- Hatred, they say, loves company—especially the company of artists and writers. Well, it’s getting worse: before we know it, hatred may become the dominant critical school of the century! Consumed with hatred, by that time, you will fail to remember that it all began with The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner’s book-length essay. More recently, though, Lerner’s hatred has infected Hal Foster, respected critic and historian of visual art. The two spoke at Frieze New York, and the conversation has now been transcribed. Here is Foster reminiscing about his early years, when he hated painting and tried to kill it: “Well, I was part of a critical clique that, at an early point in the debate over postmodernism, wanted to put painting to death. There is a revolutionary rush to the declaration of any end. The history of modernism is punctuated by the thrill of the fini!”
- Furthering a grand tradition I like to call “strong opinions about parts of speech,” Colin Dickey has mounted a defense of the adverb, which had come under fire as early as last week. Anyone who finds adverbs imprecise doesn’t know how to use them, he writes: “Anne Carson writes of adjectives that they ‘are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity.’ Adverbs, then, curtail and refine—but in doing so they can pick out the unexpected resonances, the hidden valences in the words they modify. An adverb, at its best, offers a sudden shift in direction or tone, all the more unexpected considering the adverb’s seemingly slavish subservience to the word it modifies … Deployed skillfully, the adverb backstabs lovingly, subverts daintily, insurrects gallantly.”
- In an equally grand tradition, “strong opinions about Russian translation,” Janet Malcolm rehabilitates Constance Garnett, whose once revered translations have fallen out of favor: “A couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have established an industry of taking everything they can get their hands on written in Russian and putting it into flat, awkward English. Surprisingly, these translations, far from being rejected by the critical establishment, have been embraced by it and have all but replaced Garnett, Maude, and other of the older translations … As for the charge that Garnett writes in an outdated language, yes, here and there she uses words and phrases that no one uses today, but not many of them. We find the same sprinkling of outdated words and phrases in the novels of Trollope and Dickens and George Eliot. Should they, too, be rewritten for modern sensibilities?”
- Most of the world’s monotonous, massive, forbidding cities were built by people. Big mistake. Daniel Brown’s photography proves that algorithms can do it better: “Brown makes his images using generative design software he wrote himself. It creates enormous, complex 3-D patterns that he searches until finding something interesting … ‘I set about programming algorithms to generate an imaginary city,’ he says. ‘One that I could populate with buildings and structures without having to draw or 3-D model’ … Brown isolates the shape, and tweaks it until he arrives at something he likes. Then the program applies bits and pieces of public domain photos of 1970s apartment buildings. The result is hulking, maze-like structures that appear to go on forever.”
- Sasha Chapin became addicted to chess, which he regards as an infection of the brain: “Chess is what they call a perfect information game. At every moment, you are informed of everything taking place. There’s no bluffing. No guessing. No suspicion. If that notion doesn’t immediately excite you, take a second to consider all the imperfect information games you play all the time. I don’t mean games like poker. I mean dating, for example. Have you ever, a month into a relationship, unearthed some hidden facet of your new partner that makes you think, Holy shit, get away from me? Slowly discovering things about people is wonderful, in theory, but we often find that the mysterious reaches of the human soul contain bear traps and poison darts. Imagine if you could instantly behold the entirety of a person before you, and say, ‘Hi, let’s go to the beer location,’ with perfect confidence?”
- Need a good weekend read? Might I recommend Untangling the Web: A Guide to Internet Research by that most laureled of authors, the NSA? “This book appears to be excellent,” Paul Ford writes. “A reasoned, thoughtful overview of the Web as an entire system, written for intelligent people who had a need of expertise and mastery over the medium. The book throughout emphasizes security and privacy, and it’s as complete as possible. It tells you how to secure your Wi-Fi, and what things to uncheck in your Internet Explorer. It helps you with complex research problems. It’s granular, and dry, and exhaustive—and thus incredibly helpful.”
- Knausgaard responds to his newfound celebrity …
- … and the French shrug at that celebrity. “Knausgaard gives us one striking example of what looks again like a very French phenomenon … The list of French books in the same vein of meticulous self-analysis is nearly infinite … Let’s hope that Knausgaard’s unexpected success will make them rethink their hasty judgment and consider the French production with fresh eyes.”
- Is John Wilkes Booth’s diary in a forgotten Brooklyn subway tunnel?
- The complex, semitragic history of Entertainment Weekly and ent-fo, i.e., “entertainment information”: “The plan was highly digestible reviews intended to keep the bourgeoisie in touch … They wanted to assist ‘the aging baby boomer who still wants to be plugged in,’ using a scale (A to F) that reflected the ‘universal experience’ of school grades. If you read EW, the logic went, you were saving yourself from your own bad decisions: The magazine’s pitch for subscribers even asked potential readers to weigh the $50-dollar yearly rate against ‘the cost of a bad evening’s entertainment.’”
- Commentators in the nineteenth century argued that chess, being so addictive, would turn our nation’s youths into bloodthirsty maniacs: “The great interest taken in this warlike game—the importance attached to a victory—and the disgrace attending defeat, are exemplified in numerous instances … It is said, that the Devil, in order to make poor Job lose his patience, had only to engage him at a game at Chess.”
