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New in Paperback for April

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When you head out to the bookstore this month, keep your eye out for these new paperback titles and you won’t be disappointed.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip Gura
From the acclaimed cultural historian Philip F. Gura comes Truth’s Ragged Edge, a comprehensive and original history of the American novel’s first century. Grounded in Gura’s extensive consideration of the diverse range of important early novels, not just those that remain widely read today, this book recovers many long-neglected but influential writers—such as the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs, the free black Philadelphian Frank J. Webb, and the irrepressible John Neal—to paint a complete and authoritative portrait of the era. Gura also gives us the key to understanding what sets the early novel apart, arguing that it is distinguished by its roots in “the fundamental religiosity of American life.” Our nation’s pioneering novelists, it turns out, wrote less in the service of art than of morality.

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an isolated blue-collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val take a pink plastic raft out onto the bay.

But on the water, in the humid night, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore, bruised and unconscious, in the weeds. The shocking event will echo through a group of unforgettable characters, including Fadi, an ambitious Lebanese bodega owner; Cree, a lost teenager who unwittingly makes himself the cops’ chief suspect; Jonathan, Julliard drop-out, barfly, and struggling high school teacher; and Val, the grieving girl who must contend with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she holds deep inside.

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely follows a cult leader, his ex-wife, and the four people he takes hostage. It’s about loneliness in America, North Korea, espionage, a city underneath Cincinnati, cloud seeding, and eavesdropping. It’s also a big, sweeping love story.

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today’s dramatically reconfigured world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. InGive and Take, Adam Grant, an award-winning researcher and Wharon’s highest-rated professor, examines the surprising forces that shape why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. Praised by social scientists, business theorists, and corporate leaders, Give and Take opens up an approach to work, interactions, and productivity that is nothing short of revolutionary.

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias
When Rayya Elias was seven, her family fled their native Syria to settle in Detroit. Bullied in school and rebelling against her traditional home-life, Rayya turned her sights to fashion and music. She became a hairdresser and started a band that played the club scene in the early 1980s before she moved to New York at age twenty-three to further her musical career. She lived on the Lower East Side at the height of the punk movement and had passionate affairs with both sexes, but her casual drug use turned to addiction and Rayya was often homeless—between her visits to jail. Yet, her passion for life always saved her.

Written by Gabrielle

April 3, 2014 at 6:49 am

Write it Like Tin House

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Every year Tin House, a literary journal and independent publishing house, coordinates a Summer Writer’s Workshop, a “weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings.” Together with today’s most respected American authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Tin House editors teach a small group the ins and outs of writing and publishing.

This year’s instructors include Steve Almond, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Dana Spiotta, Jess Walter, Cheryl Strayed and D.A. Powell–a dream lineup if you love independent presses and literary imprints.

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House is a collection that stems from these yearly meetings; essays on character development, pace, editing, and other elements of storytelling offer those who can’t attend a glimpse inside the classroom walls.

Steve Almond explains good and bad sex writing; Kate Bernheimer discusses the four elements of fairy tales and “the reductive spectrum of mainstream and avant-garde writing;” Dorothy Allison describes “place” as it relates to “All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see;” and Chris Offutt talks about revising, a skill that “requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity” and, to him, is akin to performing “surgery on yourself without anesthesia.”

Instead of a “how-to” guide, The Writer’s Notebook is as Lee Montgomery, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of Tin House Books and Executive Editor of the magazine, describes it in her introduction: “like intimate conversations, like a notebook.” She further explains:

I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing One, two, threepoof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write–a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful–and interesting–to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.

In his essay, “The Telling that Shows,” Peter Rock says:

I very rarely understand talking about writing or writing about writing as discourses that intersect with writing itself. I don’t believe that wisdom can be dispensed to writers in this way. How lovely if it were so, and how boring. Instead, I’m always hoping to provoke, to let writers weigh my assertions or learn from my mistakes.

It’s this philosophy–or honesty–that sets The Writer’s Notebook apart from all others on the writing reference shelf. Here are a few excerpts that resonated with me.

