On the Shelf
April 27, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Rachel Kushner, Francine Prose, Peter Carey, and at least three other prominent writers have declined to attend the PEN American Center Gala on the grounds that it honors Charlie Hebdo, known for its scathing portrayals of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally.” “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo,” Prose said.
- Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, has announced plans to adapt Trollope’s 1858 novel Doctor Thorne for television. Love, real estate, alcoholism—this novel has it all. No word yet on who will play the Duke of Omnium.
- If Silicon Valley scuttlebutt is right, “snackable content”—bite-size morsels of dubiously nutritious entertainment—is now the most popular stuff on the Internet. What we ought to do, then, is start to serialize novels again. “Publishers could release novels—either completed upfront or written month to month—on their own imprints or through periodicals such as People or The Paris Review.” (We can’t speak for People, but we’ve serialized two novels in the past few years, and we don’t intend to stop.)
- Young writers get all the attention—and, more important, all the awards. But “age-based awards are outdated and discriminatory, even if unintentionally so. Emerging writers are emerging writers.”
- Earlier this month, Adrienne Raphel wrote about the history of “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” for the Daily—now she’s spoken to NPR’s “All Things Considered” about it.
- Davide Monteleone, an Italian photographer, is working on In the Russian East, a series of “faces and uniforms” taken along the Trans-Siberian Railway—and a tribute to Richard Avedon’s 1985 book In the American West.
April 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Whitman’s Drum-Taps, his collection of Civil War poems, is 150 this month—and like the war itself, it’s still perplexing and angering people. Henry James, upon its release, called it “an insult to art … the efforts of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”
- In which Mary Shelley trounces taboos: “When she meets the enormously handsome and charismatic poet Percy Shelley when she’s sixteen, she takes him to her special place, her mother’s grave. He’s twenty-one, she’s sixteen, and they sit and talk there for hours, day after day. Finally, it’s on that gravesite that Mary Shelley declares her love for Percy. That’s where we think she had sex for the first time, on her mother’s grave. We can’t prove that they actually had sex, but they certainly declared their love and became intimate. It was a really dangerous thing to do. The next thing they do is they run away to Paris.”
- One might suppose that in the nineteenth century, with no text messages or telephones, it was more difficult for men to be creeps. But one would be wrong, as this assortment of nineteenth-century escort cards shows. Men gave these cards to women at parties, begging them for the privilege of walking them home. “Your coral lips were made to kiss,” one says. And several offer a disturbing ultimatum: either let me take you home or let me sit on the fence, slobbering and drooling at you as you pass.
- Where have all our haruspices gone? These days, it seems hardly anyone can be bothered to divine our future from animal entrails, though we have arguably more occasions for it than ever.
- “All art—all non-propagandist art—is a form of resistance to the idea that the shape, the meaning, the myriad ways of living in and moving through the world should—or even could—ever be one thing. The greatest paintings, performances, sculptures, installations and films refuse to represent anyone as a type: this is, perhaps, art’s finest attribute.”
April 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Larry Kramer, seventy-nine, came of age at a time when being gay was still illegal; his latest opus, The American People, is kind of a novel, kind of not, very long, and very gay: “a history of hate [from] one among the hated.” “Most histories are written by straight people who wouldn’t know, see the signs that a gay person does when they look at a person’s life,” he says. “I mean, how could you write the life of Mark Twain without realizing that he was hugely, hugely gay? The way he lived, who his friends were, and how his relationships began. And what he wrote about! I don’t know how you could avoid the assumption that he’s gay.”
- An interview with Atticus Lish, who won our Plimpton Prize this year: “Spoken language is primary, and I want it to be primary. Everything should pass the reading-aloud test; that became a real theme with me before I even was aware of it. I said, ‘Don’t write like a writer; write like a talker.’ ”
- But how do you write like a talker if the person talking is an animal? Fiction is still grappling with animal consciousness, with varying degrees of success: it may be largely impossible, as Thomas Nagel wrote in his 1974 essay “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?”, reminding us that “acts of sympathetic imagination are fatally restricted by the incalculable difference between human and bat.”
- In which Kerry Howley follows two boxers: “Sportswriters talk constantly of ‘focus,’ ‘dedication,’ and ‘single-mindedness.’ It is a measure of this cliché’s persistence that, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, men still use these words to describe Manny Pacquiao. This is a boxer who sidelines as a working politician and a low-budget-movie star, a man who leads Bible study on Sundays and moonlights as one of the shortest professional basketball players in the Philippines. He has recorded two platinum albums, and a hit single called ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ …”
- And Chris Offutt pursues “trash food,” whatever that may be: “The term ‘white trash’ is an epithet of bigotry that equates human worth with garbage. It implies a dismissal of the group as stupid, violent, lazy, and untrustworthy—the same negative descriptors of racial minorities, of anyone outside of the mainstream. At every stage of American history, various groups of people have endured such personal attacks. Language is used as a weapon: divisive, cruel, enciphered. Today is no different. For example, here in Mississippi, the term ‘Democrats’ is code for ‘African Americans.’ Throughout the U.S.A., ‘family values’ is code for ‘no homosexuals.’ The term ‘trash food’ is not about food, it’s coded language for social class. It’s about poor people and what they can afford to eat.”
