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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Orwell by Way of Langley, and Other News

November 7, 2014 | by

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A still from the British film adaptation of Animal Farm, 1954.

  • Fact: the New York Public Library has among its possessions a letter opener with a handle made from the paw of Charles Dickens’s dead cat. (“The story is that he had trained his cat to put out his night candle with his paw.”)
  • “Genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed.”
  • Sixty years ago, the CIA helped to bankroll England’s first-ever animated film: an adaptation of Animal Farm. They thought it would make for great anti-Russian propaganda, especially if they changed the ending, and they knew it would be cheaper to make it in England. “The CIA agent who bought the film rights supposedly promised Mrs. Orwell that he would arrange for her to meet her favorite star, Clark Gable.” Did such a meeting ever occur? When will our government finally tell us the truth?
  • Oops: “Do you remember when the Authors Guild sued Google over Google Book Search, which is basically the right to make an index of stuff in books? They said to Google, ‘If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it on our terms, and you’re going to have to give us a whole $70 million.’ … Google said, ‘$70 million? Let’s shake the sofa and find some change for you.’ Meanwhile, you are guaranteeing that nobody else in the future history of the world will be able to afford to index books, which is one of the ways people find and buy books. Now Google owns that forever, for a mere $70 million! Nice work, Authors Guild. You’ve just made us all sharecroppers in Google’s fields for the rest of eternity.”
  • The latest battle in the Usage Wars is really heating up: “If you say ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say ‘It’s not you—it’s I,’ you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of The New Yorker would have you speak.”

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A Parish for Slang Bedouins, and Other News

November 4, 2014 | by

John Frederick Lewis, A Bedouin, ca. 1841.

  • Edgar Allan Poe filed for bankruptcy in 1842. Here’s a long list of his debts, with creditors listed in Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York, and orderly columns of numbers that grow large enough to give you a sympathetic panic attack.
  • “If ambitious writers work at the boundaries of the written language (as they should), then they ought do it from a path of mastery, not ignorance; broken rules carry no power if writers and readers don’t notice the transgressions. Proper usage shows us where the earth is, so that, when the time comes, we know what it means to fly.”
  • Not unrelatedly: “Dickens published an essay on slang, probably by George Augustus Sala. The 1853 article expressed the view that either slang should be ‘banished, prohibited’ or that there should be a New Dictionary that would ‘give a local habitation and a name to all the little by-blows of language skulking and rambling about our speech, like the ragged little Bedouins about our shameless streets, and give them a settlement and a parish.’ ”
  • In which Ann Patchett reminds readers of the New York Times that she’s not married to her dog.
  • “I found it odd that there had never been a scientist as a Man Booker judge. There have been many non-literary types amongst the judges: a former spy, a former dancer, a Downton Abbey actor—but science, apparently, was a step too far. Until this year, when I joined the judging panel.”

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The Vestigial Clown

June 23, 2014 | by

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Detail from Hans Breinlinger’s The Clown, 1948.

Yesterday, a friend and I entered into a great debate. It started with my question:

“Does the clown exist who could make you laugh?”

He said yes; he thought that clown who does the act with snow off Union Square would make him laugh. (The show is lauded for its masterful clown-craft and its evocation of childlike wonder.)

“Okay,” I said, “has a clown ever made you laugh?”

“Of course not,” he said.

Does anyone expect to be amused by clowns in this day and age? We all know that clowns are creepy, clowns are scary, clowns are lame—but that understanding has always been predicated on the understanding that, like dolls, clowns are supposed to be happy, fun, innocent. Thus, when a clown goes psychotic, it is doubly terrifying. Or it was thirty years ago, at least. Now, in a world of John Wayne Gacy and It and Insane Clown Posse and Diddy’s coulrophobia-driven “no clowns” rider, we expect clowns to be sinister.

Take this recent survey of kids in children’s hospitals, a historical clown stronghold:

More than 250 children aged between four and sixteen were asked for their opinions—and every single one said they disliked clowns as part of hospital decor.

Even some of the older children said they found clowns scary, Nursing Standard magazine reported.

