12 November 2012
With the displacement of so many during Hurricane Sandy—separation from home, identity, stability—my monthly reflection on mobility took me to various perspectives on exile, by writers who’ve lived it first-hand. Roberto Bolano‘s position is especially interesting.
Also: today Bloom launches! Come visit us at this new literary site and community.
Bolano image via jeansilver/flickr
3 August 2012
“Life is much more interesting when you make a little bit of effort.” –Ai Wei Wei
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Summer slump, I guess – but also, actually, high productivity in other areas of life. I’ve been off the Internet in the mornings for the most part, and limiting email and screen time to about an hour or two hours a day, contained. It makes a huge difference, in everything. My brain much clearer and more focused on things like, you know, making words on a page, and reading words in books — without all that cerebral-adrenaline-bursting (to use a super-technical term) wigging me out all the time.
But I just saw the Ai Wei Wei documentary — NEVER SORRY – (see it!) and was inspired (inspired! This doesn’t happen all that much anymore, sadly) by how crucial blogging has been for Ai’s activist goals. That daily blog post was everything to him: you could feel that in how he talked about it, how he treasured that blog, how he felt the reality of wielding truth against lies with every word; until the government shut him down. At which point, Tweeting became everything. In China, there is no taking for granted the ability to communicate freely and truthfully; a world without free speech, without a venue for plurality of opinion, is just not something we can fathom here.
In other words, I was struck by the simple truth that those of us who write — whatever it is we write — are empowered. I’m ashamed to admit that I have never much thought of it that way. It’s a good perspective check. It’s a huge perspective check.
The hours in the day are still limited, though. And my brain increasingly a sieve in the face of screen ubiquity. But you have to make the effort, Ai said. Life is much more interesting when you make a little bit of effort.
14 January 2012
11 January 2012
Two things: an essay and a blog post.
My essay on James Salter, “In the Light Where Art and Longing Meet: My Day With James Salter,” is in the current print issue of Tin House Magazine. I couldn’t be more tickled. The project began almost exactly two years ago(!) — with my piece at The Millions (on sex writing by “great” male writers), a stunning email from JS himself, and an ensuing correspondence over the following year. Other amazing authors in this issue, themed “Beauty” — Marilynne Robinson, Michel Houellebecq, Eric Puchner, Paul Willems, Michelle Widgen, Aimee Bender on artist Amy Cutler, and more.
I also have a blog post, “Living and Learning in Bookstores,” as part of Tin House‘s “Book Clubbing” blog series — wherein I describe the independent bookstores in NYC that I love, and the unassuming bookstore in Seattle where I embarked on my literary education, many lifetimes (although really not that many years) ago. Enjoy!
4 January 2012
Mark Haddon‘s new novel, The Red House, will be out in June. I wrote a brief blurb about it for The Millions‘ “Big Preview,” i.e. our most-anticipated-2012-releases extravaganza. Check it out — it’s exciting and overwhelming, from the perspective of both writer and reader.
In researching The Red House, I found a few of Haddon’s blog posts about his writing process, in real time. This one encouraged me — it reminded me that writing a novel is hard, it’s supposed to be hard; and yet half the angst of the process (for me, lately) is this ridiculous, tormenting voice inside that says “It shouldn’t be so hard, so slow, so painful; what’s wrong with you?”
I’m about 30,000 words in and it finally has momentum, but it’s been a long haul (i’ve just noticed a previous entry last december in which i announce cheerfully that i’m under way, so whatever i say should be taken with a pinch of salt). on the train on the way home i was perversely reassured by reading hermione lee‘s introduction to virginia woolf’s the years in which she detailed the interminable, painful and tortuous genesis of the novel (impossible… eternal… incredibly dreary… my vomit… i’m so sick of it… never again… failure… failure).
Perverse reassurance is something that we seem to “pay forward,” so thank you, MH. And thank you, VW, who is perhaps the most extreme/haunting example of this sort of reassurance: there is suffering in the process of art-making – meaningful suffering – let us never forget.
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.
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.