April 21, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Historically, U.S. novelists have made their subject “the American dream,” starry-eyed and ambiguous as it may be—but “has the American dream run out of road? Perhaps an exhaustion with national myths explains the recent advent of post-apocalyptic literature … When the dream has been blown to bits for more than a century, all that’s left is to tell bleak stories of human survival set in the wreckage of a junkyard.”
- Today in blunt, clear-eyed statistics: one in six writers did not earn any money from their writing in 2013, a new report from The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society said, “though 98 percent saying their work had been published or used in other ways. 11.5 percent of authors now earn a living solely from their writing—down from 40 percent a decade ago.”
- Norway has announced that it will cease FM radio broadcasts in 2017, and others are expected to follow suit—meaning the age of analog may be drawing to a close.
- Critics, Saul Bellow felt, “ought to provide useful encouragement and then get the hell out of the way. This … helps to explain the lifelong tension between Bellow and Lionel Trilling, the leading critic of his time … Bellow greet[ed] Trilling at a party: ‘Still peddling the same old horseshit, Lionel?’ ”
- “I feel about so-called intellectuals, especially academics—English professors in particular—almost the same way I once felt about my rural townsfolk: that I can’t get far enough away. At least, I have come to learn, there was among my fellow country dwellers an engaging suspicion of pomposity, a strange verbal lyricism, a physical vigor, and the deep lonesomeness of Celtic immigrants who sense ‘I shouldn’t really be here.’ ”
April 20, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Readings from Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, and Czesław Miłosz are among the new recordings released by the Library of Congress, which has finally digitized some seventy-five years of magnetic-tape reels.
- Poetry is, to some extent, the art of “anti-aphorism,” “seemingly wise but ultimately ungraspable”: “I believe that to read poetry, one must have a mind of poetry. You must enter a state where you come to understand meaning-resistant arrangements of language as having their own kind of meaning. It’s quite similar to those Magic Eye posters from the nineties: If you haven’t figured out how to look at them, you can’t believe that anyone really sees the dolphin.”
- In late eighteenth-century London, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies served as a kind of vade mecum for the seasoned brothel-goer, endeavoring to list “the most celebrated ladies now on the town.” It was so salacious that its creators eventually wound up in jail. A sample listing for one Mrs. Banner speaks of her “irresistible eye”; her “favourite spot below” apparently “calls for the Priapian weapon,” eager “to receive it in her sheath at its most powerful thrust up to the hilt.”
- In the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier concocted Maison Dom-Ino, a blueprint for standardized housing with all the hallmarks of modernism: he envisioned a skeletal structure of concrete slabs. His idea was never realized, but decades later, Italian architects borrowed liberally from his designs, and now Maison Dom-Ino rip-offs freckle the countryside: “It’s a design innovation that’s been turned into something, especially in Italy, that is regarded as something completely the opposite. It’s a form of architectural blasphemy. It became synonymous with an eyesore, and a dilapidated landscape.”
- On Frank Stanford’s new collected poems, What About This: “More than anything, like Basho, like Li Po, like Emily Dickinson and Yeats, Stanford was a poet of the moon. The moon cycles through nearly every of his poems. And it’s never the same moon sliver. The moon gravitates as a ‘beautiful white spider,’ ‘a dead man floating down the river,’ ‘a woman in a red dress / standing on the beach.’ It’s ‘a plate with no supper,’ ‘a clock with twelve numbers,’ it’s ‘swollen up / like a mosquito’s belly’ … ”
April 17, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Though thousands of tweeting bibliophiles would have you believe there’s no such thing as too many books, there may be, in fact, a book surfeit: “It’s hard not to feel that we are in an era of massive overproduction. Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book … The idea is hardly new. In the Dunciad, 1742, responding to what he already saw as a deafening chorus of incompetent poets, Alexander Pope spoke of ‘snows of paper’ providing space for the ever more widespread publication of the ‘uncreating word.’ ”
- Elizabeth Bishop and Thom Gunn were fast friends—“I’ve met some of the poets—and the only one I still really like is Thom Gunn,” she wrote in a letter to Robert Lowell—but their first meeting was inauspicious. “I answered the phone one day and there was a very nice man I didn’t know … who asked me to come and have drinks with him and Elizabeth Bishop,” Gunn wrote. “Elizabeth had just moved to San Francisco. So I went over and … Elizabeth was drunk out of her mind. We made polite conversation all evening while Elizabeth occasionally grunted out a monosyllable.”
- On “the syntax and scansion of insanity” in King Lear: “This horrible, tragic figure is built up from a series of syllables set on the page … his rage and sorrow change dramatically from the first act to the last. The character is the language, and what we see over the course of the play is the utter destruction of that character.”
- On the poet Nathaniel Mackey’s pursuit of “the long song,” an antidote to the age of brevity: “Mackey seeks moments that defy ordinary time. He admires jazz improvisers who stretch a song’s boundaries as they perform … He happily remembers a John Coltrane show that consisted of one long song … ‘The long song, whether in music or in poetry, increasingly appeals to me … it creates what I call fugitive time—time that really is a flight away from the ordinary, from quotidian time, profane time.’ ”
- Ariana Reines talks to a beautiful old woman. Ariana Reines goes through a Charles Bowden phase. Ariana Reines is afraid: “For a week I’ve been wondering, how will I write for The Poetry Foundation, I said I would write for The Poetry Foundation, & with all that I do write the thought of putting anything on the internet ever again still fills my mouth with ash. I’ve lost all desire to publish & even more, all desire to perform.”