Rick Bass, “When to Keep it Simple”

In “When to Keep it Simple,” Rick Bass explains what to do “when you get too wrapped up in a lofty thought and you can’t quite make the ends of a sentence or paragraph hook back up”.

Try cleaning up the words and diction first … and if that doesn’t work, then begin breaking apart the truths, or purported truths, which are probably shrouded in windiness … Say it straight … as if in conversation … Lay that much-simpler and less-ambitious sentence down like a tiny placeholder.

Susan Bell, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”

Susan Bell’s essay, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby,” looks at the relationship between author and editor. While writing “The Artful Edit,” Bell read the biography of legendary editor Max Perkins, the man who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. She also reread The Great Gatsby, this time as a “tour de force of revision.”

She starts off, “Gatsby is what Michael Ondaatje called ‘that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book … and a finished product’–in other words, editing.”

The writer had gone far enough on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the latest editorial push–one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone … It helped to have an editor as astute and courtly as Perkins and who knew how to balance general commentary with specific suggestions. …

Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes–a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.

Lucy Corin,“Material”

Generally, we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put the stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way.

Jim Krusoe, “Le Mot Incorrect”

According to Wikipedia, Gustave Flaubert “believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’ (‘the right word’), which he considered the key [to achieving] quality in literary art.”

While Krusoe “understand[s] the great magnetism of ‘le mot juste,’” he says that there are advantages to using the wrong word:

Wrong words help us stray off the path, not by producing a new path, but by throwing us into the thicket … in writing, correctness not only stops the conversation between the writer and the reader, it also stops it between the writer and her or himself. To have no questions is to cease to explore. A poor piece with all the right words has nowhere to turn. Wrong words, however, put us into a different relationship with our sentences and our work.

Margot Livesey, “Shakespeare for Writers”

A more straightforward lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s plots is the virtue of having subplots … a successful subplot is one that is interesting and compelling in its own right, resonates with the main plot appropriately, and intersects with it at the perfect moment.

I fear I can no longer avoid the most obvious and the most impossible lesson we can learn from Shakespeare: namely, what can be accomplished by the magnificent, melodious, rigorous, energetic, boisterous, vivid, inventive use of language.

The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.

The Writer’s Notebook II is out this month and Tin House will be accepting applications for their 2013 workshop starting January 1st.

::[Links]::
Buy The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Buy The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House
Apply for the 2013 Workshop (applications accepted starting January 1, 2013)
Tin House Podcast: Listen to authors discuss writing
Tin House website

Written by Gabrielle

November 6, 2012 at 6:07 am

Week in the World: The Best Things Ever

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I’ve been reading so many great books lately that after finishing each one I’m tempted to call it The Best Thing Ever. I’ve also seen some incredible movies, gotten hooked on TV shows, and listened to music that I think everyone needs to hear. Not to mention the podcasts … and the essays. Well, you get the idea.

This week, I’ve decided to round up some of The Best Things Ever. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

BOOKS
I just finished the essay collection Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic. After reading that the book had won an award, and being a fan of Open Letter, I went out and bought it that day. At first I was nervous that a majority of it would be devoted to karaoke–the title esay is about a third of the book–but Ugresic makes it known early on that karaoke is just a metaphor for explaining larger cultural and political events. A longer, more thoughtful review of Karaoke Culture is to come but in the meantime, imagine if Chuck Klosterman wrote a column for The Nation and you’ll have a pretty good idea of Urgresic’s style.

LITERARY CRITICISM
As we’ve all heard by now, some of us ad nauseum, the literary community is concerned, one way or another, with niceness in their book reviews. We’ve heard it, read it, and discussed it all–however, here are two points I’d like to make. First, there were a few great articles that came out of the debate that dove deeper into the role of criticism and the critic. One article that found its way to my printer for a closer read was Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay A Critic’s Manifesto that ran on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner.

In the essay, Mendelsohn begins by telling us that he dreamt not only of becoming a writer but more specifically, a critic. He found criticism “exciting” and thought the critics he’d studied “admirable.” While still a young kid, he went further than reading their work … he studied it.

By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.

He continues, “For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics.”

