The Daily

On the Shelf

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” …

A Century of Censorship, and Other News

November 18, 2015 | by

Audrey Munson, in a still from Inspiration.

  • Our new anthology, The Unprofessionals, is out now. What does it mean to be unprofessional, you ask? In many cases, it’s as easy as spitting in someone’s food or showing up to work in bondage gear. But if you’re a writer, escaping the rising tide of professionalism proves more difficult. Fortunately, our editor, Lorin Stein, has some advice: “The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say ‘I.’ Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience … There’s a kind of realism—not just in stories, but in poems and essays—that assumes we live in dishonesty, that we lie to others and ourselves as a matter of survival, but that part of us knows the truth when we see it. That’s what interests me: the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority.” 
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard hears this voice, too: “The novel is an oddly intimate genre: at root, it is always a matter between two individuals, writer and reader, whose first encounter occurs when the writer writes—for in writing, the very act of it, there is always an appeal to a you, redeemed only by the insertion of a reader. This you may be inserted at any time, even hundreds of years after the event of writing, the way, for instance, we might read a novel written in seventeenth-century Spain, or eighteenth-century Russia, or early-twentieth-century Germany, and yet still induce the voice of the self to rise anew within us, remoteness dissolving. And that self may also reveal itself to us in the reading of novels from places geographically remote to us, such as China, Kenya, Colombia.”
  • A century ago today, on November 18, 1915, cinema saw its first nude woman, and people have been in a tizzy over sex and censorship on-screen ever since: “The bare breasts and buttocks of Audrey Munson, the actress in Inspiration, seemed to enter the public consciousness only obliquely. One contemporary critic wrote that the film was ‘both inspiring and intellectual,’ with Munson giving a performance of ‘innocence, modesty, and simplicity’; others noted that it was ‘daring’ and a ‘triumph of Film Art.’ One, the Daily Capital Journal, scoffed at the idea of anyone being offended by it. After all, it pointed out, this is a work of ‘extreme artistic and educational value,’ not a titillating striptease.”
  • Today in nests and nesting: in Zvenigorod, forty miles west of Moscow, there stands a cathedral with a wealth of rare printed matter hidden inside: letters, newspaper clippings, candy wrappers, banknotes, some as old as the early nineteenth century. For this horn of archival plenty, we can thank the birds: “flocks of swifts and jackdaws had built nests in the attic out of various bits of papers, dirt, branches, and trash that over the centuries came to form a considerably thick layer of preserved history … Other documents record the town’s civic, religious, and educational affairs; among the lot: bus tickets, delivery contracts, a county court slip, students’ notebooks and diplomas, parish registers, and even church confessional statements.”
  • The photographer Andrew Moore’s new book, Dirt Meridian, features ten years of his pictures of homestead sites, taken along the hundredth meridian line that runs through Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, where once pioneers were attracted by the Homestead Act. What’s there now? “Almost World Famous Dixie’s Café,” crumbling houses, Simon’s Schoolhouse Museum, and a lot of property that looks more or less the same.

Short Stories Are the New Snickers Bars, and Other News

November 17, 2015 | by

This (apparently married) person is getting ready to read some complimentary short fiction.

