Posts Tagged ‘pop culture’
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.”
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
Here are a few things I came across this week that were exceptional.
Perfect Day Publishing on Late Night Conversation
I’ve mentioned The Late Night Library’s podcast, Late Night Conversation, before but their interviews continue to be amazing, so, here we are again. This Portland-based organization is devoted to spreading the awareness of independent publishing. The show, hosted by co-founder Paul Martone, features debut authors and publishing professionals from small presses. Martone has the conversational style that makes podcasts so great. He’s thoughtful, informed, and curious.
The latest episode features Perfect Day Publishing founder Michael Heald and author Lisa Wells, whose book Yeah. No. Totally was published by the press this year. I first came to hear of Perfect Day Publishing through a previously self-published book they’d reprinted after it gained some attention. Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life is one of the best books I read in 2012.
In other podcast news, Alec Baldwin talked to Billy Joel in July and I just got around to listening to it. It was pretty great.You’ll probably enjoy it more if you’re from Long Island. A personal favorite, Teju Cole was on CBC’s Writers & Company, one of the best author interview shows out there today.
This weekend I came across an article by Blake Butler on HTMLGIANT called ‘22 Things I Learned from Submitting Writing.” At first glance I expected it to be snarky. While the site is typically earnest, there’s a level of sarcasm lurking underneath. This piece from Blake, however, was truly generous. Here are a few of my favorite points:
4. Often editors who reject you are doing you a favor. Either the piece isn’t great and needs work (thus saving you face of looking back later like whyyyyy did I publish this) or taking a strong piece and making it stronger because of force of will.
5. Some pieces are you learning. Some never get it right. Don’t publish your homework.”
13. Don’t lose sight of someone you love in the midst of this.
19. Be a person, not an email address with a social profile and an onslaught.
Also of note is writer Brad Leithauser’s essay about the different ways we read fiction–mainly two ways, like a critic and like a child. He recalls the time he and his then 15-year-old daughter had a conversation about Rachel from Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel.”
I’m eyeballs deep in noir at the moment and came across this great essay by Raymond Chandler called “The Simple Art of Murder.” I’m sure many crime fiction fans have already stumbled on this, a few possibly owning a highlighted copy in their drawer somewhere, but for the rest of us…
Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should. Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.
The Los Angeles Review of Books has quickly become the place to go for in-depth, thoughtful coverage of the arts. Their front page has a triptych that changes at least twice a week. Recently, I came across their LARBart Tumblr where the work is displayed and explained.
While the name suggests heavy coverage of books, LARB has able people writing about other topics as well. Recently, they ran an interview with Ellen Lupton, one of the curators of “Graphic Design: Now In Production,” now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Ellen runs the MFA design program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is the author of Thinking with Type.
Today, every designer is a production artist — setting type, retouching photos, and making endless updates for clients. The convergence of design and production gives us more direct control over the outcome of a project, while also loading us with an ever-growing list of skills and tasks to master. … Many designers today are using their knowledge of production techniques to become publishers, authors, editors, and instigators.
The term “graphic” has long been a point of contention in our field. … I like the word “graphic” because it connects us to the world of text, as well as to the “graphic arts” — the processes of printing and production. Typography is always about writing, and writing is a graphic phenomenon.
I usually roll my eyes at algorithms, those computer generated recommendations, but the other night while I was clicking through Netflix I noticed a British program from the 80s that was highlighted for me, The Comic Strip Presents, a sketch comedy show featuring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson of The Young Ones and Jennifer Saunders, who later went on to create and star in Absolutely Fabulous. If you’re a fan of any of the above, you should stop reading now and add it to your queue. For those more familiar with Portlandia, this is their long lost British forebear.
November is upon us and the paperback releases are looking good. This month, keep your eye out for this excellent crop of new books—mostly originals.
The Ballonist by MacDonald Harris with an introduction from Philip Pullman
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, “The Balloonist” is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.
It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: “Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work.
Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
Kafka was an attractive, slender, and elegant man–something of a dandy, who captivated his friends and knew how to charm women. He seemed to have had four important love affairs: Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora. All of them lived far away, in Berlin or Vienna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he loved them: he chose long-distance relationships so he could have the pleasure of writing to them, without the burden of having to live with them. He was engaged to all four women, and four times he avoided marriage. At the end of each love affair, he threw himself into his writing and produced some of his most famous novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.
In this charming book, author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval follows the paper trail of Kafka’s ardor. She uses his voice in her own writing, and a third of the book is pulled from Kafka’s journals. It is the perfect introduction to this giant of world literature, and captures his life and romances in a style worthy of his own.
Granta: The Best Young Brazilian Novelists edited by John Freeman
Since Granta’s inaugural list of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 – featuring Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – the Best of Young issues have been some of the magazine’s most influential and best-selling. In 2010, Granta looked beyond the English-speaking world with Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.
Now, in an issue fully translated in partnership with Granta em Português, the magazine celebrates emerging talent from Brazil, many translated into English for the first time. Authors include Cristhiano Aguiar, Vanessa Barbara, Carol Bensimon, Javier Arancibia Contreras, J.P. Cuenca, Miguel del Castillo, Laura Erber, Emilio Fraia, Julian Fuks, Daniel Galera, Luisa Geisler, Vinicius Jatoba, Michel Laub, Tatiana Salem Levy, Ricardo Lisias, Chico Mattoso, Antonio Prata, Carola Saavendra, Leandro Sarmatz, and Antonio Xerxenesky.
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a history of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timelessness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.
Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme
If you’re up $16,000 at the casino and missing dinner with the woman you love, how do you find the strength to drive away? If you give up your career and your beautiful wife and find yourself drinking vodka and fixing cars for a living, is that necessarily a step down? In Hush Hush, Steven Barthelme gives us a simultaneously twisted, heartbreaking, and hilarious account of learning to quit when you’re ahead.
The collection, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning “Claire,” exposes the surprising dignity in lying on your belly in the pouring rain, in ringing your ex-girlfriend’s doorbell at 4 A.M., in sleeping with your dead wife’s best friend. Co-author with his brother Frederick of the brilliant and devastating casino memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, Steven Barthelme seems to cast an eye at his own history and the characters he’s known. These are men and women who are down — but stirringly, not quite out. An unmissable, arresting book from one of the most seminal short story writers of the last twenty years.
The Other Side of the World by Jay Neugeboren
Charlie Eisner is a journeyman whose friend Nick convinces him to move to Singapore, where he falls in love with the vibrant and endangered world of nearby Borneo. One night, at a party in Nick’s Singapore apartment, Nick dies mysteriously, prompting Charlie to return to New England, where he discovers that Seana O’Sullivan has moved in with his father, Max, a retired professor with a beguiling and antic disposition. Seana, one of his father’s former students, is a wildly successful and provocative writer who is equally wild and provocative in life. Together, she and Charlie set out on a road trip, first to pay respects to Nick’s parents, and then on a journey where “weird things happen if you make room for them.”
From the forests of Borneo to the mean streets of Brooklyn and the haunting towns of coastal Maine, The Other Side of the World is a grand, episodic novel and yet another virtuoso performance by one of America’s most revered living writers.
The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House with an introduction from Francine Prose
The Writer’s Notebook II continues in the tradition of The Writer’s Notebook, featuring essays based on craft seminars from the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, as well as a variety of craft essays from Tin House magazine contributors and Tin House Books authors. The collection includes essays that not only examine important craft aspects such as humor, suspense, and research but that also explore creating fractured and nonrealist narratives and the role of dream in fiction. An engaging and enlightening read, The Writer’s Notebook II is both a toolkit and an inspiration for any writer.
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The follow-up to Caitlin Moran’s breakout hit, How to Be a Woman–A hilarious collection of award-winning columns, available to American readers for the first time ever.
Possibly the only drawback to the bestselling How to Be a Woman was that its author, Caitlin Moran, was limited to pretty much one subject: being a woman. Moranthology is proof that Caitlin can actually be “quite chatty” about many other things, including cultural, social, and political issues that are usually the province of learned professors or hot-shot wonks–and not of a woman who once, as an experiment, put a wasp in a jar and got it stoned. Caitlin ruminates on–and sometimes interviews–subjects as varied as caffeine, Keith Richards, Ghostbusters, Twitter, transsexuals, the welfare state, the royal wedding, Lady Gaga, and her own mortality, to name just a few. With her unique voice, Caitlin brings insight and humor to everything she writes.
Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in Shirley Jackson award-winning author Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories. From the mysterious people next door to the odd guy in the next office over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.
The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini with an introduction from Teller
Originally published in 1906, The Right Way to Do Wrong was a masterclass in subversion conducted by the world’s greatest illusionist. It collected Houdini’s findings, from interviews with criminals and police officers, on the most surefire ways to commit crime and get away with it.
This volume presents the best of those writings alongside little-known articles by Houdini on his own brand of deception: magic. Revealing the secrets of his signature tricks, including handcuff and rope escapes, and debunking the methods of his rivals, he proves himself to be just as clever and nimble a writer as he was a magician—and surprisingly free with trade secrets! All of which makes this unique selection of works both the ultimate anti-etiquette guide and proof that things are not always as they seem.
While I do have a few book reviews lined up–including one about dark fantasy short story collections I think you should read–I’ve come across so many awesome non-book things in the past week or so that I needed to put those on the backburner in order to share some other great stuff with you.
Anyone interested in publishing should get ready for this lineup. There were three great podcasts these past few weeks that go behind the scenes of the industry.
The online literary community Litopia interviewed Faber and Faber chief executive Stephen Page for their Naked Book podcast, a show devoted to “ripping the covers off print books and finding out what lies beneath.” It was a candid, informed conversation about print and digital publishing. Well worth saving after you’ve listened the first time.
On Other People, Brad Listi spoke with Steven Gillis, co-founder of the indie press Dzanc Books–who also has a new book out. Listening to Steven’s daily routine was awe-inspiring–and envy-inducing. The following week, he spoke with Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, who was once a book editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The two talk about work/life balance, literary publishing, and digital publishing. [Disclaimer: I’m the publicist working on The Paris Review book and set up the interview but it was so awesome I couldn’t help but share.]
You may have heard about Longreads, a site that finds the best of long-form stories on the Internet. Well, they now have a podcast called the Longform Podcast. Their interviews with The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and author and journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus are good places to start.
The Nerdist was on a roll with their interviews with actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hanks (interviewed separately, in case that’s not clear). I’m a huge fan of Gordon-Levitt’s not only because I think he’s talented at what he does but also because he always sounds so appreciative and gracious. This interview was no exception. Hanks as well, a huge talent and a guy who seems like he’s happy to be doing what he does, was hilarious. If you only listen for his impressions of foreign fans, it’ll be worth it. And, while we’re talking about The Nerdist, co-host Jonah Ray was on WTF with Marc Maron. It was great.
