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Working on My Novel

July 28, 2014 | by

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From Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel

“I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966

Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel—based on the Twitter feed of the same name—is a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels. No more, no less. On Twitter, this concept feels merely clever; printed and bound as a novel would be, though, it becomes a vexed look at novels’ position in the culture, and a sad monument to distraction. Or so it seems to me. Arcangel’s “elevator pitch” puts a brighter gloss on it:

Working on My Novel is about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves today. Exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it's the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.

But the book piques my interest for the opposite reason: it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which “creative writing” has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel-writing as a kind of exercise regimen. (“I love my mind,” writes one aspirant novelist, as if he’s just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)Read More »

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She Jazzes That Dazzling Verse

July 28, 2014 | by

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Courtesy of Yale University Press

Congratulations to Ansel Elkins, our poet-in-residence at the Standard, East Village, who’s featured in The New Yorker this week. (Complete with a terrific caricature by Tom Bachtell.) Elkins, who recently finished her residency, speaks to Andrew Marantz in the Talk of the Town section, discussing her time at the Standard, her unique position on the height spectrum (“between Lolita and Lil’ Kim”), and her persistent yearning for HoJo ice machines.

Elkins spent her days indoors, napping and listening to Hank Williams and revising her poems with colored pens … Most nights, she went out for three-dollar tacos on Second Avenue and walked back slowly, gazing up at the gargoyles on East Sixth Street. “This late-night walking is the one thing about the city that’s most saturated my work,” she said, mentioning a new poem, an ode to Mae West, that she began writing here. (“Singing in two languages— / English and body; / She jazzes that dazzling verse.”)

Read the whole piece here.

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When Shades Meant Shady, and Other News

July 28, 2014 | by

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Sunglasses: take ’em off! Photo: Zarateman, via Wikimedia Commons

  • “It’s not too much of an exaggeration to call autocorrect the overlooked underwriter of our era of mobile prolixity. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to compose windy love letters from stadium bleachers, write novels on subway commutes, or dash off breakup texts while in line at the post office.” The wondrous history of autocorrect, including a brief meditation on the nature of profanity. (Because autocorrect “couldn’t very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer.”)
  • “Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.”
  • On the distinct merits of Bolaño’s Distant Star: “At some point in 1995, Bolaño seems to have discovered that he could expand a published text without diluting its effect or getting bogged down in circumstantial details, and that he could bring back characters and give them fuller lives without being strictly constrained by what he had already written about them.”
  • After twenty-seven years, the Rodeo Bar, “New York’s longest-running honky-tonk,” has closed.
  • “I’m not happy about people wearing sunglasses at all. Proper upstanding citizens never used to. They preferred to leave that sort of thing to dodgy characters from the underworld.”

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Even the Losers

July 25, 2014 | by

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A drone—yes, really—photographed the action at our game against New York. Photo: Alon Sicherman, Center for the Study of the Drone

Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
—Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

About a month ago, when I last wrote about The Paris Review’s softball team, I called us “damn fine.” “The Parisians are on something of a hot streak,” I had the gall to say, noting that we’d “met with defeat only once, at the hands of The Nation.”

Then July happened.

Reader, you gaze upon the words of a broken man. (Specifically a broken right fielder.) Today, that “damn fine” is inflected with callow hubris; that “hot streak” runs lukewarm. After three more games—against Vanity Fair, New York, and n+1—our season is over, and our win-loss record is a measly 4-4.

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When we were good: the scorecard of this season’s first game, against DC Comics.

The close of yesterday’s game found us supine on the Astroturf, wondering: What happened back there? That’s for history to decide, or the trolls in the comments section. Whatever the case, our early, easy victories against the likes of The New Yorker and Harper’s now seem like distant memories.

The trouble started with our game against Vanity Fair, whose chic black-on-black uniforms belied their brutish athleticism. (And their trash talking: “Don’t just tweet about it,” shouted their third-base coach, “be about it.”) They eked out a 5-4 victory; I ate some of their pizza in recompense. Our spirits were still high enough, at that point, for a group photo: Read More »

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Sword-and-Sandal Epics Be Damned, and Other News

July 25, 2014 | by

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Poster for Atlas Against the Cyclops, 1961.

