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Presenting “Big, Bent Ears”

March 4, 2015 | by

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Many of you know Sam Stephenson from his excellent contributions to the Daily over the years. But he also has, with Ivan Weiss, a documentary nonprofit called Rock Fish Stew—they’ve worked on projects about everything from jazz to baseball. And starting today, they’re collaborating with The Paris Review on a new series of multimedia pieces called “Big, Bent Ears: A Serial in Documentary Uncertainty.” As they explain in the prologue,

We pursue hunches, welcome distractions, give ourselves space to associate freely. There’s something indulgent in this approach—childlike, some might say—but we try to balance our impulses with learned rigor … We’ll offer combinations of video, audio, photography, and writing in various arrangements and states of completion.

So why the name? Whose ears are both big and bent, save perhaps certain breeds of dog? Sam and Ivan explain:

The name Big, Bent Ears derives from our two current projects, the Joseph Mitchell Project and the Big Ears Documentary Project. Joseph Mitchell, the midcentury chronicler of the back alleys of New York City, was renowned for his uncanny ear … his first collection was called My Ears Are Bent.

Big Ears is one of the country’s preeminent experimental music festivals. It features the likes of composer Steve Reich, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, music-art icon Laurie Anderson, tUnE-yArDs, Nazoranai, and the Kronos Quartet, among many others … In an age of quick hits and attention deficits, Big Ears focuses on long listening and the noncommercial craft of music and sound.

Read their prologue here, and check back on March 11 for the first chapter of their story. We’re looking forward to seeing what they come up with, and how far afield they roam.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.

Rimbaud Among the Coffee, and Other News

March 4, 2015 | by

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Rimbaud in Harar, Ethiopia, ca. 1883.

  • Fiction has seen a preponderance of nameless narrators lately—in stories of the apocalypse, stories of exile, and/or stories of just about anything else. “The first few months of 2015 alone have brought us the following books with nameless protagonists: Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country, Greg Baxter’s Munich Airport, Daniel Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard, Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents. Surely others have escaped my notice. It’s an epidemic of namelessness.”
  • In 1880, Rimbaud arrived in Ethiopia—it was called Abyssinia then—“sick and completely helpless.” He was twenty-six and had taken on a job “consisting in receiving shipments of bales of coffee”; he lived in a house of clay walls with a thatched roof. But really he was seeking something more metaphysical: “I sought voyages, to disperse enchantments that had colonized my mind … My life would always be too ungovernable to be devoted to strength and beauty.” He had a great time until his leg had to be amputated.
  • Yasmina Reza on the title of her new book, Happy Are the Happy, which comes from Borges and came to her on an airplane: “The condition of being happy, in other words, can only be obtained by those who are happy. This is so paradoxical, so enigmatic, so Borges. You can turn that idea over and over in your mind.” (Read her interview with the Daily here.)
  • On copyediting and class: a copy editor’s job can be “a soul-crushing enterprise … Magazines are rigidly hierarchical places … the work of the copy editor is largely disdained. And because their work is so undervalued, copy editors (and fact checkers) routinely work significantly longer hours for much less money (sixteen-hour days without overtime pay aren’t uncommon) … they’re often dismissed as fussy or obsessive … In the Calvinistic world of magazines, maladjusted grammar weirdos simply fall to their natural station.”
  • “Here is a good example of how inconsistently the term transgressive is applied to some and not to others—that V.C. Andrews in Flowers in the Attic wrote about brother-sister incest (and a semiforced initial coupling at that) and that book sold over forty million copies. More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or ‘outside traditional writing,’ is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors. I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for.” An interview with Matthew Stokoe.

Operation Keep Faulkner Sober, and Other News

March 3, 2015 | by

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William Faulkner, in 1954, in a portrait by Carl Van Vechten.

  • After Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, he was a hot commodity abroad—he traveled to many foreign lands to bang the drum for the U. S. of A., which would’ve been fine, had he not been such a lush. The State Department circulated a memo called “Guidelines for Handling Mr. William Faulkner on His Trips Abroad,” designed to help agents curb Faulkner’s drinking. Their advice ranged from the obvious (monitor his liquor cabinet) to the subtle: “Keep several pretty young girls in the front two rows of any public appearance to keep his attention up.”
  • Twenty-five years late, a novelist has at last completed and delivered her tenth-grade term paper on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her (perhaps convenient) conclusion: it’s about shame. “Like Tess, I spent a lot of time waiting to be found out: I worried that my adolescent failures would be exposed and that people would lose respect for me. Or love me less … Shame depends on an audience, and those who are ashamed become overly self-conscious. I’m aware, even now, of compensating for past mistakes.”
  • Why are there so many more aspiring writers than aspiring readers? “I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.”
  • Paul Beatty has an enviable gift: he “can turn a sacred cow into hamburger with just one sentence.” His new novel The Sellout takes on race in America, sparing “no person or piety”: “The only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement,” he writes, “is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be.”
  • René Magritte, comedian: “It’s noticeable that many of the techniques Magritte uses for creating his mysterious images are to be found in comedy writing. His pictures are frequently structured like jokes … relying upon a simple (almost mathematical) function, like reversal or negation.”