I picked up the new Kid Koala album, 12 Bit Blues, the other week in preparation of seeing him in November. I’m a longtime fan of the koala. His jazz and blues-meets-turntablism blows my mind and always look forward to what he’s up to. You should check out the official video for 8 Bit Blues on YouTube. It was excellent to hear him on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
While I wait for season 4 of Sons of Anarchy to free up on Netflix, and for Mad Men season 5 to release, I’ve been watching Grimm, the NBC show based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. It’s pretty good–creepy but not hard to watch at night, good characters, and an interesting storyline. The main character, Nick, a cop, turns out to be of the Grimm lineage and able to see the creatures that lie beneath seemingly average people. With his abilities, a unknowing partner on the force, and a reformed “Blutbad,” he solves crimes from week to week.
Also something worth watching, which is streaming on Netflix, is the Woody Allen documentary that came out in 2011. In the film, Allen remembers back to his childhood to tell how he came to filmmaking. He brings the camera crew on the tour of his old neighborhood and they interview the many people who played a part in his personal and professional life. Even if you haven’t seen all his films, this was a nice, intimate look at a great artist.
What I’ve been raving about however, is this quirky, little British television show that I came across serendipitously on Netflix, The Book Group, also streaming. An American girl, new to Scotland and looking for friends, forms a book group with a bunch of locals she’s never met. I fell in love with this show almost immediately and blew through the entire two seasons in a little over a week. If you like books, you should watch it immediately. You can thank me later.
Every Monday I look forward to Susan Moriss’s column, ‘Writers Don’t Cry’ on the website Omnivoracious. Every week Morris offers invaluable thoughts and tips on fiction writing. While I don’t write fiction myself, her column is so much fun to read I keep returning. This past week’s topic, keeping a “reading journal,” was so amazing, I printed it out, underlined choice sentences, and plan to take her advice.
As a blogger, predominantly of book reviews and essays based on the books I’ve read, finding a balance between reading and writing can be hard. “Should I read this morning or should I write?” is often a question I ask myself. Poignantly, Morris opens her column with “reading is not procrastinating,” an answer geared more toward fiction writers who don’t necessarily need to read books to work on their own stories. However, Morris–along with many other authors who often offer advice–begs to differ.
Reading, Morris says, “is an important part of maintaining and honing your skills, staying inspired, and keeping in touch with why you write.” She continues with a practical application which, honestly, sounds like a whole lot of fun:
To take the best advantage of your reading for your writing, I recommend keeping a reading journal. In it, you can keep track of what you like, play with particular paragraphs to figure out how they work, and experiment with the styles and ideas you read about to improve your own writing.
I won’t spoil the article for you, you really need to read it for yourself … and then, Mondays, set your calendar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I came across so many great podcasts lately, I just had to do another roundup.
The Nerdist Writer’s Panel wrapped up their series of live panels, taped at the ATX Television Festival.
The Books to TV Series featured David Hudgins (Friday Night Lights), Bob Levy (Alloy Entertainment: The Lying Game, The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl), Julie Plec (co-creator, The Vampire Diaries), and Michael Rauch (creator, Love Monkey) talking about the process of turning a book into a television show. It was moderated by Meg Masters of TVLine.
In Stages of TV Writing,Noah Hawley (creator, the Unusuals), Kyle Killen (creator, Awake and Lone Star), David Hudgins (Friday Night Lights; Parenthood), Hardy Janson, and Evan Miller (Hook Ups) talk about their careers.
Late Night Library, a show that focuses on the independent side of publishing, sat down with Robyn Tenenbaum and Courtenay Hameister. The two co-founders of Live Wire!, a live public radio program in Portland, talk about producing an arts & culture variety show.
They also spoke with independent press publisher, Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books, and Liz Crain, their editorial and publicity director. The three talk the business of running a small press.
The Readers, a show between two friends about books, talked about what happens after you finish a great book. They also wonder if there’s such thing as a British Novel. This week they have a casual chat about imprints.
The other week in the New Yorker, Oliver Sacks had a story about his experiments with drugs in the 60s, all of which he treated as scientific research. On the New Yorker Out Loud he talks about it.
Everyone’s favorite comedian, Louis C.K., has a great talk about movies and television with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW’s The Treatment. Over the course of the interview, C.K. calls his daughters his heroes. Then he says money spent on entertainment is sacred. Amazing.
Three Percent, hosted by two guys working largely with translated literature, talk about book reviews, sparked by some recent events in the publishing and writing community.
Ed Champion sits down with crime writer Laura Lippman, for the release of her latest book And When She Was Good. It was a great talk about the craft of writing.
For the 100th episode of the Other People podcast, host Brad Listi did not disappoint. He spoke with George Saunders, an excellent choice.
BBC Radio 4’s Open Book did a special on Scottish crime writing–or “Tartan Noir” as the specific genre is known. Host Dreda Say Mitchell spoke with an author and a publisher. It definitely made me want to run out and read some.
CBC’s Writers & Company rebroadcast an interview with British humorist Alan Bennett. If you like British humor–Stephen Fry, John Cleese, etc., and you don’t already know who Alan Bennett is, you’ll be psyched after hearing this.
Oh and … Joan Rivers was on The Nerdist. It was incredible.
As a book blogger, I’m always on the lookout for well written reviews and books on the craft of nonfiction writing. I particularly enjoy pop culture essay collections, finding them ripe for dissection and emulation. There are few critics out there whose style is more entertaining than Nick Hornby’s when he writes his book column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” for the Believer, a literary magazine known for it’s kindly reviews and quirky content.
Hornby’s column is not so much a review of books as it is a conversation about reading books. In fact, in one essay he calls it “a monthly column about reading” so I seem to have understood it correctly. More often than not he mentions no fewer than three books he’s read the previous month, with it not uncommon to have one or two unfinished at the time of writing.