The other point I’d like to make is, as Jacob Silverman, the author of the Slate article which caused this mighty uproar, mentions on the Three Percent Podcast, we have a tendency to move on from these discussions quickly, thinking that we’ve exhausted the conversation, when in reality, discussions like these should be on-going. As someone who can’t read or hear enough about the process of criticism, maybe this is a selfish request.

PODCASTS
John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine was on Radio National’s Book Plus program to discuss his essay collection, How to Read a Novelist. In the interview he graciously shared a few personal stories about interviewing authors. For anyone interested in journalism, these few minutes will save you agony later. After an incident with a writer early in his career, a mistake anyone of us could make, John came to this conclusion: “While we have access to writers and their books, and as journalists we have to them in person, there is a limit to it”.

If there’s one word that comes to mind when I think of Teju Cole, it’s “mesmerizing.” His writing envelops you; one second you’re in your kitchen reading, the next you’re walking down a London street. Recently, he told of a dinner he was invited to for the writer V.S. Naipaul, “Natives on the Boat,” for New Yorker‘s Page-Turner. This week he spoke with The Guardian about it. After the quick Q&A he reads the piece in full, which is, as it turns out, also mesmerizing.

MUSIC
For some reason I love listening to trip hop in the fall–maybe it’s the darker nights that put me in a brooding mood. This fall, just like last, I’m again amazed that I can go back to the music I listened to in the late 90s, early 2000s, and not be embarrassed. Three artists that always make an appearance are the Sneaker Pimps, DJ Shadow, and Tricky.

Modeselektor has been in heavy rotation for a few months now and neither of their albums, Monkeytown from 2011, nor the mix they put out on their label in July of this year, Modeselektions Vol. 2, are getting old. A review of the band and their music is to come but what makes Modeselektor difficult to write about succinctly, or even talk about with friends, is that they are hard to define. If you like tweaky electronic music–some electro with your dubstep–these guys are a must. Check out Berlin and Evil Twin and let me know what you think.

FILM and TV
I finally saw the movie Drive, a “neo-noir crime drama,” as Wikipedia categorizes it. The film features Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman by day and getaway car driver for hire. Key performances also from Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. Drive is one of the rare films that begs to be watched over and over. It’s dark, brutal, and beautifully done.

Not yet ready to leave the world of gritty crime dramas, I found the 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Another brutal movie, this one with a Greek tragedy-like plot. I’ve also started watching Boss, the political drama with Kelsey Grammer where he plays the corrupt mayor of Chicago. Grammer does an incredible job playing pure evil. There’s a Roman opulence to this one.

ADVENTURES IN LITERARY NIGHTLIFE
Last night I kicked off Brooklyn Book Festival Week (my unofficial title) at BookCourt with a panel discussion called “Who Gives a Sh*t about Literary Magazines?” Obviously, I do. It was a conversation between Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, John Freeman, editor of Granta, and Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, moderated by Randy Rosenthal, editor of The Coffin Factory. Both The Paris Review and Granta are in the process of launching apps, in part hoping to ease the current challenges of international distribution. All three have, to varying degree, created some sort of free, online content on their websites–all of which uphold the quality of the print magazine. The topic might seem like a well-trod one but the way these four guys are thinking about the technology available to them, the conversation went into new territory.

Written by Gabrielle

September 18, 2012 at 6:59 am

Who to Read: Daniel Mendelsohn on Classical Literature

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Last year culture critic and essayist Daniel Mendelsohn, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, participated in a talk on practice. As a trained classicist you wouldn’t expect him to critique Mad Men or praise Battlestar Galactica. But he does, and he does so from a wholly unique point of view.

Whether he’s reviewing a Greek play or a popular television show, Mendelsohn says that what makes writing an essay interesting is when he’s conflicted. While some writers keep themselves out of their criticism, Mendelsohn unabashedly injects himself into the response. “It’s not always about the thing, it’s also about you”. The friction that drives him begins with a battle inside his head; mixed feelings prove fruitful.

Most people will agree with Mendelsohn when he says it’s a great time to be a television critic, that “We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before.”

To him, The Wire, OZ, Six Feet Under, and The Sopranos are evidence. He continues, “as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.”

