27 November 2012

Wow.

The past couple of weeks has been quite the whirlwind.  The launch of Bloom  has been wonderful—lots of enthusiasm and support, not to mention some choice press from the New Yorker, the LA Times, Flavorwire, and The Atlantic (coming soon: a bloggy thing on Bloom at the HuffPo).  Today I got a mini-orientation to the wonders of Twitter; which I sort of get, in theory, but only superficially at this point.  At any rate, Bloom  is at this point something between a magazine and a community, and it’s that community part that needs to engage at both Facebook and Twitter; and if you know me/have been reading my blog, you know that I’m, uh, not the best person to make that happen.  But we’ll figure it out.

All this to say that with editorial plates spinning, a novel in-progress, teaching, continuing to write for The Millions, and basic life-care; writing here with any regularity is The Thing That Has to Go.  I’ll be signing off for a little while; but I’ll  be back.  In some form or another.  Things have a way of continuing, even as they cease…

Peace out.

(p.s. I’ll keep up my Reading List page, mostly for my own visual record.)

12 September 2012

It’s hard to know if critics of Naomi Wolf‘s Vagina: A New Biography, are writing/speaking with a straight face.  So much of what I’ve read/heard on the subject has made me want to giggle. From Zoe Heller‘s review in the NY Review of Books:

To be sure, not every iteration of vagina pride represents an unambiguous advancement for the feminist cause.

The veneration of vaginas does not equal the veneration of women.

In order to achieve high orgasm [Wolf argues], women need to feel safe and protected. (Ideally, they will feel “uniquely valued” and “cherished.”) They need atmosphere (candlelight, attractive furnishings, dreamy gazes) and “unique preparatory tributes or gestures” (flowers, drawn baths). It also helps a lot, apparently, if their male partners address them as “Goddess.”

“Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.” [...] Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of “literally” and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too.

In their discussion on the New Yorker podcast, Judith Thurman and Ariel Levy discuss the book, and Levy’s review of it — repeating the expression “a happy vagina” upwards of 20 times.

I would like to take issue with the idea that we should all have a happy vagina [...] It’s nice to have a happy vagina, I would hope everybody could have a happy vagina, but there are many times in a woman’s life where hey, she doesn’t have a happy vagina. And if you make her think that this is the goal, that she should be devoting her energies instead of to getting her PhD, or getting a better job or taking care of whatever it is… she needs to have a happy vagina.  She may not be able to have a happy vagina.  There are all kinds of people who are not in line immediately for a happy vagina.  (Thurman)

If [Fifty Shades of Grey] were not so obviously written by an English person, you would swear it was written by Naomi Wolf. (Levy)

Laugh, or cry?

I recommend both the Heller piece and the podcast — sharp, and highly entertaining.

4 September 2012

Steven Gillis, publisher of Dzanc Books, has a new collection of stories out, The Law of Strings.  He talks about the book, and the force that is independent literary publishing, in a great interview at Fiction Writers Review.

As for my role then at Dzanc as editor/publisher, and my identity as a writer, I not only don’t see a problem, I think it’s a huge advantage. Think about it. Who would you rather have review your submission: another writer who understands the craft and is interested solely in acquiring the greatest writing, or some pencil-pushing New York “publisher” who knows nothing about the intimacies of writing and whose sole focus is on the market and what book will sell?

I generalize, of course. I shouldn’t insult pencil-pushers. New York publishing has become a joke, an oxymoron. The only real publishing takes places in the indie publishing arena. I swear, and you ask any literary fiction reader and writer, the books you see reviewed and nominated for end-of-the-year awards from the big houses pale beside the works that the indie publishers are bringing to market. It’s not even close. The world has fallen off its axis. It used to be great writing was revered and actually read and discussed. Now shit sells, and the majority of the audience doesn’t even know the difference.

