sexual liberation -- similarly attracted young Black Americans, who also saw living in Paris as an opportunity escape the racism of their home country. Paris has been home to an African American expatriate community since WWI, when Black soldiers brought overseas decided to stay in France after the war rather than return home. Notable Black Americans who lived in Paris include Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Nina Simone. Although much has changed since then, Paris continues to attract Black Americans in search of a more liberal, cosmopolitan society.
For more on this particular subgenre of the experiences of Americans in Paris, here are some recommended resources:
“Before I left home I cut my hair close to my scalp so I could be a free woman with free thoughts, open to all possibilities. I was making a map of the world.”
-- Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood, excerpted in The New York Times
Shay Youngblood’s novel tells the story of Eden Daniel, a young Black American and aspiring writer who moves to Paris to follow in the footsteps of her literary idols. As Eden adapts to her new life and tries on different personas, she develops a more nuanced perspective on the city and on living as a writer.
“It’s not just that we feel free of the burden of race, because we’re still black. I still experience myself as black. It’s just that it’s not the center of my identity, it’s not the first thing people relate to when I meet them here.”
-- Janet McDonald on This American Life | This American Life Episode 165: Americans in Paris
On an episode of This American Life titled “Americans in Paris,” Janet McDonald, author of Project Girl, examines how living in Paris changed how she experienced her identity as a Black American woman. While certain aspects of her identity, such as her race, seemed less prominent, others -- namely, her nationality -- were thrown into sharp relief.
“Recounting the historical police victimization of other African Americans to my French wife, her horror served as a reminder that this type of thing went largely unheard of in her country. We are both appalled by Sarkozy's Muslim scapegoating, but thankful that police killings of blacks in cold blood on a semi-regular basis isn't part of the French social fabric.”
-- “A Letter from an Expat in Paris” by Miles Marshall Lewis | The Root
Pop culture critic Miles Marshall Lewis lived in Paris from 2004 to 2011, where he recounted his experiences on his blog, Furthermucker, and wrote a column called “Paris Noir" (also the title of Tyler Stovall’s book about the history of African-Americans in Paris) which focused on the world of French hiphop.
March 24, 2014
Image: Clio, Muse of History, as depicted by Vermeer
The nonfiction category for the Daphne Awards is quite the line-up. The year under consideration, 1963, is less than 20 years after the resolution of World War II, American culture is quickly shifting and the murmurs of dissatisfaction are building to the worldwide revolution to come. It's this strange moment of catching ones breath before another deep submerging, and I definitely wanted to chair the nonfiction category myself. I mean, look at these books:
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Destruction of Dresden by David Irving
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
I asked Austin Grossman, our fiction chair, to interrogate me the way I've been interrogating our other category chairs these past few weeks. (Read Nicholas Vajifdar's introduction of the poetry shortlist, and Austin Grossman's introduction of the fiction shortlist.) He sent along some questions, and here are my answers.
The longlist includes memoir, history, journalism, science, philosophy, history...how do you make meaningful comparisons between works written in different genres?
To me, fiction seems much more difficult to judge, because it's all just telling a story, yes? And so at some point, what is going to make the decision is on some basic level is taste. And taste is so subjective, and built out of all of these different experiences you've had but not this other person who is judging alongside you, that to me seems much harder.
With nonfiction, I feel like it's much more of an argument. There is some battling it out involved in each of these books, and that to me is fun. It's a different way of incorporating a book into your life than how it works with fiction. Fiction is a world you step into. And then you have to see how the world holds together, and what you think of that world. Nonfiction is much more of a puzzle that fits into your brain. And so even though they take all of these different forms, the questions are the same: is there something essential here, something that they are bringing to our attention? are these arguments still worth having? Is there insight there, or are they taking easy shots?
More than any other category, books in the nonfiction list have moral claims - to be truthful, to bring real events and real people's claims for justice to our attention. Isn't this the most intimidating category to judge - evaluating the claims of, say, Eichmann in Jerusalem against The Fire Next Time? Does that matter more than good writing?
Right, I think that's another difference between fiction and nonfiction, because, at least personally, in nonfiction how good the writing is is less important than the structure, the thinking, the mind of the person holding forth. That's not always going to be the case, of course. But I think about Primo Levi's quietly powerful memoir, The Reawakening, about his long trip back to Italy after the liberation of Auschwitz. If he had written it with a kind of florid prose, poetic and philosophical, it wouldn't have been quite so affecting. It's the plainness of it, the simple act of witnessing that he does that makes the book. He took this very simple approach of, this is the world we live in. And by the time you get to the end, you understand how devastating that is. But against that, think of how many incredibly important nonfiction books, from academic works to philosophy to works of history, are just terribly written. Surely Heidegger holds an importance in the 20th century that has absolutely nothing to do with his dreadful prose. That just means that our definition of importance or greatness has to change for the nonfiction category.
At some point, one has to distance oneself enough to say, okay, so these shortlisted books are all excellent, and they have to be judged for the books that they are, not the cause they represent. We can't say, well, civil rights is more important/less important than the Nazi war crimes. It's just a different metric, I think.
The 1964 National Book Awards went to Aileen Ward's John Keats: The Making of a Poet. William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community and Christopher Tunnard & Boris Pushkarev, Man-made America. None of which show up on the longlist. How did they get it so wrong? Or to put it another way, who do you think you are?
I ask myself that all of the time.
But I think what's going to be important for the year of release in nonfiction is going to be different from what lasts. Nonfiction, at least a lot of it, builds more on what came before it. A lot of it is about the advancement of knowledge or the advancement of a thought. And so those books, which advance a thought, will be thought to be more important around the time they come out, but then they become outdated when someone pushes it a little further. And I think with The Rise of the West and Man-Made America, that's certainly the case.
Then there are the books in nonfiction that are singularities, that constellate something all by themselves. Certainly Eichmann in Jerusalem does that. One cannot "advance" Eichmann in Jerusalem. Then there are books like Destruction in Dresden, which holds up for a different reason, and hopefully at some point it will become irrelevant. And the reason why I maybe attached myself to it was because its major thought is, how do we allow for violent retaliation? Why don't we seem to care that we killed just so many civilians in World War II? And just a while back, we were killing a ridiculous number of civilians in Iraq, and we didn't care. We kill a lot of civilians in our drone campaigns, we don't care. So, why not? Irving does something interesting, in dispassionately trying to figure out how that happens, and it's relevant still because we still do what we did back then, and we've never really come to terms with the destruction we wage, because we feel that the bloodshed is completely justified. Because they struck first, so it doesn't matter if we kill them in numbers 10, 100 times greater than our own casualties. What is that psychological impulse that allows for that? It's interesting.
I'm looking at the 2013 National Book Award and their nonfiction longlist. Race in America... American intellectual life...Nazis...what does it mean that fifty years later we're still give awards to writing about the same topics?
I was talking to Sarah Schulman, who wrote an amazing book called Gentrification of the Mind. It was not nominated for anything. And she mentioned how the major publishers don't publish as much serious nonfiction as they used to, now it's all memoirs and biographies and, yes, books about Nazis, because their primary focus is on profit. And Nazis at least sell books. Nazis sell books, movie tickets, french fries, I don't know, they sell a lot.
The slack has been picked up by the university presses, but, for whatever reason, prizes still go to books that are published by major publishers. So do the reviews. University presses still give off that stink of, this is important but you will not enjoy reading it. (Hi there, University of Chicago press, the future publisher of my book! Kisses!) I mean, has there been any important book about the Nazis in the last thirty years? No. Probably not since Eichmann. But books about Nazis just by virtue of being about Nazis, carry around this borrowed gravitas. Because it was an important historical happening. And you don't even have to understand it to write about it, because your audience is already going to be interested, informed, and have their mind made up about what really happened.
I mean, now I'm just ranting, but last year's nonfiction nominees were a little lame. Almost all of those books were retreads of more important books that were published a long time ago, but they're comforting and not challenging, and feel important without actually being important. Slavery, World War II, religious cults... kind of nothing new here. You have to think, we're a nation in crisis in our health care, education system, economy, justice system, foreign affairs, etc etc, and so yes, let's totally talk about the Nazis, or even slavery, because at least surely we're not in as bad of shape as we were in the Civil War. The winner, the George Packer, is fine, but mostly just unsure of itself or what its point is. People are adrift and lost, but it never really tackles the real root causes of it, or even really appears to think about them.
But the whole point of this Daphne Award nonsense is to uncover what is obscured and to honor it. And to read it! I feel like most of the world feels like they know what is in, say, the James Baldwin and the Hannah Arendt without having to read them. It's like The Great Gatsby. We get it, because it's so in our culture, no need to actually pick it up and read it. And it's interesting to take a book out of one context and place it into another. See how our time responds, and see how our time still needs these books. I think it's pretty exciting.
March 14, 2014
I wrote a book. I sent it to my publisher. I ate some nachos. I fell asleep in my clothes.
But thank you for your patience while I finished that thing up and it ate my brain. I've had to sit in the same city for five whole months in a row and focus in on writing one thing, and let's just say that at the best of times I am pretty restless. Mostly what I'm excited about is having time again to think about other things.
So now we can get back to work! Focus on Bookslut, on other people's books, on the much delayed new issue of Spolia, the Daphne Awards, and so on. Until the revisions come in, and until I start work on book #2 (the tarot book) in earnest. Christ, this never ends, does it?
March 7, 2014
In the thirteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II looked around him and saw a land of many tongues and many dialects. But which, if any, was the pure language of God? Perhaps it was something innate, lost in the course of growing up human. In order to discover the inborn language, he had a group of infants isolated from language at birth: The children's nurses were instructed to care for the infants but never to speak to them, so that when they began to speak their voices would be unsullied by human intervention, by any mundane dilution, and from their lips would spring the language with which we are naturally bestowed, the language of the heavens, be it Hebrew, Latin, or Arabic.
I was thinking of Frederick II when I was reading Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies, wondering if she was the result of a similar experiment. Perhaps a literary critic wanted to discover how a writer deprived of novels, storybooks, even good anecdotes would go about telling a story. Because Bowles does not break the rules of how to structure a novel; she writes as if she had no idea such rules ever existed.
Daphne Nominee Spotlight: The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson
Today’s Daphne Nominee Spotlight turns to E.P. Thompson’s iconic work of social history, The Making of the English Working Class. This British Marxist touchstone is especially known for its humanist treatment of the English working class; Thompson emphasizes the agency and developing class consciousness of the working class, rather than reducing them to an economic statistic or casting them as mere victims of industrialization. For more on the enduring legacy of The Making of the English Working Class, here are some links:
“He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side. Here, then, was a book that rambled over aspects of human experience that had never before had their historian.”
-- “EP Thompson: the unconvenional historian” by Emma Griffin | The Guardian
Fifty years after the publication of The Making, this article by historian Emma Griffin in The Guardian provides a brief overview of pivotal work and its author.
“I read it at a time when people were beginning to react against Thompson and his legacy, but even so, the impact on reading it for the first time… is amazing, it’s epic, it’s argumentative, it’s colorful--he uses descriptions and finds context that no one else had really found before.”
-- Historian Miles Taylor on “Landmarks: The Making of the English Working Class” | BBC Radio’s Night Waves
The BBC radio show Night Waves has a thorough, informative yet engaging segment dedicated to The Making’s significant contribution to English history and culture. Host Philip Dodd sits down with Labour expert Maurice Glasman and historians Alison Light, Emma Griffin (author of the previous Guardian article), and Miles Taylor to discuss the book and shed light on its historical context.
“Edward’s own indignations of this period were literary carmagnoles, without personal animus. A few months after my counterattack on him, I ran into him into a pub off Tottenham Court Road. Edward, whom I hadn’t seen for three years, was good nature itself.”
-- “Diary” by Perry Anderson | London Review of Books
Perry Anderson, former editor of the New Left Review, in a 1993 essay (the full text of which is unfortunately only available to subscribers) in the London Review of Books, reflects on his relationship with E.P. Thompson as both his peer and intellectual opponent, a critic and an admirer.
