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Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It, and Other News

November 25, 2015 | by


A still from Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai.

  • In an effort to combat censorship, the British filmmaker Charlie Lyne (such a British filmmaker name, no?) has launched a campaign to produce the single most banal film in the history of the medium: Paint Drying. “The film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the [censorship] board are obliged to watch it.” If all goes according to plan, and assuming the censors aren’t fans of Andy Warhol or Modern Times Forever, the movie will send them into a spiral of despair and boredom of a sort not seen since Must Love Dogs, ten years ago.
  • While we’re on film: Prince’s Purple Rain has been remade in Niger, which is a great way to spread the Purple gospel, except that no one in Niger knows who Prince is, and they don’t have a word for the color purple. “The fact there is no Tuareg word for purple means the film is saddled with the title Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, which translates as Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It … Swapping smoky Minneapolis for dusty Agadez, the largest city in the country’s central region, the new film follows Mdou Moctar—a popular self-taught Niger musician in real life—as he rides his purple motorbike from performance to performance, struggling to make a name for himself.”
  • The verb to dream never used to stand in for to aspire. Dreaming used to be a matter of sleep—a matter of deluding yourself in slumber. For the shift, “you can blame the Americans. Our collective embrace of the so-called ‘American dream’ was the cornerstone of this particular twentieth-century shift in usage … In 1931, American historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase ‘The American Dream,’ in his book The Epic of America Adams used the ‘dream’ as a structuring conceit for his gloss of American history, describing this dream as one of material prosperity, but also of what we might now call self-actualization.”
  • For the journalist Jeff Sharlet, in Paris, the events of November 13 began with a kind of nervous laughter: “The point is—something about the jokes we tell not just as frightened people, but as a certain kind of frightened people. Citizens of empire or of a very rich and stylish former empire that still has an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle … these jokes, now, are different. These are not the jokes of the oppressed, they’re the jokes of those of us who suddenly—suddenly, so many words demand quote marks after terror—find ourselves seen as the oppressors … These are the jokes we tell to hold at bay the knowledge that this isn’t the first time or the last, the knowledge that they don’t hate us because of our cafés but they will attack our cafés, the knowledge that we’re fucked as soon as we find ourselves saying they, and then, worse, the knowledge that we were fucked before we began, because we’ve never had any other word than they.”
  • After 9/11, “Susan Sontag seemed tactless to many in speaking of the ‘sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric” of “confidence-building and grief management’ that resembled the ‘unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress.’ She was attacked for insisting, ‘Let’s by all means grieve together, but let’s not be stupid together.’ ” Fourteen years later, we’ve not exactly excelled at this not-being-stupid-together business, as Pankaj Mishra points out: “Not surprisingly, the pampered and intellectually neutered industry of expertise and commentary today betrays cluelessness before the spectacle of worldwide mayhem … Only God knows how much we need some real argument and fresh thinking—the tradition of self-criticism that did indeed once distinguish and enlighten the West. For as long as avid conformists and careerists reign over an impoverished public sphere, endless war will remain the default option. And the recourse to Westernism’s self-congratulatory bromides after every new calamity will ensure that we continue to grieve together and grow stupid together.”

More Than a Blender, It’s a Way of Life, and Other News

November 24, 2015 | by

Peter Muller-Munk, Waring Blendor, model B, 1937. Private collection. Photo: Dallas Museum of Art, via Carnegie Museum of Art