  • Are you the proprietor or manager of a commuter-rail system, an office, a truck stop, or a faculty lounge? Have you found that your employees and/or customers are dissatisfied with your current vending-machine offerings? Would you like to be on the cutting edge of dispensation technology, allowing your workers to nourish not just their bodies but their minds at the touch of a button? If you said yes to any of the above, or even if you agreeably shrugged, consider investing in these short-story vending machines by Short Édition. They’re a hit in Grenoble. “The free stories are available at the touch of a button, printing out on rolls of paper like a till receipt. Readers are able to choose one minute, three minutes or five minutes of fiction … Users are not able to choose what type of story—romantic, fantastical or comic—they would like to read.”
  • By 1966, teen music magazines had phenomenal names—Disc and Music Echo, Record Mirror, Fabulous 208, Rave, Mirabelle, Boyfriend, Jackie—and, better still, they really had their fingers on the pulse: in their pages, teens could find frank, thoughtful discussions of culture and politics. “These magazines collectively sold over a million copies every week. They both reflected and shaped the messages broadcast by pop musicians to teens … Most of the writers were young—some of them even in their teens—and were, or had recently been part of the culture that they reported on … In general these magazines constituted a thorough investigation of the teenage mindset, its hopes, its obsessions, its fears and aspirations. Because, in 1966, pop was for youth: coverage in mainstream newspapers and monthlies was comparatively rare … It was the arena of the time, but not burdened with self-consciousness or filtered through an excess of opinion and ego.”
  • While we’re in the sixties: William Blake, though he’d died more than a century earlier, was a countercultural icon because of his sexual permissiveness. Leo Damrosch’s new biography, Eternity’s Sunrise, complicates that legacy: “Blake was frequently invoked as a representative of liberation and ‘positive’ sexuality. The great chorus was: ‘Everything that lives is holy.’ But in fact Blake ‘was always aware that sex can be a means of exerting control.’ He was increasingly ‘tormented’ by the subject and drew naked bodies that were ‘unerotic, and at times positively repellent,’ a term of revulsion Damrosch later repeats … Here he takes on board the new feminist criticism of Blake, citing the scholar Helen Bruder: Blake was ‘by turns a searching critic of patriarchy but also a hectoring misogynist.’ ”
  • On the long, tortured history between literature and the weather: “Our earliest stories about the weather concerned beginnings and endings. What emerged from the cold and darkness of the void will return to it; waters that receded at the origin of the world will rise at its end. It is easy, in grim climatological times, to be drawn to the far pole of these visions … But apocalyptic stories are ultimately escapist fantasies, even if no one escapes. End-times narratives offer the terrible resolution of ultimate destruction. Partial destruction, displacement, hunger, want, weakness, loss, need—these are more difficult stories.”
  • Moon Hoon, an architect based in Seoul, pours plenty of whimsy into his designs—he’s responsible for Wind House, a home boasting a large, golden tower shaped like a duck’s head—but in his doodles he really goes for broke. Hoon “creates fantastical, stunningly detailed images whose wild creativity bring to mind, among other things, 1960s Radical Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and Transformers … Just the other day, he says, his creativity was triggered by a tray of delivery food that looked like a hat. Other sources of inspiration have included cars, planes, warships, Japanese animation, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and watching movies backwards.”

Tumefied and Syphilitic, and Other News

November 16, 2015 | by


J. K. Huysmans just relaxing in front of this crucifix like it’s no big thing.

  • Houellebecq’s Submission features many an excursus on Joris-Karl Huysmans, the nineteenth-century French writer of whom Houllebecq himself has said, “I think he could’ve been a real friend to me.” What was Huysmans’s MO? His novel À rebours, which tells of “a nature-hating aesthete named Jean des Esseintes,” has an approach to desire and spiritual malady that feels strikingly on point, even in 2015: “Subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Plot,’ the narrative concerns des Esseintes’s attempts to furnish and decorate a country home where he will be able to live without ever again having to deal with the outside world … He gets turned on by locomotive engines: their steaming, sweating loins girdled in glittering copper corsets; their disheveled manes of black smoke; their horns’ muffled, impassioned cries … Huysmans’s prose isn’t just purple: it’s ultraviolet. Everything in À Rebours is tumefied and syphilitic, damasked with ennui, liver-spotted with arcane longings.”
  • In which Gay Talese slips on a pair of virtual-reality goggles, and balks: “But this doesn’t interest me in the least! … You know why? You know why? It’s the sort of stuff you see in a documentary, but there’s no insight into the situation, into the characters … It’s just a bunch of scenes … Television is driven by imagery … There will be a lead on a slow night, the networks will lead with a forest fire in Topanga California—great visual scenes—or a bombing of Baghdad. Anything that shows you color, smoke, fire, bullets, dodging gets on because it’s visual, but you don’t get anything … There has to be face to face confrontation between the writer and the subject, and the writer has to be able to cultivate something from the subject to get something approximate to the truth of the subject.”
  • What does a debate about the abridgment of Moby-Dick tell us about reading on the Internet? Oh, nothing terribly encouraging: “Countless readers have run aground on Melville’s mountain of details on the art of whaling, or have been left behind as he plunges, like his Catskill eagle, into philosophical realms, but it is precisely in these passages where his real appeal resides … It is rather quaint to locate the manifestation of our collective ruin in a British publisher of abridgments, which have been around nearly as long as novels themselves … Thanks to the oceanic expanses of the web, there is no need to condense or abridge anything anymore, at least not for want of space … This would appear to be a problem. And it is one that is likely to get worse.”
  • Today in techno prophesy: a bunch of smart interdisciplinary types got together and decreed that by the year 2100, “libraries will be both highly distributed and deeply connected, sharing a single collection as they work to meet the emerging demands of their individual communities.” As for the physical books in the libraries, they’ll probably disappear, but only a fuddy-duddy would mourn their loss. “Library isn’t etymologically related to books at all, deriving instead from a Latin word for the smooth inner bark of a tree. It was, in this sense, a thing on which one might write rather than a storehouse of what had already been written. Whatever they become … libraries will retain that original implication, always ‘spaces for creation or curiosity,’ even if they leave the books behind.”
  • Meanwhile, in a concrete bunker seventeen feet underground, the New York Public Library is preparing to store vast, high-density reserves of print: “a new retrieval system [will] ferry the volumes and other materials from their eighty-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts … Books will be stacked by height and tracked by bar code rather than by a subject-based system, making for some odd bookfellows … The climate-controlled repository encompasses more than 110,000 square feet … It stretches from beneath the back wall of the main building, which fronts Fifth Avenue, a full block west to Sixth Avenue, and from 42nd Street to 40th Street.”