  • Movies set in Ancient Rome always do well at the box office. Why not Ancient Greece? “What is Hollywood to do with a world of 1,000 competing city-states, where homoeroticism was institutionalized and philosophers were more interested in the rationale for Platonic love than for war? … Greek tales would be better treated as supernatural thrillers. Imagine the real, lived historical experience for the ancient Greeks: the day-to-day jeopardy of knowing there was a fickle spirit in every breath of wind and ear of grain; that malicious deities might be lurking around the corner, shape-shifting to have their way with you.”
  • David Lynch, whose suspiciously mercantile interests I’ve complained about before, is now designing women’s luxury activewear. “The special collection features ‘limited edition David Lynch Floral’ print leggings, sports bras, shorts, and one very plain T-shirt, none of which are priced below $100.”
  • Why are so many cities building “innovation districts”? “Dozens of cities across the United States, Europe, South America, and East Asia are cultivating local utopias of entrepreneurship … These districts represent a mash-up of research institutions, corporations, start-ups, and business incubators, intermixed with ‘innovative housing,’ neighborhood amenities, and cultural sites in a clean energy, Wi-Fi-enabled environment … But is crowding a bunch of people into a few city blocks really the way to make creative sparks fly?”
  • Joan “Tiger” Morse “was a mod fashion designer in the mid 1960s … As the proprietress of the Teeny Weeny, her pop boutique located on Madison Avenue at 73rd Street, Morse sold mini dresses and other fashion oddities that used primarily man-made fabrications. With her frequent collaborator Diana Dew, Morse turned out illuminated mini dresses that would glow in myriad colors, all powered by a small battery pack worn at the waist.”
  • The secret beating heart of the dream office is the stationery cupboard, the ideal kind, the one that opens to enough depth to allow you to walk in and close the door behind you. No one does close the door—it would be weird—but the perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful.”

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Le Pater

July 24, 2014 | by

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In 1899, Alphonse Mucha, a progenitor of Art Nouveau, published Le Pater, an illustrated edition of the Lord’s Prayer embellished in his sinuous, faintly occult style. Mucha, who was born today in 1860, made only 510 copies of the book, which he considered his masterwork. According to the Mucha Foundation,

Mucha conceived this project at a turning point in his career … [he] was at that time increasingly dissatisfied with unending commercial commissions and was longing for an artistic work with a more elevated mission. He was also influenced by his long-standing interest in Spiritualism since the early 1890s and, above all, by Masonic philosophy … the pursuit of a deeper Truth beyond the visible world. Through his spiritual journey Mucha came to believe that the three virtues—Beauty, Truth and Love—were the ‘cornerstones’ of humanity and that the dissemination of this message through his art would contribute towards the improvement of human life and, eventually, the progress of mankind.

Whether or not you buy into Mucha’s spiritual ambition—and I must admit that I don’t—his illustrations are striking in their depth and detail, with a certain haunted, diaphanous quality that would be imitated, if never duplicated, throughout the twentieth century, right on up to those ponderous Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” black-light posters that continue to grace all too many dorm rooms. As the artist Alan Carroll explains,

in the 1870s and 1880s, so many American artists went to study in Paris (e.g. Sargent, Whistler, Cassatt, Eakins, Homer) because American academic training at the time was generally considered so inadequate. Combine this with a mesmeric American fascination with the Old World, and we can begin to see why Mucha’s early trips to the States were so rapturously received. And yet Mucha seemed reluctant to lap up the attention that the gentry and grandes dames of American Society were determined to bestow. Indeed, he was sick and tired of his obligations, as evidenced in a hilariously melodramatic letter he wrote in 1904: “You’ve no idea how often I am crushed almost to blood by the cogwheels of this life, by this torrent which has got hold of me, robbing me of my time and forcing me to do things that are so alien to those I dream about.”

Something of that crushed-to-blood quality comes through in Le Pater, whose fascination with the otherworldly is predicated on a kind of desperation: There must be something more, right?

You can see more of Le Pater on Carroll’s blog, Surface Fragments.

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