It’s in this realm that Mendelsohn is the thinking pop culture junkie’s dream, applying his classical training to the seemingly brainless media we tune out to at the end of a long day. Reading his criticism reassures us that there’s an education in that hour before bed.

Mendelsohn says his classical training gives him certain tools: “classicists look at everything . . . they connect the dots. . . . After all,” he continues, “Greek tragedy was popular culture in its time.”

In a recent interview with The Browser, Mendelsohn argues that classics are the ultimate source: “Our kinds of plots, concerns, genres – all of them begin with the Greeks and the Romans. So anyone who has an interest in the history of literature in general would do well to study the classics.” I’d add that anyone aspiring to write smart criticism would be wise to study them as well.

Regarding what they hold for us now, Mendelsohn says, “Good literature always illuminates human nature and human action.” Then, echoing his father, he continues, “as long as people are the same, the classics are always relevant.”

There have been a few reissues and adaptations of the classics lately. Mendelsohn offers an insightful and informed take: “the Greeks were already playing with them, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m all for adaptation – it’s part of the classical heritage.”

After you read How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection of essays on modern novels, film, and what the classics can tell us about war, here are some classics he suggests:

The Iliad by Homer
“As I get older, I increasingly think The Iliad is one of the first works to wrestle with the existential problem: If you’re going to die, what do you want the space between now and when you’re going to die look like? Does it matter? Does anyone care? On what value system do you base your actions? That’s what The Iliad is really about – a guy confronted by the possibility that the entire structure of his values is not being honoured. So why fight? And that is a question about war that never goes away, either as an individual or a nation.” Of Homer he says, “if you look carefully at Homer, everything that happens is also a function of the personality of the characters.”

Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s the one that naturally we all think of, and it’s the ultimate recasting of the classic – in a very self-conscious way.” UPDATE: As Daniel kindly mentions below, his thoughts on James Joyce’s Ulysses is can be read at Slate.

The Infinites by John Banville
“It’s an adaptation of a play called Amphitryon . . . Banville takes the plot of this ancient play – about how Zeus seduces in disguise the wife of Amphitryon, a woman called Alcmene, and begets Heracles from her, his divine child – and updates this to the present. The hero is a famous mathematician called Adam Godley (a significant name, obviously) who has come up with an equation to connect all the parallel worlds that could exist in the Einsteinian universe.”

Three plays by Euripides
“I’m a great advocate for three plays by Euripides that to my mind are never sufficiently adapted. They are what we call Euripides’s romances – the Ion, the Iphigenia in Tauris and the Helen. These plays remind you almost of the Shakespearean romances. People are left on a desert island or a strange shore, their mates are far away trying to find them and are also eventually shipwrecked, there are misrecognitions and mistaken identities, and eventually it all comes together in a happy ending.”

::[Links]::
Pre-order Daniel’s forthcoming essay collection, Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays on the Classics and Pop Culture (Aug. 2012)
Daniel Mendelsohn’s archive at The New Yorker
Daniel Mendelsohn on Mad Men at The New York Review of Books 
On Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s Iliad (New Yorker podcast)

On the Shelf: Recent Sights and Sounds

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Here are a few things that caught my eyes and ears these past few days.

Rub Out the Words: the Letters of William S Burroughs 1959-1974 ed by Bill Morgan

I’ve always found William Burroughs intriguing — after all, he did kill his common-law wife while playing a game of William Tell, or so the story goes. I read his novel Junky multiple times but could never get into Naked Lunch, the book he is best known for. Now, Ecco has published the second volume of his letters: correspondence that spans the years after the publication of Naked Lunch to the year he left London to return to New York.

Of the collection, The Telegraph writes:
“This second volume of correspondence may not quite dispel this image of Burroughs as American fiction’s resident alien, the lexical bomb-thrower in the body of a government man – but it does offer intriguing glimpses into the personality behind the mask. …

For fans of [his] way-out approach [the cut-up technique], the letters will provide a valuable glimpse into the genesis of his most impenetrable work, the trilogy that comprised The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. …

One surprising theme in these letters is Burroughs’s cosmic indifference to the swelling counterculture. Our correspondent remains unmoved as the Sixties progress, beatniks become hippies, and even the parties he attends in Hampstead start to be filled with people ‘turning on’.”