The big houses push their crap to make money. That’s their only interest. And the irony is, they are so bad at choosing the books they market, you might as well have a sixth-grader making the decisions. Again, no insult meant to sixth-graders. I will compare Dzanc’s list of books to any house in the world. Our concern is solely about the writing. And the author. That is all. We don’t care about paying for fancy lunches and dinners and houses in the Hamptons. We aren’t in bed with agents. We are literary fiction publishers. That is why Dan Wickett (the best literary mind and greatest partner I could have) and I founded Dzanc books seven years ago. Because we knew for a fact there were great writers out there whose work deserved and needed to be published. That is the bottom line. That is all there is. Okay, that’s my soapbox pitch. Getting down now. But damn, do I think writers should be involved in publishing? Doesn’t the question answer itself?

As a fellow writer/editor, I say, Amen to all that.  And three cheers for indies — keep doing what you’re doing. Please.

14 August 2012

At The Millions today, my Q&A with James Salter, on the occasion of the release of A Sport and Pastime and Solo Faces in e-book format, by Open Road Media.  I re-read Solo Faces last month and admired it even more: that signature omniscient narration is not only unusual, but simply gorgeous in its confidence, its simplicity.

If you missed my profile of JS in Tin House last winter, you might enjoy this Q&A, the intro to which rehashes a little of how I first came in contact with Salter, back in 2010.  It’s been a great privilege to interact with him.  At 87, he’s having an inspiringly productive year, filled with the recognition and acclaim he deserves.

2 January 2012

In contrast to a barrage of “man of the year” talk surrounding the late Steve Jobs, Sue Halpern offers a counter-view at the New York Review of Books — of a “repellent man” who gave the world not “something of enduring beauty” but rather “products.”  Unlike Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson, who put Jobs forth as a “genius” (with attending personality issues), and Jobs who considered himself  a great artist-figure, Halpern suggests that Jobs was mainly in the business of “manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s” — no more, no less.

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man [...] derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.

Ouch.

This question of the bad behavior of artists is one I am always interested in.  While I’m not sure I’d necessarily take such a hard line as Halpern’s, there is something — here at the start of the new year — sort of cleansing about her voice in the sea of Jobs-mania.

18 November 2011

Something completely insane seems to be happening.  Last week, Sam Allingham wrote an analysis at The Millions of Jonathan Lethem‘s takedown of James Wood‘s review of his own novel The Fortress of Solitude (from eight years ago).  The Lethem essay was recently published at the LA Review of Books.

But that’s not quite the insane part (depending I guess on how you feel about Lethem/The Fortress of Solitude).  The comments section of Sam Allingham’s post blew up and started to get rather heated.  Then, suddenly, someone calling himself “James wood” joined the conversation, and it got even more heated.  Soon it became clear that “James wood,” who started his comments referring to “Wood” in the third person, was in fact the James Wood in question.

From a comment by someone named “Lewis,” deep into the thread:

Talk about post-modern moments. A critic writes a review of a writer. Then the writer responds to the critic. Then a blogger writes an article about the writer’s response to the critic. Then posters attack the writer for responding to the critic and other posters attack those posters for attacking the writer’s response. Then the critic responds to the posters, but no one believes he is the actual critic. The strangest/funniest part was perhaps when one poster pretending to be the critic also in response posted a link to a James Wood web site that is for James Wood the used car dealer and another asked that money be deposited in an offshore account for James Woods in the Cayman Islands, although those posts were unfortunately deleted. In any case, I do apologize if I offended you James for my sometimes gratuitous comments, although I never said that all you write about is Flaubert and you don’t write about contemporary authors. In fairness to you I have not read all of your critiques, only enough to get perhaps a biased impression. In fairness to me and Steven though, I agree that it is extraordinarily odd for a writer or critic to write about himself in the third person. Why would you expect any of us to believe you’re you when you speak of yourself as though you’re a corporation or a press agent speaking for you?

Completely apart from the issues of literary criticism and author-responses that this thread of comments addresses; what is going on here?  I feel lost and confused about how it is we are all learning/unlearning to communicate in the blogosphere; it seems scarcely human.

14 November 2011

At The Millions today, how I feel about the National Book Awards selection controversy, and about spinach. Thanks to Laura Miller and Victor Lavalle for giving me some, ahem, food for thought.

Update: Laura Miller offered a thoughtful response in the comments section of the piece.