In the first essay in More Baths Less Talking, the latest collection of these columns spanning two and a half years (May 2010 to Nov/Dec 2011), Hornby admits, “I am less than a third of the way through Austerity Britain, but I have read enough to know that this is a major work of social history: readable, brilliantly researched, informative, and gripping.” For anyone who write about books there are no words to express the sense of freedom that washes over you after a sentence like that.
Each column begins with a list of books bought that month and, immediately following, a list of books read. As many readers will understand, books from the former don’t always make it into the latter. Getting in the way are “Other books, other moods, other obligations, other appetites, other reading journeys,” he says. At first it was tempting to flip ahead, to read the tops of each column to see what I could look forward to–I blame this on some primal attraction to lists that we humans have–but then I realized I was ruining the fun, denying myself the anticipation of an unspoken narrative unfolding sequentially.
After a few columns I began to give myself a moment to process which books I’d hoped he’d read before jumping to see what I could expect to see discussed. It quickly became an interactive experience–full of hope, excitement, and disappointment.
As Hornby promises in the introduction, he reads read widely and, I would add, unpredictably. For fellow bookshelf adventurers, the serendipitous nature of Hornby’s literary promiscuity is easily recognizable. The current month’s crop of books read lead to books bought in the next. A subject or brief mention inevitably brings about new curiosities, however tangential, and inspires subsequent shopping trips.
Throughout his columns, Hornby is aware of his audience, and sometimes addresses them directly. To go back to Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 by David Kynaston, a book you’ll remember from above that he hadn’t finished at the time of the writing the column, he mentions that it will be “of no interest whatsoever to the readership of this magazine.” That may be true but he also knows his readers well enough–you get the sense they are closely allied with his own tastes–that he plucks out some fascinating details perfectly suited to Believer subscribers: “Two of the most distinctive looks in rock and roll were provided by the NHS, by the way, John Lennon’s specs of choice were the 422 Panto Round Oval; meanwhile, Elvis Costello favored the 524 Contour.”
While I admit to buying a few books mentioned (Peter Pan being one of them oddly enough), “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” is not about recommendations per se, instead it’s about observing and, if you allow yourself, sharing in a bibliophile’s journey. Hornby’s process makes you think about your own. You’ll soon analyze why you jump from one book to another and consider both the calculation and randomness at play in your own reading choices. For Hornby, sometimes he needs to read for work, other times he follows through on a suggestion, or, as was the case in this particular collections, sometimes a book is a gift. These varied reasons lead to humorous, and sometimes enlightening, commentary, bound to echo your own experiences:
Surely we all occasionally buy books because of a daydream we’re having–a little fantasy about the people we might turn into one day, when our lives are different, quieter, more introspective, and when all the urgent reading, whatever that might be, has been done. We never arrive at that point, needless to say, but Fishing in Utopia–quirky, obviously smart, quiet, and contemplative–is exactly the sort of thing I was going to pick up when I became someone else.
More Baths Less Talking will make you want to keep lists, it will make you look at books differently, and most importantly, it will make you want to approach reviewing as Hornby does–conversationally, with clever anecdotes, and a personal touch rarely seen in traditional criticism. Buy it, study it, read, write.
For all my fellow podcast junkies, or those who don’t know where to start, I highly recommend these shows that recently graced my ears. In no particular order, other than my memory:
Other People podcast with Brad Listi: Karl Taro Greenfeld
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of, most recently, Triburbia, a debut novel that follows his career in journalism and his previous memoir about his autistic brother. In this interview with Brad Listi, Greenfeld talks about his career in magazines, the trouble with memory and how it translates on the page, and levels of fabrication in works of nonfiction. After you’ve listened, you can read his Q&A with the Daily Beast.
Girl on Guy with Aisha Tyler: RuPaul’s drag race, drag u, supermodel of the world
Aisha Tyler’s near-2-hour interview podcast is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. Not only is she funny in this adorably nerdy way, she knows how to have a conversation. In a recent episode Tyler sat down with the legendary RuPaul, best known as the drag queen made famous by the 1993 song “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.
In the interview Ru talks about his beginnings in California, moving to Atlanta, coming to New York City and making a name for himself in the club scene, first dressing in “punk drag” (think David Bowie), then “black hooker drag,” and finally moving on to the upscale diva he is today.
Nerdist Writer’s Panel: TV Fantasy Goes Mainstream
Live from the ATX Television Festival, Nerdist Writer’s Panel host, Ben Blacker, moderates a panel discussion with Jeff Davis (creator, Teen Wolf and Criminal Minds); Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time; Husbands; BSG; Buffy); Richard Hatem (creator, Miracles; Grimm); Jose Molina (Firefly; Terra Nova; Vampire Diaries); Ben Edlund (creator, The Tick; Firefly; Supernatural).
A show geared towards those looking to get into the television industry on the creative side, although highly enjoyable for all who love the inner workings of the entertainment industry, this all-star lineup discusses how they’ve pitched shows, mistakes they’ve made, and the climate for fantasy in television today.
Bookrageous: Stream of Consciousness Edition
For all of you unfamiliar with Bookrageous, this is one of the best book podcasts out there. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it simply because I think everyone should listen to it. Twice a month friends Jenn, a bookseller in Brooklyn, Rebecca, a book blogger in Virginia, and Josh, a blogger and bookseller in Maine, get together by Skype and talk about books. They start with what they’re reading—because all three have access to advance copies from the publisher, every so often a title to yet available sneaks in, which is good for other bloggers or readers who like to know about books early—and next they move on a topic for discussion.
Topics in the recent past have included essay collections, funny books, and the books they’d bring with them to a desert island.