What’s the big idea?
Dostoevsky tackled free will, Tolstoy the meaning of life – but is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
by Jennie Erdal

This past weekend’s Financial Times had an incredible essay on philosophy, literature, and the blending of the two into the philosophical novel.

Jennie Erdal, the author of the essay, begins with philosophy and philosophers: “while [they] were good at asking questions and setting out arguments, their engagement with truth was often woefully abstract, and a world away from the stuff of novels”. She continues, “The analytical style [of philosophy] rigidly separated reason from imagination, precision from imprecision.”

Of novels, she writes, “The more I read at university, the more I felt that fiction was where truth was to be discovered” and that some things “can never be adequately expressed in conventional philosophical prose.” Erdal then makes a case for the hybrid form, “moral philosophy needs the novel for the fullest possible expression of its aims . . . Plato was wrong to think that literature had nothing to offer philosophy . . . It is one thing to study John Stuart Mill’s defence of utilitarianism in ethics; quite another to read the passage in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), where Raskolnikov tests utilitarianism to its limits by taking an axe and cleaving an old lady’s head in two.”

It’s a brilliant read all the way through. For anyone interested in literary theory and the grander workings of fiction, this is not to be missed.

Orbital / Wonky
It can be scary picking up a new album by a band who has been around for 25 years — especially if that band, up until recently, has been on hiatus — but that’s exactly what’s going on with electronic duo Orbital who just released Wonky, their first album since 2004.

About their music, one half of the group, Paul Hartnoll, told Wired magazine, “Ultimately, it has to move us emotionally…. We can get a great big thunderous beat … but melody is the real icing on the cake for me. If I get a really good melody, I get really excited about thinking about what’s going to come. That’s when I burst into tears, thinking, ‘That’s it!’ The hook’s got you, and you know you’re going to finish that piece.”

Explaining why they’re back together and making music, he says “When you’ve got a background and a history, and a rich idea of what you wanted to do, it was a real shame to give up … It was the live aspect that I missed.”

The article features the video for ‘New France’. Here’s the video for ‘Wonky’. Not sure how I feel about the cats.

A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Simon Pegg’s new comedy, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, looks amazing. Unfortunately, at the time of this post, no US release date has been confirmed. Science fiction and fantasy site io9 quotes the synopsis:

“Jack is a children’s author turned crime novelist whose detailed research into the lives of Victorian serial killers has turned him into a paranoid wreck, persecuted by the irrational fear of being murdered. When Jack is thrown a life-line by his long-suffering agent and a mysterious Hollywood executive takes a sudden and inexplicable interest in his script, what should be his big break rapidly turns into his big breakdown, as Jack is forced to confront his worst demons; among them his love life, his laundry and the origin of all fear.”

They also have the trailer.

Podcasts
The first week in April, on the WTF podcast, Marc Maron spoke with musician and comedian Carrie Brownstein. Carrie was in the Olympia, Washington-based indie band Sleater-Kinney and is currently in Wild Flag; however, these days, she’s best known as co-creator of Portlandia, the sketch show on IFC. On the podcast, Marc and Carrie nerd out about music — and other things. One of my favorite WTFs so far.

On the Nerdist, voiceover actors Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche taught me that voiceover actors are awesome. Rob and Maurice, which I only learned from this podcast, are the creators, and voices, of Pinky and the Brain. Their vocal skills do not end there. These two guys had Chris Hardwick awestruck. A must-listen.

What caught your eyes and ears these past few days? Comments are open.

Written by Gabrielle

April 10, 2012 at 7:03 am

Books for Writers: Second Reading by Jonathan Yardley

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Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley is a study in creative literary criticism. The book, a collection of columns that originally ran in the Washington Post between March 2003 and 2010, is a reminder to some and an introduction to many, that book reviewing needn’t read like a fifth grader’s book report or a cold, lifeless analysis; there is a lively space between these wildly divergent approaches.

The idea for the column came to Yardley after a lunch with the Post’s new Style section editor. Jonathan would go back into the books he’d read in the past and explore his thoughts a second time around. Given the nature of the theme, the short essays often include personal history, a reflection on how the work was originally received, and what might have changed over the years.

