- This site is dedicated to literature, arts, and culture. Electoral politics are usually beyond our remit. On a morning like this, when America has chosen a bigot and a xenophobe as its next president, my job feels pointless. But I don’t want to add to the chorus of despair, because I do believe there’s a role for art at a time like this, and I don’t say that lightly—words like these don’t come easily to me. I would rather make fun of things, and I’m struggling against an inborn fatalism. (My iPhone just reminded me to water my plants, and I thought, why bother?) The creative impulse is such a fragile thing, but we have to create now. We owe it to ourselves to do the work. I want to encourage you. If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can. If you have friends, as I do, who tacitly believe that it’s too much of a chore to read a book, just one fucking book, from start to finish, smash every LCD they own. This is an opportunity. There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay.
- Today in age-old arguments about the creative life: “In some annexes of the writing community it’s been playfully termed the ‘pantsing vs. plotting/outlining/planning’ debate. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants: they write and see where it takes them. Planners, well, plan before they write … There is evidence that when readers read stories, they identify with the characters and do much the same thing. It may be the case that pantsers engage in this kind of imaginative and empathic recreation when they tell stories, which is precisely why they cannot plan. They have to tell the story in order to know its contours and structure. They have to place themselves in the minds of the characters and then simulate what the characters do … These writers work by faith that their emotions channel into words a latent object which will later prove to possess a structure.”
- Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—a well-known American novelist sits down for an interview, and he says, “I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare [to write about race] … I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America. I am particularly vigilant there. I have thought about it—you know, race is big in America.”
- When Lucia Berlin died in 2004, she left behind the makings of a memoir, including a long story about traveling through Mexico with Buddy Berlin, a saxophonist with a heroin problem: “First, Peggy sent a little box with a dozen vials of pure morphine. ‘A little something for Bud.’ Peggy lived alone in a fabulous house on top of the hill. She spent much of her day looking through a powerful telescope, checking the beach for arrivals of famous people to invite up to her house, checking out everything else going on. She must have seen the boys playing soccer with village boys, riding horseback on the beach, going upriver with Juanito to help his father pick coffee. She must have seen them racing canoes, heard their laughter echoing above the water. She must have seen us talking with friends in our beautiful garden, lying on the beach. She must have seen Buddy and me kiss, must have seen us happy. How could she send that box?”
- Our puzzle correspondent, Dylan Hicks, has vouched early and often for the joys of hink pink, “a word game in which synonyms, circumlocution, and micronarratives provide clues for rhyming phrases.” His advocacy has led to a paradigm shift among puzzle enthusiasts who also read literary magazines: at The Cincinnati Review, Michael Griffith has written some hink pinks of his own. (Personal favorite: “Internet discussion board for boosters of an ex-Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate,” which can only be “Santorum forum.”)
- In what many “content providers” probably regard as “the good old days,” fans were more or less powerless—if they didn’t like whatever schlock the major entertainment conglomerates were churning out, their only recourse was a letter-writing campaign. But things are different now, and this year the fans have demanded to be heard. As Elizabeth Minkel writes, “For the past few months, people have been debating whether fandom is ‘broken’ … Fans have always talked back, but prior to social media they weren’t even a fraction as visible as they are today. We’re witnessing the destruction of the fannish fourth wall in real-time: fans and creators are now seeing each other clearly on a massive scale, and creators are unsure how to—or if they even should—listen to fans.”
They lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side. Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains. She could pause on the way to listen to the rain on the metal roof, look out across the city as it lit its lights, or just linger for the pleasure of it.
They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.
—Tove Jansson, “Videomania,” Fair Play
There are not many really good books that portray functional relationships. Certainly not the relationships of artists. Well, that’s not a shocker—happy families, as we are told, are all alike. Fair Play, Tove Jansson’s 1982 portrait of a partnership, is an exception.
Fair Play is based on Jansson’s relationship with the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she shared a life, and a home, for some forty years. If you have read Jansson’s classic Summer Book, certain things about Fair Play will be familiar: the island setting, the spareness, the less-is-more portrait of human connection. These things will be familiar even to those who only know Jansson from her most famous works, like Finn Family Moomintroll. (Indeed, Pietilä was the inspiration for the competent Moomin character Too-Ticky.) Read More
- A plea to the professoriat: If you really love the humanities, do them a favor and shut up about Shakespeare. “On the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education … organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.”
- When Jules Verne meets the sterling judgment of our nation’s executive branch: John Quincy Adams once approved a journey to the center of the Earth. The plan asked for “one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea … ”
- Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, newly reissued, “resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about Ross’s work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South. Oreo is sincerely ironic, hilarious, brainy, impenetrable at times.”
- Scott Timberg’s new book Culture Crash “holds the well-being of the cultural middle class as the key to American creativity.” But this thesis only reveals “an unexplored aesthetic bias that favors the sort of art reviewed in the pages of the unrepentantly middle-class New York Times, art that becomes middlebrow through its relative accessibility and popularity. Forget the cynical dross intended for the tasteless masses: It is this kind of middlebrow culture—the kind best known and appreciated by well-rounded liberal-arts grads—of which Timberg wants to see more, even though it abounds right now.”
- Of Mice and Men contains such hair-raising profanities as bastard and God damn, which make it unsuitable, according to a curriculum-review committee in Idaho, for fourteen- or fifteen-year-old students. “Teachers actually had the audacity to have students read these profanities out loud in class,” one parent said.
- “An editor whose taste is unique to himself is a bad editor. The only person who discovers a writer is the writer himself.” An interview with our editor, Lorin Stein.
- Aldous Huxley doing calisthenics; Borges beneath a ponderous storm cloud; James Ellroy behind a lamp with no shade on it … and other portraits that give the lie to this idea that writers don’t photograph well.
- Partying on the dime of New York’s most controversial literary publisher: Amazon. “Outside, a war was raging; inside there were friends, food, and funding—for now. Passed hors d’oeuvres were loudly heralded … ‘I saw the sliders coming around and it just suddenly crossed my mind. I guess all this is being paid for by Amazon!’ ”
- A pair of new films offer two very different theories about creative life: In Whiplash, an aspiring drummer faces “an abusive professor who is convinced that relentless torture is the only way to coax his students to the peak of their abilities … the crazy guy is right: The only way to be any good at something is to not bother trying to be good at anything else.” Meanwhile, Adult Beginners suggests “that if you forego grandiose notions of achievement and settle for surrounding yourself with people who love you and provide you with emotional support, your definition of fulfillment will become more manageable.”
- Today in our science-fictional reality: What if there were a robot that could produce the skin-crawling feeling that someone is right behind you? There is. We’re fucked. (Actually, the robot may help us understand schizophrenia—but still.)