For their most recent episode they came up with topics on the fly and it was just as enjoyable as their planned shows. Listen to what they have to say about parody books, books they haven’t read yet but wish they had, and “high fantasy” recommendations to the group from science fiction and fantasy expert Jenn.
Book Based Banter: Book Groups, Top Summer Reads, and Are You Literary Enough?
Another excellent book podcast. In this episode Gavin and Simon discuss book groups. They mention one in particular that instead of picking a specific book they choose a topic and everyone in the group reads a book within that theme. For example, Paris or a circus. I thought that was a great idea. They also ask themselves, and their listeners, what it means to be “literary”. What is a literary book? If you like to think about books, definitely listen to this one.
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour: On Fall TV And Whether Criticism Is Too Nice
The Pop Culture Happy Hour is always fantastic but this week they discuss the recent article that ran in Slate about Twitter ruining literary criticism. This roundtable of three pop culture critics have some interesting things to say on the topic, but first Linda Holmes talks about upcoming television shows and after they all rave about “what’s making [them] happy this week”. Great show, you should subscribe now so you don’t miss an episode.
SF Signal: Steampunk Roundtable
If you like science fiction, and steampunk in particular, you won’t want to miss this round table discussion with authors, reviewers, and editors Cherie Priest, Jay Lake, Gail Carriger, Paul Di Fillipo, Phillipa Ballantine and Tee Morris. Listen to them hash out a definition, talk about the history of the movement, and discuss books within the genre.
Bookworm: Sheila Heti
Interview Editor for The Believer magazine, novelist, and Canadian Sheila Heti sat down in Los Angeles with Michael Silverblatt to discuss her latest novel, How Should a Person Be?. What transpires is a great conversation about writing fiction from real life.
Sound Opinions: Jack White
Even if you’ve never heard one chord of Jack White’s music from his now defunct band The White Stripes, you will still want to listen to this incredible interview with the talented and bright musician. Throughout this oral history of White’s life getting into and being in the business are clips of his songs. Heading up one of the best shows about music on the air, Sound Opinions’ hosts Jim and Greg are perfect for getting White to open up about the things that matter—music, music, and music. Check out this gossip-free interview with an incredible musician.
Aspiring pop culture critics today have an abundance of material to study when determining how to approach a story in a personal yet crafted style. As noted in a recent essay in Slate, there’s a rise in “criticism as memoir,” an approach where reporters inject their memories, thoughts, and actions into the piece they are writing.
In the tradition of New Journalism, pioneered by Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion in the 60s and defined by Wikipedia as “an artistic, creative, literary reporting form with three basic traits: dramatic literary techniques; intensive reporting; and reporting of generally acknowledged subjectivity,” this new crop of writers — Jonathan Lethem, Chuck Klosterman, Geoff Dyer, and, the subject of this review, Tom Bissell — are carrying on the tradition of personalized reportage.
Bissell’s new essay collection, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, which takes works from the Believer, the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and the Virginia Quarterly Review–among other publications–is an excellent resource for writers looking to profile both the lauded and the obscure. Meanwhile, for pop culture enthusiasts it’s an entertaining look inside America’s quirky landscape.
Magic Hours opens with “Unflowered Aloes,” an essay that ran in the April/May 2010 issue of the Boston Review, and that questions of “literary destiny: the faith that great literature will survive and achieve recognition commensurate to its value.” A once-publishing insider, an editor at W.W. Norton, Bissell, after five months with the company, was asked to join the publisher’s paperback committee. He’d just read an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine where he’d mentioned Paula Fox’s then out-of-print book Desperate Characters. After fruitless searching, Bissell wrote to Franzen asking where he could find a copy. Franzen, in turn, put Bissell in touch with Fox who sent him one of hers. Bissell brought the book to the attention of his colleagues and wondered if it was worth republishing. To his surprise the publisher didn’t need much convincing and even went so far as to sign up her other out-of-print novels.
From this experience, Bissell concludes that rescuing books from the dustbin of history is serendipitous in nature:
I could not stop reflecting upon how arbitrary–how unliterary–the whole business was. Desperate Characters’ republication, despite the book’s greatness, seemed merely the yield of an inert aggregated chance. I felt something akin to what I imagine haunts the recipient of a Hail Mary touchdown pass. Not only was the ball not meant for him, it was not meant for anyone. The joy of victory is cut with a terrifying void. Outcome is particulate; modulating the tiniest variable can spell ruin. In football, we accept this. But for writers, editors, and readers who view literature itself with quasi-religious reverence, this is intolerable.
At first I wanted to argue with Bissell — and in my mind I did. After all, it was because of his passion and curiosity for literature that led him to Franzen’s essay, not some random stumbling. Not to mention it was Franzen’s passion and curiosity for literature that not only led him to Fox’s work but inspired him to write about it. As someone who works in publishing I would like to believe that I am surrounded by thousands of people who are just as passionate as myself, Bissell, and Franzen when it comes to the literary arts — keeping a careful, almost obsessive, watch on the culture at large. While it may be that obscure literature has an army of foot soldiers on its side, Bissell ultimately makes a convincing argument.
He goes on to name books torched in kitchen ovens when kindling wasn’t at hand, political movements that burned texts in public squares, and books now considered classics–unquestionably so–that were brought out of obscurity after the authors were long dead: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
What, then, do we have to thank for the survival of American literature’s three greatest figures? Remaindered copies bought from book peddlers. A man, sitting at his desk, an oxidized copy of a forgotten novel beside him, cobbling together an essay with no idea of what it would accomplish. The lovely devotion of solitary women and men. Essays published at the right time, in the right journals or books, noticed by the right people. Clearly, these are not the props of fate. They are, rather, the stagecraft of chance.