Dying in a National Park Is Very Unpleasant, and Other News

November 13, 2015 | by

A postcard made between 1930 and 1945.

  • Flogging! Embezzling! The public humiliation of a churchman named John Winterbottom! These and more await you in an unpublished story by Charlotte Brontë, discovered in the “much-treasured” pages of the family copy of Robert Southey’s The Remains of Henry Kirke White. There’s a new poem, too: “The pieces have been dated to 1833, when Charlotte would have been around seventeen … Historian Juliet Barker, author of the biography The Brontës, said that ‘the book alone is a valuable acquisition because of its rare associations with Mrs Brontë ’ … According to the Brontë Society, the Southey title is one of Maria’s ‘rare surviving possessions,’ after a box containing all her property was shipwrecked off the Devon coast shortly before she married Patrick Brontë in 1812. It also features Patrick’s Latin inscription, reading that it was ‘the book of my dearest wife and it was saved from the waves. So then it will always be preserved.’ ”
  • Today in national parks and the macabre: “For years, I’ve been an avid reader of what I call the Death in …  books. It’s not quite an actual series—there are four so far, from three different publishers—but the Death in …  books all do the same thing: They chronicle accidents, murders and mishaps in several of America’s most treasured national parks, giving us Death in Yellowstone, Death in Yosemite, Death in the Grand Canyon, and Death in Big Bend. The Yellowstone, Yo­semi­te and Grand Canyon books purport to chronicle every single death (excluding illness and car accidents) from the mid-nineteenth century onward, sorted into chapters by type: flash floods, bear maulings, murder, falls, poison gas and so on … The Death in ...  books are morbid documents, and their authors’ defensiveness about that only proves the point. But what’s so wrong with being morbid?”
  • “One thinks, usually, of drizzle being the opposite of thick, and of being lazy and gentle rather than sudden and sweeping. Still, an admirable deployment of the gerund.” That’s Christian Lorentzen, dismantling one of seventeen opening lines from new books. (In this case, the line is from Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies: “A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping.”) Look away, children.
  • Sixty-five years after its publication, the childbirth scene from Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came from Woolworths still has everyone talking—and it resonates with contemporary literature: “Winding up in a public hospital, Sophia [Spoons’s heroine] is prodded, rebuked, and shamed for her body’s involuntary actions. It’s a setting in which women giving birth are seen either as docilely on track, or deviant … [This] brings to mind Maggie Nelson’s query in … The Argonauts, about the process of childbirth: ‘How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?’ … Ferrante, for one, has said that her heroines don’t suffer so much as struggle. Comyns enacts the opposite: arguably, her characters suffer. Sophia exits each chapter of her life and enters a new one clearly exhausted, clearly in pain, and yet we don’t see her thrashing much. Her narration is triumphant proof that she has made it through, but the way out is seeded with resignation.”
  • A note to the bagpipers: listen, let’s not beat around the bush. There are times when ordinary, run-of-the-mill bagpiping will suffice, and there are times when life calls for extreme bagpiping. Those are the times I want to hear about. I’m talking about bagpiping on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. I’m talking about bagpiping in Antarctica with a penguin beside you. I’m talking about bagpiping on the International fucking Space Station.