29 October 2011

It’s no surprise that I would be delighted to read Charles Simic at NYRB on the virtues of keeping a notebook, of writing things down longhand.  I still write in a Moleskine journal, and I use spiral notebooks and Bic pilot pens for writing fiction and essays.  I write emails more than texts, which I know is rather outdated, and I still can’t quite get comfortable posting at Facebook (and don’t tweet), because I find that degree of brevity and frequency really stressful.

But I wonder about iPhones/iPads.  I’ve been tempted for a while but haven’t seriously considered it yet (price point is of course an issue).  I like the idea of an “all-in-one” device, but what’s still missing from the “all” is, well, words.  If words are your main medium (generating them, that is), not images or sound or information chunks, then the i-devices still aren’t quite for you.  Yesterday, I left my phone somewhere, and for a short while I didn’t know where.  I thought, O shit, I’m going to have a get a new phone.  Will it be an i-phone? I wondered.  There is a feeling that a year from now, it won’t even be a question or a choice but a foregone conclusion — you’ll need an iphone like you need, say, a refrigerator.

I did find my phone, so it’s all okay for now.  But a year from now… well, let’s just say that I do hope Charles Simic is still writing for NYRB.

 

 

21 October 2011

I am obviously late with this, given that the winner of the Man Booker Prize has already been announced (congratulations to the eminent Julian Barnes).  But this is fun Friday viewing I couldn’t resist:

This video makes me feel happy, old, and desperate to move to Cambridge, MA so the Harvard Bookstore can be my local bookstore.  Thanks, Lisa Peet at Like Fire, for posting!

8 October 2011

This is one of those long-form pieces accessible online that I think is worth your while.  At Triquarterly, poet Michael Anania describes the sometimes-absurd ways in which academic institutions attempt to assess the “value” of a potential faculty member’s publications, based on who is publishing their work and how:

At one absurdly comic point, an administrator at my own university drew up a long list of literary magazines and presses which he sent out to people he thought of as experts in the field.  He asked that they review the list and assign numerical values to each of the magazines and presses based on literary merit and stature.  His plan was to multiply the number of poems, stories, lines or words—I was never quite sure which—by the “quality rating number,” then add the results and get a number that would represent the writer’s  achievement.  The plan was never put into effect because the chosen experts, those, at least, who didn’t simply laugh and throw his letter and list in the trash, sent their letters and lists to me, either as a not-so-gentle jab at my department or with the presumably flattering suggestion that I would be the person most qualified to assign the ratings.

Anania focuses on the perspective of academic hiring committees, and on scholarly and poetry publishing, but I think his discussion here pertains to an “at-large” view on a writer’s “value” and “success” as well:

Fiction that makes its way into quality paperbacks or Penguin paperbacks can retain its commercially conferred value, while fiction that moves into mass-market paperback tends to lose value.  In this strange form of what might otherwise be called thought, some commerce is good but too much commerce is bad or at least less good. Lingering here is the notion that the more commercial something looks, the more valuable it is, unless that look is wholly commercial and thus lowbrow, all of which is more than a bit distressing since universities are supposedly places where ideas of value are hashed out independent of corporate influence [...]

In regards to the publication of scholarly monographs, i.e. the economic evolution in this area of publishing:

The question is: are these drab, expensive monographs less good than their fancied-up predecessors?  And now that scholarly, as well as literary, publishing is moving to electronic, rather than paper, media, will it be less valuable?  Less tenurable? [...]

(The word “tenurable” here is, I think, rather brilliant and somewhat chilling.)

Anania also celebrates the excellence of small indie presses and debunks the notion that small and nimble means of lesser merit or value.

The increase in the numbers and variety of poets writing and publishing has been met by an increase in the number of small poetry presses.  This essentially positive literary development creates new areas for the kinds of misunderstanding that are generated in tenure and promotions committees.  Is a press with a name that is unfamiliar to committee members or located far away from Manhattan respectable?  That is to say, does it represent a judgment a committee can rely on?  Does it represent any editorial judgment at all? [...]

Here are some of the tangles you get into if you confuse commercial publishing with literary value.  For years Marvin Bell had Atheneum as his publisher.  He changed to Copper Canyon, a non-profit small press.  Did his value as a poet decrease?  Charles Wright went from Wesleyan, where he published for twenty years, to Farrar Straus, so presumably he became a better, more consequential poet [...] Lucille Clifton went from Random House to BOA.  A similar decline?  Gwendolyn Brooks left her New York publishers for Broadside in Detroit, though with that change her career seems to have soared [...] (Anania goes on in this vein to cite many other poets whose publishing trajectories have shifted with the times, nimbly, and for the ultimate good/value of the poet’s career.)