The youngsters were questioned by the University of Sheffield for the Space to Care study aimed at improving hospital design for children.

“As adults we make assumptions about what works for children,” said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” 

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Please Hire Walt Whitman, and Other News

May 12, 2014 | by

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The guy needs a job. Portrait of Whitman by Thomas Eakins, 1887.

  • In 1847, Charles Dickens founded a “home for homeless women”: he “flung himself into organizing every detail of it, from the food to the flower garden, and the piano around which the women would gather for wholesome evening entertainment … when he learned London society was particularly shocked about the piano, [he] spread a rumor that there would not just be one but many pianos, one for each woman.”
  • And in 1863, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a recommendation letter for Walt Whitman, who sought a government clerkship: “He is known to me as a man of strong original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers & valuable traits of character: a self-relying large-hearted man, much beloved by his friends; entirely patriotic & benevolent in his theory, tastes, & practice.”
  • A look at Alt Lit, “an online writing community that emerged in 2011 and harnesses the casual affect and jagged stylistics of social media as the basis of their works … Its members have produced a body of distinctive literature marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity. (‘language is so cool. i can type out these shapes and you can understand me,’ or ‘Yay! Dolphins are beautiful creatures and will always have a wild spirit. I have been very lucky because I have had the awesome experience of swimming with dolphins twice.’)”
  • The problem (or at least a problem) with superhero movies: “the visual and rhythmic sameness of the films’ execution … Despite their fleeting moments of specialness, The Avengers, the Iron Man and Thor and Captain America films, the new Spider-Man series and Man of Steel treat viewers not to variations of the same situations … but to variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions … Shots of people fighting inside and atop collapsing and burning structures all feel basically the same.”
  • Misha Defonseca’s 1997 Holocaust memoir, which sold millions of copies in Canada and Europe, is entirely fabricated; a court has ordered Defonseca to return $22.5 million.
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Ditching Dickensian

April 30, 2014 | by

Giving the lie to a critical crutch.

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Illustration: Robert Ingpen

Copies of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch now bear an impressive gold foil sticker declaring it the “WINNER of the PULITZER PRIZE.” Before that accolade, though, critics had already branded the novel by using and abusing the adjective that’s launched a thousand blurbs—Dickensian. Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of the word in appraisals of the novel, such assessments are rarely issued without caveats. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan apologetically notes that the term “is one of those literary modifiers that’s overused”; in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King somewhat ruefully acknowledged that he wouldn’t be the last to employ Dickensian to describe Tartt’s novel. He was right.

For all this critical concurrence, it’s less than clear what we mean by Dickensian, or, for that matter, by any adjective with a particular author at its root. Francine Prose leads her review of The Goldfinch with this very question: “What do people mean when they call a novel ‘Dickensian’?” As Prose notes, a number of answers present themselves—Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length. (I suspect one rarely means the relatively slim A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times when one labels a novel Dickensian.) In other words, the proliferation of the senses of Dickensian makes one wonder if it, or other such words, are critically useful at all. As Cynthia Ozick has recently complained with regard to Kafkaesque—another perennial—the word “has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke.” Read More »

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Realer Than Real

February 7, 2014 | by

Charles Dickens was born today in 1812.


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FOOTE

The most illuminating thing that ever happened to me in those early days was winning as a Sunday-school prize a copy of David Copperfield. Now, I’d read Tom Swift and earlier Bunny Brown and his sister Sue, then moved on to the Rover Boys and Tarzan. But here came David Copperfield. I was dismayed that it was about six hundred pages long. But when I began to read I got so caught up in it—when I finished it, I realized that I’d been in the presence of something realer than real. I knew David better than I knew myself or anyone else. The way Dickens told that story caught me right then and there.  

INTERVIEWER

Was reading David Copperfield an early catalyst for making you a writer and not just a reader?  

FOOTE

I absolutely think so. I didn’t react immediately, but eventually it made me want to do what Dickens had done—make a world that’s somehow better in focus than real life, which goes rushing past you. He showed me how to do it too. 

—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, Summer 1999

 

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