In his instructive book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate, essayist and Nonfiction Director at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, explores the form through a series of essays. In his introduction, Lopate poses a number of questions: where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? What are the ethics of writing about others? What are the techniques in essay writing? And, as the title alludes to, when, if ever, is it okay to tell?
Throughout the book, Lopate emphasizes the need for essayists to “think critically—to think against themselves,” to contradict themselves if need be. This is the message at the core of To Show and To Tell—that an essay is an attempt to come to an answer, not an opportunity to prove a rigidly held belief. By “thinking against oneself,” by being contrary, the essayist creates tension and suspense.
“All good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation,” Lopate writes. “In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are engaged with a supple mind at work.”
In addition to exploring philosophical questions about the craft, To Show and To Tell offers practical advice, such as how to turn oneself into a character (“you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused”), why one should research (“Research inspires curiosity, helps you break out of claustrophobic self-absorption”), and what’s gained by keeping a journal (“No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly”).
Lopate gives permission to do away with convention. For those who have trouble with endings, Lopate writes:
A common mistake students make is to assume they need to tie up with a big bow the preceding matter via a grand statement of what it all means, or what the life lesson to be drawn from it is … Readers should be left with some things to work out on their own.
The final section is a study of key essayists; Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and James Baldwin are just a few writers Lopate highlights. Lamb “had the quintessential personal essayist’s ability to see his own personality as problematic, and to dramatize the resulting tensions.” According to Lopate, he saw people as actors and the streets of London as a stage. Hazlitt showed that essays can change direction and Baldwin’s “Notes on a Native Son” is “A twenty-page miracle, a masterpiece of compression.”
To Show and To Tell is an inspiring book on the art of the essay. The reader will come away with a richer understanding of the form and motivated to put theory into practice.
Buy To Show and To Tell from your local bookstore
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Harper’s Magazine
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate on Beyond the Margins
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Poets & Writers
Listen to an interview with Phillip Lopate on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show
On his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.
Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.
Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.
Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”
To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.
He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.
It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.
May is here and there are lots of new paperbacks on the shelves. Here are just a few that have my attention.
The Last Interview: and Other Conversations Jorge Luis Borges
Days before his death, Borges gave an intimate interview to his friend, the Argentine journalist Gloria Lopez Lecube. That interview is translated for the first time here, giving English-language readers a new insight into his life, loves, and thoughts about his work and country at the end of his life.
Accompanying that interview are a selection of the fascinating interviews he gave throughout his career. Highlights include his celebrated conversations with Richard Burgin during Borges’s time as a lecturer at Harvard University, in which he gives rich new insights into his own works and the literature of others, as well as discussing his now oft-overlooked political views. The pieces combine to give a new and revealing window on one of the most celebrated cultural figures of the past century.
A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
Bennett Sims turns typical zombie fare on its head to deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories by A. Igoni Barrett
When it comes to love, things are not always what they seem. In contemporary Lagos, a young boy may pose as a woman online, and a maid may be suspected of sleeping with her employer and yet still become a young wife’s confidante. Men and women can be objects of fantasy, the subject of beery soliloquies. They can be trophies or status symbols. Or they can be overwhelming in their need.
In these wide-ranging stories, A. Igoni Barrett roams the streets with people from all stations of life. A man with acute halitosis navigates the chaos of the Lagos bus system. A minor policeman, full of the authority and corruption of his uniform, beats his wife. A family’s fortunes fall from love and wealth to infidelity and poverty as poor choices unfurl over three generations. With humor and tenderness, Barrett introduces us to an utterly modern Nigeria, where desire is a means to an end, and love is a power as real as money.
Dark Back of Time by Javiar Marias
Called by its author a “false novel,” Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his witty and sardonic 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls is a book Marías swears to be fiction, but which its “characters”–the real-life dons and professors and bookshop owners who have “recognized themselves”–fiercely maintain to be a roman à clef. With the sleepy world of Oxford set into fretful motion by a world that never “existed,” Dark Back of Time begins an odyssey into the nature of identity and of time. Marías weaves together autobiography, a legendary kingdom, strange ghostly literary figures, halls of mirrors, a one-eyed pilot, a curse in Havana, and a bullet lost in Mexico.
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, introduction by William Gibson
In Kingsley Amis’s virtuoso foray into virtual history it is 1976 but the modern world is a medieval relic, frozen in intellectual and spiritual time ever since Martin Luther was promoted to pope back in the sixteenth century. Stephen the Third, the king of England, has just died, and Mass (Mozart’s second requiem) is about to be sung to lay him to rest. In the choir is our hero, Hubert Anvil, an extremely ordinary ten-year-old boy with a faultless voice. In the audience is a select group of experts whose job is to determine whether that faultless voice should be preserved by performing a certain operation. Art, after all, is worth any sacrifice.
Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust; translated by Kim Thompson
Back in 1984, a rebellious,17-year-old, punked-out Ulli Lust set out for a wild hitchhiking trip across Italy, from Naples through Verona and Rome and ending up in Sicily. Twenty-five years later, this talented Austrian cartoonist has looked back at that tumultuous summer and delivered a long, dense, sensitive, and minutely observed autobiographical masterpiece.
A Day in the Life by Senji Kuroi
A Day in the Life features twelve portraits of the vivid and curious realities experienced by a man in his sixties. These stories focus on the tiny paradoxes and ridiculousness we each witness and of which we often take no note. Ranging from a visit to an exhibition of blurry photographs, each taken with an exposure time of exactly one second, to the story of a man stalked through the streets by a stranger for no greater a crime than making eye contact, A Day in the Life demonstrates why Senji Kuroi is considered one of the leading figures of contemporary Japanese literature
Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue
Shocking, erudite, and affecting, these twenty-odd short stories, “micro-novels,” and vignettes span a vast territory, from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. to the late nineteenth-century Adriatic to the blood-soaked foothills of California’s Gold Rush country, introducing an array of bewildering characters: a professor of Latin American literature who survives a tornado and, possibly, an orgy; an electrician confronting the hardest wiring job of his career; a hapless garbage man who dreams of life as a pirate; and a prodigiously talented Polish baritone waging musical war against his church. Hypothermia explores the perilous limits of love, language, and personality, the brutal gravity of cultural misunderstandings, and the coldly smirking will to self-destruction hiding within our irredeemably carnal lives.
Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail was curious to know about New York City literary life. They were kind enough to ask me a few questions about bookstores, bars, and readings. You can read the feature in their travel section. Here are my answers in full.
What are your three favourite bookstores in NYC – please give a brief reason for each.
The best part about being a bookworm and living in New York City, and the surrounding area, is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality. Since I have so many favorites, depending on my mood–or current location–I’ll say that when visiting New York one should make sure to check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, Strand near Union Square, and St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village.
One of the first things you’ll notice about McNally Jackson is that their fiction titles are shelved by region based on the nationality of the author. It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born. The store also has a cafe where you can sit and read the books you’ve purchased or have brought with you. As one of the largest independents in the city, they host excellent events almost every night in the downstairs space. One of the liveliest stores in New York, it’s a great place to visit day or night.
If you’re looking to get lost in stacks of books, The Strand is the place for you. Started in 1927, Strand has 18 miles of new, used, and rare books. They also host many interesting events in their rare book room. Admission is the cost of the book or a $10 gift card. Definitely worth it.
St. Mark’s Bookshop, not actually on St. Mark’s Place but very close to it, opened in 1977. They’re known for a great collection of political and cultural studies books that are hard to find elsewhere. They also have a wide selection of poetry, literary journals, and zines.
Where are the best places for author readings, poetry slams or other similar literary events/performances (and what’s the best online resource where people can check for listings?)
Now you’ve tapped into one of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York City. As the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?
For this one, we’ll branch out to Brooklyn, which is a quick subway ride from Manhattan. WORD in Greenpoint devotes their entire basement to events; powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for hosting parties, not just readings; Housing Works is doing some creative programming and the crowd is usually packed with people in literary industry, whether it’s publishing or criticism; the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights is a monthly series that hosts a lineup of local and visiting authors; Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene not only brings in top authors but the storefront is a big glass window, which makes it an excellent place for those who like open spaces; Bluestockings on the Lower East Side is known for it’s LGBT events; and Community Bookstore has really ramped up their readings over the past few months since bringing the tireless Michele Filgate on board.
Two other places of note are the Bowery Poetry Club where you can find poetry slams and KGB Bar on West 4th where you can see rising literary talent, established local authors, and magazine launches.
As for finding out about events, my friend David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I started an online calendar, Book Boroughing, a little over a year ago. While it’s far from exhaustive we do include the major indie bookstore readings and some of the larger series around town. Before starting the calendar, I relied heavily on Slice Magazine’s (and still do). Time Out New York is also a great place to check for local happenings and can be found on newsstands.
Are there a couple of bars/coffeeshops where you’re likely to run into writers and other literary types – please give a brief description of each.