You can find other information about the Daphne Award nominees on our Tumblr.
March 4, 2014Image: Woman and Centaur by Odilon Redon
Two hours before the Daphne Award shortlists were to be announced, and our fiction list was still not finished. Fiction chair Austin Grossman and I were squabbling over a few of the honorees, and we were trying to finalize the damn thing while I was making deviled eggs and he was on a plane. But finally, we got a shortlist we would not throttle each other over:
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Austin Grossman is one of my favorite American novelists alive, his book Soon I Will Be Invincible is a gem, and we loved the heck out of You, and so he seemed like a natural choice to head up the fiction panel, being so good at fiction himself. I asked Grossman to answer a few questions about what got left out of the fiction category (like um all of the women but one, whoops), why the novel that actually won that year, John Updike's The Centaur, was not in contention, and how 1963 was for fiction.
The 1964 National Book Award winner was John Updike's The Centaur, and you read it in order to determine whether it should be considered for the Daphne fiction award. You ultimately chose not to include it. Why not? I mean, besides the fear that I would throw The Centaur at your head.
I read The Centaur because Updike has too much talent to ignore even in a lesser book. His palpable joy at playing with language, his eye for detail in the social world of his characters, these are things you find in everything he touches (except, mysteriously, in his execrable poetry).
The Centaur focuses on the lives of a high school science teacher and his teenage son in a rural town in Pennsylvania. At the same time, the teacher is the centaur Chiron, in fact all the characters are figures from Greek myth living on Olympus and the narration swaps back and forth between these realities with a playful energy that's one of the better things about the book.
The Centaur just didn't work as well for me as I wanted it to. It's Updike's third novel and comes after Rabbit, Run but somehow it lacked the bravado of that novel's sinful high-wire act. In comparison, The Centaur feels like an academic exercise, drawing little correspondences of traits and types between the townsfolk and the mythological material.
It all would have been so much more exciting if no one had written Ulysses, but they did, and they did it with a playful sloppiness and electric charge running between mythic and mundane that Updike didn't manage to tap into.
But it's okay, John. Keep writing! 1963 looks bleak but I can't help feeling you'll get there.
There is a lack of women writers on our fiction list, only Sylvia Plath made it to the final round although Muriel Spark lasted into the last discussion. Is it safe to say it was an off year for women? Especially since looking ahead to next year, Marguerite Duras and Clarice Lispector look like they are going to be the ones to beat...
I don't feel great about the numbers either -- it doesn't show the kind of corrective effect one would hope for out of an idea like the Daphnes -- returning to a period with the benefit of hindsight.
Maybe it's an off period for people publishing women in fiction, and especially in translation. However much we can do, we can't go back and find the novels that weren't publish and weren't written because people didn't have the chance or didn't think they could be heard.
When I go back through the longlist I come up with the same choices. Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means was elegaic and funny and dry, but there were times when it seemed lazy and slight. Book by book, I think our shortlist gets it right -- books whose individual voice and powerful impulses leave the lasting impression. It's the best we can do.
1963 was kind of a transition year for literature, you see the young work of writers who would come to dominate: Updike, Pynchon, Salinger. How did the year of literature in 1963 feel to you?
It feels like people still deciding what the postwar novel is going to be. Not Victorian, not high modernism, but certainly experimental. Something else.
On the one hand there's a cohort of writers in America that feels youthful, fresh, awkwardly confessional and angry. Plath, Updike, Pynchon, people breaking out and trying their talents to mixed results, but you feel there's something happening there, something's starting to flow, there are talents that are going to define the next twenty or thirty years.
And there's a slightly older group -- Vonnegut, Boll, Konwicki, Cortazar, Spark, McCarthy, Salinger -- who seem to know their mode of work more intimately and feel more comfortable with it.
I notice people writing with greater and lesser attention to the second world war and its aftermath. Some people who were right in it like Salinger, it only peeks in at the edges. Europeans and Mishima who are still very much living in the place where it happened, versus Americans who got to go home and write about what they felt like.
Hopscotch has become an early favorite. Is Hopscotch going to massacre the competition?
Hopscotch has shown up to a rather dour party with swagger and a winning smile, and that could count for a lot. But I'm not going to call this one early. The Daphnes fiction shortlist has a crazy amount of reach to it, and the judges have yet to take on the real dark horses here. We've got numinous ice caves, psychotic Japanese teenagers, cunning small-time crooks, and Sylvia Plath in the mix. This is not the event Hopscotch trained for.
March 3, 2014
It is March, and we have a new issue of Bookslut up. And down. And then up again. And then kind of up and then down and then up, and I am so scared that posting this will destroy the whole thing. Mercury isn't even still retrograde, what the fuck is going on.
February 25, 2014Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
In light of the upcoming Daphne awards, we’re providing some supplementary reading about the nominees. Today’s post features Argentine author Julio Cortazar’s formally playful counter-novel, Hopscotch, published in Spanish in 1963 and translated into English in 1966.
“And in the long history of fragmented stories, from Gilgamesh to The Pale King, Hopscotch may present the biggest jumble of them all. A half-century after its publication, it still stands out as the most brazen attempt by a major writer to undermine traditional — indeed quasi-instinctive and constitutive — reading strategies.”
-- “How to Win at Hopscotch: The 50th Anniversary of Julio Cortazar’s Novel” by Ted Gioia | Los Angeles Review of Books
Ted Gioia searches for order within Hopscotch’s unconventional structure in an examination of how the format of Hopscotch shapes the reader’s experience.
For more on the author himself, here are two in-depth yet wide-ranging interviews from The Paris Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, in which he discusses his work, his influences and his politics:
“Literature is like that—it’s a game, but it’s a game one can put one’s life into. One can do everything for that game.”
-- Interview with Julio Cortazar by Jason Weiss | The Paris Review, Fall 1984
“Very early in life, I felt that one ought to approach the everyday elements in life that could be filled with beauty. A good boxing match is just as beautiful as a swan. So why not utilize it within a system of comparisons, within a scale of values. “
-- A Conversation with Julio Cortazar by Evelyn Picon | via Dalkey Archive, originally from The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1983
Also worth nothing are the 2004 New York Times profile of Gregory Rabassa, the translator of Hopscotch into English, who won the 1967 National Book Award for Best Translation. Rabassa was also interviewed at The Rumpus in September of 2013, where he discusses his history as a literary translator and the time he got to dance with Marlene Dietrich.
February 24, 2014
Image: Anna Akhmatova
Nicholas Vajifdar was an obvious choice to chair our Daphne Award poetry division. His "Forgotten Twentieth Century" columns are funny, wise, and insightful. I look forward to seeing what he's going to write about each month. He was the first to turn in a completed shortlist, and the heavyweights (like William Carlos Williams) had been cleared away to reveal:
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
Five Senses by Judith Wright
Poems by Gwen Harwood
At the End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson
I asked Vajifdar if he would justify his decisions with a few questions over email.
How did you feel about the nominees over all? How was 1963 for poetry?
This has been a wonderfully bewildering exercise, a little like the biology assignment where you rope off a square foot of marshland and analyze all the organisms within. So much variety in such little space! What a range! Akhmatova to MacNeice to James Wright…
And yet I doubt that most experience literature as an event of the season, like a debutante ball or a fraternity pledge class. The emotional effect builds over the decades and you can only truly take stock in retrospect. Which is why this prize is such a damn fine idea, an overdue one.
Behind that seeming term of praise—range—lurks another more frightening word: chaos. To rhyme or not? To make surface sense, or not? To be of-the-moment and hep or to embrace the aristocratic gentility that some have assigned to poetry as a form? None of these questions seems settled fifty years on, and no faction even seems totally routed.
Or am I being paranoid? No devotee of numerology, I felt nevertheless that 1963 was an ominous year with regard to poetry. Why? Then it hit me:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
As Larkin must have sensed, what could J. Alfred Prufrock do against those mop-topped Liverpudlians singing “Ooooh”? It seems to me that sometime in the '60s, poetry lost its mojo, and to say “I read poetry for fun” became like saying “I spend my weekends dressing up like Saint-Simon and pretending like the manikin I keep in my apartment is Louis Quatorze.” Freakish! Schismatic! And, in order to underwrite their verse, poets suddenly seemed either to have to teach at the university level or do some sort of activism. In other words, you had to kind of like the person before you got to like their poems. Which is just gross. Much better when all the contestants are moldering in their graves and you don’t have to like them as people.
I think that perhaps the most outside nominations we received were for William Carlos Williams. And so, dear sir, justify your decision not to include him on the shortlist.
Good lady, I justify it like this. First off, I’m not tossing him away with a wrinkled nose—some of his stuff is immortal, though I confess I like his shorter, vivid, nature lyrics the best. (“By the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of blue…”)
Second, Williams did win the National Book Award for previous installments of Paterson in 1950. This, plus his large tracts in poetry anthologies, indicates that his place is secure; another indication of this is the mere fact that he got the most nominations.
Third, I sense that much of contemporary poetry in this country came out of Dr. Williams’s white coat—the sound of it, and the look of it, if not exactly its worldview. I thought of this contest partly as deposing old gods—out with Kronos, in with Zeus. That type of thing.
The Akhmatova feels like a bit of a cheat, as the reason it was published in 1963 was because of long years of being blacklisted and her work suppressed. Can anything hold its own against the power of Requiem?
Right, it feels a little like having to compete with an old master—not exactly fair. Then again, I’m sure Akhmatova would have liked a timely publication if only the man with the mustache hadn’t taken such a strong interest in the arts. Another thought: even works in the capitalist West often take a while to wend their way into print. Look at Confederacy of Dunces.
And I agree—for sheer heartbreaking power, the Requiem stands intimidatingly large. But, without jumping the gun, let me suggest a possible flaw: it’s our only foreign language entry. Can we really judge the merits of translated poems? Or, if not, can the poet’s story, plus blurry glimpses of the original, be enough to earn our sincere admiration? Stay tuned, folks. The answers will be revealed.
Any thoughts on the winner of the original National Book Award 50 years ago, John Crowe Ransom's Selected Poems?
John Crowe Ransom! Born during the Cleveland Administration, he went on to both rhyme and measure out his lines in meter. His poems often resembled little stories or closet dramas, and then, with the audacity of Keats, he’d reverse the order of adjective and noun to keep the rhythm. (“—I am a lady young in beauty waiting / Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.”) So, this is not a man who rode the magic bus, not a traveler of both time and space. But, damn it, I still like that old romancer of the Confederacy. He worked hard to make his lines sing, and his poems touch on universal themes. I talked about deposing old gods—but what about the even older gods the old gods themselves deposed? Ransom seems like one of those doubly archaic deities. So, let’s honor the old man. Just not in this particular ceremony.
February 22, 2014
The Daphne Shortlists
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Destruction of Dresden by David Irving
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
Five Senses by Judith Wright
Poems by Gwen Harwood
At the End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson
The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Mr. Rabbit by Charlotte Zolotow
Harold’s ABC by Crockett Johnson
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
The Moon by Night by Madeline L’Engle
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol
Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
Image: Daphne by Sir Hubert von Herkomer
February 21, 2014
Tonight in Chicago: The Daphne Salon
Friday, February 21
2334 W Erie, Chicago
There will be drinking, eating of deviled eggs, conversation, Sylvia Plath readings, and the announcement of the shortlist for our reconsideration of the best book of 1963.
All of the whiskey* will go to the person who can answer which two books from our fiction longlist begin with someone waking up after a failed suicide attempt.
* All of the whiskey being an inch and a half at the bottom of the bottle.
February 19, 2014
“A Friend in the Margins,” the latest installment in Lightsey Darst’s Thousandfurs column, speculates on the margin notes and underlining choices of her “unknown friend,” the anonymous previous readers of the books she’s acquired, the anonymous future recipients of the books that she’ll pass along. The remnants left by previous readers is one of the many joys of used books--they serve as a reminder of the book’s history, of the hands it has passed through before yours. You become part of a secret legacy, an heir to an intellectual inheritance. Notes in the margins of used books become a way to conduct a conversation between strangers across time and space. For more on the marginal conversations we have with unknown friends, here are some links:
“When to Read Was to Write” by Leah Price | London Review of Books
Leah Price’s examination of the history of marginalia takes us back to a time when writing in the margins of books was not only permitted, but the norm--a common practice expected of every reader. In her retrospective look at how readers used to interact with their texts and the role that reading played in their lives, she also brings our attention to the ways in which reading and annotating may be changing in the age of the e-reader.