In regards to the flux-y moment we are in, where we can’t quite decide if print is still at the peak of the prestige pyramid, Anania writes:

To choose one combination of technical adaptations over another as having a lock on literary value is simply silly.

And finally — here, here:

One last thing—and it’s the darkest recess of the “publisher” question.  There is, if only implicitly, an invasion of academic and aesthetic freedom involved here.  Large, commercial publishers and glossy magazines do not necessarily represent higher judgments of literary merit.  In the short term, they might offer access to larger audiences.  What they do represent—you could argue “enforce”—is a fairly limited set of social and aesthetic choices.  Saying that you should publish in the New Yorker is not merely a wish for greater success for you but an insistence that you become a different kind of poet, that you change your subject matter, your poetics, and your voice in order to find a shiny place among the hotel and jewelry ads.  Saying that you should publish with Knopf has the same effect.  I would be happy if on your own terms you were swooped up by either or both, but not if you tried to remodel yourself and your work to suit what you imagine they want.

I myself get excited about more indie presses popping up; smart and creative folks reclaiming literary publishing as a vocation, a passion, a deep commitment to the life of each book that is acquired and launched into a reading world that truly needs these books.  Every business must survive, yes; and I hope all the new small presses sit down and study the economics of the thing and consider how everyone can make a decent living in the long run, how each project has the potential for profit and growth.  I also hope that perceptions and judgments about literary value and success evolve in stride.

19 September 2011

I appreciated Amy Sullivan‘s piece at TIME about questioning politicians on religion.  She wrote in response to Bill Keller‘s NY Times column, in which he challenged journalists to ask “tougher” questions about candidates’ religious beliefs and practices. Sullivan urges journalists to ask not “tougher” questions, but more relevant and informed ones.  Generally speaking, “liberal” journalists have less direct experience in, for example, evangelical or – particularly relevant this year – Mormon communities, and thus often ask questions that, in Sullivan’s words, “compar[e] religious believers to people who believe in space aliens, and refer[...] to evangelical Christian churches as ‘mysterious’ and ‘suspect.’”

For the first time, it seems a real-life political analysis may actually be more hopeful – less cynical – than a TV one.  As an avid watcher of The West Wing, I would often lament real-life politics and wish for Aaron Sorkin‘s version; but in this case, I recall a (very good) episode about religion and campaigning, where the Republican candidate Arnie Vinick (played by Alan Alda) – a non-churchgoing John McCain straight-talking centrist type – says at a press conference: “If you ask candidates about religion, you’re just asking to be lied to.”  Keep religion completely out of it, Sorkin seemed to be saying in this episode; it’s irrelevant, and always disingenuously presented besides. Sullivan is saying, Oh no, it’s very relevant, but not in the way that goofy gotcha questioning is trying to imply.

I especially appreciate Sullivan’s exhortation for journalists to learn, and use, the language of religion(s) more intelligently. She offers the examples of “devout” and being “called” (to a vocation in politics); both terms that she feels are lazily employed in political journalism.

You can listen to Sullivan talk with Bob Garfield at NPR’s On the Media here.

1 September 2011

From Katie Roiphe‘s interview with Nicholson Baker at Slate about his new erotic novel, House of Holes: A Book of Raunch – about which Sam Anderson wrote in the NY Times, ““Hoo-boy, people, get ready for this book. It is going to be Talked About”:

In a funny way he is more exposed in this book than his others because he is laying bare his fantasies. For some reason, it’s almost more intimate and confessional to write about crazy scenarios you find arousing than a more realistic or straightforward autobiographical novel might be. As he put it, “Things are in this book because I found them arousing. I was excited by writing this book. There is no point in doing it if you are not. You know the worry is, is it too tame? Is it too nice? Is it too weird? Is it too Dr Seuss-y? There is a review that says that. I kind of like that.”

My previous post on Baker here.

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