  • Peter Muller-Munk, who died in 1967, designed a really nice chromium-plated water pitcher. He also made the most sensuous blender I’ve ever seen. Then there’s his Lady Schick electric shavers, his enameled cookware—and his gas pumps! What can be said about the man’s gas pumps? Muller-Munk was an impeccable industrial designer, and a new exhibition at the Carnegie Museum aims to give him his due: “Muller-Munk was always attuned to the latest trends in European metalwork … But [he] was never predictable, and moved with ease from a round, fluted silver bowl (circa 1928) akin to Josef Hoffmann’s designs for the Wiener Werkstätte, to graceful leaf-like shapes for a footed silver centerpiece (1929–1930) to a severely squared-off silver-plated tea service with tusk-like ivory handles (1931).”
  • Every week brings another successful trip to the literary lost-and-found bin. This time it’s yielded Twixt Lip and Cup, an early play by a young William Faulkner, first published nearly a century ago in The Strand and promptly forgotten by everyone, until Andrew Gulli rediscovered it in an archive at the University of Virginia. Dubbed a “light-hearted jazz age story,” the play “is set in the apartment of a ‘well-to-do bachelor,’ and sees two friends of around thirty, Francis and Jim, each vying to convince the nineteen-year-old Ruth to marry them ... Prohibition is under way, and the friends are enjoying an illicit drink. Ruth’s drinking, however, comes under censure from Jim, who asks Francis: ‘What are our young girls coming to these days? They every one need to be taken by a strong hand,’ adding: ‘I certainly don’t approve of that child chasing all over the known world after a bottle of liquor. It’s disgusting.’ ”
  • Last week we hosted a party at the Jane Hotel to launch The Unprofessionals, our first anthology of new writing in fifty years. The gossip columnists were out in force, natch—by which I mean two of them attended. “An amiable guest of literary note was willing to give me the following quote, anonymously, because, as he confided, he had been expected at another gathering: ‘The porn theme was undeniably hot.’ He also complimented Lorin Stein’s ‘gutsiness in opening up the psychosexual landscape [which] has cleared space for some writing that wanted to get out.’ I thought that was perfectly stated, complimented him on his fine gray flannel suit, and moved on into the evening.”
  • Every writer has an audience in mind. Claire Vaye Watkins writes for that hoary, classic demographic … you know the one, surely? “It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward? Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing … I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!
  • Mary Beard’s SPQR, a history of Rome, invites us “not only to ‘meet the Romans,’ but also to acknowledge that we can never really meet them and that, in many ways, we may not want to. The problem goes beyond the limitation of our sources; it lies in the vast cultural gaps that separate us from their world, and the profoundly repellent facts of daily life in ancient Rome: slavery, filth, slaughter, illness, ‘newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps.’ Yet Beard finds in Rome, if not a model, at least a challenge … The ancient Romans, Beard shows, are relevant to people many centuries later who struggle with questions of power, citizenship, empire, and identity.”

Sexy Santa, and Other News

November 23, 2015 | by

Aurel Schmidt, Shiva (detail), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Half Gallery. Photo: Martin Parsekian

  • Today in audiobooks: recordings of erotic novels are selling like love muffins. And why not? What better way to spice up a long drive or a boring Saturday night than with a good story and some professionally stylized heavy breathing? But according to two popular vocal talents, Jennifer Mack and Soozi Cheyenne, the work can be taxing: “The explosion of sex-infused books (much of it self-published) and the popularity of MP3 downloads have combined to produce a vast universe of fictional aural sex. The books range from fantasy romance with rose petals on the bed to raunchier fare with lots of rough sex … Reading the raunchy stuff requires stamina. ‘After your fifteenth sex scene, it becomes exhausting,’ Mack said. ‘You can only do so many.’ ‘Sometimes I go, This is too early in the day for this,’  Cheyenne chimed in. ‘Sometimes the descriptions of the genitalia, like love muffin and throbbing manhood, send me into fits of giggles. So you take a break. You have a cigarette. You buy a salad.’ ”
  • In the fifties, a cultural anthropologist named Bert Kaplan undertook a massive effort to capture and store people’s dreams on Microcards: “This vast catalogue of intimate details was assembled in the service and spirit of early twentieth-century social science, with its aspirations to produce a comprehensive account of the human mind, both within and across cultures … With the aid of the most advanced technologies for extraction and storage, they aimed to gather together testimonies of subjectivity from as many parts of the world as they could and largely leave to others the work of drawing conclusions about the whole. This was not a digest of confessional poetry or a narrow selection of case studies or personal histories.”
  • The artist Aurel Schmidt’s new show, “The Blast Furnace of Civilization,” features ceramic geese with candles shoved down their throats (Foie Gras Candelabra), a pair of Converse sneakers outfitted with the Campbell’s Soup logo, and a Santa with the body of a yoga-toned young woman. “I am interested in the strange, mutant, man-made objects we buy, we touch, we orbit our identities around,” Schmidt says. “How they are presented to us, the way they are sold, the images of the objects online—flat and bright—or in stores, pretending to be things they are not … I am just fascinated by the process, it’s very dark but very interesting and it touches us every day—we interact with it every minute.”
  • Being a crate-digging, record-collecting jazz aficionado is all well and good if you’re a guy. But if you’re not … “Record collecting, as the foremost practice through which relics of jazz history circulate and accrue value, reinforces in material culture the gender-based misrepresentations of the culture at large … Only by confining his collection within limits can the collector achieve the mastery he seeks. Logistical constraints, necessarily producing exclusions, make the collector’s mission possible … Women are pressured to inhabit male practices of appreciation, only to regularly be doubted and shamed for trying to impress men.”
  • Today in trolls: hats off to jeremy1122, a Redditor who spent the better part of a year perfecting the style of a prolix, snobby David Foster Wallace fan, leaving a spoor of pretension and lit-bro entitlement wherever he went. “David Foster Wallace, I think, wrote sex scenes better than any other author,” jeremy1122 wrote once. “Everything in Infinite Jest tends toward infinity, like a great cosmic orgasm, and in the end, reading the text itself is the real sex. A coital bond between Wallace’s mind and ours.”