A Brief History of Shelving, and Other News

November 12, 2015 | by

Titles on the spines: what a concept! A shelf in the Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek. Photo: Erik Kwakkel

  • In 1650, William Pynchon—Thomas’s earliest colonial ancestor—published The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a small quarto volume about, you know, God and stuff, which caused a hell-storm of controversy in Puritan New England: “To leading officials in the government of Massachusetts Bay, however, this was an insidious text, an exercise in heresy—one the Puritan clergy believed capable of throwing their young and vulnerable colony into irreversible chaos. Pynchon, a prominent layman with a devoted constituency, was charismatic enough to inspire a movement similar to the Antinomian debacle that had nearly brought the colony to its knees in the previous decade … In addition to the burning of Pynchon’s book, the General Court also commissioned a theologian named John Norton to write an official rebuttal … The General Court accepted [Pynchon’s] contrition, though the magistrates did demand he appear before them again the following October. They set bail at £100. This time, Pynchon absconded.”
  • Imagine what it must’ve felt like to be the scribe who invented page numbers. Or title labels. Or spine titles. A physical book is an efficient device, but to look at the history of bookbinding is to see how momentous and hard-won these modest advances were, as Erik Kwakkel writes: “The early history of displaying a book’s title and author on the outside is long and winding: first the information was found on the front or back, then on the fore-edge, and finally on the spine. This order is no coincidence, because it roughly reflects another development, namely how books were stored: first flat (Early and Central Middle Ages), then upright with the fore-edge facing the reader (Later Middle Ages), and finally with the spine facing outward (Early Modern period). Judging from surviving book bindings, the history of the dust jacket actually starts surprisingly late. After all, the earliest traceable specimens date from the fourteenth century.”
  • Punk, which began as street fashion, has completed the final step in its transformation from ethos to consumerist movement: now it’s just street fashion again, and we’re left to wonder if there was ever really anything to it. “Forty years after Television’s legendary residency at CBGB, the world is awash in punk. In the last twenty months, former Village Voice rock critic and punk champion Robert Christgau wrote a memoir about his downtown New York youth, Kim Gordon published her memoirs, Viv Albertine published hers, Richard Hell released the paperback edition of his, Patti Smith released the follow-up to her National Book Award–winning memoir, and HarperCollins signed Lenny Kaye, Smith’s guitarist, to write a memoir of his own. Ramones fans can look forward to a forthcoming Martin Scorsese–helmed biopic and a documentary promising new footage of the seminal band, whose last founding member perished in 2014 … As punk pushes into its fourth decade, its rules, aesthetic, and parameters are still murky at best. Does punk retain any meaning at all?”
  • On the connection between writing and running: “Writers, like runners, often like the idea of their pursuit more so than the difficult work. The appeal of a running regimen is how the miles not only condition the body, but free up a space for the creative mind … Since I’ve returned to distance running, I’ve changed the way I think about writing. Writing exists in that odd mental space between imagination and intellect, between the organic and the planned. Runners must learn to accept the same paradoxes, to realize that each individual run has its own narrative, with twists and turns and strains.”
  • The Paris Review’s intern Joshua Maserow on J. M. Coetzee: “Coetzee doesn’t hate truth. In fact, he yearns for it (transcendental, objective truth). The truth just doesn’t seem all that comforting or that accessible. We must search for our truths but won’t find them. He wears two hats: that of the hopeful Platonist (‘our engagements are with a constantly changing interplay between shadows (fictions) and the real’) but also that of the weary pragmatist (‘the more a person has been offered sympathetic fictions of herself, the more easily she will be able to live within the fiction(s) she holds herself’).”