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The Art of Revelry

March 2, 2015 | by

We’re gearing up for our Spring Revel here at the Review. Variously described as “the best party in town” and “prom for New York intellectuals,” it’s a tradition that stretches back … well, tens of years. In that time, archival evidence suggests, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. The fifth revel, for example, in 1969, was held on the grounds of an abandoned church on Roosevelt Island (then known as Welfare Island). It did not go as planned. As George Plimpton later recounted, “Two pianos placed out in a grove of trees were destroyed in a late night rainstorm; almost all the profits from the revel were paid to a piano rental company. The final tally showed that proceeds turned over to the magazine amounted to fourteen dollars.”

Thirty years ago, though, the revel finally became the serious, unmistakably sophisticated affair that it remains today. In our Spring 1985 issue, Plimpton et al enlisted Roz Chast to help dream up a few concepts that could really guarantee a once-in-a-lifetime Revel experience. They were riffing on the theme of “Great Moments in Literature.” Here are three of their proposals: Read More »

Ink and Paper and Repetition, and Other News

March 2, 2015 | by

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Ben Tolman, Suburbs (detail), 2012, ink on paper.

  • What makes certain writing publishable while the rest of it, the bulk of it, is consigned to the slag heap? Kenneth Goldsmith’s UbuWeb has launched Publishing the Unpublishable,” a series of e-books dedicated to challenging the precepts of literary merit. “If nothing else, the chance to stare into the face of deletion and creep around in the bins of what might never have been gives us the chance to see the world a completely different way.”
  • Protestantism, Catholicism, and their varying approaches to the novel: “To write a Catholic novel is thus to attempt something a little tricky, a little verging on the self-contradictory. And when a Catholic-aiming novel fails, it typically fails because it is at war with its own form … To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant. And when a deliberately Protestant novel fails, it often fails because it seems didactic and preachy, engaged in what the art form itself promises that readers can take for granted.”
  • John Jeremiah Sullivan and Joel Finsel “on Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights”: “The Freeman ranks among the defining cultural expressions of black Houston … A single copy survives, physically, digitally, in any form, that we know of … In 1940, a man named Carter W. Wesley, a black publisher who’d at first worked under Love and later assumed control of the Freeman enterprise, lamented in print … that nobody appeared to possess a solitary copy of this great newspaper, which had started everything. Well, paper is useful—it gets used—especially by people who don’t have money to buy more.”
  • “More than six feel tall and four feet wide, Suburbs is Ben Tolman’s interpretation of the Wheaton, Maryland, community he called his home as a kid. Composing the drawing took six months: five days a week, fourteen hours each day, just ink and paper and repetition … the houses themselves are all faithful depictions. He inked each of the buildings based on photographs of the houses surrounding his own former home.”
  • The Mexican writer Sergio Pitol on smoking, hypnosis, and prose style: “I feel incapable of describing any action, no matter how simple, in a direct way. I said that other writers were able to do that, which did not mean I was less competent than they. In my case, plain and naked exposition, without flourishes, without detours, without echoes or shadows, fatally diminishes the efficiency of the story, converts it into a mere anecdote; a vulgarity, when all is said and done.”

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The Stinking Fog of Falsehood

February 27, 2015 | by

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A letter from Saul Bellow to Jack Ludwig, circa February 1961. Ludwig and Bellow had met years earlier at Bard College, where they became close friends. Later, Ludwig began an affair with Bellow’s second wife, Sondra. The romance was something of an open secret; asked at a party if he knew Bellow, Ludwig supposedly responded, “Know him? Hell, I’m fucking his wife.” When at last Bellow learned of the affair, he wrote the letter below, which his biographer James Atlas calls “a masterpiece of comic invective.” The magazine in reference is The Noble Savage, which Bellow and Ludwig had founded in 1960.

Dear Jack;

I have tried very hard to avoid writing this letter, but I suppose there’s nothing else to do now. Your phenomenal reply of February 4th forces me to tell you a few of the things I feel about your relations to the magazine and me, personally.

[…] I don’t think you are a fit editor of the magazine. You have, in some departments, good judgment. I trusted your taste and thought you might be reliable as an editor, but you are too woolly, self-absorbed, rambling, ill-organized, slovenly, heedless and insensitive to get on with. And you must be in a grotesque mess, to have lost your sense of reality to the last shred. I think you never had much to start with, and your letter reveals that that’s gone, too. Read More »