As an amateur critic, very much still studying and practicing, I have the tendency to leave my feelings out of a review, fearful of injecting any sense of the “I,” lest my thoughts not be taken seriously. As a compulsive reader, Yardley’s columns were utterly enjoyable but more importantly, they were freeing.

In his column revisiting Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, Someone Like You, he says, “Precisely how I came upon Dahl’s work I do not recall,” something, previously, I never would have thought of admitting to in a review. It never occurred to me that a professional could use that level of personal revelation.

Conversely, in his essay on Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Yardley remembers exactly when he came across the book: “I quite clearly remember when I first read it. In the winter of 1962-63, I was put out of work by the infamous printer’s strike against the New York papers—I was working then at the New York Times—and decided to try to write a magazine article about the increasing militancy of the civil rights movement and its accompanying rhetoric. I read everything I could get my hands on”.

As with his confession to a faulty memory, in the same piece about Richard Wright, Yardley says something many of us can relate to (and often remain silent about out of shame), “The trouble with a reading binge, of course, is that you take in too much. It all becomes a big blur in which individual books tend to get lost.” That murky recollection of past readings is enough reason, if one has the time, to go back to once-loved texts.

With Toni Morrisson’s 1973 novel, Sula, which Yardley was assigned that year by the Post to review, he chose to revisit the story because his memories of it were “admiring and fond but vague”. He wanted to see “how it had held up over more than three decades.”

He’s mostly positive about the books he rereads but for those he’s less than favorable towards, his swipes are amusing, and really not all that controversial. For example he said, “Rereading The Catcher in the Rye after all those years was almost literally a painful experience,” going on to say, “The combination of Salinger’s execrable prose and Caulfield’s jejune narcissism produced effects comparable to mainlining castor oil.”

With Hemingway, not only did his view of the writer’s style change but also of the writer himself: “To say my judgments changed in the ensuing four decades is an understatement. I came to regard Hemingway’s style as more self-conscious and mannered than pure, declarative and spare; I realized that in almost all of his writing, he had little of interest to say; and I came to loathe his worst traits of personality and character—meanness that often turned into cruelty; self-centeredness; bluster and braggadocio; exaggerated, showy machismo.”

Knowing his audience, and, as a self-confessed “Strunkaholic,” Yardley offers a glowing review of Strunk & White’s classic, Elements of Style. He opens with a smile-inducer: “One of the never-ending frustrations of my otherwise enjoyable half-century newspaper career has been  what newspapers call ‘style.’ Newspapers have many good qualities but ‘style’ most certainly is not among them.”

Second Reading contains a good mix of books I’ve read, which includes the three listed above; books by authors I’ve been meaning to read, such as Eudora Welty, Nora Ephron, and William Stryon; and books by those new to my ears. Yardley’s engaged examination of the works and authors makes it so you needn’t be familiar with either and after just a few essays, you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a trustworthy source, making Second Reading, if nothing else, an excellent reference book.

For aspiring literary critics, however, Second Reading is something of a self-help book. As I continued to read, I was inspired to try this personal approach in my own writing, convinced I could break away from the bland reporting I’d originally thought necessary. The column, in general, is itself a great lesson, especially those practicing by way of a personal blog and not beholden to an editor: create a theme. When writer’s or reader’s block strikes, much like a writing prompt, having a focus will get you over the hurdle.

Second Reading is motivational reading for all writers. You won’t know what to run for first, your bookshelf or your notebook.

::[Links]::
Buy Second Reading at IndieBound or find it at a local indie bookstore near you
Jonathan Yardley’s archive at the Washington Post 

Written by Gabrielle

March 20, 2012 at 7:24 am

Examining the New Weird

with 5 comments

“Literature is a product of its influences. We all riff on something, work against a certain background, mine a vein of thought or style to which somebody else showed us the way.” –K.J. Bishop

“The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything? Is it even new?” These are the questions that began a 13,000 word response from authors, editors, and science fiction aficionados in 2003. The conversation may have started elsewhere but it reached fever pitch after author M. John Harrison brought the conversation to his Third Alternative Message Board. An abridged version appears in The New Weird, part anthology, part exposition, edited by science fiction power-duo Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