“The Meaning in the Margins” by Rachel Luban | Full Stop
Rachel Luban’s study of S., the book/objet by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, places it alongside similarly metatextual thrillers House of Leaves and Pale Fire. Luban’s review is an examination of the genre itself, a close look at how, through footnotes and margin notes, these texts invite the reader’s participation; Luban evaluates what works and what doesn’t in this form, and why.
“A View From the Margins” by Sam Anderson | The New York Times
Sam Anderson, who in 2010 chronicled his year in reading through marginalia, presents selected annotations of his 2011 reads in this interactive feature accompanied by audio commentary.
"Knight v. Snail" by The British Library
The margins of Medieval manuscripts are alive with the strangest creatures: men slayed by giant hares, sea monsters creeping up from the deep, and, for some reason, a recurring theme of knights battling alarmingly large snails. The British Library has had a series of articles about the jokes scribbled by monks, inky cat prints and other doodles that clutter Medieval manuscripts, but their explanation of the snails is perhaps their finest moment.
February 18, 2014
The Daphne Awards
As a reminder, this Friday we will be announcing the shortlists for the Daphne Awards at a 1963-themed salon, and you are invited. Will we have the un-Oscar nominated film classic The Haunting playing silently in a corner? Yes, probably. Will we have deviled eggs? Most definitely. Also, please note that we'll be posting excerpts from the books, cover art, old reviews, etc, on the Tumblr.
It is very interesting to pick a year, read a slew of books, and get an idea of the world at that moment that way. We were trying to remember, what was going on in 1963, beyond Cold War, beyond the Kennedy Assassination, and beyond this simplistic Mad Men-tinged view of the world? Reading a dozen or so novels set in that era all in a row gives you an interesting idea.
But we have our pet favorites and the things in stories that drive us nuts, and no amount of time and award objectivity can get rid of that. Which is why I had such trouble with Anna Kavan's Who Are You?.
In short, I don't like the book, for the same reason I don't like Jean Rhys books. I can objectively see how the prose is beautiful or how the structure is interesting or what they're trying to do, but I have a kind of allergic response to the passive woman, to the woman trapped in her marriage or her circumstance, that oh things are not going so well I will just lie here on the floor until death takes me kind of thing.
I could get distracted by the Rhys thing, as I've been writing about her in my book about expats, but let's just say I find the act dull and let's stick with Anna Kavan. This was my first introduction to Kavan, and while I'm interested to read more, I was nothing but frustrated with Who Are You? Girl is in a bad marriage. He abuses her, rapes her. She stays. People try to help her. She stays. He is a bully and brute and has no personality other than Abusive Man. She is small and weak and helpless and men heroically want to save her but she can't be bothered to save herself. She also has no personality other than Wet Puddle.
God, why is this an interesting story to tell? And why do we tell it over and over again? Which is not to say it doesn't happen, god knows I know that it happens. But without any psychological insight, without any momentum, without any interest in even writing a character, why tell that story again? And it is my particular frustrations with these gender definitions, with these conceptions of what an abusive relationship is like, that this simplistic reduction and depiction of woman as passive victim is just so boring to me.
Not only boring, but poisonous. Because Jean Rhys, the character in Who Are You?, passive girls who can't make changes in their life, who make excuses and make their homes inside their trauma, girls who whimper and flutter their eyelashes until someone comes around to rescue them, girls who can't carry their own bags on the train, those girls are my enemy. My response to them is to go to war, rather than, let's talk about this book. No! Let's rip the book into pieces and toss them out the window, let's not give them another moment's thought. Which is why I am making someone else read Who Are You? and make the shortlist assessment.
On the other side, published in the same year, we have Christa Wolf's They Divided the Sky. Which is problematic in its own way, in that it is basically DDR propaganda. Wolf is the most famous/infamous (she reported on fellow writers to the Stasi) of the East German writers, but also the most accomplished. Divided is early into her career, though, and early into the East German state, when idealistic young socialists still thought they could build a new world. The propaganda edge kills it, but what remains is such a nice antidote to Anna Kavan.
Hers is the story of a couple in East Germany at the time of the wall going up, and the man chooses to flee to the West and the woman chooses to stay in the East. Here it gets muddled, the man is of course leaving because he has family and existential issues, and she is staying because she is stronger and sees the creation of the DDR for the grand historical moment it is (yikes). But it's also so interesting in the way it talks about how political and philosophical differences can break up a couple. She's political and believes in sacrifice if it means creating a new world (and she sees the consumerist West as spiritually hollow, a world of "shopping and eating"), and he just wants life to be easy. And so the relationship cannot work.
But the woman, Rita, is a person. She does not passively lie around, always living in response to other people's actions rather than taking any of her own. She believes in things, she works towards things, she is a human being. And Wolf, while obviously problematic, writes about this in a way that feels completely fresh. It is a different story to tell. It's a shame it doesn't hold together, that she wasn't aware of her own motivations.
Obviously the award was in some ways sparked by this bad reaction to the Updike/Mailer/Roth/Hemingway Very Special Men writers thing, and the stories that they tell about gender and the world and their very special problems. But then one should be able to discuss the problems of the female equivalent. This process of judging has been a very interesting one so far.
February 17, 2014
What We're Reading
Just Kids by Patti Smith
We spent Thanksgiving with my wife's parents in California. It is my habit when I am there to peruse Feldman's, one of my favorite used bookstores, where I always find something to covet. This visit was no different: I left with a large, supple four-dollar paperback copy of Our Mutual Friend. I was about to set it down on an end-table back at the in-laws' when I noticed Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir. Patti Smith stands out in a living room full of outdated Stanford alumni directories, World War histories, and corporate biographies.
I don't know Patti Smith the poet. I've listened to "Gloria" over and over, but that's usually as far as I get in Horses. Before reading Just Kids I'd never heard of Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith's long-time companion, the artist whose career and life and death is the second subject of the book. Well, it's not the first time in my life I've been late to the party. It's an advantage here. I'm reading it like a piece of fiction, second-guessing Patti and Robert and wondering what will happen next. Two hundred pages in she still hasn't spelled out G-L-O-R-I-A.
The greater arc in Just Kids is a portrait of art and artists -- or, if you're less universal, an inside look at late-'60s and early-'70s New York. But there's a smaller narrative at work that fascinates me more: Patti Smith's magical thinking. She doesn't say it outright -- not for the first two-thirds of the book, anyway -- but I think she still feels culpable for the deaths of Brian Jones, Bobby Kennedy, Edie Sedgwick, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Lee Crabtree, for thinking them to the grave.
February 14, 2014
Image: Medusa by Leonor Fini
In Ovid's telling of Medusa, Medusa was once a beautiful maiden, a priestess in the temple of Athena. Like a lot of silly mortals, she was incredibly vain about her beauty, boasting about her hair, telling everyone she was more beautiful than even the goddesses.
Then she was raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple. Athena did not have the authority to punish Poseidon, so she would have to get her rage out by punishing Medusa. And so she did. But turning her beautiful hair into a head full of snakes, and by making sure that every man who gazed upon her most beautiful visage would instantly be turned into stone.
That was not quite enough for her. Athena assisted Perseus in Medusa's slaying, guiding his hand with the scythe and offering him the shield with which he could view Medusa in the reflection rather than be petrified by a direct view. From Medusa's decapitation, both a monster and Pegasus was born, the result of her impregnation by Poseidon.
One could unpack this story for months. Luckily we have the assistance of David Leeming, whose Medusa: In the Mirror of Time is a concise and clever overview. As Medusa references have been popping up in my reading and conversation a lot lately, I asked Leeming if he'd be up for a few questions about his book.
What is your personal interest in the Medusa story? Was it something in one of the versions of her story, or was it more that you were interested in how she's still present in our culture in so many ways?
My personal interest in the Medusa story grew out of a sense that no one has forgotten her. She turns up everywhere--in Beauty Salons, Versace uses her as a logo. Why is she of interest?
The role of Athena is so interesting in this story, the way she sells Medusa out in the first place, punishing her for her own rape, and then having her killed and then wearing her head on her shield. But then Athena wasn't even born of a mother, she had no real loyalty to women and sides with the male gods in more than one instance. Many female mythologists see this switch, the declining power of the goddesses as a sign of the rise of the patriarchy -- do you agree?
Athena was a goddess de-feminized by a highly patriarchal culture. And I do agree that this process of de-feminization and the related tendency to take away goddess power is a sign of the priorities of the patriarchy in relation to "strong women."
But then you're critical of a feminist reimagining of the Medusa story, as you are of any kind of reduction of the story. It's interesting, though, in the context of our culture's new willingness to be open about rape, even though it drags to the surface a lot of people's horrible inner thoughts about rape victims and rapists. If, as you say in the conclusion, we all have each of these characters playing out in our psyches, we have a lot of Athena in our conversation these days, willing to punish the victim to spare the rapist. (See for example: Woody Allen.) Your book obviously came out before these controversies, but do you see parallels at all?
It is not that I am critical of the feminist arguments in relation to Medusa. Essentially I agree with the feminist attitude towards her and her antagonists--from Poseidon to Perseus. And, of course I understand the horror and pain faced by rape victims in the patriarchy. BUT, a myth is a myth. And myths are developed by particular cultures at particular times to reflect who and what these cultures are. I think that how Freud or medieval Christians or even feminists re-write the Medusa myth is of interest, but if we are interested in what the myth is actually saying we have to put our particular ideologies and biases aside, consider the myth itself and ask ourselves what it is really about.
Whether we like it or not, Medusa is depicted in the myth as a monster, and I think to pretend otherwise is simply to miss the point of the myth. Even though we may not approve of the people who made her a monster, it is clear in the myth that she is one. As such, for us, it really does not matter whether she is male or female. All of us react against monsters whatever the reason for their existence. Perhaps it is best to compare her to the monster we carry around within ourselves. Most of our monsters can be traced to events that created them Monsters within are figures we hide and fear unless we take action against them.
Perseus seems kind of terrible, no? With the cockiness and the I'll-just-save-your-maiden-there stuff. Or am I projecting?
Our natural impulse is to disarm or even kill the monster, who will otherwise "petrify" us and make us dysfuntional. Perseus is one of many unlikeable patriarchal heroes, but he was created by a patriarchal culture. But if we are honest with ourselves we are naturally on his side--whether we are male or female--as he attempts to overcome the terrifying monster. In another age, in another place, the monster quest could be the quest of a heroine.
February 13, 2014
Looking for a 2014 Intern
Now that we have Spolia, Bookslut, and the Daphne Awards, things have gotten a little muddled. And now that I have two books I am writing, things are even more so. I'm looking for someone to help tie up loose ends: proofread, send out emails to writers and to publishers, and, if one wishes, do some writing. (Not required.)
Email me if you are interested. You can be anywhere in the world, as I am generally anywhere in the world. And this is a volunteer type of thing, but should only take up a few hours of the week.
February 12, 2014
Announcing John Biguenet's "The Other Half," Our Third Chapbook in Our Series
When Ron Hackett heard the Imperial Hotel was offering reduced rates due to renovations, he saw a unique opportunity to sample a taste of the good life. But things at the Imperial would not go as he expected. A disturbing presence was infiltrating the hotel’s elegant veneer and nobody wanted to talk about it.
Only after Hackett had dressed for his day of sightseeing did he remember that he’d left his shoes in the hall the night before to be polished. Smiling, he imagined them neatly bundled and hanging from the knob on the other side of his door, no doubt with an attached note expressing the hotel’s pleasure in providing this old-fashioned courtesy to its guests.
But then something occurred to him. Why hadn’t the waiter who had delivered his breakfast and morning paper bothered to bring in the pair of polished shoes as well?