Dear Mr. Ross,
Thank you for sharing with us your review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound. The piece is colorful and sharp, and it is with regret that we say it does not suit our needs at this time.
Too much of the writing reflects back to the writer himself—to you yourself. (And, inexplicably, to your father.) While we certainly don’t mind personal inflection, and even tolerate the insertion of an occasional “I,” a review must be grounded more firmly in the subject or book under consideration. (And less so in the reviewer’s father.)
Critiques such as yours are redolent of ego. We say this not as admonishment, but as something of which you may want to be aware as you continue what looks to be a promising writing career. We wish you the best of luck in placing this piece elsewhere, and will be happy to consider your queries in the future.
The New York Review of Books
The difficulties began when I attempted to write, for The New York Review of Books, a review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s critical biography of Philip Roth. My intention was simple: to demonstrate that I appreciated Roth’s work with a higher degree of sophistication than Pierpont. But articulating my Sophisticated Appreciation was tough to do. At first this didn’t bother me—an inability to articulate one’s Sophisticated Appreciation, I reasoned, may itself be proof of how complex and nuanced that appreciation is.
I’d been invited to submit to NYRB based on the success of an essay I’d written about Philip Roth for The New Yorker’s Web site. (An NYRB editor had e-mailed me to commend its “substantial humorousness,” and asked me to pitch an idea his way.) I wanted badly to be published in NYRB. I had some friends who’d been published in NYRB, and I was jealous of them. Moreover, my father is an avid NYRB reader—“It’s so wonderfully stuffy,” is his line; “the official periodical of leather armchairs and lowballs of Scotch”—and placing an essay in its pages, I believed, would recompense him for having twice paid my tuition to the universities where I’d learned to appreciate things sophisticatedly. (He would be pleased, too, to learn that I’d written something that wasn’t about him, as opposed to everything else I’d published—excepting the Roth piece—since finishing graduate school.)
NYRB’s editors expected six thousand words from my desk. Yet for several days I was too nervous to begin. More than anything else, the review would need to establish for NYRB’s readership how intelligent I was—establishing the writer’s intelligence seemed the purpose of most NYRB reviews, and I have always liked to fit neatly into prevailing systems. If it didn’t prove my intelligence, though, my review could only prove my lack thereof, and nothing was more terrifying to me than the idea of being exposed as intellectually inadequate. Read More
In September 2006, the World Chess Championship devolved into a debate about bathrooms. One champion, Veselin Topalov, accused the other, Vladimir Kramnik, of excessive urination, hinting that Kramnik was retreating to the unmonitored bathroom to receive smuggled computer assistance. (Kramnik responded that he merely drank a lot of water.) Kramnik was eventually declared the victor, but to many, the episode displayed the sad state that the grand game had fallen into since Garry Kasparov lost to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. Back then, Kasparov was bitter about the loss and accused IBM of cheating—with human intervention, saying that he saw uncanny human intelligence in the computer’s moves.
Even that incident, though, was not the first time the line between man and machine had been blurred in the game. The first machine to awe humanity with its chess mastery was the eighteenth-century life-size automaton known as the Turk. Constructed in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen to impress Empress Maria Theresa, the Turk appeared as a wooden Oriental sorcerer seated at a large cabinet. Before playing commenced, Kempelen would open the cabinet doors to reveal the clockwork machinery that controlled the Turk. The audience could see that there was nothing else inside. After the doors were closed and a challenger seated, the Turk would come eerily to life. He would move the pieces robotically, but shake his head or tap his hand in human displays of annoyance or pride. He also nearly always won.
The Turk became a spectacular attraction, thrilling, baffling, and terrifying viewers across Europe and America for decades. Read More
Early on in Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (A Chess Novella) the narrator, a casual chess player, expresses his worry that a serious devotion to chess might bring on madness:
How impossible to imagine […] a man of intelligence who, without going mad, again and again, over ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, applies the whole elastic power of his thinking to the ridiculous goal of backing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board!
On Monday, I settled down to watch Bobby Fischer Against the World, an entertaining new HBO documentary, directed by Liz Garbus. Besides chronicling the career of one of the greatest chess players of all time, it is also a rumination on the cold war, on political extremism, on youth prodigies and the dangers of sudden fame, and on loneliness. Finally, perhaps most hauntingly, it is about the relationship between chess, genius, and madness.
Bobby Fischer grew up on Lincoln Place, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, the son of a single mother who spent much of her time agitating for communism. A lonely, awkward, uncommunicative boy, he immediately became obsessed with chess when, at age six, he learned how to play from the instructions of a cheap set bought at a candy store below his apartment. Soon, Bobby was staring at his chessboard for hours on end, playing both white and black, engrossed in the absurd attempt of beating himself, and of not letting himself be beaten by himself.
When he was no older than thirteen, this obsession, which at first had worried his mother, seemed to pay off. At the 1956 Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York, Bobby’s first appearance at a major chess event, he played a game of such daring and brilliance that he instantly became a sensation in chess circles. Within a year, he had won the prestigious U.S. Open; within another year, he won the U.S. Championship; and within a year after that, he was well on his way toward a lucrative career as an internationally renowned master.