When the publishing house Tachyon approached Ann and Jeff the two were skeptical. Jeff’s writing, which includes the novels City of Saints and Madmen, Finch, and Shriek, has often been labeled “New Weird,” a distinction that has made him uncomfortable. Ann, a publisher and, up until recently, the Hugo Award-winning editor of Weird Tales, dislikes the term out of concern for pigeonholing authors. After some discussion between themselves and with the publisher, Ann and Jeff began the project. Both still have reservations about the supposed category but through their research, conversations, and readings for the book, they’ve decided that there is a “core validity” to New Weird. They see a commercial life beyond the unwitting creators’ original intentions as well as new writers further developing the style.

In his introduction, Jeff marks 2003 as the year “readers and writers had become aware of a change in perception and a change in approach within the genre.” Taking elements from the New Wave of the 1960s, such as mixing genres and injecting a political point of view, and adding the “unsettling grotesquery” of 1980s horror, exemplified by the writings of Clive Barker, New Weird, with its “understanding of and rejection of Old Weird,” became its own unique genre—or did it? Therein lies the question The New Weird sets out to answer. Does the New Weird exist? If so, what is it, why is it here, and who benefits?

The New Weird is carefully structured to present a comprehensive picture. The book begins with the section “Stimuli,” a collection of stories from the New Wave and Horror movements. Those included are M. John Harrison’s “The Luck in the Head,” Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities,” Michael Moorcock’s “Crossing into Cambodia,” and Simon D. Ings’ “The Braining of Mother Lamprey,” among others.

New Weird, as a subgenre, takes strange fiction into the 21st century. Many of its writers are influenced by current political situations and offer a fresh, thought-provoking look at the issues we face today. It’s as writer and scholar Darja Malcolm-Clarke says in her essay, “One of speculative fiction’s greatest abilities is to defamiliarize our own world so that we can better see it — and the New Weird has a way of forefronting how the social terrain operates and affects everyday people.”

Throughout the book, British writer China Miéville is credited with launching the New Weird into the public’s consciousness. Miéville’s novel Perdidio Street Station, published in 2000, was the first commercially successful book of its kind; before that the subgenre only enjoyed a cult following.

China’s stands out in the crowd because of his academic background and demeanor. Even if you haven’t read his books, his interviews are a profound experience. His dissertation, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, written for his International Relations PhD from the London School of Economics was published in the UK under a historical materialism series. It’s no surprise that China’s fiction is submerged in political and social metaphor.

Konrad Walewski, editor, translator, and anthologist, says the New Weird is innovative “at the level of setting and characters,” dominated by “multicultural and multiethnic societies of humans, monsters, and all kinds of hybrid forms”. As for subject-matter, he says the New Weird “rejected many jaded fantasy tropes, including the clash of good and evil, and chose the exploration of such problems as otherness, alienation, and even from both in its physiological and existential dimension.”

In “Evidence,” the chapter of short stories from writers considered New Weird, Miéville’s “Jack” introduces readers to a prominent character type in New Weird writing: the Remade, a lowly class of citizens often comprised of criminal offenders whose bodies have been grotesquely, often painfully, modified, typically as state-sanctioned punishment. With an ending O. Henry would be proud to call his own,“Jack” shows the dubious side of law enforcement—just one imagined outcome of a destroyed society, a familiar setting in the New Weird.

In other examples of what’s possible with an oppressive government, Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” imagines eating in public as a capital offense and in Jeffrey Thomas’s “Immolation” there’s a growing tension between “birthers,” a.k.a. humans, and “cultures,” those with a human-like form created specifically for industrial work.

If you’re involved in the publishing industry or if you’re an engaged reader, the most interesting part of The New Weird comes when the fiction ends. The chapter “Symposium” offers a look inside the initial debate, includes fleshed-out essays from science fiction authors, and thoughts from European editors and publishers.