Like I said, convincing. Also convincing is Bissell’s essay, “Writing About Writing About Writing,” in which he skewers the how-to writing book industry (with humor and poignancy). “. . . most people who frequent the how-to-write section will never become writers,” he says, claiming that the books are “mostly useless.” Before you can argue, huffing and puffing that x, y, or z book has changed your life (believe me, it came to my mind as well), Bissell, once again, stops you cold.
Look around the how-to section. To your left: books on how to garden. To your right: computer programming. Down the way a bit more: How to Play Five-String Banjo. Most of the people who buy these books will not become professional gardeners or computer programmers or banjoists either. … Dreams, after all, are many, often mundane, and their private pursuit is the luxury of every dreamer.
Bissell continues, “Can writing be taught?” Answering his own question he says, “All human activity is taught,” but adds this caveat: “Writing can be taught, then, yes–but only to those who are teachable.”
Moving away from book publishing and writing, Magic Hours includes the profiles of two filmmakers who couldn’t be more different. In December of 2006, for Harper’s Magazine, Bissell wrote a piece about Werner Herzog called “The Secret Mainstream.” Although Herzog remains an active filmmaker to this day, having put out films since the feature’s publication, the article remains relevant and still stands as a guide to understanding the man behind the camera.
Setting the tone for those who might not be familiar with all of Herzog’s work, Bissell writes that although the films are “heterogeneous in technique, genre, and breadth [they] scarcely seem the work of one man.” In 2010 Herzog explored France’s Chauvet Cave, documenting the oldest human-paintings, and in his 2011 documentary, “Into the Abyss,” about a triple murder in Texas, he interviews the convicted killers, their relatives, the victims’ families, and law-enforcement officials. Although Herzog is a documentarian of heavy subjects, Bissell is quick to point out that he is “an artist, not a journalist.”
In a style that makes him appealing to young writers, Bissell divulges part of the interview that could have been left out if he were eager to protect his ego. Instead, he offers a cautionary tale: “I hoped–in retrospect, stupidly–to impress Herzog by pointing out a continuity error I had noticed in one of his films.” We’re told that this briefly derails the conversation as Herzog questions the inconsistency. This humbling confession by a respectable feels like a favor to future feature writers.
Two essays later, in “Cinema Crudite,” Bissell tackles the obscure filmmaker Tommy Wiseau whose film “The Room,” has reached cult status, he has seen more than twenty times. You’d think Bissell’s choice to spend this many hours with one movie would mean it was a masterpiece yet he goes on to say that “‘Bad’ and ‘good’ are incapable of capturing” how he feels about it. This mixture of high and lo-brow, Herzog and Wiseau, is testament to how deep Bissell will dig into his own experiences to find material for a story. Everything has potential to become an article.
Praising Bissell’s essays are easy, among them the profile of Chuck Lorre, creator of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Three and a Half Men,” and one on Jennifer Hale, the voiceover actress behind Commander Shepard of the wildly popular video game Mass Effect, but the joy of reading Magic Hours is discovering the eclectic subject matter on one’s own. Bissell’s style is refreshing and inspiring, making Magic Hours a handbook for every pop culture explorer who travels with pen and paper.
Buy Magic Hours at IndieBound or your local bookstore
Interview with Bissell at BookForum
Interview at Salon
Interview at The Rumpus
Poets & Writers profile
Slate article on “criticism as memoir”
“Unflowered Aloes” in the Boston Review
Tom’s playlist for his short story collection, “God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories”
Last week at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore based in the heart of SoHo, Austin Kleon, artist and, most recently, the author of Steal Like an Artist, brought together three fascinating minds on the internet today. Joining him in conversation about creativity and curation were Maria Popova of the website Brainpickings, Maris Kreizman of the mashup Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210, and cultural critic Maud Newton.
One of Austin’s ideas that I find most interesting is “creative lineage,” those who influence your work, whose fingerprints can be seen in your creations. For Maud Newton, Muriel Spark is woefully underrated; Maris raved about fiction writer Lorrie Moore and recommended Self Help and Anagrams; Maria named Susan Sontag along with Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince; Austin, a fan of Midwesterners who include pictures with their writings, named Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry.
Here is a profile I wrote and a Q&A I conducted with Austin early in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this site.
Below are links to all the various places you can find Austin and the panel participants on the internet, along with more recommendations mentioned throughout the discussion.
“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to” –Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.
But as he said on the phone one Saturday morning before embarking on a major US tour to support his latest book, Steal Like an Artist — the title a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso — “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.
Far from disappointed by his findings, Austin developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book. “All creative work builds on what came before,” he continued. Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mashup style as fraudulent.
“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”
Although his “family tree” is always changing, Austin named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Austin he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Austin’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.
Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Austin says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.
The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessible, something that was important to Austin. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos, there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Austin filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.
Unlike many big thought books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.
Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.
Here are a few bonus questions I’d asked Austin after our phone call. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.
You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.
Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.
Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?
Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again.
As much as we like being productive, We also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up.
How do you procrastinate productively?
I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.
You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?
The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into get into the zone, too.
You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?
Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for.
The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, if you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.
I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way?
I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. it’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.
Maria Popova: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Maris Kreizman: Tumblr, Twitter
Maud Newton: Website, Twitter, Tumblr, The Chimerist (A Tumblr about iPad reading, co-run with Laura Miller of Salon)
Perchance to Dream: an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
Who is Mark Twain?: an animated conversation with John Lithgow at the New York Public Library
Artist Marc Johns on Pinterest
Maud Newton outlines her day at the Paris Review: Part I, Part II
Maria uses Evernote
Austin likes the show Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s novels
Lapham’s Quarterly is a journal of big ideas. It takes its lead from Cicero’s observation that “to know our history is to know ourselves” and, with writings from the past, proves “that valuable observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete”.
Each issue explores a single theme using archival material, newly commissioned essays, and “history’s underutilized scrapbooks: letters, diaries, speeches, navigational charts, menus, photographs, bills of lading, writs of execution.” When put together, Lapham’s is as elegant as it is meaty.
Lewis Lapham, former Editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of numerous left-leaning political books, launched the journal in 2008, bringing his political sensibilities with him. Although political criticism is included in each issue, one of the quarterly’s greatest strengths is its ability to explore society without becoming dogmatic.
The most recent issue, Spring 2012’s “Means of Communication,” while it features pieces dating back to nearly 3000 B.C. up until the modern day, there is a striking overlapping of preoccupations in many of the poems and essays.
Looking at historical correspondence we see that the 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on hand-wringing over the disintegration of language. In a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Noah Webster the former praises the latter’s 1789 Dissertations on the English Language: “It is an excellent work and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing … I cannot but applaud your zeal for preserving the purity of our language, both in its expressions and pronunciation, and in correcting the popular errors several of our states are continually falling into with respect to both.”
A poem composed in 2800 BC predicts a singular language, an idea that feels echoed in H.G. Wells’s premonition of a singular encyclopedia. In his 1936 essay about a “Permanent World Encyclopedia,” a phrase that calls Wikipedia to mind, Wells says,“the idea of an encyclopedia may undergo very considerable extension and elaboration in the near future. … our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horse phase of development”.
One can then find the thread to language columnist, linguist, and lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s essay ‘Word for Word,’ where he explains Roget’s intentions when first creating the thesaurus: to “create order out of linguistic chaos”. After naming a few thesaurus naysayers, he continues, “Roget intended for his readers to immerse themselves in the orderly classification system of the thesaurus so that they might better understand the full possibilities for human expression. As Roget first conceived it, the book did not even have an alphabetical index—he included it later as an afterthought. His goal, then, was not to provide a simple method of replacing synonym A with synonym B but instead to encourage a fuller understanding of the world of ideas and the language representing it.” If you continue on, Zimmer ultimately asks the question, “what does it [Roget’s Thesaurus] have to offer the modern reader?”
The pieces range in length anywhere from a quote …
“The only authors whom I acknowledge as American are the journalists. They indeed are not great writers, but they speak the language of their countrymen, and make themselves heard by them.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” –Ursula K. LeGuin
… to a sidebar-sized excerpt; to a three page essay, perfect for weekend mornings in the coffee shop.
If you only thumb through Lapham’s Quarterly you get the sense that everyone working there sifts through an incredible amount of information each day. Even the short contributor bios contain obscure facts; before reading Plutarch’s “Tone of Voice,” I never knew his “paired biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans . . . [became] a source for several of William Shakespeare’s plays.”
Near the back of the book there’s a section called “Miscellany”. It has the feel of an outtake reel, a place born out of finding a mind-blowing fact and not having a place to put it. I know my life is better knowing this: “Before the entire palette of modern mathematical notation existed, Johannes Kepler relied on musical notation to describe the planets’ rotation around the sun in his Harmonies of the World, published in 1619.” To leave it out would have been criminal.
With contributions from Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, Oliver Sacks, John Cheever, and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, I’m afraid that if I gush as much as I’d like this post will be longer than the issue itself. Lapham’s Quarterly, whether tackling celebrity, food, or fantasy, delivers a quality experience every time.
Listen to this issue’s podcast, an interview with Simon Winchester, whose essay “Native Tongues” was in “Means of Communication,” and Dictionary of American Regional English chief editor Joan Hall. Then, I highly suggest you subscribe to Lapham’s Quarterly.
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.
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.
Recently, amidst a slew of publicity for Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, a book by Christopher Bram, The Rumpus ran an essay about bisexuality called ‘Notes from a Unicorn’ by Seth Fischer. While the two events were purely coincidental, they formed a mini-moment in my mind. We live in a society that now celebrates the contributions of gay and lesbian writers but what about the people who live between the two?
Fischer, who once had political aspirations but has since moved on to teach and pursue a literary career, attempts to express the gray-scale in which his sexual identity sits. Although the motives for his silence in his previous profession raises questions about ongoing discrimination and cultural perceptions, what interested me was his inner conflict.
The title of the essay comes from a woman’s comment to him on an online dating site: “Finding a truly bi man is like finding a unicorn.” Her meaning? They don’t exist. This is a common belief when it comes to bisexuality, the person is either highly sexual and therefore undiscerning (or slutty, if you prefer) or they are going through “a phase” and will one day make a choice. Though many people on the inside of the issue talk about “fluidity,” few people on the outside rarely believe them.
The first time Seth became aware of his own shifting preference he was in his early teens. A classmate’s gay uncle had just died of AIDS and in the school courtyard, as so often happens, the conversation was flip. “He was totally a fag,” Seth remembers the nephew saying. He went home that afternoon, ignored his hidden pile of girlie magazines, and came to the conclusion, “Fags like boys, so I’m a fag.”
The unsettling nature of this ambiguity haunted him for years, and only recently does it seem as if he’s come to terms with it. A year after the playground incident, while in the locker room, a teammate of his whom he had a crush on called him out for staring. At that moment he decided he would “grow the part of [himself] that liked women and kill the part that liked men.”