That’s a tough one. I think the nice part about the New York literary scene is that many local authors come out to events, so you can often run into them there. However, if you’re looking for some iconic bars, there’s the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish in the West Village, and The Half King in Chelsea, which is owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson.
Any other tips for bookish visitors to NYC – festivals, events, tours etc. – anything you can think of really that a travelling bookworm might enjoy.
My first piece of advice is to explore Brooklyn. It really is very close and the literary scene there is thriving. Nothing makes that more apparent than the growing success of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival that takes place at the end of September. Although the festival itself is on a Sunday, the events leading up to the day are staggering. There are a ton of readings and parties that take place all around the borough.
There are two annual Lit Crawls, one for New York City and one for Brooklyn. During the one-day event multiple readings, panels, and literary games take place around a designated area. Authors, publishers, and literary magazines all participate.
Book Expo America is a large publishing industry convention that takes place at the Jacob Javits Center. They’ve just opened it up to the public but, in true New York fashion, there are tons of parties and readings that take place after convention hours. During that week, while all sorts of literary and publishing types are in town, bookstores, publishers, and various publications use the opportunity to mingle with those they don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face during the rest of the year. Many of the parties are open to all.
While I’ve never been on a literary tour of Manhattan, I did come across one for Greenwich Village on the Fodors blog that is worth saving for your visit.
And finally, traveling bookworms might want to stay at the Library Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the New York Public Library, which is also a bookish place one should be sure to visit.
Here are just a few awesome things I came across in the past few days.
KCRW’s music director, Jason Bentley, has brought back Metropolis, his radio talk show featuring electronic music pioneers. Before going on hiatus in 2008, he spoke with such legends as Daft Punk, Paul Oakenfold, James Lavelle, The Crystal Method, and Thievery Corporation.
In a recent interview with Cool Hunting, Bentley talks about what made him start his show in the late 90s.
I was just attracted to underground dance music and culture, European dance culture, house music and trip hop. All of this stuff that was percolating was really exciting to me. At that point it was just really fresh and had not been categorized. Growing up through the club scene and rave scene was really exciting. It was always sort of renegade. I still have close friends from those days. It was such a transformative time to grow up in this really creative space of the club. The cool thing about the club scene and the underground is everybody is looking for something—who they are, their identity, their purpose, their creative side. Everyone is trying to figure out who we are and why are we here. For me finding the community in this very creative world of club scene and dance music was incredibly important.
On a show that aired in late March, Bentley talks with legendary drum and bass producer and DJ Photek. If you were at all into the jungle scene in the 90s, you’ll want to listen to it. Photek talks about the early days of the genre, when everything was groundbreaking, when sounds, styles, and technology were just developing.
Alec Baldwin, a few episode ago on his show Here’s The Thing, spoke with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke about his new album Amok with the group he put together for the project, Atoms of Peace. The two talk about how Radiohead started, how it was touring with Michael Stipe, and his kids.
the nicest bit about the creative thing – the nicest bit about recording and writing is this sort of weird limbo in between scratching away, scratching away, nothing really happening, nothing really happening, and then something wants to be built and starts to get built. You just have to let it happen.
There’s been a lot of celebration surrounding the announcement of Granta’s once-a-decade “Best of Young British Novelists” list. As always, it includes 20 British writers under the age of 40. Although it includes well-known authors such as Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Adam Foulds, there are a few writers on there who are just starting out: one author being Taiye Selasi whose first book, Ghana Must Go, is being published this month in the US by Penguin Press.
There have been a number of articles discussing the selection process. The BBC takes a look at what the list means to publishers, in The Telegraph judge Gaby Wood discusses the selection process, and Granta editor, John Freeman, speaks with the National Book Critics Circle for an interview on their blog.
This month kicked off a worldwide tour surrounding the list’s publication. Check out Granta’s website to see if anything is happening near you. Also on the site are articles by and interviews with the winners.
Also exciting for book people, particularly those who enjoy translated fiction, is the Best Translated Book Award run by Three Percent, the website of The University of Rochester’s literary publishing house, Open Letter Books. The longlist was announced in March and since that time there’s been a review of each book with the sole purpose of explaining why that book deserves to win. On the Three Percent podcast, which I highly recommend you subscribe to in iTunes, Chad Post of Open Letter and Tom Roberge of New Directions discuss the books.
E VS. INK
As the publishing world continues to march head on into the digital age, much of the talk surrounding print books vs. eReaders can get reductive. I have my own opinions, which are of the middle-of-the-road sort so I will spare you. However, if you’re interested in theses competing (and complementary) mediums, this article in Scientific American about the brain science of reading might offer a nice break from the typical discussions taking place.
Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.
Over on the New York Times Opinionator blog, Drafts, author Ben Dolnick writes about the dangers of reading too many interviews with writers about craft.
Speaking of author interviews, Other People podcast spoke with essayist and critic Michelle Orange. For those interested in the two genres, they will be well-served by listening. And anyone who’s been tapped into the intersection of teen blogging and fashion will be aware by now of Tavi Gevinson, most recently the founder of the teen-focused website Rookie. She spoke with AdWeek about her rise to notoriety and how she balances work, school, and a personal life every teen should be allowed to have. Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s well-adjusted for someone as busy as herself. In fact she says, “for the most part, I’ve kind of figured out a way to do everything I want without exhausting myself.”
“Loneliness is solitude with a problem”—Maggie Nelson
Although written in numbered propositions, seemingly disconnected, Bluets is not the type of book you can open to any page and begin reading. I know this because it’s what I’d done a number of times in a number of bookstores only to leave empty handed despite trusted friends insisting on its brilliance.
Finally, I sat down to read Maggie Nelson’s book properly and discovered its flow, its rhythm, and was caught up in the attempt to understand the placement of these ruminations on—as one might infer from the title—the color blue.
“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke,” she begins. “And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.”
Intense focus, or perhaps obsession, is what drives Bluets. At one point Nelson considers traveling the world in search of blue objects: “ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovegni Chapel, Morocco, Crete.”
But Nelson does not need to travel to faraway places; she sees blue wherever she goes, and notices its absence when she doesn’t. Interspersed in Bluets are delightful facts about color: the presence of blue in nature (male satin bowerbirds build adorn their bowers with blue objects to lure females); religion (blue became a “holy” color after it was mistaken that ultramarine contained gold and was therefore valuable; and world cultures (the Tuareg, a “tribe of blue people” in the deserts of North Africa who take on the color of their deeply saturated dyed robes).
An ex-lover is remembered by the blue button-down shirt he wore on their final day together; the feet of a friend, now paraplegic, are mentioned because they’ve become “the blue of skim milk” from disuse. Quotes from Mallarmé, Goethe, and da Vinci woven into the fabric of Nelson’s thoughts fill the pages with a weight not conveyed by the book’s slim appearance.
Bluets will deceive aspiring writers. They will see short paragraphs made up of spare sentences and believe they can do it too. But the careful reader will feel the deliberation, they will know the state of the author’s cutting room floor.
In Bluets, Nelson has taken an exercise in single-minded attention and created a meditative masterpiece.
The mark of a great comedy podcast is having to give this caveat: if you aren’t comfortable laughing to yourself in public, best to listen to this one at home alone. Every one of the now seven episodes of By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin has made me laugh out loud, often with an uncontrollable sputter. Not only that, I grin nearly the whole way through, which, I might add, makes me appear friendly during rush hour, a threat to my tough New Yorker exterior.
Actor, comedian, producer Jeff Garlin, known best to me for his role as Larry David’s manager and friend in Curb Your Enthusiasm, hosts a conversation with fellow talented entertainment industry creatives in front of a live audience at Largo in Los Angeles.
The run time is about an hour and a half, with J.J. Abrams clocking in at an hour and fifty, but however long the show, it never gets tedious. Garlin is one of the rare hosts who can keep you engaged and entertained long past the standard 45 minutes.
Whether Garlin has had the good fortune of sitting down with people who enjoy his company, or if he’s just that good at putting people at ease, every conversation has been comfortable and paved the way for mutual openness. In the first episode, Garlin draws out Larry David’s quirks, of which there are many—one being his dislike of listening to music for its own sake. In episode two, he and Lena Dunham discuss the hell that is awards shows—unless, as was the case with Dunham, you have your quick-witted mom in tow. Parenting, and family life in general, is a common topic: both J.J. Abrams and Will Ferrell like to make their kids breakfast and see them off to school. Farrell volunteers at his son’s soccer games and J.J. makes up stories at bedtime.
Even if Garlin didn’t have great timing and a knack for getting stories out of his guests, his laugh, boisterous and infectious, would be enough to get your smile going. The only downside of By the Way is its lack of an archive, having just begun in January of this year. However, if you get in on it now, you’ll be one of the lucky ones with bragging rights, able to say you were listening to it back when, because, with a bit of luck and more excellent guests, this show will be around for a very long time.
By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin