1 June 2011

At The Atlantic, “10 Essential Books for Thought-Provoking Summer Reading,” including The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin, eds.), in which I have an essay (quoted at the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog).

22 May 2011

I’ve been thinking about art that makes you “feel” and art that makes you “think” and the intersection/layering thereof.  Your comments please (specific examples especially welcome) on the following, from Susan Sontag‘s 1964 essay on French filmmaker Robert Bresson (a master, in Sontag’s opinion, of “reflective art”):

Some art aims directly arousing the feelings; some art appeals to the feelings through the route of intelligence.  There is art that involves, that creates empathy.  There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.

Great reflective art is not frigid.  It can exalt the spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make him weep.  But its emotional power is mediated.  The pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality.  Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser degree, postponed.  […]

In reflective art, the form of the work of art is present in an emphatic way.

The effect of the spectator’s being aware of the form is to elongate or to retard the emotions.  For, to the extent that we are conscious of form in a work of art, we become somewhat detached; our emotions do not respond in the same way as they do in real life.  Awareness of form does two things simultaneously: it gives a sensuous pleasure independent of the “content,” and it invites the use of intelligence.

17 May 2011

If I was a Tweeter, I would Tweet this – an interview(ish) with Mark McGurl (author of The Program Era) in which he responds to Elif Batuman‘s controversial critique, in The London Review of Books last fall, of both his book and The Creative Writing Program (and the contemporary fiction it generates) in general. There are endless follow-up discussions about this all around the Web, but reading at least these two if you haven’t already is, I think, worthwhile.

A snippet from McGurl’s riposte:

I think what is going on in these indictments of the mediocrity of contemporary fiction is a kind of unacknowledged mourning. What is mourned is not good new novels, of which there are still plenty—of which there may be more than ever—but the passing of a culture in which the novel was more central than it is now, when it has to compete for our attention with so many other forms of storytelling, with movies and television, and now also with that great engulfing time-suck, the internet. It may be that these new media, in sync with the advance of technology on all fronts, are better equipped (literally) to bear witness to the essential qualities of our point in history. The mistake—but mourning is so often irrational—is in blaming novelists for this state of affairs, as though there was something they could or should have done to stop The Wire from being so unbelievably good.

Here is what I’ve already said about all this.  I think I have more to say.  This “elitism” thing is bugging me, it’s a hugely loaded and, I think, abused word.  Coming soon.

16 May 2011

The opening film for the 34th Asian American International Film Festival has been announced: AMIGO, the new film by John Sayles.  Here’s the trailer:

I’m pretty excited about this; I’ve been a John Sayles fan for a long time, from the days when I first discovered auteur filmmakers and would watch all the films of a director I liked.  LONE STAR, CITY OF HOPE, PASSION FISH, THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH, MEN WITH GUNS, EIGHT MEN OUT, and  LIMBO are among my favorites.  If you don’t know Sayles’s films, perhaps think of him as the director who launched actor Chris Cooper‘s career.

Sayles also has a new novel out – A Moment in the Sun – described by Adam Langer in the SF Chronicle as a “955-page epic criticizing American interventionism abroad and racism at home during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”  Apparently it took Sayles two years to find a publisher for it.

Sayles has never been afraid to demand a lot from his readers and viewers; he is in many ways the quintessential indie artist, and a model of success on that path.

We’ve got the book in house, en shelf, surprisingly light in its ornate McSweeney’s hardcover, and I’m hoping to dig in maybe in late summer.

Come out for the AAIFF opening night in August.  Details to come.

6 May 2011

Ahhhhh, I am reading again.

It is a terrible feeling when reading – reading books, I mean – gets away from you, for whatever reason. I have read some excellent short stories this semester, and re-read many as well.  Reading for the purpose of leading a class discussion is a particular kind of reading, and a good kind, don’t get me wrong; I dig deeper than I might otherwise, and I learn a great deal from it.  But now I am reading again for influence, for life, for pleasure; wanderingly, hungrily; intellectually and emotionally; reading, as George Saunders put it, to be “undeniably changed.”

Just finished Kostolanyi’s Skylark (devoured, and want to go back and re-read large sections of it), and am just starting LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. Also read a beautiful, sad story called “The Anniversary” by the brilliant Nami Mun in the current issue of Granta.

The Complete Claudine: Claudine at School; Claudine in Paris; Claudine Married; Claudine and Annie   American Woman   The Summer Book   Golden Country: A Novel   Against Interpretation: And Other Essays   Alfred and Guinevere

Some books I will sink into over the summer: Claudine at School by Colette; American Woman by Susan Choi; The Summer Book by Tove Jansson; Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore; Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag; Dead Souls by Gogol; and Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler. (I used to keep a “To Read” section on my “The Reading List” page, here, but it got to be overwhelming, and performance mentality/failure loomed when I saw how long that list grew and how little progress I was making.) I am also making my way through Wolf Hall, via an odd but interesting combination of audio and text.

Jonathan Franzen‘s recent New Yorker essay about individualism and the origins/ evolution of the novel (and, perhaps most controversially, about David Foster Wallace‘s suicide) has me thinking about reading as “pleasure” versus reading as “work.”  The reading and writing of (English) novels en masse coincided, as Franzen notes, with the “dramatic increase in leisure”; but here I am, along with others who have chosen the writer’s vocation, thinking of both as (quite difficult) work.  Somewhere herein lie the roots of why the majority of writers will never make their living off their writing.  We live, it would seem, in a culture where work and pleasure are not “supposed” to overlap.

4 May 2011

I was looking forward to reading Maud Newton‘s profile of Emma Forrest at The Awl, for reasons I will describe in a moment.  Forrest – a journalist, screenwriter, novelist, and now memoirist – has written a memoir, Voices in my Head, about the loss of her psychiatrist to lung cancer.  Or at least I think that’s what the memoir is about.  Forrest has had a career among celebrities and, at the time of her psychiatrist’s death, was recovering from a breakup with actor Colin Farrell.  Maud Newton assures us that the book is not about Farrell, although the profile spends a lot of time on him and their relationship.

I experienced the loss of a therapist a few years ago; hence my initial interest in the profile, and in the memoir.  Dr. P was a dear, dear man who helped me more than any doctor – any professional anyone – ever has.  He woke up one morning with a headache; a few days later he was having a brain tumor removed.  I saw him just after a first round of chemo; he looked gaunt and tired (and wore a funny hat), yet was in typical good spirits and optimistic about his treatment.  He lived another 18 months.

For the last nine months or so of his life I wasn’t seeing him regularly, so I had no direct knowledge of his death until about a year later.  Who informs a former patient when a doctor dies?   No one does.  (Unless, perhaps, you’re dating Colin Farrell.)

One day I was in the neighborhood of his office and walked into the lobby of his building (I had a sinking feeling; I’d tried calling a few times, months earlier, but the voice mailbox was repeatedly full).  I asked the doorman if Dr. P still kept an office there, and he shook his head no.  I thanked him and started to walk away, but then he stopped me and said: “The doctor – he die, you know?”

The NY Times printed an obituary of Forrest’s psychiatrist, with an online guestbook where patients, former patients, friends and family could leave their remembrances.  It’s a wonderful thing that they have been able to connect; I’ve often wondered who else experienced the loss of Dr. P (how does one find out, if your doctor doesn’t make it into the NY Times?).  Many good and wounded souls who continue to mourn him, I’m sure.

All this to say that, while I don’t think this is “fair,” it’s hard to feel motivated to read Forrest’s memoir.  It’s an ungenerous reverse-prejudice, I suppose, not unlike the unsympathetic tinges I felt towards Elizabeth Gilbert‘s all-expenses-paid, soul-searching jaunt around the globe (Gilbert’s blurb prominently christens the front cover of Voices).  In my mind I know that we are all human beings, subject to the same deep despair and loss.  But the marketing of the whole thing – Forrest’s book, that is – sort of waves its big arms at you and says, “This is NOT an everywoman story.” I guess my gut longing was for someone to tell a story that I (and others) have been unable to tell (I’ve tried writing about it, unsuccessfully); and now I feel instead like someone has glamourized and commercialized it.

But, you’re saying, you haven’t even read the book.  This is true.  This is true.  Gimme some time.  In praise of Voices, Newton writes:

It’s a testament to the author’s empathy that she’s able to incorporate other patients’ eulogies into the book without robbing them of their power or giving off the slightest whiff of gimmickry […] What’s brilliant about Forrest’s book is that she’s upfront—and funny and insightful and lyrical—about her neuroses, her compulsions, her need for attention, but she’s also willing to consider everyone else’s assessments and everyone else’s pain.

I’ve written before about what an impressionable reader I am.  So maybe my resistance/repulsion has something to do with the fact that I am currently reading Dezso Kosztolanyi‘s devastating Skylark, about a tragically ugly, unmarriageable young woman.

Skylark 

1 May 2011

With the teaching year coming to a close, I am happy to unwind a bit before plunging into the summer’s work.  What better way than to plunge in to the comedic stage that is American politics (courtesy of Donald Trump).

Lest you wonder the relevance of political comedy to this blog… my seminar class recently looked at literary comedy, discussing works by George Saunders, Graham Greene, Donald Barthelme, Danielle Evans, Sergei Dovlatov, George Eliot, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth (Lorrie Moore would have been an obvious addition to this reading list, but we’d already a few stories by her previously).  How does humor work in literature?  What’s funny and who decides?  How does the author control the humor, so that the reader is laughing at the right moments, for the right reasons, absorbing the intended nuances? Where is the author relative to the joke, the character, the reader?  Timing, narrative distance, voice.  In her interview with The Paris Review, Amy Hempel talked about schooling herself in stand-up comedy as a part of her writers’ education.

Among his many gifts and talents, our fair President is also a humorist in his own right. I suppose this is one of those things where, if you are an admirer of the President, you will find this brilliant and hilarious; if not, well… you can empathize with the visibly-irritated Donald Trump (who is I’m sure perfectly happy to have the camera turned on him).  I particularly enjoyed Michelle Obama’s good-sportness (in a subtly laugh-out-loud moment, we see her on video working in her garden with school children —  “Look, a carrot!” she exclaims) and the President’s obvious ear for language as he joked about Tim HOSEnee Pawlenty’s undisclosed middle name.

Incidentally, the President way upstaged Seth Meyers; I love Seth Meyers, but this was quite painful.

For a more serious look at Donald Trump’s impact on the political moment, check out Lawrence O’Donnell’s impassioned plea to NBC to reveal Trump’s intentions for the fall. [via HuffPo]

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