Even as he swung open the door, Hackett knew they would not be there, awaiting him in the hall. He stepped sock- footed from his room to see whether shoes had been left for any other guest; nothing but the day’s newspaper and trays of half- finished meals littered the corridor.
“The Other Half” first appeared in our Medieval issue. The chapbook edition features drawings by Tona Wilson. Her illustrations, mostly of hands, convey Hackett feeling his way through a series of mysterious trials that seem to reach out specifically for him. Each chapbook is individually numbered and rubber stamped with our secret Spolia sigil.
To purchase, please visit our store.
February 7, 2014Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, reviewed recently in Bookslut, is a multifaceted look at the city from hidden and overlooked perspectives. Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker demonstrate that maps and the stories behind them can be surprising, unorthodox and deeply intriguing. For more books of unconventional atlases, here are a few suggestions:
Where You Are
This book of personal maps published by Visual Editions from 16 artists, writers and thinkers features the burrowing routes of lunar hamsters, a snapshot map of Harlem swingsets, and a map of destinations almost visited, among others. Contributors include Tao Lin, Sheila Heti, and Geoff Dyer. The interactive website is also really fun to browse.
You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination
Beautifully illustrated maps of fantastic places, both real and imagined, accompany a variety of essays on our impulses to dream and to document.
From Here to There: A Curious Collection from the Hand Drawn Map Association
From Here to There also presents us with personal, imaginative maps of places as seen in the mind’s eye of the artist--from the practical to the theoretical, each map tells a story unique to its creator. To see over 300 hand drawn maps from the Hand Drawn Map Association, visit their website.
February 6, 2014
Announcing the Daphne Salon
February 21, 7pm
2334 W Erie, Chicago
Celebrate the literary world of 1963 with a salon at the temporary home of Bookslut and Spolia editor Jessa Crispin, different from the other temporary home of Bookslut and Spolia editor Jessa Crispin, just in case you were present at the December salon.
We will be announcing the Daphne Award shortlists, reading from the nominees (I have dibs on Spark), making statements about why The Centaur is a rather mediocre book, eating Deviled Eggs, drinking 1960s cocktails, and mingling and so on, whatever you do at 1960s cocktail parties. (It's too early timeline-wise for key parties, yes? Thank god.)
Some of our judges will be present, and you can harangue them in person why you think JD Salinger deserves to be on the shortlist, but just to warn you, I have given our fiction chair permission to knock you over the head with a wine bottle if you do. So, best have quick reflexes.
It'll be a thing! I hope you can make it.
We will have food and limited cocktails, otherwise BYOB.
February 5, 2014
What We're Reading
We Who Are About To... by Joanna Russ
There are two, maybe two and a half, people whose book recommendations I treat as gospel, and last year one of them issued a command to read Joanna Russ’s On Strike Against God. A few months after that short, intense novel threw bolts of lightning into my atmosphere I came across Joachim Boaz’s review of one of her signature science fiction works. We Who Are About To… (1976, I got this Women’s Press: Science Fiction edition) starts with one of the most basic premises in the SF playbook. A ragtag group of individuals have wound up crashed on a deserted alien planet after a space travel snafu.
But Russ takes this far beyond this boilerplate scenario to poke at the very foundations of the heroic and hopeful clichés that underpin so much Star Trek-style hokum by showing the speed at which most of the survivors descend into brutal coloniser mode. Our anonymous narrator understands the inevitable death of humanity that occurred at the moment she landed on an empty and uncaring world. Civilisation died when she lost her music, and now she’s being restrained by her fellow survivors as one of their potential child-bearers. Her answer to be valued as nothing more than a womb is death (and having lots of drugs). This is a book about the art of dying -– death of stories, death of history, the birth and death of a religion, and the death of the body.
February 4, 2014
Our February issue is up. But before we get to that.
I have been a little uninspired with author interviews lately. So many words spilled on "process," on poets talking to poets who write poetry about writing poetry. So many writers who are primed by publicists to see interviews as opportunities to sell, either their books or themselves as a Writer. Instead of having a conversation and being a person. And lord knows we've published plenty of those interviews. Tons. Because for a while I found that interesting, and then I think just because we had already and we had the space and why not, the book is interesting even if the writer is not.
So when you suddenly stop doing that, it means that section you used to fill up easily is suddenly bare. Margaret Anderson once published a dozen blank pages in her literary magazine The Little Review to protest the lack of good material, and this month's issue feels like that. We only have two features because that is all that was interesting.
Which means we're looking for pitches for features. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, only what I'm not. So if you have a zany idea, get in touch. Or, if you have the ability to conduct interviews that don't circle the drain of process and structure and what writing is like and what their writing routine is and are you a morning writer or a late night writer do you have a certain word count you try to hit blach. It's so fetishizing.
And in the meantime, check out our new February issue, particularly our brilliant columnists. (I love our columnists.)
January 30, 2014
Image: And We Are Trying by Nicholas Roerich
"I would say that behind all of my ideas... is the freedom of choice. I feel that the freedom of choice is the very essence of life. We have one great gift from God and this is to choose. And we always indulge in choosing. If we pay attention to one thing, we have chosen to pay attention to it. If we love somebody, we have chosen this person for love. This is in every act of humanity. To me, God is freedom. And nature, to me, is necessity... When people leave free choice, the demons appear. The demons are in a way the dark side of nature which we choose. If we stop completely believing in our power, then other powers can come upon us. In other words, the demon to me is a negative side of free choice. Demons come when people resign themselves, when people say to themselves, "I'm not going to make any choices anymore. I will just let the powers work for themselves." It is then that the demon is bound to appear. The danger is always there -- like a medical doctor who will tell you that the microbes are always there in your mouth and in your stomach, and if you become weak, they begin to multiply and become very strong... Just as we are medically surrounded by dangerous microbes, so our spirit has always to fight melancholy and disbelief and viciousness and cruelty and all kinds of things."
Interviewer: "Why melancholy?"
"Oh, but the very essence of demons is melancholy. Because it's the very opposite of hope. I have sympathy for everyone who suffers and lives. Because we are all living in a great, great struggle, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we realize it. This is a very difficult thing -- we very often say how difficult life is... We have to go through this kind of struggle. In a way, the hope is that life does not last forever, the crisis does not last forever, and behind all this crisis, behind all this darkness, there is a great light. We have to struggle, but we are not lost."
-- Isaac Beshevis Singer, in an interview with Parabola Magazine
January 29, 2014
What We're Reading
Aegypt by John Crowley
I’m reading John Crowley’s 1987 novel Aegypt, which was later reissued under Crowley’s preferred title, The Solitudes. I don’t know how many references it takes to get me to track down a book, but over the past few years Aegypt hit the magic number, coming up in nearly every book of contemporary fantasy criticism I picked up.
The novel, and the series of which it is the first volume, is the story of a question: what if there was another history of the world? Our protagonist and guide is Pierce Moffett, an out-of-work historian who has been haunted by this question since childhood. Storylines following Pierce and friends in the 1970s alternate with storylines following historical figures such as John Dee, an Elizabethan alchemist, and Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk. Pierce thinks that these historical figures may have lived at a cusp in history, when the world ceased to be one way and became another, just as the novel hints that he, too, might be living at such a turning point.
Ultimately, this is a novel of possibility rather than certainty, in which magic may or may not exist, or may or may not have existed once upon a time. The pages flicker between yes and no, engaging with questions of history, knowledge, and the stories we tell. It’s a heady book and will leave you drunk on ideas. Read it with a glass of your favorite liquid.
January 28, 2014
Image: Solar Megalomania by Leonora Carrington
Some notes on The Daphne Award:
- We've received emails about including Salinger's Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction and The Feminine Mystique on our longlist, but we've already considered and rejected both. I will let the chair of our fiction prize talk about the Salinger exclusion when he has a chance, but the basic idea is that it's mediocre Salinger. As for The Feminine Mystique -- one could go on at length about this particular topic. Maybe the short version would be, this book is Solidarity Is For White Upper Middle Class Women. There were some reappraisals for the anniversary last year, when a lot of people got embarrassed and remembered it's actually pretty racist and classist and clueless that there are women who are not, say, the equivalent of the wives of John Updike characters. Plus, it's pretty horridly written. So. It has been considered, I am the chair of the nonfiction prize, and I am rejecting it.
-- There are some men who are having a hard time. There are some men who feel like dealing with the entry of minorities and women into their consciousness is enough, it's a lot to ask for, even that, and so having women rewrite the historical record and say that maybe the white men who won all of the awards weren't actually the best and brightest the literary world had to offer, that is just a step too far. Let us have that, that for a while we were the best at everything, they write to me. I read some of these emails to my father over the phone and he laughed and laughed.
-- Because I had just gotten through dealing with some of those emails, when I received interview questions from Moby Lives, I did not quite notice that the first question was meant to be tongue in cheek: "The Updike novel is about American male frustration. As an American male I have to say, that sounds pretty great, and definitely something we don’t see celebrated enough in our literature. Why do you think it’s undeserving?" I mean, Jesus Christ. But Moby Lives has a nice little piece about the Daphne Awards, and I explain myself a bit more:
"We revisit the prizes because as writers, prizes matter. I know we are all supposed to be just doing our good work, totally divorced from outside reinforcement like sales rankings and prizes and grants, but we like a little reinforcement. We like a little recognition. Otherwise, you know, despair, alcohol, suicide, or we start writing listicles for some aggregate website because at least then we can get paid."
-- Yes, we are doing this again next year, if all goes well, because I checked out the books published in 1964 and thought, look at all the wonderful books I'll have an excuse to read!
-- We'll be throwing a party in Chicago next month, to announce the short list, introduce the judges, read from the nominees, and get very 1960s with food and cocktails. Stay tuned for details.
-- The Daphne because Daphne = Laurel. Also a secret reason. It's a secret.
January 27, 2014
Image: Bernini's Apollo & Daphne
If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren't that good.
Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards, which ugh, decided that John Updike's The Centaur was totally the best book of that year.
[One of our Founding Members (we need to call it that for the historians of the future that will look back on this important moment) has nicknamed the award The Corrections, which is funny to me on so many levels. We must take back the word "Corrections" from our oppressor, Jonathan Franzen! Reclaim its use!]
We need your help, though, to flesh out the nominees for the Best Books of 1963. We have been frustrated in our efforts to find a comprehensive list of books published in 1963, most of the online lists have listed only or mostly American and British books, and there have been some conflicting publishing dates on some of our books. We are asking for fact-checkers and submissions for nominees. Nominate the best books of 1963 by emailing me.
Our list so far:
updated to add:
Frost by Thomas Bernhard
The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Boll
Iron Earth, Copper Sky by Yasar Kemal
Passport to Eternity by JG Ballard
Golden Fruits by Nathalie Sarraute
Divided Heaven by Christa Wolf
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Who Are You? by Anna Kavan
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
City of Night by John Rechy
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carre
The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch
Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung
The Words by Jean Paul Sartre
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
Six Easy Pieces by Richard P. Feynman
Destruction of Dresden by David Irving
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
updated to add:
Flight to Africa by Austin Clarke
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Reality Sandwiches by Allen Ginsburg
73 Poems by e e cummings
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Updated to add:
Email us to let us know what we are forgetting.
January 23, 2014Image: Crescent Moon by Uche Okeke
Most of my tarot clients are writers, and the same quandary has been coming up again and again: they feel like failures. Despite the very good writing they are doing, despite their ability to build a loyal audience. All of the external markers a contemporary writer is supposed to acquire to display success -- the advance, the flashy agent, the New York publisher -- that's not there, and so they don't know how to look at what they have and feel good about it.
And you would think this would be an easy problem to solve, but it's not. If you accidentally give birth to a baby tiger instead of a baby human, you'd maybe love it and care for it, but probably you would scream and run around yelling TIGER and trip on something and fall down and hit your head. If you are collecting things that are suitable to you and good for you, but the rest of the world -- in the form of your peers, the literary community, the people on your television and in your music -- is saying, these are not things of value, it's so much more difficult than you would think to say, actually, my baby tiger is fierce, let's fuck some shit up.
