October 11, 2016 | by Robert Polito
Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” —The Editors
When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?
Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.
But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More »
October 4, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”
As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”
There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement.
Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.
This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?
Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »
September 26, 2016 | by Randy Rosenthal
Moonstone, Sjón’s latest novel, has been called “the gayest book in Iceland.” It follows the sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn, a queer hustler and cinephile whose life becomes upended by the Spanish flu of 1918 when the pestilence ravages Reykjavik. With the country fearful of any bodily contact, Máni can no longer pick up “gentlemen,” and the cinema houses are shut down. Máni finds solace in a new friendship with Sóla G, a beautiful feminist who rides a motorcycle and dresses all in black. When Máni gets tangled up in a sodomy scandal that threatens to humiliate the homophobic country, Sóla is perhaps the only person who can help him.
As with Sjón’s previous books—The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, and From the Mouth of the Whale—the magic of Moonstone lies in language. Máni Steinn doesn’t just love movies but “lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes he is replaying them in his mind.” Máni is illiterate, and as he struggles to read, “the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word, and might as well be a red cipher to which he does not have the key.” Sjón’s easy way with words goes back to the Icelandic sagas he devoured as a child. He has internalized the lyrical language of epics, myths, folktales, and religion—“the old great narratives,” as he calls them.
Moonstone has been praised all around, with David Mitchell calling it “Sjón’s simmering masterpiece,” and it has won nearly all of Iceland’s literary prizes, including the country’s most prestigious: the Icelandic Literary Award. Sjón and I met once in New York in 2013, to discuss his earlier works; this month he was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about Moonstone over e-mail. Read More »
August 30, 2016 | by Irina Reyn and Emily Barton
Last month, after her reading at the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock, New York, Irina Reyn sat down for an onstage conversation with the novelist Emily Barton. Reyn had read from her new novel, The Imperial Wife, in which two women—Catherine the Great in eighteenth-century Russia and Tanya in contemporary New York—negotiate marriage and ambition, on two very different registers. Barton’s third novel, The Book of Esther, was also published this summer. It imagines a nation of Turkic warrior Jews transposed from the Middle Ages to World War II–era Europe and follows one woman’s Joan of Arc–style quest to defend her people. Unsurprisingly, the conversation quickly became a lively discussion about the writing of both novels, gender and work, and the standing of women in the current political climate. —Ed. Read More »
August 9, 2016 | by Meg Lemke
Brandon Graham draws late into the night, so he promised me he’d set his alarm to wake up for our interview at ten A.M. his time. He was up when I called him by Skype in Vancouver, then we dialed in Emma Ríos in Spain, where it was already evening. “Let’s pretend it’s morning across the world,” Graham suggested. Ríos and Graham are the editors of the monthly comics magazine Island, launched last summer, which they have modeled as a kind of global conversation about the form. Printed in color and bound in an oversize format, each hundred-page-plus issue is a mix of comics, essays, fashion illustrations, and other pieces that approach the medium from diverse angles. Island has attracted significant talents—among them, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Fil Barlow, and Emily Carroll—whose work is published alongside that of lesser-known creators and recent art-school graduates. The anthology is currently nominated for a Harvey Award for Best Anthology. The tenth issue will arrive later this month.
Graham and Ríos balance their work on Island with other projects. Ríos is the artist on the best-selling, Eisner-nominated Pretty Deadly, with writer DeConnick and colorist Jordie Bellaire. Graham writes and runs the popular reboot of Prophet. Together, Ríos and Graham also edit another series, 8House, in which discrete stories take place in a shared fantasy universe.
Ríos and Graham founded Island as a platform for experimentation; they wanted to create a space in which artists could feel comfortable exploring riskier work. The first issue of the magazine opens with a short comic by Graham in which God bestows the “ultimate freedom to do whatever you wish with your time on earth,” adding, “don’t screw it up.” Island is about taking comics seriously, but, as Graham says, it’s still “a very serious joke.”
What was the response when you launched the anthology?
It’s a risky thing, because anthologies are generally not thought of as a good idea in the comics market. But then, just as the first issue came out, Grant Morrison announced he’s taking over Heavy Metal. And suddenly people are talking about magazines again.
Was Heavy Metal an inspiration?
Island is a product of nostalgia. Magazines from the eighties, like Heavy Metal and Métal Hurlant in France and Zona 84 here in Spain, came immediately to mind when Brandon proposed starting a magazine. Island doesn’t look like Heavy Metal, but it shares the desire to collect different story lines, include articles, and expand the medium as well as the viewpoint of readers. Those magazines are where I discovered artists like Moebius. I’d buy an issue to follow someone in particular and by chance discover new creators. In Island, we are bringing together artists from Europe and Asia—creators whose work we aren’t used to seeing on the shelves in the U.S. every Wednesday.
We’re following the history but also working against Heavy Metal. That was a very “teenage boy” magazine, and we’ve been conscious with Island about making comic books for ourselves, as adults. We are trying to make inclusive work that isn’t just made for—no other way to put it—masturbatory fantasies. Heavy Metal was very high-minded when it launched in France as Métal Hurlant. The modern equivalent became a bit of a joke, an airbrushed Amazonian woman on every cover. If you were a woman or gay or otherwise didn’t fit into the minor slot of its readership, Heavy Metal wasn’t the ideal magazine for you. Island is for a bigger community—not just dudes who like sexy barbarian women. Read More »
July 27, 2016 | by Zinzi Clemmons
In 2014, I heard Solmaz Sharif read “Look,” the title poem from her debut collection. Look inserts military terminology into intimate scenes between lovers, refashioning hollow, bureaucratic language from the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms with a human touch. (Even the collection’s title has an alternate military meaning: per the Department of Defense, a look means “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.”) At a time when the U.S. automates acts of murder, Sharif insists that war is still personal—perhaps today more than ever. In one of its most quoted passages, she writes, “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS / like you.”
“By simply placing words from the Defense dictionary in small caps, and deploying them in scenes of intimacy,” John Freeman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sharif has begun the process of renaturing them, putting them in the readers’ hands for examination.” Look confirms what I’ve known since 2014: Sharif is poised to influence not only literature but larger conversations about America, war, and the Middle East. I spoke with her about her influences, the role of the poet in today’s world, and the stories behind Look.
In an essay you wrote for the Kenyon Review, you said, “When I am asked to describe my poetry on airplane flights, at dinner parties, I describe it first as ‘political.’ Then, ‘documentary.’ And these two things seem to, for some, preclude aesthetic rigor.” There’s a popular conception that overtly political can’t have aesthetic value—that a political message degrades the aesthetics. Is your work a deliberate effort to rebut this notion? Read More »