The Lesbian Pulp Novel, and Other News

November 20, 2015 | by

From a Penguin edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, retitled Carol.

  • In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has landed the number-one spot on the French best-seller list—spurred in part by an interview with a woman known only as Danielle, who said the memoir helps the French “hold high the banner of our values,” even if it was written by an American.
  • Speaking of Paris—look out, world. Houellebecq is on the Times Op-Ed page, up to his usual tricks: “Despite the common perception, the French are rather docile, rather easy to govern. But they are not complete idiots. Instead, their main flaw is a kind of forgetful frivolity that necessitates jogging their memory from time to time. There are people, political people, who are responsible for the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in today, and sooner or later their responsibility will have to be examined. It’s unlikely that the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state, or the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister, or even the ‘stars of the opposition’ (LOL) will emerge from the test looking any brighter.”
  • If you’d rather not read on, head elsewhere in the Times, where high-tech Japanese toilets are on parade. (And remember, gift givers, the holiday season is approaching.) “For those who own Japanese toilets, there is a cultish devotion. They boast heated seats, a bidet function for a rear cleanse and an air-purifying system that deodorizes during use. The need for toilet paper is virtually eliminated (there is an air dryer) and ‘you left the lid up’ squabbles need never take place (the seat lifts and closes automatically in many models) … Toto, arguably the industry leader (though other companies sell them), has tried over the years to get Americans to embrace the concept. Their latest bid to toilet-train the public is the Connect+ system of the Carlyle II 1G with s350e washlet. The model offers the standard comforts, along with something Toto calls SanaGloss, a glaze that seals the porcelain and repels waste.”
  • But you don’t look for this space for hygiene advice. You’re here for literature. May we recommend a dime-store paperback, then? Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, first published in 1953, depicted a lesbian couple without putting them through the wringer: it was “a landmark book for queer America, offering readers a powerful and hopeful ending, one that didn’t see the two women at the center of the story end their affair, commit suicide, or attempt murder … As an act of secretive reading, the lesbian pulp novel formed an invisible lesbian community.”
  • On the plays of Caryl Churchill, who’s still honing her craft at age seventy-seven: “Churchill’s interest in mutable, shifting identities has remained a major theme—and from the perspective of contemporary debates about gender and the essence of identity, seems almost prophetic … Whatever one thinks of her politics, Churchill has been able to respond rapid-fire to current events in part because she has stayed away from the convoluted development processes of film and television: she remains committed to live forms. And it is hard to see how anything but theatre could give her the flexibility to write as she pleases. The early texts are rich, dense, often sprawling as they hop-skip across time; these days, the plays are pearlescent in their minimalism. Sometimes they’re as short as eight minutes: one sentence can be an entire scene.”