It requires a change of consciousness. It requires altering your entire value system. It requires an ability to shut out other people's invasive ideas about what you should be doing. And that is the part of Blood of the Earth that I connected with most deeply, this idea that there are other ways to live one's life, but the biggest barrier to that is this very narrow cultural idea of what makes a life successful or good. And that is what has to change in order to make lasting changes, to really confront the ugliness of the way we are living now with our wastefulness and "well, we're going down anyway, may as well enjoy the ride" attitude. It's not a change of politicians that we need, and it's not another shocking expose of the evil being done in the name of oil.
I mentioned to a group of people that I was interviewing you, and I said the words "peak oil" and a guy there just reflexively spat out the word "fusion." I don't think he even knows what the word might mean entirely, but it was such a strange illustration of what you write about in the book, the irrational belief that something is going to take the place of oil, or that we will never run out of oil.
Utterly typical. It's basically an incantation; he's invoking the fusion spirits to take away the evil influence of the accursed words "peak oil." There are plenty of incantations like that -- the one problem being that peak oil isn't a supernatural force and can't be made to flee back to the underworld by the right set of magic words.
Anyway, somewhat related to that, is this idea you present that we have imbued things like a big house in the suburbs with magical qualities, that it is a symbol of success without being really a good thing to achieve, because it's inconveniently located and separates you out from the rest of humanity. I have talked to a lot of women writers lately who are needing to redefine "success" for themselves and are lost about how to do it. They are very skilled, intelligent writers, they have a small, passionate following, but they do not get those external markers of success (the big book advance, the New York Times style section feature) and so they feel like failures. So, how does one go about emptying out these cultured ideas of success and reinstall it with something more authentic, or how does one provide an example of that to others?
That's an explosive question, because it requires grappling with the ways that our society has taught us to anchor our sense of self and self-worth on how enthusiastically we cooperate in our own exploitation.
The exterior marks of success you've named -- the big advance, the NYT book review, etc. -- are the exact equivalent of the little light bulbs that go on when the rat in the Skinner box pushes down the little lever. The rat has been conditioned to react to the light, and so it keeps on pushing the lever over and over again. If the psychologist knows his stuff, the light only goes on now and then, at random -- that makes the rat frantic, and keeps it pushing the lever all the more, to the point that it doesn't even notice whether the door to the cage is open or not.
If the rat's ever going to do anything more useful than pressing frantically on a lever, and feeling like a failure because the light just won't go on, it needs to stop and think: what am I actually trying to achieve? What does it actually mean when the light goes on, and how does that relate to the things that matter to me? Those are also the questions that people need to ask these days when it comes to the flashing lights of "success" as defined for us by the conventional wisdom -- that is to say, by the media and the people who pay the media's bills.
This is especially hard for women these days, because of the way that the feminist movement was derailed into harmlessness in the 1970s and 1980s. Before then, some of the more thoughtful feminists were asking hard questions about the broader system of which social and economic biases against women played a part. I'm sorry to say that their voices were marginalized in favor of a simplistic view that identified "what men have" as liberation, and focused on getting that without asking any questions about it. As a result, a great many American women gave up a life in which their worth was defined by husbands, children, and domestic culture, in order to embrace a life in which their worth is defined by bosses, coworkers, and corporate culture -- which is arguably not much of an improvement.
The crucial point I'd encourage those writers to consider is this: the system doles out its favors to those who advance its interests and support its agenda. That's what the big advances and the NYT reviews are: payoffs for those who do as they're told.
So what's the alternative? The usual option, and it's quite a workable one, is for a group of people who are tired of the manipulative nature of "success" as defined by their society to redefine it themselves, for their own benefit. That's what normally happens in a creative subculture -- a group of people who want to do something the mainstream doesn't support do it anyway, and give each other the personal and emotional support they need to keep going. Read up on the history of any avant-garde movement in any of the arts that wasn't just a marketing scheme, and that's how it gets going -- and if it's doing something worthwhile, the mainstream eventually has to come to terms with it.
There's another alternative, but it's a good deal harder. That's the alternative of learning how to take conscious control over the little internal buttons that keep us, like all other social primates, dependent for our emotional well-being on the responses of others. Social animals need those buttons; it's by way of them that the herd, the flock, or the avant-garde literary movement maintain the ability to work together for common goals and against common dangers. The issue here is simply that people and institutions that don't have our best interests in mind have gotten very good at manipulating those buttons, and so there's much to be gained by learning how to shut them off or redirect them at need.
That's vastly more difficult, though, than finding or creating a congenial subculture in which those buttons can get pushed in constructive ways. It requires the ability to cause change in consciousness in accordance with will -- that is to say, magic.
January 22, 2014
Image: Pythia by Michelangelo
In the 1950s, a Chicago housewife had a vision of a coming flood. It would be devastating, it would destroy all that we knew of Earth. And yet, there was hope. Aliens from another world would come down and save the chosen few, and you could become one if you followed her instructions from the messages she was receiving. She even set a date for the coming. The end was nigh.
When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter is a still amazing book about the cult, why people would believe in and cheer on the end of the world, and what happens when the end of the world does not come. When things get difficult, when change and adaptation is required, and certainly the post-WWII world required adaptation and change, some people would feel more comfortable with the entire world just coming to a close.
So here we are in another state of change and adaptation, and here we are, cheering on the end of the world. And here we are, continuing our conversation with John Michael Greer, author of The Blood of the Earth, discussing end days, the idea of progress used as a religion, and the intellectual "purity" of atheism. You can read the beginning of our conversation here.
The cynical counter-argument is that people insisting we stay with fossil fuels know (either unconsciously or not) that we are in the end days for oil, but they believe in the coming apocalypse or don't really care about future generations. When liberals talk about it, it is often under the heading of, well, they are trying to bring about the end of the world anyway, that's why they're messing around in the Middle East. And you talk about that, too, with the UFO cult in the 1950s who thought that aliens were going to save a select few. So we have either blind adherence to something that's not working, or wild jumps to "we are going to make jet fuel out of recycled styrofoam cups and we'll have a smooth transition, with no inconveniences whatsoever." Where did this blind belief in progress come from?
It's a complicated thing. The event that Nietzsche called "the death of God" -- less metaphorically, the collapse of Christian faith as a living factor in the lives and psyches of most people in Europe and the European diaspora -- left an immense void in our collective life, and a great many people went looking for some secular equivalent of religion in order to fill that void. Over the last century or so, faith in progress has become the most popular replacement for religion, and believers in progress cling to it as unquestioningly as believers in other religions cling to the dogmas of their faiths.
The irony, and it's as rich as it is bitter, is that the popular faith in progress has become all the more passionate and unquestioning as progress itself has slowed to a crawl and, in many contexts, shifted into reverse. A growing number of studies have shown that, despite all the current rhetoric about endlessly accelerating technological progress, the rate at which really significant new discoveries are being made and implemented has been declining steadily since the 1880s, and let's not even talk about the rhetoric of moral progress that used to feature so heavily in the rhetoric of believers in progress back in the day. These days, progress in a handful of fields is used to cover up the steady decline in most others; it's indicative that the media is full of glib chatter about the latest steps toward space tourism for the very rich at a time when many rural counties in the US are letting their road systems go back to gravel because they can't afford asphalt for repaving any more.
That hard reality, though, is nowhere acknowledged in the public rhetoric of our time. In fact, the more intense the cognitive dissonance that surrounds the mythology of progress, the more dogmatically people insist on the inevitability and beneficence of progress. It's a phenomenon much studied by social psychologists: it's when a belief system is being challenged by events that its believers become most rigid about their belief, most fixated on the insistence that their beliefs must be absolutely true. There's always an emotional cost in admitting that you're wrong; if the wrong belief has motivated bad decisions, the emotional cost goes up; if those bad decisions amount to flushing your future down the drain, and your children's and grandchildren's future along with it, letting go of the belief system can be unbearable even if the alternative is imminent disaster.
Regarding the myth of progress and the death of religion, now we're getting into
the space that really drew me in with your book, which is another mistaken idea
we have in contemporary society that atheism is somehow intellectual purity. That
we can conquer these unrational or pre-rational or I don't know what term to use
here, parts of ourselves, through logic and that is just fine. All we need is science!
But if you read these atheist evangelicals, the logic and the intelligence is very
shallow. And as you said, they are still proselytizing.
Indeed they are, and the fact that they're doing so shows that they're still subservient to the religious consciousness they think they've thrown off. What's the most basic framing belief of modern Christianity? That your personal opinions about the existence and nature of God are the most important thing in the world.
That framing belief isn't that common among the world's religions. In many faiths, what matters is not what opinions you hold, but what ceremonies you practice or have taken part in, what taboos and customs you practice as part of your daily life, or what have you. Classical Pagan spirituality is a good example: of twenty people who took part in a sacrifice to Jupiter in ancient Rome, no two of them might have had the same opinion about what Jupiter was, what his relationship was to the offering, and so on -- but they would have agreed that the sacrificial ritual had to be done just so!
Contemporary atheism remains stuck in a Christian mindset, in which proclaiming the gospel of No God, convincing everyone else that they have to believe the same thing you do, and denouncing those who disagree with you as the source of all evil in the world all seem to make sense. It seems like intellectual purity to so many people these days because it plays along with these firmly established religious modes of thought and action.
And what you argue in your book is that the point of magic or religion or ritual practice is helping to separate or give space to these two different realms. And not confuse an emotional or symbolic reaction with a logical one. Or not go after one with the wrong tool. I am explaining it poorly. Because mostly what we see these days is this mixing -- people bringing their religion into their logic, their politics, their thought process, or people insisting they are being logical when actually they are treating science like a god. I'm not sure I have a question here, just something I wanted to acknowledge, because I have not necessarily seen such a clear explanation of this particular issue before.
Thank you! One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment is precisely the recognition that human life falls more or less naturally into several different and incommensurable spheres, which have -- and need to be allowed to have -- their own standards and their own measures of authority. Politics is one of those spheres; science is another; religion is another; the arts are another, and so on. The point that so many people are doing their level best to forget these days is that expertise in one of these spheres does not grant authority in a different sphere.
Many of us have figured out, for example, that when a political official tries to tell us what art and music we ought to enjoy, that's an abuse of authority, because it crosses the boundary between the sphere of politics and that of the arts. Many of us -- though not all -- have grasped, similarly, that a religious leader who tries to tell people how to vote, or makes pronouncements about scientific questions, is also abusing his authority. One of these days we may even figure out that when a distinguished scientist tries to make blanket statements about religion, that, too, is an abuse of authority.
Those separate spheres all intersect in one place, which is the individual. You yourself have every right to decide whether you're going to let one of those spheres influence another, but it's central to the heritage of the Enlightenment that nobody, anywhere, has the right to make that decision for you. That freedom -- the freedom to bring the many separate spheres of human life into a unity that makes sense to you, whether it makes sense to anyone else -- is the thing that ideologues by and large can't stand; one result of that is that you can judge just how abusive an ideology is likely to be by seeing just how often it attempts to use criteria from one sphere to impose a uniform order on a different sphere.
That's also why ideologues of every kind tend to froth at the mouth whenever magic enters the picture. Magic is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will; put another way, it's the art and science of opening up an inner space where you can choose your own states and conditions of consciousness, rather than having them forced on you by culture, religion, government, or what have you; and those who practice it seriously rarely have any time for fist-pounding zealots of any stripe who try to claim the right to tell everybody else what to do.
January 20, 2014
Image: Das neue Strahlen from Jugend 1896
Bookslut’s interview with Kelley Osgood on her book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, provides some fascinating, intelligent viewpoints on anorexia and the confessional memoir. Says Osgood:
"I went out for drinks with this psychologist recently who treats young women with eating disorders. She was saying that she has really shied away from the "eating disorder specialist" label and that community -- because there is a community built around it. People make their living off of it. I asked her the same thing: so what's the alternative? She felt that it is better to focus more on the fact that it's a coping mechanism, the same way that alcoholism and narcotics abuse are coping mechanisms. The difference is to take this idea off the pedestal -- that you're special and different because you've developed this particular problem. You're really not."