When weird fiction writer Zali Krishna asked if the term “‘Weird’ refers back to Weird Tales — a pre-generic pulp era where SF, fantasy and horror were less well defined,” science fiction veteran, and forum moderator, M. John Harrison responded, “It makes an exact illusion to Weird Tales and especially the fact that, back then, in that marvellous & uncorrupted time of the world everything could still be all mixed up together — horror, sf, fantasy — and no one told you off or said your career was over with their firm if you kept doing that.” This historical remembrance naturally leads to the question: why do we have so many subgenres and do we really need another?

The conversation provoked varied responses, some of them admittedly self-contradictory. Many who are skeptical of genre-splitting feel as science fiction critic and publisher Cheryl Morgan does: “Labels are marketing gimmicks.” Concerned for the author, editor, reviewer, and anthologist Jonathan Strahan feels “any label reduces and limits perception of a work of art, and so is often less than helpful.” But as one of those self-contradicting types he adds, “I also note my own tendency to a) label and b) use labels. It’s something I try to fight.”

Although the VanderMeers didn’t include China’s remarks, the full discussion is archived online. There you can read his response to the “gimmicks” argument: “I’m astonished by the number of claims that this label (or all labels) is no more than ‘a marketing gimmick’. Undoubtedly, if this caught on, marketers would attempt to use it – just as they do, ad nauseam, with ‘surrealist’. However, this doesn’t mean that ‘surrealist’ isn’t a useful term”.

Speaking from the perspective of a reader, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, I believe, taps into the thoughts of many science fiction fans when she says, “on one level, to me personally, it doesn’t matter whether the New Weird is ‘real’ or not — the New Weird as an idea led me to a set of texts I might not have otherwise pursued.”

Although the majority of bookstores break their fiction up into specific sections there are a few who, believing it to be a show of democracy, mix genre fiction in with their general titles. While this noble endeavor may work in smaller independent stores it can be a frustrating experience when implemented on a larger scale, say, in stores such as Barnes & Noble and Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. For those who enjoy spending a good hour in the sci-fi, fantasy section looking for new books, merging all fiction into one section turns the foraging experience, once pleasurable, into a nightmare scenario.

Author K.J. Bishop, in her essay, also makes this point—with a caveat: “There is no doubt some advantage to be had from labelling fiction under rubrics of genre, period, style, and all else that helps a reader find, on the shelves of a bookstore, something to their taste. But there are disadvantages, too, for both reader and writer, the chief of these being, I think, that a label invites a particular reading of the work and discourages other readings.”

A tone set by some of the detractors is that publishers choose labels for sinister gains. Czech editor Martin Sust, when speaking of the New Weird imprint he created, said, “For the first time we can publish very good fiction in one great book line, with the most successful titles helping the others. The result? All of the books in this line have sold well, meaning we can branch out and buy a few experimental titles as well. . . . It has also forced other Czech publishing houses to make room for books by fresh new fantasy writers”. His sentiments are echoed by other publishers who contributed to the book—categories make it easier to sell books and while this means more money for publishers it also means more money, and ultimately more book deals, for writers.

Since the online discussion eight years ago and The New Weird’s publication in 2008, “many of the writers associated with the New Weird and collected in this volume are already transforming into something else entirely,” notes Jeff VanderMeer. But as every diligent fan knows, history is important. The New Weird helps readers appreciate writers like Miéville, discover less-noted ones like Jeffrey Thomas, and calls attention to the legacy of great writers who came before them. The New Weird does not offer definitive answers, which is the point. Literature is complex.

For a genre—in the widest sense of the word—whose focus is analysing the world, it’s amazing there aren’t more critical theory books such as this one. The VanderMeers have expertly compiled a must-have for every serious reader’s bookshelf; but remember, as Jeff concludes in his introduction, “New Weird is dead. Long life the Next Weird.”

::[Links]::
The New Weird at Tachyon
Buy The New Weird at IndieBound
Archived discussion on New Weird
The New Weird: Notes and Introduction at Jeff’s site
Michael Cisco’s essay “New Weird: I Think We’re the Scene”
Interview with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer about The New Weird (opens with sound)
Interview with Ann and Jeff at the Functional Nerds
Contributor Jonathan Strahan’s science fiction podcast, “Coode Street”
Weird Tales magazine

::[Further Reading]::
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
*The New Weird features a full list of recommended readings

Written by Gabrielle

November 22, 2011 at 6:57 am

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