Celebrate The Unprofessionals Tonight at BookCourt

November 19, 2015 | by

Click to enlarge

We’ll be celebrating The Unprofessionals, our first anthology of new writing in more than fifty years, tonight, November 19, at BookCourt, where Emma Cline, Kristin Dombek, and Cathy Park Hong will read from their selections in the book. The event is free and begins at seven P.M. See you there!

The Unprofessionals: New American Writing from The Paris Review features thirty-one stories, poems, and essays by a new generation of writer. The Atlantic calls it “a dispatch from the front lines of literature.” “A new generation of American writers is not only keeping American literature alive but restoring the excitement of it,” says Jonathan Franzen, “and The Paris Review, despite its age and pedigree, is at the forefront of the renaissance.”

Where Science Meets Superstition, and Other News

November 19, 2015 | by

Trustworthy enough.

  • With the National Book Awards over and done with, we can turn our attention to a more pressing matter: the annual Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. As a close follower of this prize, I can assure you that this year’s nominees have written some of the best worst sex in its illustrious history. The competition is stiff. E.g.: “Gwennie shoved him in though she was dry. He shut his eyes and thought of mangoes, split papayas, fruits tart and sweet and dripping with juice, and then it was off, and he groaned and his whole body turned sweet.” Or: “She stroked my pole and took off my briefs, and I got between her and spread her muscular thighs with my knees and rubbed myself against her until she was wet as a waterslide, and then I split her.”
  • Wyatt Mason thinks you should read War Music, Christopher Logue’s version of the Iliad. If you’ve always found Homer boring, then Logue’s is the Iliad for you—he translated it even though he couldn’t read Greek. “His Homer sounds like no version of that ancient story you’ve ever heard … This is not Homer: it’s Logue’s Homer. Like all translations, it departs fundamentally from the language of the original. Unlike many translations, it arrives at a version that, because of its radical departures, gets us closer to the original than many more defensibly ‘faithful’ translations have ever managed … He died before he could conclude much more than half of a full account of those ancient sounds. But, oh, what he managed to leave us: a vision of Homer as intimate and alive as a breath.”
  • Look alive, people. These are the days of the winner-take-all economy, the days when only a handful of novels each year attain “must-read” status—the days of the seven-figure advance for debut novels. “The lack of a sales track record is one of the factors that makes debut authors most appealing, publishers say, because there is no hard data to dampen expectations … Some worry that large payouts for debut novels could do more harm than good. They put pressure on first-time authors and consume resources that otherwise might go to authors who have posted moderate sales, some agents and publishing executives said … Moreover, if the book doesn’t turn a profit, the relationship between the author and publisher can sour. And those disappointing sales figures are available for any other publisher to peruse when the author tries to sell her next novel.”
  • Delete your weather app, turn off your GPS, and purge from your bookmarks—all you really need is The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has been hailed for its accuracy since 1792. It remains, in its stubborn way, a forerunner of the Information Age: “The Old Farmer’s Almanac has long had a reputation for getting the forecast right, and doing so on an outlandish timescale. In the 1930s and 1940s, people would write to the Almanac to ask about weather conditions for specific days, months in advance. Brides wanted sunshine for their wedding days; rabbis would ask for the exact time of sunset in a certain city, so they could plan the lighting of altar candles … The Old Farmer’s Almanac didn’t have to be right all the time, it just had to be right most of the time. The perception that it was is a big part of why the Almanac has endured.”
  • Today in wishful thinking: using the power of language, you can see a positive trend in any outcome, any set of data. Suddenly, significance is everywhere. Scientists learned this lesson a long time ago, as this list of weasel words from their research papers suggests: “a margin at the edge of significance,” “a marginal trend toward significance,” “a near-significant trend,” “a clear tendency to significance,” “a barely detectable statistically significant difference” …