For further related reading, here are a few essays:
“Feast of Burden” - Jessica Hester | Bitch Magazine
In this brief look at the “feeding porn” phenomenon, Jessica Hester examines the links between food and sexuality, and female desire and transgression.
“Some girls want out” - Hilary Mantel | London Review of Books
Hilary Mantel, looking at historical examples of saintly female masochism, draws connections between holy and contemporary anorexia.
“But Enough About Me” - Daniel Mendelsohn | The New Yorker
Daniel Mendelsohn reflects on the memoir form in this brief history of the genre.
January 17, 2014
A bunch of people got into a big room and led by a perky woman they all chanted "Drill Baby Drill." And what political commentators heard as campaign slogans, what liberals heard as cynical disregard for the environment, John Michael Greer heard as incantation. An incantation to ward off fear, to ward off the knowledge that our days of endless cheap energy is coming to an end. This is magical thinking, this belief that demand will somehow create supply.
The Blood of the Earth is not your typical We Must Save the Planet greenie book that brings out all of your hopelessness and despair, and then tells you you can save the earth and all of its animals by bringing your own bag to the grocery store and swapping out your light bulbs. It is not an expose into the workings of the oil companies, with all of their scheming and corruption, that will horrify you and then you can put aside and go along with your day as usual. It is not thinly veiled propaganda for wind turbines or sea algae farms or solar panneling the Sahara. It is about how our belief in the myth of progress has brought us to this point, and how only with a change of consciousness can we hope to transition to what Greer refers to as the deindustrial age.
Which means that it is inspiring rather than depressing, and it is provocative rather than reinforcing what you already know about the men who run our economy.
This is the first part of my conversation with John Michael Greer, and the whole of it covers topics like how to redefine success, the sources of the myth of progress, and the irrationality of rational and economic thought.
Can you quickly define "peak oil" for those who might not be familiar?
It's shorthand for "peak rate of global conventional petroleum production." From the beginning of commercial petroleum production until 2005, annual production of ordinary crude oil trended upwards most of the time, with brief exceptions due to wars, economic crises, and most recently the oil crises of the 1970s.
Since 2005, production of ordinary crude has trended down, and the oil industry has struggled to make up the difference with tar sand extractives, natural gas liquids, ethanol, biodiesel: you name it, if it can be poured into a tank and burnt, they're using it. What makes this a problem is that all these substitutes for ordinary crude oil cost much more to extract and process -- more money, and far more critically, more energy. An increasing fraction of world energy production is having to be rolled back into producing energy, leaving less energy for all other purposes.
This is what peak oil analysts call the "net energy crunch." Net energy? That's to energy what profit is to a business: you take the total output of energy production, subtract the amount of energy you have to roll back into producing the energy in the first place, and what's left is your net energy. Ordinary crude oil has a net energy yield of up to 200 times input; most of the substitutes have net energy in single digits, and some proposed alternatives take more energy to extract than you get from burning them. Net energy, not total output, is what runs an industrial economy -- and the total net energy from all sources is dropping fast.
Your section on the irrational "economic thinking" reminded me of these experiments they did with people who had catastrophic injuries to the right hemisphere of their brain, leaving them with only the left, rational and logical to be reductive, hemisphere. They presented them with a logic puzzle:
a. Porcupines live in trees
b. Monkeys live in trees
c. Porcupines are a kind of monkey
and the patient could not work a way around it. The logical part of the brain can fixate, and they said the final statement had to be true if the first two lines were facts. (Porcupines don't live in trees, but whatever.) Do you think these logical loops, this is what is going on with the economists and Drill Baby Drill people? If they have already accepted that infinite progress is possible, then it has to follow that an infinite supply of oil is available?
Well, I don't think that economists and Sarah Palin supporters all suffer from brain damage, but it's true that the kind of thinking you've outlined is embarrassingly close to the reasoning that guides the energy policy of the world's major industrial nations these days! I think, though, that what drives people to insist that there's got to be limitless energy resources because we want them so badly is a belief system so deeply ingrained in today's society, and so completely taken on faith, that we might as well call it a religion.
That belief system is faith in progress. Most people in the industrial world believe in progress the way that peasants in the Middle Ages believed in the wonder-working bones of the local saint. It's an unquestioned truism in contemporary culture that newer technologies are by definition better than older ones, that old beliefs are disproved by the mere passage of time, and that the future ahead of us will inevitably be like the present, but even more so. For all practical purposes, belief in progress is the established religion of the modern world, with its own mythology -- think of all the stories you got in school about brilliant thinkers single-handedly overturning the superstitious nonsense of the past -- and its own lab-coated priesthood.
Most people these days literally can't think outside the box of progress. That's why the only alternative to the endless continuation of business as usual that has any kind of public presence these days is apocalypse -- some sudden catastrophe gaudy enough to overwhelm the otherwise unstoppable force of progress. The faith in apocalypse is simply the flipside of the faith in progress -- instead of a bigger, better, brighter future, we get a bigger, better, brighter cataclysm. Suggest that the future ahead of us might not be either of those hackneyed stereotypes, and you can count on hearing the echoing bang of minds slamming shut.
January 16, 2014
Charles and I were asked to participate in a What's On Your Nightstand? feature for a website that will go unnamed. They declined to use our submissions. Lots of soul searching about why went on. Too much Romanian philosophy? Were our nightstands not stylish enough? Could it possibly be that they figured out we completely staged the whole thing, neither of us keeping books on our nightstands? (My books are in my bed, thank you very much. Unless there's a gentleman in there, in which case then they go onto the floor.)
But our nightstands will not be denied! Or something. Below here are the rejected submissions for What Is On Your Nightstand (Now Totally Outdated).
from the warring factions by Ammiel Alcalav
I like having a lot of books I can dip in and out of, without needing to remember exactly where I am in the book, where I can sort of flip around and move from book to book. This is a work of prose poetry, by a brilliant and often overlooked poet.
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro
But as much as I like small fragmented books, it's nice to have something very gripping and propulsive and engaging. This is a very strange Argentine novel, sort of about the Maldives and Falkland Island battles, but with a lot of Philip K. Dick-inflected SF touches and absurdity. It is good for late night insomnia, you don't painfully notice every minute ticking by that you're not sleeping soundly.
A Short History of Decay by EM Cioran
Cioran is a Romanian philosopher who believes that the greatest tragedy to befall man is to exist at all. His writing draws blood. You can read one small section and then need to put it down for a week to recover. But he is perhaps the philosopher I turn to the most, barring William James. Cioran's negativity balances James's positivity very nicely.
Gilgi by Irmgard Keun
Just came in the mail, a novel by one of my favorite novelists. She lived in Germany before (and during and after) the war, and set her novels in these madcap Weimar spaces. But instead of all being glamour and darkness, it's incredibly politically insightful. I haven't started this one yet, something to look forward to after The Islands.
The Stinging Fly issue 23
Irish literary journal. They are essential.
Vintage Attraction by Charles Blackstone
xoxo -- I like to have it close as I'm writing my own book, to remember that I can do whatever I want with it.
The Blood of the Earth by John Michael Greer
Scarlet Imprint is a beautiful little publisher in London, they make the most incredible books. This is nonfiction, about living in a work with "peak oil," meaning of course that the world is essentially going to have to change, and quickly. It's kind of shattering, about what it's like to live at the end of one particular world, unsure what comes next. I've only just dipped into this, but I was stunned at how furious and immediate it is.
Memos by Diana Vreeland
Diana Vreeland is my spirit animal.
If There Is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova is at the top of my stack. I'm not a big poetry reader, but the pug likes to listen to poems sometimes. They're not long—one hundred poems in the same number of pages—and very accessible. Each conjures a fully realized world.
Then there's Couples by John Updike. I mean, come on, where else but the bedroom? Seriously, though, if I want to get inspired for a day of writing (and writing intelligently and beautifully), there's no better stylistic catalyst than an Updike novel.
The Atheist's Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg is useful for analyzing dreams, in a metaphoric sense. (Is that meta-dream analysis?) I've not read this entire book (is that bad to admit?), but I do like to go into it from time to time.
A clip-on-book reading light since the built-in bedside lamp never worked, and since I have yet to read anything in bed that illuminates itself (literally).
"I Speak for Roma" sherry ad. Roma was the Yellowtail of the 1940s through the 70s, but their manufacturer, Schenley, was actually a huge innovator. At one point they offered 34 different kinds of wine, including some that are even relatively obscure today, like Hungarian Tokai. I framed this ad to hang in my kitchen at one point, but have since replaced it with a promotional piece from a coffee roaster here in Chicago I love.
Coffee mug. Coffee is the essential reading companion, regardless of temperature. (I begin with hot coffee in the morning, but will still drink whatever's leftover in the mug if I'm reading at night.)
Details magazine with Luke Perry on the cover from 1992. This is a copy I bought recently on eBay, but I actually had an original issue I bought when it was published. I reread the profile story from time to time. The journalist, Jeff Giles, also wrote a memoir that came out around the same time, which I read a decade later and liked a lot. I wish I could drink beer and smoke cigarettes with Luke Perry in 1992, and this magazine brings me pretty close. There's also a very funny essayish sort of column about all the reasons to smoke cigarettes, which I still find amusing. I can recall lines from it, more or less accurately, such as: "They say a dog is man's best friend, but you can go on a walk with a cigarette and not have to clean up after it." The fashion tips include a clothing essentials for men, which at the time I first read the article seemed completely out of reach, but now I can check off at least a handful of the items.
January 15, 2014
This is the moment in The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil when I knew I wanted to have a conversation with John Michael Greer:
The reasons why the modern industrial world backed itself into the blind corner called peak oil have a great deal to do with magic. Somewhere behind the bland emotionless labels favored by contemporary culture lies a tangled realm of unmentionable motives and murky passions, where petroleum -- the black blood of the earth, as shamans and loremasters in a surprisingly large number of cultures call it -- has become an anchor for fantasies of omnipotence and dreams of destiny, and that realm must be confronted directly in order to make sense of where our civilization is headed.
And this is on page four, you see.
Because we all know we are fucked, as far as energy sources and climate change and species die offs are concerned. And yet inaction is the default mode. And Greer lays it out more clearly than I had ever seen it before: the solution is not simply a new technology, something that will be engineered by one brilliant mind that will save us all and we don't really have to think about it until it happens. This change our world and our culture is going through has to be a change of consciousness. A change in what we think our lives are made of, what we think is possible, what we think is good and useful and pleasurable.
We've been living in one story, the Monoculture as F. S. Michaels brilliantly calls it in her wonderful book. And it is the economic story, and it is the story of infinite progress and expansion. Despite the fact that everything is telling us infinite progress and expansion is folly. This story that we tell ourselves about how there are no limits, no restraints on what we can do, that we do not have to deny ourselves everything. Our bodies, as we fill them with food that is not food and ripe tomatoes in January and whatever in that moment we desire no matter how toxic, have been trying to teach us this lesson for decades. And our planet is trying to get this message across, that we can't just take whatever we want out and dump whatever we don't want back in and be fine. There have to be limits.
And yet holy shit do you sound like an Al Gore goodygoody or a hippie quack if you try to have this conversation. It's because this conversation does not go along with the story of our culture.
So this next week I'll be posting my conversation with John Michael Greer about his explosive little book and excerpts from his book, as we talk about how to tell ourselves a different story. About what life is, what our limits are, what happiness and success is.
You can find an ebook copy of his Blood of the Earth here.
January 13, 2014
Image: Student by F Hodler
I was talking to a gentleman in a bar, and when I was explaining what it is exactly that I do -- a mystery most of the time even to myself -- I mentioned that the theme of the latest issue of the literary magazine I edit was rethinking masculinity.
He was taken aback. "What in the world does that mean?" He was Australian.
Oh you know, femininity in a lot of ways has become incredibly flexible, you can define it in any way you wish. But the roles of masculinity seem to me to be rather rigid.