But it didn’t hold. Years later, after leaving politics, after acknowledging his continuing crushes on men, he thought, “Why don’t I just call myself gay?” As many can imagine, that wasn’t the answer either.
Seth’s years of torment made me wonder, what if there was celebration of bisexuals in the arts just as there is for their gay cousins? Maybe unicorns wouldn’t seem so mythical after all.
Here are just a few books by known bisexual writers. The comments are open. If you know of any other writers or of any books that engage the subject, please list them below.
The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott
It only seems appropriate to kick this off with a book by The Rumpus founder.
In this groundbreaking memoir, Stephen Elliott pursues parallel investigations: a gripping account of a notorious San Francisco murder trial, and an electric exploration of the self. Destined to be a classic, The Adderall Diaries was described by The Washington Post as “a serious literary work designed to make you see the world as you’ve never quite seen it before.” [via IndieBound]
She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir
Set in Paris on the eve of World War II and sizzling with love, anger, and revenge, She Came to Stay explores the changes wrought in the soul of a woman and a city soon to fall. Although Francoise considers her relationship with Pierre an open one, she falls prey to jealousy when the gamine Xaviere catches his attention. The moody young woman from the countryside pries her way between Francoise and Pierre, playing up to each one and deviously pulling them apart, until the only way out of the triangle is destruction. [via IndieBound]
The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith
In a cruel twist of irony, Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) is being recognized only after her death for her inestimable genius in her native land. With the savage humor of Waugh and the macabre sensibility of Poe, she brought a distinctly contemporary acuteness to her prolific body of noir fiction. Including over 60 short stories written throughout her career, collected together for the first time, The Selected Stories reveals the stunning versatility and terrifying power of Highsmith’s work.These stories highlight the remarkable range of Highsmith’s powers her unique ability to quickly, almost imperceptibly, draw out the mystery and strangeness of her subject, which appears achingly ordinary to our naked eye. [via IndieBound]
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence. [via IndieBound]
Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O’Faolain
Nuala O’Faolain attracted a huge amount of critical praise and a wide audience with the literary debut of Are You Somebody? Her midlife exploration of life’s love, pain, loneliness, and self- discovery won her fans worldwide who write and tell her how her story has changed their lives. There are thousands who have yet to discover this extraordinary memoir of an Irish woman who has stepped away from the traditional roles to define herself and find contentment. [via IndieBound]
Women Photographs by Annie Leibowitz, with an essay by Susan Sontag
The photographs by Annie Leibovitz in Women, taken especially for the book, encompass a broad spectrum of subjects: a rap artist, an astronaut, two Supreme Court justices, farmers, coal miners, movie stars, showgirls, rodeo riders, socialites, reporters, dancers, a maid, a general, a surgeon, the First Lady of the United States, the secretary of state, a senator, rock stars, prostitutes, teachers, singers, athletes, poets, writers, painters, musicians, theater directors, political activists, performance artists, and businesswomen. “Each of these pictures must stand on its own,” Susan Sontag writes in the essay that accompanies the portraits. “But the ensemble says, So this what women are now — as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this.” [via IndieBound]
In my neighborhood, coffee shops are overrun by people on laptops. Baristas put signs on tables pleading for courtesy, the places that have zero tolerance rules feel extreme, and the New York Times reports on us under the headline “Destination: Laptopistan”. For the freelancers, the appeal is free WiFi. For me, it’s the promise of a sanctuary from online life.
While meditating on this coffee shop life of mine, one free from Twitter “interactions,” time-sucking Internet memes, and the endless flow of information, I came across a quote from Lynda Barry, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” A tidy aphorism with great timing.
When I was in college I had a zine. I created it mainly by hand. All I had was a word processor — the electric typewriter kind — scissors, and glue. It felt good to sit on my floor, listen to music, and create something physical. It’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve done anything like that. Now, with websites and blogs, there’s no reason to go through the hassle. Believe me, there’s a lot to be thankful for but we also lose something in this neat way of publishing.
In his book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, artist Austin Kleon, in the chapter ‘Step Away from the Screen,’ where the Lynda Barry quote can be found, explores the work habits of illustrator and cartoonist Tom Gauld: once the computer is involved “things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.”
Anyone who’s sat down to a blank page, pen in hand, knows there’s a certain amount of freedom in it. When I stare at a clean, unlined sheet of paper I wonder what will happen. How will my thoughts manifest? In words? Pictures? Both? When I edit on paper, or when I work out an idea in longhand, all sorts of things creep in that are impossible to replicate onscreen — grammatical cues that only I understand, words circled and heavily retraced either for emphasis or while daydreaming, and blatant disregard for margins and linear composition.
It’s easy to overlook the limitations humans face when drawing a straight line. Now that much of our work, often from start to finish, is done on computer, where perfection is possible, we demand exactness. “The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us,” Austin says. “We start editing ideas before we have them.” While I don’t have the scientific background to support it, I’m the type of person who likes to think there’s some neurological significance to these dueling processes. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only that both need our attention.
My weekend mornings are spent on the computer, alternating between writing and allowing whatever shiny, virtual object of the moment to pull me away. After the third hour of disjointed creative focus I pack up my books and head out the door. It would be easy to stay inside that sterile world, the hours dissolving into the ether with each distraction, but as online has become our default location, it’s more important than ever to consciously engage with something tangible. Austin suggestions two desks, one analog and one digital, but for those of us with limited space and deficient willpower, a coffee shop offers a unique space away from the online world. If it weren’t for coffee shops, I’d be just another casualty of the delete key. Austin’s book is a great reminder as to why we should never let that happen.