"What are you talking about? Guys can be jocks, they can be nerds..."
"Nerds? You mean that category of guy whose story intake is these beefed up, super masculine dudes who save the world and also the girl? Look, I'm not saying being masculine is wrong, right? I'm not saying men are bad. I'm saying that we haven't really questioned it the way we have femininity. Feminism helped redefine what it is to be a woman, but there hasn't been anything major like that for men."
He did not, you know, give me his phone number.
So here we are, with the Masculinity issue of Spolia. And we are not being pseudo-intellectual, super-cynical End of Men about it. We have some questions for the culture, and that is what this issue is. Questions in the form of poetry, artwork, essay, journalism, and fiction.
Chicago writer Zak Mucha, a tough guy if there ever was one, for a long time had the day job of taking care of schizophrenics and psychotics. His essay, "The Trick is Not Minding That It Hurts" is a meditation on the role of the super-masculine fantasy, what those Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal stories are telling us, and how they get absorbed, and one particular client whose entire inner world was built around this guns-and-martial arts fantasy.
Daphne Gottlieb's "Domestic Partnership" is the story of two men Alpha and Omega, together and how the world changes around them. In one relationship is the history of how our view of men has, and has not, changed through the years.
And there is desire for the man, in Anne Boyer's "Erotology 1-3" and Joanna Walsh's "Notre Dame." John E. Bowlt translates the reflections and philosophical notes of one of our favorite men, the artist and designer Leon Bakst. (Our debut issue's cover was a Leon Bakst work, because it had to be.) There are men that are dangerous, men that are kind. Leonora Carrington, the great surrealist painter and writer, presents just about every variation of man available in "As They Rode Along the Edge," and we are so very pleased to be able to publish her mind-bending work.
We have some questions. We hope you enjoy answering them for yourself.
January 10, 2014
I am having a very difficult time finishing up the book that I am under deadline for and running the blog. Every time I think I have figured out how to divvy up my day between Bookslut, Spolia, social media, and the book, it goes badly all over again. At least the thing that I am choosing over the sake of all of the others is the book, that always seems like the right decision.
(So, new Spolia was supposed to be up Wednesday. Did not happen. Rescheduled for Monday, this is a sure thing this time.)
The thing I've never understood, though, and certainly understand less now that I am trying to finish the book, is that common line of thought, that one should not read other books while you are in the process of writing. The anxiety of influence, or the anxiety of unintentional plagiarism maybe. Maybe my voice is not singular or distinctive enough that it would need protection, but I can't imagine not reading right now.
But then if you don't read while you are writing, what are you doing? I understand the intention of keeping your voice pure and avoiding picking up someone else's flourishes, but unless you shut out absolutely everything, all television and internet, you're going to be absorbing something. (A friend confessed he had been binge-watching Scandal, until he noticed all of his characters started speaking in strident, nonsensical monologues. He had to delete the rest of the episodes from his hard drive.)
So I'm grateful to the books that have been showing up, Kathryn Davis's Duplex and a large stack from Seagull Press (Hedi Kaddour and Francois Morin and Friedrich Duerrenmatt and Giorgio Agamben hooray) to drown out that Internet style of writing that has become so universal. Because all of a sudden my book was taking on the tone of the This One Time This Bad Thing Happened And Here Are All Of The Totally Predictable Lessons I Learned From This essays.
And I look forward to this process being over and getting back to normal, whatever the fuck that is.
This month’s Bookslut features Rebecca Silber’s thoughts on The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, recently translated into English by Chi-Young Kim. The review includes a brief consideration of the American cover’s design -- a feature often overlooked in book reviews, despite the book cover’s integral role in influencing sales. For more on the importance of the a book’s presentation, here are some links:
“Chip Kidd: Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is.” | TED talks
Illustrious graphic designer Chip Kidd talks about his own introduction to book cover design and provides a glimpse into his process, which has produced some of the most iconic book covers of the last twenty years. Kidd’s outfit alone makes this TED talk worth watching.
“The Subconscious Shelf” by Leah Price | NY Times
Scholar Leah Price, author of Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, explores the idea of books as objets d’arte, physical markers of taste significant not so much for what they contain but what their presence conveys. Price notes, “To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self. “ The idea that one’s reading tastes reveal one’s personality is also behind shelfie projects such as the tumblr Share Your Shelf and the book My Ideal Bookshelf.
“The Gender Coverup” by Maureen Johnson | Huffington Post
Author Maureen Johnson discusses how books are gendered by their covers, which indicate not only the gender of their target audiences, but also to what standards the books should be held as a result. Her coverflip experiment, which asked the twittersphere to design new, gender-reversed covers of popular books, produced fascinating results.
On a similar note, this post by blogger Rachel Stark examines the implications of the “dead girl” cover trend in young adult literature.
And if you’re looking for some eye candy, these gorgeous websites are dedicated to celebrating the art of the book jacket:
January 7, 2014
Image: Nikolay Aleksomanty, The Dawn
Our January issue is now live, and if you need some post-holiday post-trauma family understanding, we have you covered. Can we give a small bit of thanks to Routledge for existing? I have no idea who has placed Routledge books in all of the English language bookstores in Central Europe, but bless them for it. All you can find is Harry Potter Ken Follett Dan Brown and then finally fucking Helene Cixous shows up out of nowhere. Also, that Marion Milner collection they brought back into print, particularly On Not Being Able to Paint about creative blocks is essential.
Anyway, I got off track, but Routledge published On Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family: Permitted and Forbidden Stories by Valeria Ugazio, and it's the subject of our lead feature this month. It fits in with what I've been thinking about lately, about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves:
Ugazio trains her gaze on four disorders of the mind and the respective semantics in which they took root. "The central thesis of the book," she writes, "is that people with phobic, obsessive and depressive organizations and eating disorders have grown up and are still part of conversational (usually family) contexts where specific meanings predominate." Phobics have acquired a "semantics of freedom," in which their family heroes take risks and travel the globe with their heads held high, while others cower at home, unable even to advance their own concerns. The obsessive is associated with a "semantics of goodness" -- the pole here running between selfish hedonists and those who deny their will like nuns. Eating disorders occur within a semantics of power, in which the world and, more to the point, the family, is split between those who have control and those who lack it. And depressives participate in a semantics of belonging, oscillating between community and schism, wanting to go to the party and at the same time desperate to leave. This précis doesn't do justice to the subtlety of Ugazio's distinctions, which gain drama from her frequent narrative illustrations. Furthermore, it's unlikely that any introspective person reading these chapters could resist analyzing their own semantic situation or the situations of everyone else they know. The effect is of watching some long buried artifact getting expertly excavated, or of watching the guests at a costume party get unmasked one by one. For Ugazio, conversation, of all things, is the great, glowing foundry in which we come to terms with being born. Simply running your yap sends out ripples that strike all listeners deeper than they know, and this is especially true for children, the subspecies who (haven't you noticed?) most adults don't care to credit with the faculty of hearing.
The whole thing is quite dense but lovely.
But if that is like way too much or you are one of those horrible people with completely functional and supportive relationships with your families (yuck), we have some other stuff too. Our former contributor Kelsey Osgood has a new book out, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, and so we sent Coco Papy out to talk to her about anorexia memoirs and how they are basically just instruction manuals on how to take yourself apart.
We also have nuns, drug smugglers, recluses, and revolutionaries. Lightsey Darst has a very smart piece on murder mysteries and how the dead women are always just metaphors, unless we are talking about Muriel Spark.
And, as always, there's more here.
January 3, 2014
"Just let me talk, you'll catch on soon enough, catch on to what I mean. You know that I've had boyfriends -- two --- three... we liked each other, we had fun together, and our skins said Yes to each other. That was natural and comprehensible, it caused absolutely no pangs of conscience and no unease. I always felt clean and clear, I was sure of myself and knew what I wanted and the limits I had set, which made good sense that you didn't need to think about them. And now -- that I love someone -- really love someone, for the first time in my life, so that I feel good and honest and capable of anything -- everything should be fine -- and right and -- but..." Gilgi's head falls forward, she grabs Pit's wrists with both hands -- her mouth a garish narrow line, her words -- falling slowly, unemphatically, mechanically: "I don't know what my limits are anymore or what I want, I can't be responsible anymore for what I might do from one day to the next. I thought that my love had made me infinitely safe and protected -- now it's made me defenseless, completely exposed -- how is that possible, Pit??? I'm at the mercy of everyone and everything -- of a hand which brushes the back of my neck as it's helping me into my coat -- of a glance, a voice... I had no idea that I could be like this -- I'm burning up -- I have an agonizing physical connection to everything -- when I close my hand around the edge of this table, when I see a flower -- when I stroke this fur coat... I find myself unspeakably disgusting. Nothing is clean and clear and simple anymore, not even my previous life. Maybe everything the previous Gilgi did and wanted was just a means of running away from -- from her own desire. Maybe nothing has value in itself, maybe everything is untrue, and everything is driven purely by that running away... Where will it end? What's happening with me? It's stretching on into eternity -- I'm scared, Pit."
Pit's face is distorted, his voice hoarse and broken: "Why are you telling me this -- you! That's why you came to me -- that's why... just to tell me..."
Gilgi looks at him. "I see, Pit!" Dull mockery appears at the corners of her mouth. "Well, you're right -- every man for himself... neighter of us can complain of a shortage of egotism. And thank you, Pit -- maybe the best way for you to help me is by showing me -- another glass of port, Fraulein, quickly... by showing me that each one of us can rely only, only, only on himself." Gilgi jumps up, stands behind Pit, grips him firmly by the back of the neck. "I believed in you, young man -- in your capacity for fairness. -- To hell with you and all your Socialism and your schemes for improving the world if you're one of those men who hold it against a woman if, by God knows what accident of biology, she doesn't want to sleep with the. You guys know exactly how to make a woman furious!" Gilgi's hand moves slowly and angrily over Pit's ear, creeps into his hair -- "don't flinch, young man -- I've known for ages that men and women are animals by nature, I also know that we have a sacred duty to make something different of ourselves, and I still believe that we have the strength and the chance to be more than we are. Through ourselves? Despite ourselves? Doesn't matter, I still believe..."
-- From Irmgard Keun's Gilgi, 1931
Image: Pompeii Fresco of Mercury
There was an article or a roundtable or something going around, and it kept coming up in conversation. I never searched the thing out, but it apparently was asking whether American women writers were working in the shadow of the supposed 20th century greats, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, etc. "So, are you?" asked the fella at some point.
"How could I be? I never read them."
Enter several moments of sputtering disbelief. I walked it back a bit, remembering that I have read two Roth novels, Goodbye Columbus, which I found boring and self-involved, and then The Plot Against America, which I liked briefly but then, when I started to think about it, thought nonsensical and with that awful, lazy ending that Saves the Day! because why bother thinking that through at all. But no, definitely no Updike and definitely no Mailer, unless you count the first chapter of a couple of his books, which never made me want to keep reading.
What on earth have you been reading, then? he asked. Well, by 18 I had read every book by Kathy Acker, starting with Pussycat Fever. I did read Infinite Jest and found it emotionally and intellectually empty. I read all of the Brontes and the Hardys and Ulysses and the female modernists like Barnes and HD and the others who have been forgotten over their male counterparts. I went on a South American writer spree, mostly revolving around Cortazar. I read a huge amount of science fiction, but not fantasy, because of elves and whatever. I read Lanark, that was pretty great. It's not like if you decide not to read any John Updike, because it just sounds like being trapped in a car with a narcissist with his dick out, it's not like you run out of books.
For a while I thought I should read everything, back when I was trying to be a book critic. So I read that dreadful Franzen, I read that dreadful Messud. I had opinions about Dale Peck reviews! God help me, why did I do that. And then I remembered again, that one could decide not to read things. It meant your hire-ability as a critic would be limited, if you were outright refusing to read certain things, but one could do things like read tarot cards for money instead, which is way more fulfilling. And I'm beginning to think that this stance of non-participation might be a more important one than, you know, this bores me I don't want to read it.
As Charles and I mentioned in this interview, you are only as good a writer as the books you are reading. The stuff you put in your brain, that is what is used to make out what comes out of it, like ideas and thoughts and prose. And that's important. (Is this why there are no really good regular dayjob critics turned novelists? I mean, we all agree that James Wood thing was not so good, right? We can say that without being afraid of his wrath?) But now I'm reading Ioan Culianu's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, and allow me for a second to be wildly simplistic. But we live in magical states, despite our post-Enlightenment belief that we are rational creatures. Our society sets up certain ideas and loads them with magical thinking, like success means XY&Z, that these are the things that will make you happy, that these are things you absolutely cannot live without. Take the suburbs as an example very quickly, this idea that this is what you work towards, to live in an environmentally unsustainable, physically lonely, transportationally (not a word!) inconvenient, and you have to drive two miles in your privately owned automobile to go get milk. It is the story we have told ourselves about success and families, about what we need. Single unit families all snug and married and separated out from everyone else, is also a story we tell ourselves about what will make us happy. It's how advertising works, it's The Century of the Self.
And yet it's also in every story we tell. We reinforce these ideas and objects in the novels we read, the television we watch, the music we listen to. And just by being around it, we absorb it and get snagged on it. And the only way to tell other stories is by getting those other stories out of our heads by staying the hell away from them. Which sounds paranoid! And if you start talking about this, like I am now, you sound like a nutter. And yet when I slip, when I self-indulgently pick up Elle magazine or try to watch Pretty Little Liars or Bunheads because people -- grown adults! -- swear it is a good show, I start to feel that weird, gross pull.
The role of the writer is to be the outsider. Writing is under the domain of Mercury, the trickster. And yet I increasingly see American writers deep in this pull, with the MFA culture and the snug domesticity and the atheism and the insularity and the dismissal of radical voices and the nostalgia and the lack of any deep philosophical or emotional or historical views. It's all rooted in the Self, and pretending like that Self is not in the grips of these unconscious, magically-loaded stories that go unquestioned. And we get so caught up in words, the importance of using exactly the right words and not using the wrong words, without looking at the stories we are telling with those words.
So I've given up trying to be a book critic in that traditional mode. I have always liked that Bookslut tries to uncover neglected stories, provide an alternative canon, and use its power to ignore Franzen, to be the one place you can pretend he doesn't exist. And we'll be unveiling new issues of Bookslut and Spolia next week, doing our best to find other stories to tell.
January 2, 2014
What We're Reading
Jessica Treadway's Please Come Back to Me
A friend stayed over last week and left Jessica Treadway's Please Come Back to Me on the nightstand. I'd loved the collection when it first appeared as a Flannery O'Connor Prize-winner a couple of years ago but hadn't looked at it since. I picked it up and instinctively gravitated to one of the shorter stories, "Deprivation." It begins, "The baby had been crying for nine hours." That opening reminded me why I'd loved the book when I first read it: deadpan humor leavened with dark domesticity. In "Deprivation," a weekend-long crying jag leads a young husband to fantasize about burying his bawling son in a snowbank. He tells his wife, "I know this sounds terrible," only to be met with hesitant silence. She'd had a similar thought but refuses to reveal it. Instead, she responds to him with "What kind of a mother would I be?" To which he replies, "A normal one, I think." This is the kind of great stuff that echoes throughout the collection.
Stories start out innocently. We feel as though we're driving into a gated community in south Florida -- safe among the protected, predictable houses. But, open the front door and trouble begins. I've always felt that writers like Treadway, who are almost exclusively women, get shortchanged and tagged as "domestic" as if to imply narrower. In Treadway's subtle stories, the stakes are very high and the "revelation" factor resonates as alarmingly as any we get in self-consciously novels. In fact, they echo more profoundly: we're all products of families, no matter how dysfunctional and, in the end, what do we brood about? Treadway's collection will force you to wonder what really happened when you were a kid and, just maybe, make you realize that you didn't see what you thought you saw.
December 23, 2013
In honor of our upcoming Turducken Salon/Orphans' Christmas -- you still have time to RSVP -- I asked our wonderful guest Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (who wrote one of my favorite books of the year, The End of San Francisco), to list her favorite books of the year. Below is her response.)
“In diaspora all things are possible, so many things yet remain unseen.”
Thomas Glave, Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh
At first I wanted to say that I’ve never started an essay with a quote before, but that couldn’t be true, especially when your staircase becomes a cold white blanket, beautiful to look at but hard to climb. You look for the water but it isn’t there, under water turned to white. I’m saying that the snow in Boston right now is beautiful, so this might be a good time to tell you about my favorite books of 2013 (the ones I read this year, that is).
Thomas Glave’s Among the Bloodpeople (Akashic Books) is about the violence of machetes and bombs, the silencing of literature and skin. Listen: “It is something to know that you so dearly and even desperately love a country in which you know that you are not, in fact, safe, no matter the seductiveness of your illusions; no matter your desire for safety (actual safety itself, whatever it actually is)…” Do you see how this book circles around itself, our selves? It’s about Jamaica, and the US, interwoven legacies of colonialism and homophobia and that gasp for fresh air, the way the light gives way to darkness, and how we move from literal to figurative, and whether this helps us, and when that matters.
Refusing to give in to selective amnesia or fatalistic despair, Thomas Glave dares us to examine the contradictions in tyranny and love, desire and hope and yearning and betrayal, personal and structural, our lives and lies, breathing, falling down, getting up again, breathing, yes, breathing. One of the reasons we need bookstores is to find work like this -- I already knew Glave’s work, but I didn’t know about this new book until I found it at a storied place I’ve always been somewhat enthralled by, in spite of the employees who are haughty at best, especially those two guys in the back. Maybe they’ve been friendly to you?
I found Adam Peterson’s The Flasher (SpringGun Press) at McNally Jackson Books in New York, where whoever curates the chapbook/micropress section is really good at it. “He realizes how we’re all just these buildings with bad superintendents and maybe we should move out please don’t move out.” Exposing and exposed, The Flasher is a series of short prose pieces that all start with something the flasher does or doesn’t do. For example, in “The flasher tries to be a nudist,” “it might be easier without the coat.” Humor coats us, rambunctious in its assertiveness, language as conversation and pet.
So you’re “skipping into the sunset hand-in-hand, not stopping to look into the other hand, not worried about the moment they realize it is empty.” The Flasher is about relationships, and bagels disguised as muffins, handprints in your eyes “as he studies the salad in the sink,” the morning, permanence, and a parachute. It is a parachute, all these flashes: “Some words are unforgivable even when they don’t mean anything to the person saying them.” Which reminds me of those Norton Anthologies, can you believe people still read those Dead White Men and a few others occasionally melting snow? One solution is obvious: every edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry should be immediately replaced with Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton (Les Figues Press), which I also found at McNally Jackson.
For better or worse (worse, I would say), McNally Jackson’s front table mostly features the usual things that every bookstore of a certain stature features (and that is the problem, stature), but also they have these other great things, also on display. And, did I mention that every person working there was incredibly friendly, personable, engaged? So, even though I was on tour for my latest book, The End of San Francisco, and they didn’t have it in the store, I ended up liking them anyway. And going back three times. To get more books. (Maybe they have The End of San Francisco now. Feel free to check.)
There’s always a danger that independent bookstores will become little more than elite venues for yuppie consumption, showcasing the same corporate crap (literary or otherwise) that you can find anywhere; in many cases this is already true. We need more bookstores that show us something we never imagined, help us to imagine. Which brings me back to Dodie Bellamy, who replaces the greats with grates, blows them up so far that they can only pop: “So this is my pussy, the outer compulsion, yet surrounded, driving your car.”
Then there’s The Zoo, A Going: (The Tropic House) (Sunnyoutside), by J.A. Tyler, who I think must be inside my head or the head of someone like me, someone like me as a child, in the zoo, scared but not by the animals, the way that creature we call family can be so much more frightening. The beauty in the awkwardness of the syntax makes me think of Douglas Martin’s Once You Go Back, which is one of my favorite books. And, I just found out that this chapbook is a chapter in a longer title called The Zoo, A Going, coming out from Dzanc Books in February 2014. “My mom is more than my dad, this way, like them, these butterflies flying this room. They land on the flowers, the leaves, the borders of a path.”
We all want to land on flowers, if only they could catch us, the ones we’re not allergic to. I almost forgot that I read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (Semiotext(e)) this year, but then I remembered walking to Elliott Bay Book Company, my neighborhood bookstore, with Mairead Case after she interviewed me for The Rumpus (yes, in-person), and Mairead reminded me about Heroines so I bought a copy right then. (Later, I also got a copy of Zambreno’s essay “Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, & Toilet Bowl: Some Notes on Why I Write,” published by Guillotine as a chapbook). Isn’t it great to live in a neighborhood where you can actually find good books? Sadly, this is becoming harder and harder, I know.
Heroines should be required reading for anyone investigating the Modernist canon in literature (or art). Part of the problem with any canon is that it always becomes the cannon, and Zambreno investigates how the big guns of Modernism (T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.) used the creativity of the women in their lives (especially those they married, Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald in this case) to create their famous works of literature, while banishing their wives to sanitariums (or worse). Heroines is heartbreaking, and visionary. Written in an elliptical style that makes poetry out of revelation, the book is part philosophy, part rumination, and part expository dance. I would quote from it at length, but unfortunately my copy of the book is 3000 miles away, in that place that I guess is home, or I’m hoping it will feel that way when I get back after three months. Diaspora implies that there once was (or will be) a home; sometimes this is difficult for me to imagine.
Did I mention that I’m in Boston to do immersive writing on my next novel, Sketchtasy, (which takes place in Boston in 1995/’96)? It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, this month in Boston for my writing: just look at the John Hancock tower and how it becomes a paper doll. Writing is always part of reading is part of writing (for me, at least, and most writers, I imagine). The other day I visited Calamus Bookstore (one of the few bookstores in this country still dedicated to gay/queer/LGBT work), and I discovered a gorgeous art book called An Obscene Diary: The Visual World of Sam Steward, edited by Justin Spring (Antinous Books). But, I only had a chance to glance at the contents before I noticed the book costs $150. Yikes! So, if anyone is planning on sending me a New Year’s gift…
I wonder about recommending books I’m conflicted about, but then I remember something Dodie Bellamy said about how a little Kathy Acker goes a long way. In other words, you might read 10 pages, and get stuck there, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t change you. Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn (Nightboat Books) has some of the most breathtaking prose juxtapositions about war and desire, the war of desire, a desire for war, even if the repetition in the second half ended up boring me (not that it’s not supposed to). Fannie + Freddie: The Sentimentality of Post-9/11 Pornography by Amy Sara Caroll (Fordham University Press) is awe-inspiring in the way it layers conceptual art project over photography over strikethrough over greyscale over feminist gallery art over the financial crisis over your heart; halfway through, though, it felt too cold, so I stopped. This doesn’t mean you will stop. Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, edited by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson (Nightboat Books) is almost as big as those Norton books, but it’s guaranteed to contain way more revelation.
Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton) describes Abbott’s life growing up in San Francisco with her writer father Steve Abbott in a counterculture of artists and queers and freaks and druggies. Steve Abbott died of AIDS in 1992 (the same year I moved to San Francisco in search of people like him), and the letters between Alysia and her father are gorgeous in their raw intimacy, in the way they show us a lost world, not just Steve and Alysia’s world but our own, yours and mine, even if it’s just the way we imagine. But sometimes the narrative structure felt too tidy for the messy life it sought to convey, tailored for an audience unaware about queer world-making; I’m always perturbed when anything speaks to an imagined center because I think if we are going to imagine we need to imagine something else. I just met Alysia, actually. We had tea and she asked similar questions of her own work, which impressed me. She also spoke of a project that sent a current through my body, a family tree documenting gay men and other queers on Haight Street from the 1960s through the ‘80s, so many of them now dead (and, others who Alysia discovered through the publication of Fairyland). A family tree, that’s what I felt right then, a tingling, an aliveness.
-- Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore